To many believers God is love. This is the primary thing we know about God from Jesus—unconditional love. This is what Jesus told us about the Father and also what Jesus demonstrated in his own life as the representative of God. On the other hand, there are many believers who see God as angry, violent, and vindictive toward us instead; it is an integral part of the theology they have been taught.
This perspective on God can lead to great fear. And what do we fear most from God? It is Punishment. When the ancients suffered from forces of natures, they felt they were being punished by the gods. Why else would there sometimes be rain and good crops and other times drought and starvation? So they thought the gods punished them when they were displeased.
The Israelites understood the same thing, as we discussed last time. It was God who sent the flood, and it was God who sent drought, heat, and disease. It was God who sent the 10 plagues on Egypt as punishment for not releasing the Israelites. When God was displeased he punished people severely.
And many believers today are convinced that God is displeased with the majority of people who have ever lived—to the extent that he will punish them in the fires of hell eternally. Billions of them. Forever.
Justifications for God to Punish People in Eternal Hell for Not Measuring Up to His Expectations
When we think of our fear of being punished by God, burning in the eternal fires of hell has to be our biggest, most significant fear. It is horrifying—terrifying even to contemplate! As my fundamentalist pastor used to say, ‘Hell is hot and forever is a long, long time.’ I can hardly imagine such eternal conscious torment. My mind rebels against it; I just want to throw up in despair at the thought of people going through such torment—forever.
How could God do that? Well, the Good News is that God won’t do that—and the Bible does not teach that he will. But some believers argue that he definitely will.
First of all, God can do whatever God wants to do. God is God.
Secondly, God hates ‘sin’. And God is also infinite, so when we ‘sin’ against the infinite righteousness of God our punishment must also be infinite—like eternal conscious torment in hellfire. Infinite punishment for infinite ‘sin’. This is the idea that lies behind the popular theory of penal substitutionary atonement which was conceived only about 500 years ago. God was filled with wrath toward our ‘sins’ but created an escape for us by pouring out his wrath against Jesus on the cross instead of on us. So those of us who know the secret password (process) can avoid eternal hell. Everyone else is sunk—for eternity.
In addition, God has given us numerous commands to follow in order to not displease him covering all sorts of details in life. And we do NOT want to violate these laws. This is what lies behind the practice of legalism—making sure that we keep all God’s laws without fail—to avoid punishment in eternal hell.
All three of these beliefs: That God’s wrath is stored up against us (penal substitutionary atonement); that God demands that we carefully observe many specific laws (legalism); and that God is willing and ready to consign us to eternal conscious torment in hell are all fraught with fear—intense fear.
But the God of love casts out fear.
Will the God of Love Really Punish Us in Eternal Hell for Displeasing Him?
I don’t think so. The idea completely contradicts everything Jesus teaches about loving others—teaching that is grounded in the character of a loving God. And the Bible never teaches anywhere that God will punish people in eternal hell.
However, some believers are fully convinced that the Bible does teach eternal punishment in hell. They think this because they read certain biblical passages through the filter of their belief in hell and assume that they confirm their belief. But these passages are not at all what they are assumed to be.
The Old Testament has no concept of punishment in hell, though some translations render ‘Sheol’ as ‘hell’; but Sheol refers only to death. No punishment. No fire. Just death. The New Testament uses ‘Hades’, often translated as ‘hell’, but again it is only death—nothing more. The other word in the New Testament often translated as hell is Gehenna, which is a place of destruction in Jerusalem described in Jeremiah 19.
But doesn’t Jesus’ mention fire in the New Testament? Yes. Jesus, who loves to use imagery in his teaching, combines the imagery of destruction from Gehenna in Jeremiah 19 with Isaiah 66:
And they will go out and look on the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; the worms that eat them will not die, the fire that burns them will not be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.
This is certainly gruesome, but it does not describe eternal punishment and torture in hell. It is destruction—but not eternal punishment. The idea of eternal punishment in hell comes from combining biblical passages that are all about something else completely. The Bible does not teach such a thing. For more demonstration that the Bible does not teach eternal punishment in hell, see the articles listed by myself and others in Resources on Hell.
We Have No Reason to Fear the God Who Loves Us
We need not fear God’s wrath for our ‘sins’. We need not undertake legalistic burdens in fear of God’s wrath. We need not fear that God will punish us in eternal hell. Does this then mean that everyone will have eternal life with God after death? Perhaps—Perhaps not. We will talk about that next time.
Jesus without Baggage exists to assist and support those questioning beliefs they have been taught in fundamentalist, traditional evangelical, and other groups. If you know someone who might find Jesus without Baggage helpful, feel free to send them the introductory page: About Jesus without Baggage.
Articles in this series:
How Some Misguided Christian Beliefs are Very Harmful
Belief in Angry God is Perhaps the Most Damaging, Misguided Christian Belief of All
If We Are Free to Approach God Without Fear, What Becomes of Our Other Religious Fears—Like Hell?
Hopeful Universalism and a Gentle Alternative
A Gentle Alternative to Punishment in Hell for Those Who Reject God’s Offer of Eternal Life—Conditional Immortality
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