On Eternal Punishment
The NT doesn’t put forward eternal punishment of the wicked as a doctrine to be defended because it casts suspicion on God’s justice and love. To the contrary, the NT puts forward eternal punishment as right, even obviously right. It wouldn’t be right of God not to punish the wicked, so that the doctrine supports rather than subverts his justice and love. It shows that he keeps faith with the righteous, that he loves them enough to vindicate them, that he rules according to moral and religious standards that really count, that moral and religious behavior has consequences, that wickedness gets punished as well as righteousness rewarded, and that the eternality of punishment as well as of reward invests the moral and religious behavior of human beings with ultimate significance. We’re not playing games. In short, the doctrine of eternal punishment defends God’s justice and love and supplies an answer to the problem of moral and religious evil rather than contributing to the problem.
God will finally rectify all the imbalances in the scales of justice. To biblical people no mystery attached to this rectification, as though to say we can’t understand it now—how it could be right for God to punish the wicked eternally—but at the Last Day we’ll recognize his love and justice in punishing them eternally and rewarding the righteous, also eternally. To biblical people it was already clear that by so doing, God will be exercising his love and justice. And it was already clear to them because they had an acute, firsthand awareness of the depth of human depravity, on the one hand, and of the pain of man’s inhumanity to man, on the other hand. Often, moderns think that if only biblical people hadn’t been so insular, if only they’d lived in the times of radio, television, the Internet, international travel, if only they’d been personally acquainted with people of other religions—some Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims—they wouldn’t have come up with the horrible idea of eternal punishment. But the doctrine of divine inspiration of Scripture aside (though it warrants acceptance), biblical people were probably less insular than we moderns are. Most of them had closer and more numerous contacts with people of other religions then we do. As to most of the people we Christians in the Western world deal with, if they aren’t Christians they’ve at least been deeply influenced by the side-effects of the Christian faith that have permeated our culture. But biblical people rubbed shoulders daily with those who diligently practiced other religions, usually a variety of other religions at the same time. They knew what those other religions were and what effects they had on people. So maybe the problem we modern Westerners feel in regard to the doctrine of eternal punishment arises out of our comparative insularity, not out of the insularity of those who wrote the Bible, to our relative ignorance of the realities of human nature, other religions, and their effects on human behavior. At any rate, it’s simply wrong to attribute the doctrine to unfamiliarity with other religions and their devotees.
To reference the righteous and the wicked in this discussion isn’t to imply that people gain eternal life or suffer eternal punishment on the basis of whether their conduct is, on the whole, good or bad. Thinking that they do is probably part of the problem modern Westerners have in accepting the Bible’s teaching of eternal punishment: Non-Christians often seem to be good people. Why should they be punished forever? But people’s conduct isn’t necessarily an accurate gauge of whether their nature is good or bad. Relatively good conduct can be the accidental effect of a good environment in family, friends, teachers, and the surrounding general culture. Put supposedly good people in another set of circumstances—a set in which they can do what they jolly well please, for example, or in which they’re subject to greater temptation—and they may turn into Hitlers. Take Nero. At first, when still under the influence of the Stoic philosopher Seneca, Nero was a fairly good Roman emperor. After Seneca died, though, Nero turned demonic. We just don’t know people’s hearts, or even our own hearts, as God knows them (Jer 17:9–10). People don’t go to heaven because their conduct is good enough. They don’t go to hell because their conduct is too bad, but because they themselves are bad whether or not that fact has come out very clearly in their conduct. Our conduct and our eternal fate aren’t related directly to each other as cause and effect. They’re both the effect of whether or not we’ve been born from above through faith in Jesus Christ and the action of God’s Spirit. What our conduct does determine, however, is the degree to which we enjoy eternal life or suffer eternal punishment (see, e.g., Luke 12:47–48; 1 Cor 3:10–15). Though purely enjoyable, heaven won’t be equallyenjoyable for everybody there. Similarly, hell won’t be equally torturous for everybody there, and not so torturous as to impugn God’s justice—yet torturous enough to be avoided at all costs.
By Robert H. Gundry - An excerpt from his article titled Pastoral Pensées: The Hopelessness of the Unevangelized http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/publications/36-1/pastoral-pensees-the-hopelessness-of-the-unevangelized