The view that hell is eternal conscious torment creates several problems in regard to divine justice. One is that, in the ECT version of hell, justice is never fully or finally accomplished. Another is that it relies on an understanding of justice that does not derive from the Bible but from medieval feudalism. A third problem is that the justice of God revealed through Christ is restorative but ECT is not.
Justice is Never Fully or Finally Done in ECT Hell
Proponents of Eternal Conscious Torment have often explained that since God is infinite in nature, then offenses against him, though they may happen in a brief moment in time, are infinite in nature and therefore must be punished infinitely, or eternally. But if they must be punished endlessly then there is never a point at which justice will ever be accomplished. It will be eternally incomplete, for there will always be more punishment to be endured.
God’s Justice is Not Feudal Justice
Of course, the idea that offenses against an infinite God require infinite or eternal punishment raises another problem. In the law God established in the Old Testament, punishment for an offense was based upon the offense itself and never upon the prestige of the person who was offended. Rich and poor were to be treated alike, regardless of the status of the offender or of the offended. There was no greater penalty for sinning against a rich man than there was for sinning against a poor man. To base punishment upon the status of the person who was offended, whether rich or poor, would not have been considered justice but injustice. The idea that punishment should be based on the status of the offended is a feudal idea, not a biblical one. So too, then, the idea that offenses against an infinite God require infinite or eternal punishment is not a biblical one.
God’s Justice is Restorative, ECT is Not
A third problem is that the justice God has revealed in Jesus Christ is restorative, not retributive. But the Eternal Conscious Torment view of hell is the opposite: retributive, not restorative. Paul shows how God’s righteousness, which is the same thing as God’s justice, is addressed through Christ and his cross.
But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood — to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished — he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:21-26)Christ did not come so that retribution might be satisfied, nor was the cross God’s retribution upon him, or on us. But Christ came for the purpose of redemption, to deliver all from the power of sin, so that all might be justified — reckoned fit for fellowship with God and his people. In the cross, God refrained from punishment and retribution so that there might be restoration. That is the righteousness and justice of God.
God’s Purpose in Christ: Reconciliation
God’s purpose revealed in Christ is to reconcile all things in heaven and on earth to himself through him (Colossians 1:20), “to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ” (Ephesians 1:10), so that God may be “all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28).
The ECT view, however, does not allow God’s purpose to be ever be fulfilled, for the one who is being punished eternally is never finally reconciled to God and brought into unity with all things in heaven and on earth, and God will always be something less than all in all. But Paul affirms that in the end God will be “all in all.”
Eternal Conscious Torment, then, does not measure up to the justice of God but falls short in significant ways. The Annihilationist view also falls short because it supposes that, after an indeterminate season of suffering, the wicked will be utterly destroyed, and so never finally reconciled to God and restored to unity with creation.
The Restorationist view, which I believe is indicated by the Scriptures I have cited above (see Hell and the Restoration of All Things), seems to me the only view that adequately addresses God’s stated purpose. If God’s purpose is truly to reconcile all things in heaven and on earth to himself through Christ, this does not mean that there is no hell or no judgment, or that there is no need for repentance and faith, but it suggests that the purpose of hell and judgment is not endless torment but to turn the soul back to God through faith in Christ.