Does Sin Cease when the Sinner Dies? Reflections on Eternal Conscious Punishment1
The idea of an eternal conscious punishment of the lost in hell is a challenge to all believers. But it is, I believe, biblical. Continue reading . . .
The idea of an eternal conscious punishment of the lost in hell is a challenge to all believers. But it is, I believe, biblical. One reason why many struggle with the idea is that they conceive of those in hell as at some point coming to repentance and experiencing sorrow for their sin. That is to say, they envision the lost as acknowledging the justice of their condemnation, seeing God for the glorious God that he is, repenting for their rejection of Jesus and crying out for mercy and deliverance from their suffering. But is this true? I think not.
Consider this. We know that God’s common grace is largely responsible for the restraint on human sin during our time on earth. The Holy Spirit not only works effectually in the hearts of the elect, bringing them to repentance and faith in Christ and subsequently enabling them to live in obedience to the revealed will of God, but he also restrains or inhibits the full expression of depravity in the hearts of the non-elect. We call it common grace, as over against the special or saving grace bestowed on the elect, because it is common to all mankind. God not only graciously bestows on the non-elect the ability and insight to produce glorious works of art, music, technology and the like, he also exerts a preventative influence that inhibits their fallen and corrupt hearts from doing as badly as they are capable of doing.
It seems reasonable to me (although I have no texts that explicitly say so) that God would withdraw the influence of his common grace among those consigned to eternal punishment. Whatever restraint he places on their hearts during this life is altogether removed in the next. The result is that certain sins they might otherwise have committed while alive on earth, but didn’t (because of common grace), they will fully indulge in the afterlife.
Part of what makes hell hellish is the absence of God, not in the sense that he will no longer be omnipresent but insofar as he withdraws all (common) gracious influence on those who departed this life in unbelief. The potential for human sin will thus be fully realized in the hearts of those who are lost. If God is not “present” in hell to prevent their sin from intensifying and multiplying (and why would he be), there is nothing to keep the lost from venting the full force of their resentment, hatred, and disdain for God and all things godly.
In other words, perhaps the idea of endless punishing will prove less offensive when the idea of endless sinning is considered. If those in hell never cease to sin, why should they ever cease to suffer? We read this in Revelation 22:10-11 –
“And he said to me, ‘Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near. Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy’” (Rev. 22:10-11).
D. A. Carson comments:
“If the holy and those who do right continue to be holy and to do right, in anticipation of the perfect holiness and rightness to be lived and practiced throughout all eternity, should we not also conclude that the vile continue in their vileness in anticipation of the vileness they will live and practice throughout all eternity (533)?”
Jonathan Edwards is not without an opinion on this matter, as one might expect. It seems to me certain, wrote Edwards,
“that the wicked that are punished by God will continue to hate God all the while they are punished, and that their punishment, instead of humbling them, will stir up their hatred to God and make them blaspheme him” (Miscellany 237; Yale, 13:353).
Edwards does not think it likely that the punishment they suffer will be lessened or lifted while they continue to hate and spew vile aspersions on God, nor that they will cease to sin due to the nature and severity of the punishment itself:
“Those minds that are so destitute of principles of virtue, will unavoidably dreadfully hate that being [i.e., God] that brings so much misery upon them. Therefore, the punishment of the damned will be eternal” (ibid.).
The point again is that punishment in hell is eternal because sin in hell is eternal. The lost never cease to sin and thus they never cease to suffer.
If this line of thought could be proven false (although I don’t believe it can), the truth of eternal conscious punishment would not, for that reason, be undermined or less likely. There are numerous biblical texts that explicitly assert it, and that itself is sufficient grounds to believe it, no matter how offensive it might at first appear.