Friday, September 22, 2006

Infinity, eternal punishment and the cross

Chris Tilling has initiated a debate on hell. Amongst other things, he questions whether hell need be understood as the infinite, eternal punishment of the wicked. See here & here for the posts and to follow the discussion.

Jonathan Edwards taught the eternal, conscious punishment of the wicked on this basis:
God is a being infinitely lovely, because he hath infinite excellency and beauty. To have infinite excellency and beauty, is the same thing as to have infinite loveliness. He is a being of infinite greatness, majesty, and glory; and therefore he is infinitely honourable. He is infinitely exalted above the greatest potentates of the earth, and highest angels in heaven; and therefore he is infinitely more honourable than they. His authority over us is infinite; and the ground of his right to our obedience is infinitely strong; for he is infinitely worthy to be obeyed himself, and we have an absolute, universal, and infinite dependence upon him.
So that sin against God, being a violation of infinite obligations, must be a crime infinitely heinous, and so deserving of infinite punishment.- Nothing is more agreeable to the common sense of mankind, than that sins committed against any one, must be proportionably heinous to the dignity of the being offended and abused; as it is also agreeable to the word of God, I Samuel 2:25. "If one man sin against another, the judge shall judge him;" (i.e. shall judge him, and inflict a finite punishment, such as finite judges can inflict;) "but if a man sin against the Lord, who shall entreat for him?" This was the aggravation of sin that made Joseph afraid of it. Genesis 39:9. "How shall I commit this great wickedness, and sin against God?" This was the aggravation of David's sin, in comparison of which he esteemed all others as nothing, because they were infinitely exceeded by it. Psalm 51:4. "Against thee, thee only have I sinned."-The eternity of the punishment of ungodly men renders it infinite: and it renders it no more than infinite; and therefore renders no more than proportionable to the heinousness of what they are guilty of.
See here for full text of Edwards on The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners.
If sin does not deserve infinte and eternal punishment, why did the Son of God have to become flesh in order to atone for sin? Only he as an infinite Person could propitiate God's holy wrath aganist our sin. John Owen reflects on the infinite value and sufficiency of the death of Christ in the following quote:
The first thing that we shall lay down is concerning the dignity, worth, preciousness, and infinite value of the blood and death of Jesus Christ. The maintaining and declaring of this is doubtless especially to be considered; and every opinion that doth but seemingly clash against it is exceedingly prejudiced, at least deservedly suspected, yea, presently to be rejected by Christians, if upon search it be found to do so really and indeed, as that which is injurious and derogatory to the merit and honour of Jesus Christ. The Scripture, also, to this purpose is exceeding full and frequent in setting forth the excellency and dignity of his death and sacrifice, calling his blood, by reason of the unity of his person, “God’s own blood,” Acts xx. 28; exalting it infinitely above all other sacrifices, as having for its principle “the eternal Spirit,” and being itself “without spot,” Heb. ix. 14; transcendently more precious than silver, or gold, or corruptible things,1 Pet i:8; able to give justification from all things, from which by the law men could not be justified, Acts xiii. 28.
Now, such as was the sacrifice and offering of Christ in itself, such was it intended by his Father it should be. It was, then, the purpose and intention of God that his Son should offer a sacrifice of infinite worth, value, and dignity, sufficient in itself for the redeeming of all and every man, if it had pleased the Lord to employ it to that purpose; yea, and of other worlds also, if the Lord should freely make them, and would redeem them. Sufficient we say, then, was the sacrifice of Christ for the redemption of the whole world, and for the expiation of all the sins of all and every man in the world. This sufficiency of his sacrifice hath a twofold rise:— First, The dignity of the person that did offer and was offered. Secondly, The greatness of the pain he endured, by which he was able to bear, and did undergo, the whole curse of the law and wrath of God due to sin. And this sets out the innate, real, true worth and value of the blood-shedding of Jesus Christ.
See here for full text of Owen's The Death of Death in the Death of Christ.


Isaac M. Alderman said...

Is it best to view salvation in terms of reward (heaven) and punishment (hell) rather than being with God (alive) or not being with God (not alive)?

Guy Davies said...


It seems to me that the essence of heaven is to be alive in the immediate presence of God. Hell is the "second death" - existence apart from the life of God.

Isaac M. Alderman said...

I'm not really trying to argue for annihilationism, but I think I lean that way. I have several questions about this. 1) doesn't the concept of "existence apart from the life of God" seem problematic? If our life is a participation in the life of God (or our existence is participation in the existence of God, if that means something different), isn't rejection of God a rejection of life/existence. 2) Is immortality necessary? Can it not be given to some, while it is withheld from others?
It seems that the creation accounts are telling us that we participate in the life of God (our life is the breath of God, whatever that means)and that immortality is not ours by our nature (we must have access to a life-giving source).
3) How can there be a place apart from the life of God?

On an unrelated note, I dig your posts on the 18th c. revival. I am a wesleyan, and I am finishing an MA thesis on Wesley's preacher Mary Bosanquet Fletcher. Your posts on the subject always give me a better understanding of the context. thanks.

Guy Davies said...


Thanks for your kind remarks re my posts on 18th C Revival.

On annihilationism:

1)It depends on what you mean by the life of God. God has given life to all human beings as their creator. But sin has severed our relationship with him so that the non-Christian is "dead in trespasses and sins" and "without God in the world" (Eph 2:1, 12). Eternal life, sharing in the richness God's trinitarian life is for those who know Jesus as Saviour. Consider 1 John 5:11, 12& 20. Those who do not have the Son do not have everlasting life.

Existence apart from the life of God is problematic. The problem is the result of sin that leads to death and hell.

2) I hold to the eternal conscious punishment of the wicked not because I believe that human beings are inherently immortal. Human beings exist because God upholds all things by the world of his power.

Immortality is used in 2 senses in the NT - of God's immortality (eg 1 Tim 1:7) and of the resurrected state of believers (eg 1 Cor 15:53 & 54). The wicked are not immortal. They are already dead in sin. They will suffer physical death, their souls will then be consigned to hell. Lastly they will be raised from the dead to face the final judgement and then endure a "second death" in the lake of fire (Rev 20:13-15). The wicked will suffer eternal punishment because that it what their sins deserve according to the judgement of God.

Our response to the awfulness of hell should be that of the early Methodists - to preach Christ to sinners as the only way of escape. We must warn the lost even with tears to flee from the wrath to come.

Isaac M. Alderman said...

Thanks for chatting about these things.
Firstly, I think I agree with you on point 1. but then, you wrote, "God upholds all things" and so immortality is not inherent. So then, God is upholding those in an eternal torment? He is not sustaining in them life, but rather sustaining death? How can this be?

Guy Davies said...


I'm glad that we agree on point 1.

On the other matter you raised, it depends on what you mean by a state of death. Death is not the end of human existence. After death human beings face God's judgement(Heb 9:27). The wicked are kept in a state of existence described as the "second death" in order that they might be punished for their sins (Rev 20:11-15).

Hell is not about God's random cruelty to innocent people. Hell is the place where the full force of God's justice is meeted out upon the wicked. They have brought God's wrath upon themselves by sinning against him. Having said that, God will not punish anyone more than they deserve. Perhaps there will be degrees of punishment in hell, depending on the enormity of a persons sin (Luke 12:45-48).

Hell is what we all deserve. The wonder is that God sent his Son to bear the punishment of our sins so that we may be saved from the lake of fire.

"He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him". (John 3:36)

Rileysowner said...

If I remember correctly, and my head cold my prevent me from doing so, Edward's thought that Scripture taught that Hell was not so much being separated from God, but instead, was an eternity in the conscious reality of only knowing the wrath of God. For me that thought is horrible, to only know the wrath of God for an eternity should move us to prayerful preaching to those who are not believers to turn to Christ and be saved.

I also seem to remember there are lines in Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God where he speaks of those who do not believe when they are in hell wishing they had committed one less sin. It has been a long time since I read that particular sermon, so I cannot be sure of it.

Isaac M. Alderman said...

Should Edwards be seen as a good authority on this, since he has an evangelical goal? Not that evangelism is a bad goal, but it can become polemical (if that's the right word). I think it was origen(?) that believed that hell was useful becuase it impressed upon a person the urgency of salvation, but that the truth was a more profound meaning not to be found in the simple dualism of heaven/hell. I think I see Edwards as working within the usefulness of the simpler dualism in the attempt to evangelize, even as he certainly believed in its reality.

Guy Davies said...


For me the question is weather it is Biblical to preach on hell in an evangelistic context. I believe it is. Jesus warned people of the dangers of hell more than anyone else in the NT. Acts shows us the apostles Peter & Paul preaching evangelistically. They often warned their hearers that God has appointed Jesus as the judge to whom we must give an account.
Edwards was following this Biblical pattern when he warned people to flee from the wrath to come.

But Edwards' evangelistic preaching involved much more than preaching on hell. He also sought to woo people to Christ by extolling the loveliness and sufficiency of Jesus. He concludes a message on The Wisdom of God Displayed in Salvation with these words:

"Do men love pleasures? Here are pleasures for evermore. What could there be more to draw our hearts to Jesus Christ, and to make us willing to accept of him for our Saviour, with all his unspeakable benefits?"
Works Volume 2 (Banner of Truth Trust) p. 156.