If the title of this scares you, it’s probably because this term has been used to manipulate for so long by casting our all-loving Father into the role of a vengeful, almost maniacal, being. I was always made to fear this expression, most likely to uphold a conformity based religious performance.
So what can everlasting punishment mean if not what we’ve so often been told as burning forever and ever in hell?
This is something I wondered about for a very long time and God helped me understand this from his perspective of everlasting love and his will being fulfilled in the end (Col 1:19-20).
The first thing I came to better understand was the word everlasting. What could this mean other than continuing on and on without end? I pondered this for some time asking myself and God how he could be so cruel as to create humans that he knew would suffer forever. This didn’t quite jive with the claim of an all-loving Father.
As I began to research this more, I saw the word originally seemed to modify what it was explaining. In this case, the word punishment (I’ll get to that in a minute). In another case, it modifies the word life, as in everlasting life. I don’t want to go through all the iterations but I encourage looking into the original word meanings. For brevity’s sake, I’ll state that I personally came to believe the word everlasting, as it refers to punishment, means that it will last as long as we make it last. For example, in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, the rich man was still presenting himself as being superior to Lazarus, who was at father Abraham’s side in paradise, by ordering him to do his bidding. Even so, it seems his heart was being changed as he was now concerned with the fate of his brothers still living.
So, if everlasting could mean “age during/age of,” or in other words, a time of punishment, then what does the word punishment mean?
The first question to ask would be: Is punishment for God’s benefit or ours? That being, is God’s punishment to sooth his anger towards us or to correct our actions? Is God so fickle that he has to torture us forever?
Any loving parent wouldn’t punish their child just to appease their own anger. God, being infinitely patient with us, his children, likewise has no need to punish us to appease his anger. Punishment is a corrective action for our benefit.
Another situation that drove this point a little further home for me is as follows:
I was at a gathering with a family who had got a new outside dog. The dog kept wanting to come in the house but wasn’t allowed. The husband stated, “If I pop him on the nose one good time, he’ll know not to try to come in again.” As I thought about this, I realized this would have been an “everlasting punishment.” Now, this isn’t exactly how I would view God’s corrective actions towards us, but the principle here is a corrective action meant to permanently end the dog’s stubborn insistence on getting his way on his terms.
Likewise, fire is presented more as a purifying means of burning away our stubbornness and anything else that would be unfit to enter into heaven.
For example, In Daniel 7:9-10, fire is explained as flowing from The Throne. If this corrective fire comes from God, and God is love, wouldn’t this be a means of purifying us? Further, we see Zechariah and Peter talking about God using fire as a purifying agent, just like it is used to burn away the impurities in silver and gold. Some may go through these fires in this life by following Jesus, others in the next.
All of these are my personal opinions and how I’ve come to experience living with God. You can take what is beneficial to your walk or throw it all out. However, is the good news really good news if it has to be sold under threat of eternal punishment?