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God would not be party to anything as sordid as torture; Christians can agree on that. However, theologians are divided about how eternal judgment is not tantamount to such.

Two competing answers are proposed: (1) Yes, hell involves eternal pain inflicted on the unsaved, but this should not be regarded as gratuitous, unjust, or cruel; and (2) the final judgment will not involve eternal, conscious torment as has been traditionally assumed, and this misreading of biblical teaching needs modification. Both sides raise legitimate concerns worth careful consideration.

The first position is the view of most Christians. It argues that people commonly underestimate the appropriate punishment for defying an infinitely holy God. When human rebellion wrecked God's original good design, God undertook, at great cost, to restore humans to a loving relationship with himself. Those who spurn God's love deserve their eternal destiny, justly suffering the pain of God's wrath.

Of course, God alone has the right to execute this type of sentence. And God gets no sadistic enjoyment from pain he inflicts (Ezek. 18:23, 32). In righteousness and justice, God exacts deadly retribution for wickedness on those not under the blood atonement of Christ.

Other Christians argue that God would never be so seemingly punitive or vicious. They say the Bible's imagery occasionally reflects vindictive presuppositions of ancient cultures, but no one should take this imagery literally. Since rejection of God's love is reprehensible, they say, God will ultimately (and here the answers vary): overcome all evil and all resistance (universalism), destroy all evil (annihilationism), or inflict only as much pain as is necessary to extract repentance, leaving only the incorrigibly ...

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Three Models of Hell
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February 2007

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