Is hell fair?

Hell is Real

(image courtesy ClipArt)

By Spencer D Gear

Bertrand Russell, the atheistic British philosopher, was no friend of the biblical doctrine of hell. His provocative, penetrating, and blasphemous words were:

There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ’s moral character, and that is that He believed in hell. I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment. Christ certainly as depicted in the Gospels did believe in everlasting punishment, and one does find repeatedly a vindictive fury against those people who would not listen to His preaching — an attitude which is not uncommon with preachers, but which does somewhat detract from superlative excellence. You do not, for instance find that attitude in Socrates….

You will find that in the Gospels Christ said, “Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of Hell”…. I really do not think that a person with a proper degree of kindliness in his nature would have put fears and terrors of that sort into the world….

I must say that I think all this doctrine, that hell-fire is a punishment for sin, is a doctrine of cruelty. It is a doctrine that put cruelty into the world and gave the world generations of cruel torture; and the Christ of the Gospels, if you could take Him as His chroniclers represent Him, would certainly have to be considered partly responsible for that (Russell 1996)

The Bertrand Russell Society gives these details about Russell: ‘Bertrand Arthur William Russell [3rd Earl] (18 May 1872 – 2 February 1970).[1] Russell lived to be 97 years of age. It was he who said, ‘When I die, I shall rot, and nothing of my ego will survive’ (Russell 1967:47).

A.  Eternal punishment for temporal sin is unfair?

However, it is not unusual in conversation with Christian believers to hear some object to eternal punishment in hell for the wicked. I encountered this on a Christian forum with a fellow who wrote:

The ultimate sin, it is said, is to reject a relationship with Christ. But hell punishes a bad choice made over a finite lifetime for eternity, for no chance of parole.

Yes, I understand that God “cannot tolerate sin” and that God’s love also requires judgment. Isn’t it a contradiction, however, to speak of God’s infinite, unchanging love while simultaneously talking about casting sinners into the pits of hell for all eternity?

Sorry…that doesn’t make much sense to me.[2]

My initial response was,[3]

I don’t find any inconsistency in God’s treatment of sinners. Why? It’s because God is the absolutely fair, absolutely just/righteous, absolutely good, absolutely holy God. When we stand before him, we will not be able to announce to him, “God you were unfair in your treatment of me, the sinner. You don’t have a clue about doing what is right for the sinner”. Those kinds of thoughts will not enter my mind because they are based on my puny, limited, finite thinking.

I ask: Are there degrees of punishment in hell? I am convinced the answer to that question is, ‘Yes’.

This fellow’s comeback was, ‘If He’s “absolutely fair” (and I believe He is), then why plunge people into oblivion for all eternity for sins committed during a finite lifetime?’[4]

The following is my reply to him:[5]

I’m of the view that this matter rises or falls on (1) our understanding of the eternal attribute of God, (2) the nature of human beings, and (3) whether or not we think the human soul lives forever. If our souls are not eternal, then sins do not have eternal consequences. They are temporary. But that is not the case.

The reality is that we are beings who live forever. We are made for an eternal relationship with God, who is the eternal Being. Therefore to sin against the eternal God, reject his overtures to us, has eternal consequences.

My understanding is that when we think of sins as being temporal and not having eternal consequences, then we begin to think that eternal hell is unfair.

When I understand the eternal nature of sins, and the eternal attribute of the One against whom I sin, I understand why Jesus’ sacrifice for sin was the necessary sacrifice. Is it fair that the eternal Son of God had to be sacrificed for temporal sins? That’s the wrong question. The eternal Son of God was sacrificed on the cross because sin has eternal consequences.

Hebrew 7:27 states, ‘He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself’ (ESV).

B.  Eternal punishment in hell is fair

So the reason why eternal punishment in hell is fair is because:

(1) Of the nature of God,

(2) The nature of human beings, and

(3) The eternal consequences for human sin against the eternal God.

God is absolutely just and always does what is fair and righteous. That’s why the consequence for sin for the unregenerate is eternal.

See Michael Houdmann’s article, How is eternity in hell a fair punishment for sin?

Another wrote, ‘That’s [i.e. eternal hell] something they invented that it was eternal to scare the people. It’s more like a washing machine, like the Jews taught before this was invented’.[6]

How should one reply to this kind of serious allegation?[7]

I asked, ‘Are you saying that Jesus invented eternal punishment to scare people?’ It was he who stated:

“And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matt 25:46 ESV).

The word aiwnios (eternal) is the very same word associated with punishment as with eternal life. Therefore, eternal punishment is as long as eternal life will be. What’s the meaning of aiwnios?

This fellow made a serious allegation when he said that ‘that’s something they invented … to scare people’ because he was accusing Jesus of doing that.

Why doesn’t he accept what the Scriptures state? He seems to be inventing his own theology that avoids eternal punishment. Eternal punishment is the teaching of Jesus.

Somebody had the audacity to state,

No Augustine, before him they didn’t preach eternal damnation.

Did it ever occur to you that the reason people don’t believe this is that they reach out to atheists, who fell off their faith primarily because of eternal hell preaching and people doubting their faith because of the concept of eternal hell which isn’t even Biblical?

Plain reading of the mistranslated text leads to it, not plain reading of the original.[8]

I responded:[9]

My, oh my!! I do wish that you would read the Church Fathers and accurately report what they believed about hell. Before Augustine there were definitely church fathers who believed in the hell of eternal punishment.

Please take a read of this summary of material in the article, The Early Church Fathers on Hell.

I pray that you will report accurately what the Church Fathers BEFORE Augustine truly believed, instead of providing us with this misrepresentation.

The response was rather disjointed and called on some rather controversial resources:

Sorry, could be, but I don’t care what church fathers say, most of them were antisemites anyway, I care about what the jews before that taught and what the Bible teaches.

I read this:

Matthew 25:46 In the original Greek it says kolasin aionion, which is the opposite of eternal torture. The pharisees taught eternal torture and used timorion aidion.

Greek used timoria for a revenge punishment and kolasis for a correction punishment.

If Jesus meant eternal torture He would have used timorion aidion or timorion ateleutelon, just like the Pharisees who did believe in eternal torture. aionios comes from the Hebrew olam, which is an undefined period.

Augustine wrote that most christians in his time believed in universalism, which he rejected.

Justinianus (482 – 565) forced the church to teach eternal damnation, which lead to translators in the Middle Ages translating aionos with eternal, which wasn’t so in the time of Justinianos.[10]

How should I counter?[11]

You actually do care what the church fathers believed. Your writing on this forum confirms your view when you stated: ‘No Augustine, before him they didn’t preach eternal damnation’.

I was responding to what you wrote about those who were ‘before him’, i.e. the church fathers who were before Augustine.

The facts are that there were church fathers before Justinianus who believed in eternal damnation. Thus, I seriously question your statement that Justinianus ‘forced the church to teach eternal damnation’. That is not the case. You seem to be creating your own view of things – perhaps fed by some others of like persuasion.

Arndt & Gingrich’s Greek lexicon studied aiwnios from the time of the Septuagint and concluded that it means ‘eternal’ and in many passages, including Matt. 25:46, it means ‘without end … eternal life’ (Arndt & Gingrich 1957:28).

Seems as though you are trying to promote another agenda.

This person replied:

No I read this and believe it now, well, not 100% sure when I read this comment. I don’t know much about church history and not enough about this theory, just read this what I translated here and more on forums and also from a theologian and Sadhu Sundhar Singh saw it.

There are texts like with the Pharisees that will not be forgiven in this age or the age to come and others will, for Sodom judgement would be more bearable (sic), he who knew not what his Master wanted will be punished less. Doesn’t sound like one eternal hell for everyone.[12]

It is pleasing to see that a person will admit his lack of knowledge in this area. But this didn’t stop her from spruiking her lack of knowledge in the area.[13]

1.  St Augustine on eternal punishment

Eminent early church father, St Augustine, in his prominent production, City of God, wrote:

“But eternal punishment seems hard and unjust to human perceptions, because in the weakness of our mortal condition there is wanting that highest and purest wisdom by which it can be perceived how great a wickedness was committed in that first transgression” (The City of God, Book 21, chapter 12).

St Augustine continues concerning eternal life and eternal punishment and one of the passages we are discussing, Matt 25:46 (ESV):

They who desire to be rid of eternal punishment ought to abstain from arguing against God, and rather, while yet there is opportunity, obey the divine commands. Then what a fond fancy is it to suppose that eternal punishment means long continued punishment, while eternal life means life without end, since Christ in the very same passage spoke of both in similar terms in one and the same sentence, These shall go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into life eternal! Matthew 25:46 If both destinies are “eternal”, then we must either understand both as long-continued but at last terminating, or both as endless. For they are correlative—on the one hand, punishment eternal, on the other hand, life eternal. And to say in one and the same sense, life eternal shall be endless, punishment eternal shall come to an end, is the height of absurdity. Wherefore, as the eternal life of the saints shall be endless, so too the eternal punishment of those who are doomed to it shall have no end (The City of God, Book 21, Chapter 23).

Human perceptions are hard to take in light of the reality proclaimed by Jesus himself in Matt 25:46 (NLT), ‘And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous will go into eternal life’.

2.  Norman Geisler on everlasting punishment

Systematic theologian and apologist, Dr Norman Geisler, further confirms this position:

If destruction did mean “annihilation” when used of the unbeliever’s post-death state, it would not be “everlasting” destruction, for annihilation is instantaneous; annihilation does not stretch over a long period of time, let alone forever, but only takes an instant and then is over. If someone undergoes everlasting destruction, then they must have an everlasting existence. (Analogously, just as the cars in a junkyard have been destroyed but are not annihilated – they are beyond repair or irredeemable – so the people in hell are not extinguished but are simply irredeemable and irreparable) [Geisler 2005:396, emphasis in original].

I’m sticking with Jesus’ firm word on Matt 25:46 (ESV) – with sound support from St Augustine of Hippo and Norman Geisler – that eternal punishment for unbelievers is as long as eternal life for the believers. Trying to interpret from a contemporary Western perspective or using an emotional response doesn’t stack up with the biblical evidence.

C.  What’s the meaning of aiwnios in Greek?


(image courtesy ChristArt)

My response was rather pointed![14] And you trust a link to a website that is titled ‘Evangelical Universalist’.[15] Anyone who tries to defend universalism is not promoting biblical Christianity. It is an oxymoron to use the language of ‘evangelical universalist’.

Arndt & Gingrich’s Greek lexicon studied aiwnios from the time of the Septuagint and concluded that it means ‘eternal’ and in many passages, including Matt. 25:46, it means ‘without end … eternal life’ (Arndt & Gingrich 1957:28). This is an authoritative Greek dictionary (lexicon), yet you seek your definition from one who claims to be an ‘evangelical universalist’. Why, oh why do you do this?

If you wanted to understand an English word, would you go to a strange unrelated source, or would you go to an English dictionary for an accurate definition? I urge you to go to an authoritative Greek dictionary like Arndt & Gingrich to determine the meaning of aiwnios (eternal, without end).

I made a further response:[16]

However, you stated at #96, ‘I don’t know much about church history and not enough about this theory’.

I suggest that you are digging yourself into a theological hole for which you don’t have an exegetical ladder to get out – based on your own statement about your lack of knowledge in this area.

This person replied to my question, ‘Why, oh why do you do this?’ with this content that revealed her ignorance, ‘‘Euhm, when I have a question I ask google. Thanks for the tip to not trust anything.’[17] My reply should be predictable to her and others:[18]

Do you know what that means? Since when was Google an authoritative source for the Greek language? It may lead you to an authoritative source if you know the source you look for AND it is available on Google.

Would you please direct me to a website that contains the entire Arndt & Gingrich Greek lexicon that is available free to all Internet users? However, to read Arndt & Gingrich, you’ll need to be able to read the Greek words. I recommend that you be more discerning about the sources that you quote when trying to understand the meaning of a Greek word in the Greek New Testament. Using a search engine such as Google or Bing will not help you do that automatically.

Google is a wonderful and powerful search engine. It is the primary search engine I use for surfing the Internet. But its work is to search for sites. Its job is not to be an authoritative source for what it finds. What it finds is only as accurate as the information fed into it by a user. It is the user’s responsibility to assess the credibility of the content of what Google finds.

This is a sad situation where a woman is replying to topics on an Internet forum and she is right out of her depth.

Also recommended

See my other articles on hell:

clip_image001What is the nature of death according to the Bible?

clip_image001[1]2 Thessalonians 1:9: Eternal destruction;

clip_image001[2]Hell & Judgment;

clip_image001[3]Hell in the Bible;

clip_image001[4]Should we be punished for our sins?

clip_image001[5]Paul on eternal punishment;

clip_image001[6]Where will unbelievers go at death?

clip_image001[7]Torment in Old Testament hell? The meaning of Sheol in the OT;

clip_image001[8]Eternal torment for unbelievers when they die;

clip_image001[9]Will you be ready when your death comes?

clip_image001[10]What happens at death for believer and unbeliever?

clip_image001[11]Does eternal destruction mean annihilation for unbelievers at death?

clip_image001[12]Refutation of Seventh-Day Adventist doctrine of what happens at death;

clip_image001[13]Near-death experiences are not all light: What about the dark experiences?

Works consulted

Geisler, N 2005. Systematic theology: Church, Last things, vol 4. Minneapolis, Minnesota: BethanyHouse.

Russell, B 1967. Why I Am Not a Christian. London: Unwin Books.

Russell, B 1996. J R Lenz (ed), Why I am not a Christian (online).[19] Madison NJ: Drew University, available at: (Accessed 20 October 2013).


[1] The Bertrand Russell Society, available at: (Accessed 20 October 2013).

[2] Ringo84, #82, Christian Forums, General Theology, Hamartiology, ‘Is hell fair?’, available at: (Accessed 11 October 2013).

[3] OzSpen#83, ibid.

[4] Ringo84, #84, ibid.

[5] OzSpen#88, ibid.

[6] Messy#85, ibid.

[7] With the following, I responded as OzSpen#89, ibid.

[8] Messy#90, ibid.

[9] OzSpen#91,

[10] Messy#92, ibid.

[11] OzSpen#93, ibid.

[12] Messy#96, ibid.

[13] See Messy #97, #99, ibid.

[14] OzSpen#100, ibid.

[15] This was in response to a link provided at Messy#99, ibid, to: (Accessed 11 October 2013).

[16] OzSpen#103, ibid.

[17] Messy#101,

[18] OzSpen#104, ibid.

[19] At the beginning of this article, it was stated: ‘Introductory note: Russell delivered this lecture on March 6, 1927 to the National Secular Society, South London Branch, at Battersea Town Hall. Published in pamphlet form in that same year, the essay subsequently achieved new fame with Paul Edwards’ edition of Russell’s book, Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays … (1957)’.


Copyright © 2013 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 14 April 2018.