Is eternal punishment really “eternal”?

Is it true that once a person has made his (or her) decision to reject God and not accept Jesus’ sacrifice on their behalf, there is no going back? Once that decision is made, will they burn in hell forever?

The answer from Scripture is a resounding “No” – on both counts. No, first of all, their decision isn’t final, and No, secondly, they will not burn in hell forever. No decision of ours is final, because that would mean our salvation depends on our ability to choose rightly. But all of us have sinned, so clearly we don’t have the ability to choose rightly. It’s only because the Father draws us to Christ and reconciles us to himself through the gospel of Jesus’ death and resurrection that we respond to God at all.

Fortunately, Jesus did all the deciding, accepting, confessing, repenting and trusting necessary for our salvation for us. That’s why he’s called our Mediator, because he’s already bridged the gap between us and God. Our decisions, then, are irrelevant to our future, because through Christ’s actions on our behalf we’re already saved.

But if Jesus has already saved everyone, what’s the point of hell? If it’s not punishment for making a wrong decision, what is it for instead? It’s for all those who won’t believe the above, that Christ in his death and resurrection saves us completely. They believe, instead, that their salvation depends on something they must do – which is a terrible hell in itself, because you never know if what you’re doing is enough to earn salvation. Or they believe they’re above the need for Christ’s death and resurrection. They’re fine as they are.

And nothing makes God more angry than humans not believing, or not taking seriously, what his Son has done to save and heal us from the ravages of sin. It breaks his heart because life is hell for us. But so many people carry on completely oblivious to the state they’re in, so God has various forms of hell to wake us up, like handing people over to Satan (1 Corinthians 5:3), or facing us with who we really are (Hebrews 4:12-13). And that hell will continue for as long as it’s needed. It’s never burning in hell forever in agony, though, because how does that save and heal someone?

God’s anger is never forever, either (Psalm 103:8-10). God’s patience with us is unlimited, because his purpose is to see us all saved. Sometimes it takes a dose of hell to make it happen, though. To those experiencing that hell it may seem like it’s “eternal,” but it’s only temporary and it’s meant to save, not destroy.

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