There are some scary, disturbing things in the Holy Bible. One in particular is the doctrine (teaching) of hell. Some (not all) because they find it so psychologically disturbing have set about to eliminate or at least soften the biblical language. Others, as I have learned in recent days, believe that there are exegetical (well at the very least philosophical) grounds on believing that hell-fire is not eternal in the sense of lasting ongoing punishment. A better way to understand this doctrine it is argued is by seeing that the punishment is eternal in the sense that it comes from God—kind of like an everlasting memorial—but not an undying (non-ceasing) reality where the wrath of God is forever endured.
One argument that I have heard voiced, but I must highlight is not used by all of those in the conditionalist (a.k.a. annihilationism) camp, is what I have labeled as the “disproportionate argument.” By the way I’m not claiming exclusivity here on this label. The probability that it has already been designated as such is, I would imagine, rather high.
Eternal suffering in hell is considered a disproportionate penalty for sin, when compared with Christ’s suffering on the cross. That is to say, “If hell-fire is to be placed upon the sinner in an eternal state (i.e., and infinite amount of time), then how is Christ’s suffering and death—which seems rather finite is relationship to the punishment that sinners will supposedly receive—equitable?” Our lives and the sin we amass, at least the sin we are aware of saying nothing of the sin we are not, seems to be less of a weight of responsibility than an eternal punishment which is heavier on the supposed end of justice.
This Philosophical Argument Cuts Both Ways
You see, Jesus only lived about 33 years on earth. We know from Scripture (testimony of His apostles, and the Holy Spirit) that He did not sin. Being a good tree, He only produced good fruit (Matt 7.17-18). And yet, we learn from the prophet Isaiah that
“Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa 53.4-6).
Something the apostle Paul builds upon in a couple of his letters in the New Testament:
“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation” (Rom 5.6-11).
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold the new has come…” How so? “For our sake he [God] made him [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2Cor 5.17, 21).
Think about this with me and see if you are able to see how the argument of “disproportionateness” cuts both ways. Eternal hell-fire where weeping and gnashing of teeth is called the norm. A destination where it is written that the smoke of their torment rises forever. Is said to be, what? Too much! How can a finite death which Jesus died on the cross warrant a life of eternal suffering? How is it possible for a loving God to continue to punish a sinner for an unending amount of time?
Seeing the Alternative…
The reverse of it is this. How can a finite life of 33 years, and less than one day of suffering—even suffering a death on a cross—account for the giving of eternal life? Not just for one person, but a great many people. A multitude from every tribe and nation that is too numerous to count. How is that a proportionate application of one righteous life to the many? Particularly, when you realize that Jesus atoning death is said to have given forgiveness and eternal life with God to men like Jeffery Dahmer the cannibalistic serial killer?
If you don’t like what you call “disproportionate punishment,” then if you are going to be logically consistent you ought to have the same disdain for a “disproportionate blessing/reward/inheritance/life.” If its not fair for a person to pay an unending debt under the wrath of God in hell-fire, then it’s not fair for a person to receive an unending pardon under grace in heaven.
As I noted earlier not every conditionalist (a.k.a. annihilationism) uses this particular argument. For good reason, it doesn’t hold water. The argument is a leaky bucket.
What the argument amounts to…
The issue, as it normally does, comes down to semantics. Which means what exactly? It comes down to language. Specifically, it deals with the way certain words are used in Scripture. The argument is over the semantic range of “punishment,” “eternal fire,” and “death” to name a few. In other words, what do those words mean, what can they mean, and what should they mean in the contexts that they are found in? (e.g. Isa 66.24; Matt 25.41, 26; Mark 9.45-48; Rev 20.10, 11-15; 21.8; 22.15).
The topic of hell and hell-fire in the sense of eternal punishment and/or torment is not what most Christians want to have a causal chat about over lunch. The teaching raises questions and concerns, and as a result has a tendency of making us extremely uncomfortable. I do think it is a subject that needs to be discussed at greater length, and so I thank a couple fellow bloggers for raising my interest into the subject. As a pastor I realize that this doctrine, like so many of the teachings in Scripture, has a direct bearing on our understanding of God, the gospel of Christ, and the faith-system that we hold dear as a whole.
I’m not sure if I’ll write more on this subject in the near future or not. As for now I’m just trying to read and listen to both sides of this “conversation.” From what I can tell those that hold the opposing view are not slouches by any stretch of the imagination. I do not claim to be the sharpest tool in the shed, but I’m certainly not the dullest either. Just in case you’re wondering I do not pretend to be neutral on this issue. I’m committed to what I believe the Scriptures plainly teach, but I’m willing to listen to the other side. Although to use the phraseology of popular YouTuber Stephen Crowder they’ll have to present an argument cogent enough from the biblical text to “Change my Mind.”
 If, perhaps, you feel that I have missed something in this argument or am misrepresenting those that hold to it, please feel free to comment your concerns below.
 All Scripture of the English Standard Version (ESV) throughout.