For some, the doctrine of everlasting punishment in hell feels like a divine overreaction. Take Clark Pinnock as an example: “How can Christians possibly project a deity of such cruelty and vindictiveness whose ways include inflicting everlasting torture upon his creatures, however sinful they may have been?”
The assumption behind Pinnock’s question is that no amount or degree of wickedness could justify conscious torment without end. For this reason, Pinnock proposes a modified view of hell in which the ungodly pass out of existence after a period of suffering. But what if eternal torment is actually a fitting response to our sin? What if, instead of seeing hell as an overreaction to our misdeeds, we looked at it instead as God’s commentary on the gravity of our rebellion? In other words, what if it’s not God’s view of sin that needs adjusting, but our own?
The Judgment of the Wicked
In Isaiah 66 we see that one day the nations will come to worship God in a renewed Jerusalem: “For as the new heavens and the new earth that I make shall remain before me, says the Lᴏʀᴅ, so shall your offspring and your name remain. From new moon to new moon, and from Sabbath to Sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before me, declares the Lᴏʀᴅ. And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh” (Isaiah 66:22–24).
What if it’s not God’s view of sin that needs adjusting, but our own?
Instrumental to our worship in the age to come will be the regular reminder of the fate of the wicked. This fate is presented to us in Isaiah 66 in terms of judgment, exclusion, and persistent pain. The fire that burns the bodies of the rebels is an image of divine judgment. In Isaiah 66:16 we read, “For by fire will the Lᴏʀᴅ enter into judgment, and by his sword, with all flesh; and those slain by the Lᴏʀᴅ will be many.”
Moreover, the wicked will be excluded from the comfort and delights of the heavenly Jerusalem. Note in Isaiah 66:24 how the worshipers will go out and look on the dead bodies of the rebels. The wicked will suffer in the wasteland, shut out from the presence of the Lord forever.
Finally, the image of the undying worm and the unquenchable fire suggests that the wicked will experience unceasing pain. In Scripture, the worm is associated with spoiling and decomposition. That such a worm does not die in the case of the wicked suggests that the Lord’s enemies will lie in a perpetual state of decay, growing increasingly rotten though never passing away. In a similar fashion, the fire will devour their flesh continually. Surely the pain involved in such a state defies description. Isaiah 33:14 captures the frightening prospect for us: “The sinners in Zion are afraid; trembling has seized the godless: ‘Who can dwell with the consuming fire? Who among us can dwell with everlasting burnings?’”
This, then, is the fate of the ungodly. But what have they done to deserve it?
The Justice of Hell
We see in Isaiah 66:24 that the dead bodies moldering outside the city belong to those “who have rebelled against [God].” This rebellion has taken the specific form of idolatry, as described in Isaiah 66:17: “Those who sanctify and purify themselves to go into the gardens, following one in the midst, eating pig’s flesh and the abomination and mice, shall come to an end together, declares the Lᴏʀᴅ.”
To understand why idolatry is such a grave offense, we must recall Isaiah’s encounter with the Holy One of Israel in Isaiah 6. The prophet saw the glory of the Lord filling the temple and he cried out, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lᴏʀᴅ of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5).
When Isaiah stood before the thundering magnificence of God, he saw his sin in its true light and it undid him. I suspect that in that moment, Isaiah would have thought no punishment too severe for his crimes.
Similarly, we will only see the justice of hell when we see the awful weight of our sin. And we will only see the awful weight of our sin when we see the God who says of himself, “I am the Lᴏʀᴅ; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols” (Isaiah 42:8). When we see this God, we will understand why Jonathan Edwards could say that “[M]en do not hate misery more than God hates sin.”
So sin, in the final analysis, is worse than hell. We should not marvel that God burns with wrath against his enemies.
Let us marvel, instead, that while we were still enemies, Christ died for us.
“Men do not hate misery more than God hates sin.”
An expanded version of this article was delivered as a chapel message at Bethlehem College & Seminary. Pinnock’s quotation was referenced in D.A. Carson’s The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism. Chapter 13 of Carson’s book (“On Banishing the Lake of Fire”) provides a well-reasoned and pastorally sensitive defense of the doctrine of eternal punishment.