Q. We know the price that Jesus paid for sin. He experienced horrible physical suffering and rejection by His own people. But that pales in comparison to Jesus’ separation from the Father as He became sin for us. He cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” If those without Christ will spend eternity separated from a loving God, and if one could measure this eternal suffering for millions of lost souls (such a horrible thought), would it really be less than the suffering of our dying Savior on the cross? (I realize that these lost souls would not be paying for sin—Jesus paid it all—but they would be left out of heaven because of their unforgiven sins, the greatest sin being rejecting Christ.) This comparison leads me to believe that those who say we either accept God’s offer in Christ for the forgiveness of our sins or pay for our sins in eternal torment are wrong. What do you think?
Thank you for this heartfelt and compassionate question. I’ve shared some reflections on the issue of eternal torment earlier on this blog, in a three-part series entitled, “Is hell a place of never-ending punishment?” I’d invite you to read it to help answer your question; it starts with this post. But you’re also raising a further issue that I don’t address in that series, so let me speak to it here, after briefly summarizing how I leave things there.
What I explain in my series is that people who believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God hold different opinions about what happens after this life to those who accept or reject God’s gracious offer of reconciliation through Jesus. Some believe that all are raised to everlasting life, and that those who have accepted God’s offer will live forever in his presence, while those who have rejected this offer will live forever away from his presence. Others believe instead in what’s sometimes called “conditional immortality.” You only live forever if you accept God; if you don’t, your punishment is annihilation: you cease to exist.
My conclusion at the end of the series is that the biblical data does not present a simple, straightforward picture of “hell” as a place of never-ending punishment for those who reject God. The picture is complicated, and readers of the Bible must understand the Hebrew and Greek terms and ideas behind our English translations in order to reach the most informed conclusion possible about this issue. In these posts, I try to provide useful good background to these terms and ideas to help people in their reflections.
But your question, as I’ve already observed, raises a further issue. If the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross is supposed to be sufficient to pay for all the sins of the world, then wouldn’t we expect the sufferings of Jesus on the cross also to be greater than the sufferings of the world, in some such way as to overcome them as well? Jesus’ sufferings were certainly of a unique intensity. Crucifixion was specifically developed by the Persians and the Romans to be the most agonizing death possible. And as you said, for the Son to be separated from the Father after enjoying unbroken eternal fellowship was probably a level of emotional, relational, and spiritual suffering greater than we can imagine.
Still, would these sufferings outweigh the eternal torment of millions of souls? Since we can’t imagine that they would, shouldn’t we conclude that there will actually not be eternal torments?
Let me say first that I don’t picture God deriving any satisfaction or pleasure from the sufferings of people who reject his gracious offer of salvation. Instead, I envision God deeply grieved to see people experiencing the consequences of their choice against him.
I’d also add that we don’t get a consistent picture from the Bible of people suffering specific physical torments in hell. It’s sometimes called “outer darkness” and sometimes called a place where “the fire is never quenched.” It’s hard to see how it can be both at the same time, literally. So I believe that these are actually word pictures that point to the spiritual reality of hell: it’s a place where separation from God leads to isolation, disorientation, confusion, decay, disintegration, and the like—everything opposite to the order, harmony, clarity, and growth that characterize life in fellowship with God.
In other words, as you also observe, the worst thing about hell is what it represents by definition: separation from God. However, ironically, I don’t believe that this will constitute suffering for the people who are their by their own choice. If you’ve decided that you don’t want to be with God, then you don’t mind not being with God. But this only means, tragically, that you don’t know what you’re missing. You think that looking out only for yourself in a world of broken relationships is normal. You think you’re just fine—in fact, you’re one of the best people who’s ever lived—just the way you are, and so you miss out on the transformation you could experience through personal and spiritual growth. And so forth.
One corollary of my understanding of this issue is this: “No one will be in hell who doesn’t want to be there.” I simply can’t imagine God keeping a repentant person forever out of his presence by saying, “Sorry, you had your chance on earth and you didn’t take it, too late now. I realize you would have accepted me if you’d known then what you know now, but too bad, that’s just how it works.” I can’t give you all the details for how God might extend a welcome to someone after their death, because I don’t believe the Bible tells us enough about that for us to come to any firm conclusion. But I think we have hints of it in passages like the one in 1 Peter that says Jesus “went and preached to the spirits who were in prison” and the one in Ephesians that says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives.”
(I should specify that I’m not necessarily a universalist; I don’t assume that everybody will sooner or later accept God’s salvation. I think human freedom is so radical that the possibility always remains open that some will continue to choose against God. But I do believe that God’s offer of salvation is universal, open to everybody. As Peter writes in his second letter, God is “not willing that any should perish,” and so I don’t think that God ever gives up on anybody.)
But my final observation has to be most directly about your main point: I don’t actually think that Jesus’ sufferings on the cross need to outweigh all human sufferings, the way his sacrifice needed to be great enough to pay for all human sin. Instead, the Bible encourages Jesus’ followers themselves to “fill up . . . what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church” (in other words, for those who already believe in him and for those who will come to believe in him). The reign of God—the sphere in which God’s will is done without resistance—advances in the world through suffering. Jesus’ followers, who now constitute his body on earth, are called to join in his sufferings so that God’s reign can continue to spread.
In other words, while Jesus’ sacrifice was indeed once-for-all (“Jesus paid it all,” as you say), Jesus’ sufferings continue to this day through his body (the community of his followers) and as they do, the effects of what he accomplished on the cross become a reality in more and more people’s lives. We who are his followers are not “saving” others ourselves through our sufferings, but we are serving as channels through which Jesus’ salvation spreads.
I hope this is helpful!