(Editor’s note: This is part 2 of a blog post in which I share a letter I wrote to Tilly in early 2011, in response to her question about eternal punishment. For the sake of length, I’ve broken the letter into two parts. Part 1, in which I make a biblical case for eternal punishment and against annihilationism can be read here. In part 2, I describe how I have personally coped with this difficult doctrine. May God make my musings useful to you.)
Now for some more personal thoughts. The idea of eternal punishment is such that our sensitive hearts can not only keep us from seeing it in Scripture, but can also keep make it hard for us to live with it once we see it. I’ve already discussed why I think we should see it. Now I want to share briefly how I manage to live with it. One way, at least.
You once told me that while listening to my sermon on marriage, you began to weep as I read Paul’s words: “And such were some of you (sexually immoral, greedy, thieves, etc.), but you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of our Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:11). You didn’t explain why you wept, but you didn’t have to. I’ve wept over such texts enough to know why.
These kinds of passages minister amazing comfort to me. But here’s the thing: they’re only able to do that because I believe them. And I haven’t always found that easy to do.
When I told you on our way home from Green Hills that I’ve never struggled intellectually to accept the doctrine of eternal punishment, I didn’t mean to imply that I find it comfortable and easy to live with. I do not. Before I was converted, I would often lie awake at night and sob in fear, because I was an immoral person who knew he was unconverted. And not only was I scared to death of suffering in hell forever, but I was also pretty well convinced that there was nothing I could do to escape it. I was gripped by the fear that God was finished dealing with me; that I had wasted my last opportunity; that I could never truly repent and be changed; that though I might ask for forgiveness I could never be sincere about it; that God would not forgive me.
I don’t find eternal punishment easy to live with, and I know what it’s like to live with the paralyzing fear that I cannot avoid it. Caedmon’s Call captured it well:
Sometimes I fear maybe I’m not chosen
You’ve hardened my heart like Pharaoh
And that would explain why life is so hard for me.
That I am sad Esau hated
Crying against what’s fated
Saying ‘Father, please, is there any left for me?’
I think this is why I find such texts as 1 Corinthians 6:11 and Psalm 103 so precious. They’re what ‘cast down my doubts’ and ‘prove me wrong’ when I ‘m tempted to despair and fear that God will not forgive me. The type of argument used by Jonathan Edwards in the following quotation is an example of the kind of reasoning that has rescued my moral sanity over the years (note: Edwards is responding to the Christian who fears she has committed sins that God will not forgive—sins “peculiar to the reprobate”):
When we pretend to go further in our determinations than the word of God, Satan takes us up, and leads us. It seems to you that such sins are peculiar to the reprobate, and such as God never forgives. But what reason can you give for it, if you have no word of God to reveal it? Is it because you cannot see how the mercy of God is sufficient to pardon, or the blood of Christ to cleanse from such presumptuous sins? If so, it is because you never yet saw how great the mercy of God is; you never saw the sufficiency of the blood of Christ, and you know not how far the virtue of it extends.
–Jonathan Edwards, “Pardon for the Greatest Sinners”
This is how I have to live, Tilly. I have to argue with myself using the words of God. When I think about our respective emotional struggles, it seems to me that your struggle to believe in an eternal hell is a struggle to accept something that seems too horrible to be true, while my struggle to believe that God will forgive me is a struggle to accept something that seems too good to be true. The only way out of this depressing morass I have found is hearing the voice of God in Scripture—and believing it.
When I listened to the voice of my feelings, I found only hopelessness. But when I finally began to listen to the voice of God in Scripture, I found hope. Here is a rough sample of a typical mental battle:
It seems to you, Justin, that God will not forgive you. You think it’s too late. You think God that doesn’t want to hear from you anymore. You think you’ve committed that same sin too many times to be forgiven. But you know what? To hell with what you think! The question is, ‘What does God say?’ Who are you to blackmail God with your despair? Who are you to say that God can’t forgive you? What do you know about it, anyway?
You think that if God were to forgive you, he would be treating your sin lightly and encouraging looseness. You say that you cannot ask forgiveness and then go on ‘as if nothing had happened.’ But was the crucifixion of the God-man ‘nothing’? Was his death not a sufficient demonstration that God takes your sin seriously? Are you such a unique transgressor that the debt of your sin is greater than the value of his sacrifice? What does God say?
Here is what God says: God says that…
“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world (1 John 1:9-2:2 ESV).
God says to…
“Seek the LORD while he may be found;
call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake his way,
and the unrighteous man his thoughts;
let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
(Isaiah 55:6-9 ESV)
This is what God says, so to hell with what you think, Justin.”
The key to my joy and sanity has been the ability to say “To hell with what I think. What does God say?” And this, I believe, is a large part of what makes me willing to accept the Bible’s difficult teaching on eternal punishment.
The Bible doesn’t always match our expectations. We may think that we deserve only a few short years in hell at most—if we deserve hell at all. If so, God says “It’s worse than you think.” And we may find this teaching so unbearable that we reject the Bible altogether. But before we do that, we should recognize what we stand to lose. The time may come when we feel that we’re so dirty, so defiled, and so unworthy that eternity in hell is too good for us; that the best we can hope for is that God might make us his hired servants and allow us to work off our debt for eternity. But it’s then that God says, “It’s better than you think. I’m more merciful than you think. My Son’s sacrifice is worth more than you think. And you have more hope than you think.”
I need that kind of hope, and I know you need it, too.
This is part of what helps me live with the doctrine of eternal punishment. It’s knowing that the God whose Word threatens me with (well-deserved) eternal conscious torment is also the God whose gospel informs me of what he has done to rescue me from it through Jesus Christ, and promises me (undeserved) eternal conscious joy with him. The same God who threatens me with pain also promises me pleasure—pleasure that he purchased at the cost of his own pain—a cost greater than we will ever fully comprehend. In short, Tilly, I find belief in eternal punishment necessary in the fight for joy, because if I reject the things in Scripture that seem too horrible to be true, then I lose all right to embrace the things in Scripture that seem too good to be true.
And that is depressing indeed.
Well, I’d better quit. If I don’t, you’ll never receive the email. Make this part of our ongoing conversation. Feel free to raise questions about my exegesis. Let me know what you think. I hope I have at least scratched where you itch, even if you’re still itching.
I close this letter where I began: Thank you for sharing your struggles with me. I have tried to be honest with you. And I am confident with regard to both of us, that he who began a good work in us will bring it to completion on the day of Jesus Christ. In the mean time, he will be faithfully working on us. To that end, I offer you these thoughts. I commend you to further study of this doctrine. But during this study, always be sure not to lose sight of Jesus, who delivers us from the wrath to come (1 Thess. 1:10).
For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. (1 Thess. 5:9-10)
Your friend and brother,