Universalism is making a come back. In an age of tolerance and social-morality, the idea that God might condemn many to eternal perdition seems immoral and outrageous. Yet Scripture claims that our eternal destiny has its endpoint either in everlasting heaven or everlasting hell (e.g., Rev 20:10).
We need to be realistic about our claims here. If sins that we commit in life merit our eternal perdition and not just temporal purgation, we must ask why this is. When we answer that question, then the eternality of hell becomes easier to understand.
One popular answer relies upon the notion of God’s infinitude. Since God is eternal, then our sin has infinite turpitude as it offends an infinite being. As a consequence, hell’s punitive fires blaze for eternity.
But two problems weigh down this view. First, why must our finite sins have infinite weight if they are against an infinite being? That would somehow make our finite sins infinite in the act, but only God’s acts are infinite. And he does not ultimately cause us to sin. So how can our finite acts entail an infinite worth before God? Or, why should our acts be considered infinite simply because God is?
Second, Christ died according to his humanity on the cross and so absorbed the wrath of God—but over a finite time period. It is no use claiming that God died on the cross according to his divinity for that would be to kill the Father something that Christians have found to be impossible to claim.
We must grant, however, that God does undergo the experience of death on the cross but only through the true and full mortal-humanity of Christ. The divine nature, being Life itself, cannot die as itself; this is why the incarnation took place so that remaining what he was (immortal), the Logos assumed what he was not (mortality). In this “what he was not,” the Logos died.
The divine become low in the incarnation so that through the flesh, he might taste death for everyone. Hebrews 2:9 asserts: “But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.” So the one by whom all things came into being (Heb 2:10) become low so that he might taste death. God cannot die. So God cannot become a human being in order to experience death.
With that said, the infinite offence theory may very well be true. But I see no clear path according to Scripture and to Christian theology for it to be true— and yes I have read Anselm.
Andrew Menkis recently argued that the perpetual state of being “sinful” merits an infinite experience of hell among sinners. In contrast, Christ who merits hellish wrath due to imputation but not due to internal sinfulness only merits a finite punishment. He explains:
They’re given over to an eternity of hatred toward God rather than worship—which is exactly what they preferred in life.
It’s not merely past sin, but also their present attitude that makes hell eternal for sinners. This is the key difference between sinful men and Jesus, the sinless man. He was perfect in every way; therefore, the duration of the punishment didn’t need to be eternal for him to absorb the complete punishment for sin.
The wrath of God was fully poured on Christ—and we shouldn’t think that’s contradicted or negated by the fact it occurred in a finite amount of time. To the contrary, the fact that Christ is no longer under the wrath of God, but seated in glory at his right hand, gives us every confidence that he is our Savior.
On this reading, people remain in hell for their present attitude in hell. Presumably, that attitude includes enmity against God. If this were true, we would have to affirm people remain in eternal hell post-judgment for the sake of future enmity that they have not yet committed. In this sense, we would enter judgment for our sins during this life which would perhaps only last for 3 hours as Jesus’s suffering on the cross did. Then, it seems, we would have subsequent punishment for further sin or enmity (Rev 22:11?).
Menkis distinguishes our entrance into hell (due to judgment) and the reason why we stay in hell (due to our perpetual enmity). So perhaps then we remain in hell after purgating our sins due to our free choice. After all, there only seems to be one judgment for sin according to Scripture (e.g., Heb 9:27; Matt 25:31-46).
But the problem remains of human beings in hell who continue to choose sin and evil and so remain in hell for all eternity. But Scripture clearly affirms: “When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all” (1 Cor 15:29; cf Phil 2:10–11). Do we really want to conceive of Christ’s subjection of hell’s denizens in terms of their continual sin, enmity, and rebellion toward Christ?
This may very well be true, but I still do not know how it is true. If we choose to stay in hell by our enmity, then why could not Lazarus walk over to Abraham’s bosom when he wanted to do so? Or, do we both choose hell and cannot escape hell? But why would God need to prevent escape if we all choose hell? And how does every knee bow “under the earth” before Jesus Christ if this is true (Phil 2:10)?
The best explanation that I can think of might be the simplest option—or at least the most obvious one from Scripture. Human nature exists in a fallen, corrupt state. We all die. And stay in the state of dying (second death). To die simply means to be outside of life as Adam and Eve were exiled from the tree of life that mediated the Life of God.
So constitutionally, we either exist in death or exist in life. What we call “life” today really amounts to the idea of existence. Everybody exists eternally, but not everybody exists in life. In Scripture, existence with God means life; existence without God means death. To die in corruption and without God means to enter into the second death rather than being resurrected to newness of life.
Christ, Scripture tells us, became a human being (John 1:14). He did so, we learn, to share in our flesh and blood to abolish death (Heb 2:14–15). But death in sin means existence in the second death. So he also destroyed sin (Rom 3:25–26) so that we could have life, eternal life (John 3:16). Eternal life is simply life from God who is the Author of Life. It is the life mediated from the tree in Eden from which humanity was exiled.
But Christ became a human being, not a human person. The difference is monumental. The Logos did not become Bob from Nazareth. The Logos, the Son, always remained the Son. He assumed a personless nature—not a specific person! Had he done the latter, then he would have possessed someone as demons do. But he became a human being.
This fact, the central pillar of Chalcedonian Christology, that Christ assumed a human nature and not a person means that he can bring about a change in the whole of humanity. As leaven, he mixes into the whole, changing and transforming it. He does not represent an individual person but human nature itself.
Salvation history hinted at this when it gave him the representative roles of king and priest. These offices explain historically how Christ can represent large groups of people, whereas his common humanity provides the material and formal means by which he can bring about a change in human nature. Thus, in the language of Paul, he makes the corrupt incorrupt and the mortal immortal (1 Cor 15:53–54).
Now, we know that not all shall be saved—despite David Bentley Hart’s arguments to the contrary! So Christ’s assumption of a common humanity, redemption, and transformation of humanity lies in potency until actualized when the Spirit unites us to the body of Christ (e.g., 1 Cor 6:15–20).
By faith, the Spirit unites us to the Spiritual and cosmic body of Jesus Christ (1 Cor 6:17). In this sense, our corruptible body joins to his human nature. We then get all the benefits that flow from it. Yet we do not become the Logos by nature! We share in the Son of God by the Spirit (e.g., 2 Pet 1:3–4). This happens to be one of the particular theological emphases of John Calvin who pressed into the Spirit’s work in uniting us to Christ.
Hence, we become the body of Christ by faith and through the Spirit. Then we get life, eternal life. Then we live, entering into life eternal with the Author of Life who is our Life. Without the Spirit, we are dead in our trespasses and sins (Eph 2:1). With the Spirit, we have life: “The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing” (John 6:63).
Existence has no end. Death describes the condition of our existence since the cessation of existence happens for no rational nature (i.e., humans). Life defines the manner of life that we live in the Spirit, united to Christ, in the presence of the Father (John 17:3).
So hell and heaven are forever since rational natures constitutionally exist without end. And only by faith through Spiritual union do we have access to life. Certainly, we could suggest that someone in hell could pursue life in Christ. But we have exactly zero biblical examples of such a possibility. In all accounts, we seem destined to hell for eternity without end. Put another way, hell is death since death means exile from life.
Hell is eternal because all rational natures exist without end. But some exist in the state of death, others in the state of life. We gain eternal life or second death as conditions of existence. The former means union with Christ by the Spirit who is the Author of Life; the latter means exile from God who is our Life. But this means rational natures exist in a privative, and negative state for those in hell—not a positive or substantial state of antagonism. Which would mean that no sin exists per se; but actually only the privation of Life exists in that underbelly of heaven, hell.
The gift of common grace, of blood in which life exists (Lev 17:11), falls away into nothingness of lifeless death. The vitality that allows for rebellion against God falls into eternal death. No stiff lip turns itself up against God. Every knee bows. Whatever one imagines hell to be like, we cannot expect to conceive of it accurately. We have no experience of lifeless existence. We certainly know of a lifeless spiritual existence (Eph 2:1). But we still live in this-age bodies. Every moment God graces us with common grace to live. In hell, that grace recedes. And we will come to know what it means to die a death apart from life.
But Christ hung on the tree to return the Tree of Life to us. We have eternal life with him forever, which means no death nor sin. And it means we have the greatest good, God himself.