Hell: Infinite Punishment For Finite Sin?

QUESTION:

I’m not sure I understand the concept of Hell being eternal. How can someone be infinitely punished for finite sins? Can someone leave Hell if they feel remorseful and want to be with God now? If not, does that mean that God is not all-forgiving?

ANSWER:

There’s a great chapter in Problem of Pain by CS Lewis on hell that you should read. Regarding your specific problem of eternal punishment for temporal sin, Lewis makes the following observations:

POSTMORTEM ENLIGHTENMENT?

When we hear Jesus talk about future judgment (Matthew 10:28; Mark 9:43; Matthew 25:41; Luke 16:26) we often make the assumption that once people pass from death into the hereafter they instantly have all knowledge given to them. We imagine they suddenly see with perfect clarity all the mistakes made on earth and the result would be an eye-popping Scrooge-like moment of spiritual awakening. We then further infer that such awakening would make a person humble, full of godly regret and repentance and soft-heartedness toward God as they see the error of their ways in rejecting God’s goodness and grace.

But is this assumption of automatic post-mortem enlightenment correct?

THE RICH MAN IN HELL

In Jesus’ story of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16:19-31), the Rich Man goes to hell (Hades) and is in clear agony. But he seems to be in a fog about what’s happening to him, grounded in his spiritual blindness while on earth. For example, he commands the beggar Lazarus to serve him like he did on earth. But Lazarus is no longer a beggar, but an exalted son in the “bosom of Abraham”! You don’t get to command him!! He doesn’t seem to have any remorse for his vile treatment of Lazarus.

Further, the Rich Man seems to think there’s no chasm between him and Lazarus, like he’s where all the people go or somehow people could come minister to him there. Abraham has to inform him that he’s mistaken. Yes, he does equate his position in Hades with choices made on earth, there’s that much self-awareness. But it comes bundled with the idea that he didn’t have enough information. Which is a way of saying, “it’s God’s fault I’m here.” He is clearly stuck in entitlement and selfishness and blamecasting, just as he was on earth.

CHOOSING HELL

What if people who pass over merely continue in the direction towards which they pointed their souls while on earth? If that were the case, then Hell would not be full of people who stop sinning, but rather full of people who keep on sinning. Their continued isolation from God and goodness then, would be not only be just but the very thing that they want. Because they keep on choosing it.

Someone might object and ask how anyone would continue to choose hell once they were in torment. But those people have not looked around very broadly at the amount of misery and self-destructiveness that humans are capable of in this life. One has to simply look at how the addict chooses his addiction over every other good (over his wife, over his children, over all happiness and fulfillment whatsoever), to see how we are perfectly capable of picking self-made prisons over Joy. Why should this be different in the afterlife?

HATING HEAVEN

In another great Lewis book, the Great Divorce, Lewis teases out that idea, that people in hell not only have chosen that fate for themselves, but that they continue to choose it. Lewis imagines a bus going from hell to heaven. People in hell can choose to get on anytime they want. But when they get on and get to heaven they find that they don’t really like it there. They’ve conditioned their souls in this life to not want the reality of heaven, the humility of heaven, the service of heaven and the selflessness of it.

Thus, the ghosts from hell find even the grass on the beautiful fields of heaven to be painful because it stabs at their feet because it’s too “real”. Obviously that’s a fictional account. But I think he shows how hell is not a fate that God puts on people as if to deny them heaven out of spite, “you had your chance!”

GOD WANTS EVERYONE IN HEAVEN

The Bible is so clear that God does not want anyone to perish but wants everyone to experience his life and forgiveness and eternal bliss (2 Peter 3:9). So we can be sure that if a second chance after death would do any good God would give a second chance, a third chance, a million, million chances. But what is life if not a million million such chances?

Therefore, I don’t think we have to imagine that in eternity it’s possible for someone to wake up and repent in a sincere and beautifully humble way, and God says, “too late for you buddy!”

To specifically answer your question, if someone were truly and genuinely remorseful in the afterlife, then God would certainly welcome them into heaven. We infer this because heaven, according to Christian teaching, is not a reward for being a good person, but rather a gift of God’s grace. If it’s a gift of grace, then the fact that one deserves hell is not a disqualifier! It’s not a disqualifier that they do it late. Jesus was clear people can arrive in the Kingdom even very late in the Day. Their prior rejection is no hindrance, such is the humility of God to take repentant sinners who turn to Him only after giving every competing god a try first.

A QUESTION OF FAITH AND REPENTANCE

So people don’t go to hell because God couldn’t possibly stomach allowing hellbound people into his heaven because he’s ALREADY decided to let hellbound people into heaven through the Cross. Every person who goes to heaven was by default hellbound. People don’t go to hell because God’s too prideful to take them in after they’ve thumbed their nose at him all their life. It’s never a question of God not being forgiving enough. It’s always a question of whether or not we respond in trusting faith, a childlike dependence on God’s mercy, and a true repentance from acts that lead to death.

Now, Scripture gives us no indication that such remorse is possible post-death. So we have to trust that God knows how many chances each person needs and to know when more chances won’t do any good.