I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Chris Date from Rethinking Hell on the Help Me Believe Podcast.
Chris is a Reformed (Calvinist) theologian that holds to a conditionalist view of hell. This view, also known as annihilationism, holds that unbelievers will not spend eternity in eternal torment, but will cease to exist after the final judgment.
I am always initially skeptical of views that I deem “new,” although Chris informed me that this view can be traced back, in terms of Church History, all the way back to Ignatius. To be sure, I haven’t actually looked into that claim, but Chris seems like the kind of guy that does his homework.
However, I have been skeptical of the traditional view of hell, eternal torment, for quite awhile. As I told Chris, I focus on apologetics and philosophy, and don’t often have the time to dive in to theological and biblical issues, at least in a robust way. Therefore, I have not given this subject its proper due.
Before going any further, I want to be clear that I am not committed to any view at this time, except that I am not a universalist. I believe the Scriptures are clear that salvation is for believers alone and that God will punish the unjust and unbelieving. The question here is, what is their punishment?
Here are my initial musings on the subject, with respect to the role of the atonement in this conversation.
Death is the Punishment for Sin
The Scriptures are clear that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). This has always been the case and can be found all the way back in Genesis where God told Adam and Eve that in the day they ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they would surely die (Genesis 2:17).
Because they disobeyed God, God kicked Adam and Eve out of the Garden for the expressed purpose of preventing them from accessing the tree of life which would enable them to live forever.
However you might interpret the specifics, the New Testament is clear that all of humanity will experience death and decay because of sin (Romans 5, 1 Cor 15, etc.).
One thing to point out: the punishment for sin is said to be death, not eternal torment. Before you unsubscribe, let me just say, I have not made up my mind on eternal torment.
However, I am finding less and less biblical support for it. A strong and obvious case can be made that the punishment for sin is death. I mean, that’s what the whole testimony of Scripture explicitly says. Only by inserting odd hermeneutics have I ever seen someone pull “eternal torment” out of places like Genesis 3.
I’ve heard preachers say, “Well, Adam and Eve didn’t immediately die, so when God say “You will surely die,” he must have been speaking of a spiritual death.” Umm, no. There’s absolutely no reason to think God was talking about a spiritual death, whatever that means. If it means “separation from God,” then Genesis 4 is a direct rebuttal to the idea, since God was still with Adam and Eve and their offspring, hence they were not “separated from God” after all.
A spiritual death is anything but obvious when reading Scripture. A literal death is abundantly clear and becomes even more explicitly clear when we consider the atonement.
Jesus’ Death Was Substitutionary
Whatever else Jesus’ death on the cross accomplished, He died in our place. Upon Him, was the wrath for our sin. Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away our sin. While we were still sinners, He died for us. His death was substitutionary, that is, He died on our behalf.
The punishment for sin is death. Jesus substituted for our sins. So, Jesus literally dying on our behalf makes perfect sense. The punishment is death, so he died.
Now, if the punishment for sin were eternal torment in hell, in what way did Jesus die in our place?
After all, He did not spend eternity in hell. This would seem to imply that our penalty has not been paid.
Are there any viable solutions to this problem for the traditionalist?
The Traditional Solution
The traditional solution to this problem is to say something like, “An infinite being can pay in a finite time, what a finite being would have to spend eternity to pay.”
What is meant by this is: Since Jesus is God, he is of infinite value. Therefore, he can pay an infinite price in a finite amount of time. For a finite being to pay an infinite price, an infinite amount of time of punishment would need be allotted.
The Traditional Problem
I have seen this explanation put forward by many theologians including William Lane Craig. Here’s the problem I see:
A finite being spending eternity in hell will never actually reach an infinite punishment. If the argument is that Jesus is of infinite value, therefore he can pay an infinite punishment in a finite amount of time, then the analogy becomes dis-analogous.
It is impossible that a finite being spend an infinite amount of time anywhere. As William Lane Craig himself has often argued, an actually infinite amount of time is impossible. Time must have a beginning, and at any particular moment in time, it is only finite, with the potential to go on ad infinitum. This is why we speak of time as potentially infinite and not actually infinite.
In this way, the person suffering in hell will never actually reach their punishment. God’s just wrath will never actually be satisfied, only potentially, at best.
Not to mention, the whole premise of the explanation is a categorical mistake. When someone says that “Christ is of infinite value,” they surely are speaking in terms of quality. But when they speak of finite beings spending eternity in hell, they are speaking in terms of quantity. So the statement, “An infinite being can suffer an infinite punishment in a finite amount of time,” seems false to me. If the punishment itself just is “an infinite amount of time of suffering,” then not even a qualitatively infinite being can suffer an infinite amount of time of suffering in a finite duration. That would be a logical contradiction.
The only escape would be to say that the punishment for sin is not an “infinite amount of time of suffering in hell,” but is an “infinite quality of suffering.” But can a qualitatively finite being suffer a qualitatively infinite punishment? No, of course not. This is no less contradictory.
This is the problem I see with eternal torment with respect to the atonement of Jesus. Not to mention, I see strong biblical support against this view. As of now, I am uncommitted either way, but look forward to continuing to study more of God’s word as I approach this subject.
Also, if Jesus paid our debt, why is it that believers still die? I’ll tackle this soon, but let me know what you think.
For more on Chris Date and Rethinking Hell, check out rethinkinghell.com.