I was recently asked about the theology behind punishment in Hell. The question was basically, is someone punished in Hell because they rejected the Gospel of Jesus, or is it sin in general. In this article I attempt to give a Biblical response to the theology behind punishment in Hell.
At this point someone could say it seems clear that Hell is the punishment for rejecting God’s only Son, Jesus Christ. They could reference verses such as Revelation 20:15 which alludes to the reason people are cast into eternal Hell is because their names are not found in the Lamb’s Book of Life. The Lamb’s Book of Life is the record of those who are the Lord’s through faith and repentance in Jesus Christ. So logically, they could say, Hell is the punishment for those who reject Christ. But this answer does not go far enough according to the Bible.
As we saw earlier, we can describe the wicked as being the unrighteous based upon Jesus’ teachings in Matthew 25:41-46. So if the unrighteous are the ones who go to Hell, then Hell we can also say is the punishment of unrighteousness. Biblically speaking, the rejection of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior does not make one unrighteous. So it would seem that it must be for another reason that one is cast into Hell.
Paul teaches us that every person who ever lived, except for Jesus Christ, is under sin (Romans 3:9). He goes on to say that, “there is none righteous, not even one” (Rom 3:10). Reading the rest of Romans 3:9-18, Paul presses the point that everyone is under the penalty of sin according to God’s Law, and no one by nature seeks after God and His righteousness. Since Adam’s fall we inherited his sinful nature being his offspring. Just as a baby inherits certain physical traits and DNA from father and mother, so we too inherit the sinful traits (nature) of our original father and mother (Adam & Eve). This means we come from the womb being a sinner, or unrighteous before God (Psalm 51:5; 58:3; Ephesians 2:3). So all humanity stands condemned and already awaiting their just fate in Hell.
Since the Bible is clear that every human is by nature an unrighteous person living under the condemnation and judgment of God (John 3:18; Ephesians 2:1-3), then Hell is the punishment of unrighteousness (or sin). God through His mercy sent Jesus to die for those who would believe upon Him. In the book of Acts we see the Apostles preaching this Gospel to people as a command that they believe upon Jesus (Acts 2:38; 17:30, 31). So at its basic element, the Gospel message is a command for sinful people to repent and believe upon Jesus Christ. For people to disobey this command by rejecting Jesus Christ is a sin against God.
Paul says elsewhere, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). This we can say is the sum of all sin. All sin is ultimately a denial of the glory and honor due to the God who created us and gave us the breath of life. Paul says in Romans 1:18-32 that even though a person may not be told about Jesus Christ, they are still condemned and judged by God. This is because God has left ample testimony about Himself within their consciousness and in the created order. Yet because of the wickedness within man, they suppress God’s truth and seek their own sinfulness denying God His honor & glory due Him.
God must judge all unrighteousness or else He would no longer be a holy and righteous God, because sin impugns His glory and holiness. From these verses and the explanations given above, we can conclude that Hell is the punishment of sin (an affront to the glory and honor of holy God) and not specifically the rejection of Jesus Christ (which is also a sin itself). Hell is for the punishment of the unrighteous, or wicked. Every human is by nature an unrighteous or wicked person. For a person to reject Jesus Christ is for them to simply add on another sin to their already sinful lifestyle because the Gospel is a command to be obeyed, so even the rejection of the Gospel is a sin. Therefore we can conclude that Hell is the punishment of all sin and unrighteousness, including the rejection of Jesus but not exclusively for the rejection of Jesus. Hell is ultimately the punishment for the unrighteous who have fallen short of God’s glory and honor due him because of their sinfulness (Romans 3:23; 6:23).