It is easy to imagine the possible motivation for preaching everlasting punishment by the Medieval Institutional Church (Roman Catholic). The image being one of existence not ending. For sure the wicked will be punished as warned in the bible, but termination of being is itself an everlasting punishment, and, in some sense, more drastic and itself a noble motive to turn to God. If humans possessed native immortality, then why did God, in His mercy, take away access to the Tree of Life and expel Adam and Eve? It seems to prevent a state of existence separate from God who is wholly loving and good.
Overwhelmingly, in the bible, the end of the wicked is spoken of in terms of destruction. It is mainly a few verses in the N.T. that some derive the doctrine of Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT). There are many very good refutations of ECT, such as Edward Fudge’s “The Fire that Consumes” to mention one. In this post, I focus on what many conclude to be the strongest defense of ECT, namely the philosophical formulations of Anselm picked up by Aquinas.
I. Infinitely Holy God
A. Aquinas’ idea goes something along these lines: “Since God is infinite, then all sins against Him are infinite.”
Refutation: This cannot be the case and has zero support from scripture being almost purely philosophically derived.
B. Some would say slapping a king is more severe than slapping an ordinary person and so deserves the greater punishment. Sinning against such an exulted God deserves infinite punishment.
Rufutation: This merely ‘sounds good’ but nowhere in scripture is there a parallel, at least not to the extent that the subscribers to ECT can use as support. God, I believe, uses the concept of a “write off” such as is common in business. The image of God as an eternal torturer of fallen individuals is not reflected in the bible, instead, ‘a write off.’ For sure the wicked will be punished commensurate with their sin while they were on earth, but afterward, ashes and other non-existent states are referred.
II. Sinners Continue to Sin After Death
Some claim that after death the wicked are still sinning and so deserve everlasting torment.
1. Is. 40.2 states “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.” It is quite obvious that the sins were finite even though doubled.
The Double Sin
The reason that the punishment was doubled was the well attested “double sin.” The O.T. prophets told Israel that departure from the Lord was a sin as well as the overt sin itself usually in the form of idolatry. They had left the fountain of water to dig out for themselves cisterns which could hold no water. So, both leaving The Fountain and digging the cisterns, metaphorically speaking, were sins.
2. The wicked are not accountable after death. They are certainly not righteous in any sense, but the accounting stops as shown by several verses: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.” (2Cor.5.10) The time on earth in the body is the designated probationary scope. Otherwise, the righteous just keep getting more righteous after death!
Rev. 20.12 sets the judgment scene and limits it to the record while on earth: “And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books.” Again, a running record doesn’t seem to be spoken of and therefore the judging pertains only to actions (whether good or bad), omissions, words, etc., done during the earthly life.