We Protestants don’t believe in any transitional place of reform between earth and heaven. There’s no purgatory. It is appointed for man to die once, and immediately after his physical death the eternal verdict is delivered (Hebrews 9:27). In light of that, comes this question: Is it fair for the soul’s eternal destiny to be irreversibly determined by the mere span of seventy years of life in this world? It’s a question from a listener named Shaun, something he himself was asked. “Hello, Pastor John, thank you for this podcast. I was recently asked the question, ‘What kind of silly God determines the eternal future of a soul based on the span of only one lifetime?’ This seems fundamentally out of balance to many. How would you help me answer this objection from Scripture?”
I would begin and end by saying that God’s judgment is not silly, but infinitely serious. I would look for some indication behind that word silly that my friend is at least a little bit open to the possibility that what the Bible teaches may prove spectacularly true and make his own assessment of silliness a great problem for him. Is he open to that?
A Question of Attitude
If I discern that he is willing to listen, then I would try to help him see how the Bible shows that it is perfectly just for God to condemn a person to eternal suffering, not just on the basis of seventy years of sinning, but five seconds of sinning. From his standpoint, the problem is much more serious than he thinks it is. Or to use his words, the maker of the universe is much sillier than he thinks he is.
“God is just to condemn a person, not just on the basis of seventy years of sinning, but five seconds of sinning.”
One more comment about attitude. This is a big deal because Paul makes a big deal out of it in Romans 9. Jesus makes a big deal out of it when he wouldn’t answer the question of those who wouldn’t tell the truth to him (Matthew 21:23–27). So one more comment about attitude.
God can handle our questions. He can handle our frustrations. He can handle our being utterly baffled. He can handle our confusion. He can handle our being at an utter loss to understand his ways. What God does not tolerate is an attitude of condemnation toward God himself, an attitude that writes him off even before we understand his nature or his action. To such a person, Paul says in Romans 9:20, “Who are you, O man, to answer back to God?” He would say, “Who are you to call God silly?”
The problem is not the questioner’s perplexity. That’s understandable. We’re not God; we’re just human. His ways are often above our ways. The problem is an attitude of being unteachable, self-sufficient.
So let me make three brief exegetical observations — textual observations — and then offer a principle that I hope will help.
First, Paul says, “As one trespass led to condemnation for all men” — that’s a pretty amazing statement — “so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men” (Romans 5:18). This is why I said that the issue is more serious than seventy years of sinning resulting in eternal condemnation.
The issue is five seconds. That’s how long it took Adam and Eve to be condemned with the whole human race. Treason against the all-wise God — the all-powerful Creator, the sustainer of the universe — brought condemnation. That brief act of treason resulted in the corruption of the entire race so that all of us are guilty in our sin. And we know we are.
Even a man who says God is silly knows it in his deep-down consciousness. We know that because of what we have become in our corruption we deserve punishment. That’s observation number one.
Second, James says, “Whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it” (James 2:10). Again, one sin makes us culpable of the whole law, and James explains why in the next verse. He says, “For he” — we’re dealing with God here — “he who said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ also said, ‘Do not murder.’ If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law” (James 2:11).
“We are obliged to do everything our Creator says — not 99% of it, but everything.”
In other words, it’s the person behind the law whom you’re offending. That’s the issue here. Not how many of these you offend against. In other words, the issue is not the quantification of sins or the quantification of the years of sinning. The issue is the vast difference between us as sinners and the infinite greatness of the person we’re sinning against. More on that in just a minute.
Third, an exegetical comment from Galatians 3:10: “All who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.’” From the biblical standpoint, as we stand before our Creator we are obliged to do everything he says — not 99 percent of it, but everything. If we do not abide in all the things written in the Book the Law, we’re under a divine curse.
I would encourage my friend at this point, indeed I would plead with him, not to exalt himself above Scripture and call God silly, but to humble himself at least under the possibility that because of his sin, with all the rest of us, he is in great peril as he talks to God.
Storehouse of Wrath
So, here’s the principle I said I would mention. I would commend it for his consideration. Any offense, any dishonor against an infinitely worthy, an infinitely valuable, an infinitely dignified, an infinitely beautiful being is an infinite sin and deserves an infinite punishment.
If the only way to measure the seriousness of sin and the seriousness of punishment was the time it took to sin and the time it took to punish, then eternal hell maybe would be an overreaction. But neither human nor divine justice operates that way.
“Any offense against an infinitely worthy being is an infinite sin and deserves an infinite punishment.”
It takes five seconds to kill a man — five seconds. I would be locked up. Well, I’m too old, but say a twenty-year-old kills a man in five seconds. He’d be locked up for fifty years. Now, I did a little math. That’s 378 billion times more punishment than the five seconds it took to murder.
We all know that time is not what measures the grievousness of a sin. Otherwise, the five seconds it takes to kill means you’d be in jail for five seconds. Everybody knows it doesn’t work that way.
I’m tempted to say, “Silly question.” But I don’t think so. It’s serious. A lot hangs on it. The grievousness and heinousness of sin rises to its infinite proportions, not because of the extent of time covered in the act of sin, but because of the one whom we are sinning against — the dishonor we are bringing upon an infinitely honorable being.
If you dishonor a toad, you’re not very guilty. I stomped on a toad when I was a teenager, and I felt a little bad, but not much. If you dishonor a man, you’re very guilty. If you dishonor God, you are infinitely guilty because he’s infinitely worthy of every millisecond of worship in your life. If you don’t give him worship, you multiply the storehouse of wrath. And who can measure such an offense? Well, God can, and he is just.