Do the residents of hell continue sinning endlessly?

When evil is ultimately and finally vanquished, sinful acts and sinful hearts will nowhere be found. (Bawulski, “Reconciliationism,” 133)

I can think of no doctrine that troubles Christians as much as hell. Many of us wish that universalism were true, but Scripture convinces us otherwise. Perhaps traditionalists (those who believe that hell entails endless conscious punishment) feel the weight of objections to this doctrine more than annihilationists do, but even they frequently voice a wish that universalism were the truth, even though the thought that the wicked are finally destroyed, in both body and soul seems easier to live with than the conviction that the wicked are endlessly punished, or tormented.

I think that one of the more difficult challenges for proponents of the traditional view to answer has been the question of proportionality between the sins committed and the divine punishment received for those sins. The question is often put like this: “How can God justly punish with infinite severity the finite number of sins committed by finite creatures?”  Two responses seem particularly common: (1) that the purportedly disproportionate penalty must be assessed, not on the basis of the finitude of the sinners, but in terms of the infinitude of the One against whom they sinned; and (2) that the endlessness of God’s punishing of the wicked is justified by the endlessness of their sinning. Having been consigned to hell, it is frequently asserted, sinners continue to rebel against God endlessly, thereby justifying the endlessness of their sentence to judgment.

Shawn Bawulski

I have used the second argument myself on occasion, having heard it often and found it helpful. So I read with interest Shawn Bawulski’s rejection of this idea, in favor of reconciliationism (in “Reconciliationism, A Better View of Hell: Reconciliationism and Eternal Punishment,” JETS 56/1 [March 2013]:123-38).

Put succinctly, reconciliationism is the view that all sinning ceases in the eternal state, and in some sense the reprobate participate in the cosmic reconciliation of all things to God: they are reconciled, not salvifically but in and through punishment. They do not experience the divine presence of blessing, but instead experience punishment, loss, shame, humiliation, pain, suffering, subjection, and lucidity of their wrongdoing and of God’s holiness and justice. They are defeated rebels, no longer able to continue in rebellion. They acquiescently accept their judgment and in so doing glorify God, under and through punishment praising him for his justice, an ability brought by the lucidity of God’s right and their wrong. This view embraces a universal and cosmic reconciliation of all things to God: the finally impenitent are part of a restored divine order not by receiving salvation but by their subjection and punishment. (124)

The notion of continuing sin finds little, if any, biblical support

Bawulski acknowledges that the idea of continuing sin has been “common in traditionalism” But he posits that it has “at best scant and speculative biblical support.” (In this regard he shares Henri Blocher’s objection, in Nigel Cameron, ed. Universalism and the Doctrine of Hell: Papers Presented at the Fourth Edinburgh Conference in Christian Dogmatics, 1991, 301.) The verse which might most obviously be taken as supporting continuing sin is Mark 3:29, where Jesus states that one who blasphemes the Holy Spirit “is guilty of an eternal sin.” But Bawulski posits that this “is more naturally understood as describing guilt that remains than perpetual sinning, especially considering the context of the verse and its synoptic parallels” (134).

D. A. Carson is one of the few scholars who has proposed exegetical support for continuing sin. He calls the view “probable,” though “hard to prove” (The Gagging of God, 533, as cited by Bawulski, 134), and he appeals to Rev 16:21 and 22:10-11. I had written a fairly detailed account of Bawulski’s argument against Carson’s case, but I have decided that this blog post is not a good place for that discussion, so I simply refer anyone who has an interest in it to pages 134-36 of Bawulski’s article. (Don’t you just hate it when you waste time like that while working on a writing project?)

The problem of endless cosmological dualism

From a broader biblical and systematic theological perspective, more significant than the lack of individual texts teaching that the wicked continue to sin forever in hell is the problem that this view connotes an endless dualism. Henri Blocher puts his finger on this defect:

The theory of sin forever flourishing ignores the message of Christ’s perfect victory over sin and all evil. Every knee shall bow and every tongue confess . . . (Phil 2:10f), those of the lost included. It cannot mean mere outward, hypocritcal and forced agreement; what sense could there be in any outward show in the light of that Day, when all the secrets shall be exposed (Rom 2:16), before the God who is Spirit? Sinners are forced, then, to confess the truth, but they are forced by truth itself, by its overwhelming evidence and spiritual authority; they can no longer refuse to see, they cannot think otherwise . . . . Nothing could be farther removed from divine defeat and sin going on after divine judgment (in Cameron, Universalism, 303, cited by Bawulski, 137).

It is here that I found Bawulski’s work most fruitful, in regard to the notion of continuing sin in hell. Such an idea makes it impossible for us to make sense of the wonderful passages which speak of God’s final reconciliation with the entire cosmos. This is where the universalist proposal is most powerful. There we can easily see how it would be that God is reconciled with all of his creation, achieving a glorious time in which no rebels are found anywhere because all have repented of their rebellion and willingly submitted to God’s reign. Perfect peace ensues. Regrettably (if one dare say that of God’s clearly revealed truth), Scripture portrays “an eternal and more-or-less binary distinction between the righteous and the wicked that is actually realized. In other words, hell is populated” (Bawulski, 125). That is a constant feature in this present age, but it is finally and fully realized in the eschaton (Mt 25:31-46; Rev 20:10-15; 21:1-8).

Given this terrible revelation – that some of God’s moral creatures will never enjoy the kind of peace with God which Christ died to achieve for human beings – how  are we to understand the glorious statements that, in the end, God will be “all in all” (1 Cor 15:28), because Christ reconciled “to himself all things” (Col 1:20),  and because “at the name of Jesus every knee will bow – in heaven and on earth and under the earth – and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:10-11 NetB)?

To explain how this can be is the essence of “reconciliationism.” In this construct, God will be “all in all,” not because everyone is saved, but because the wicked participate by another means, that of their punishment and defeat. The time will come when no one in hell denies that God is victor, rightful Ruler of all he has created. Rebellion will be at an end. “Like the principalities and powers, the reprobate participate in the final reconciliation by way of conquest and pacification,” and Christ is the agent of this achievement, either through salvation or judgment (Mt 25:31-33; Jn 5:22, 27; Rev 19:11, 15) (Bawulski, 131). Whether by salvation or defeat, all things are brought under God’s rule and order. Everyone will eventually confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, the redeemed in loving adoration, and “the reprobate in subjection, shame, and defeat—not with contrived and insincere external lip service but as an expression of the internal recognition of the undeniable worth, goodness, and righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ” (Bawulski, 133).

In the case of the wicked, this will not be a confession growing out of repentance for past error. Rather, as Peter O’Brien points out, Phil 2:9-11 draws on Isa 45:20ff, “where the future reality of universal worship is an irrevocable truth (v. 23) and at the same time ‘all who have raged against him will come to him and be put to shame’ (v. 24)” (Philippians, 243, cited by Bawulski, 133).

Practical implications of reconciliationism

Bawulski grants that this reconciliationist construction will still leave us with questions, but I think that he sums up nicely its benefits:

It removes the troubling depictions of hell as a place where sin is eternally unbridled and wicked people and demons torment each other and themselves and replaces it with a place where God is supreme, a place where even the defeated have a positive role to play, if you will. It gives comfort for those who are suffering today, that evil will ultimately be completely eradicated and defeated. Finally, it pictures a final relationship between God and the totality of creation where the rift of sin is no longer. Even in eternal punishment, reconciliationism can say ‘in the end, God.’ (138)

Reflections on reconciliationism, with regard to the debate between traditionalists and annihilationists

Thanks to conversations in the Facebook group for Rethinking Hell and listening to a number of their podcasts, I have been pondering lately the relative merits of the traditional and annihilationist understandings of the final end of the wicked. I suspect that I’ll have more to say in this regard in future posts. As I reflected on Bawulski’s work, which is put forward as a version of the traditionalist perspective, I have been asking myself how his work might be useful also to annihilationists. Like traditionalists, they must respond to the universalist contention that only universal salvation will do justice to the biblical teaching regarding God’s final victory and his reconciliation with the entire cosmos.

From the universalist perspective, I doubt that either of the other two alternatives look to have any advantage over one another at this point. Whether the wicked are forever conscious of their defeat and live in shame, though not rebellion, or whether they are destroyed, body and soul, after being punished appropriately for the deeds done in this life, the victory by which God achieves reconciliation will look rather hollow to universalists.

I think that reconciliationism makes a helpful contribution to the traditionalist attempt to hold together both: the truth that some people never enjoy life with God on the new earth, and the truth that there will come a time when there is no active rebellion anywhere in God’s creation. Annihilationists may argue that their construct achieves this harmony of truths even more clearly, since a time will come when all those who were consigned to hell have ceased to exist personally. Being dead in every aspect of their being, and therefore lacking consciousness, their ability to rebel against God is forever a thing of the past.

But I can see one aspect of Bawulski’s proposal which annihilationists may want to appropriate. Most of the annihilationists I have “met” believe that the wicked experience a time of conscious punishment which varies in length, and perhaps in intensity, depending on their intentional sinfulness while on the earth. I can see how the reconciliationist reading of the final victory of God might give an annihilationist a helpful way of identifying the moment at which the final death comes to each being in hell. From this perspective, the time spent consciously in hell would be determined, not only by the gravity of the sins committed, but also by the ongoing refusal to acknowledge God’s rightful Kingship and Christ’s Lordship. In other words, God would not snuff out the life of anyone who had not reached the point of that kind of “reconciliation.” Only when a personal being reached that point, would God bring its life to an end.

I would not be surprised if annihilationists are still dissatisfied with the restorationist form of traditionalism, wondering if this might be a rather hollow victory for God that does not contribute significantly to his glory. Perhaps a paragraph from John Frame’s treatment of “God’s goodness” may be appropriate at this point:

There may be some ways, however, in which God is good even to the lost. Perhaps he is as good to them as he can possibly be, given their hatred of him and the demands of his justice. And if there are degrees of punishment in hell (as suggested by Luke 12:47-48), then, even in hell, God may exercise his benevolence by mitigating punishments. It may also be worth considering that in their very punishment in hell, God is giving a privilege to the lost—the privilege of displaying his justice and his victory in the spiritual war (cf. Rom 9:17). Those who find no benevolence in this privilege might be advised to consider whether their standards of goodness are sufficiently theocentric. (The Doctrine of God, 413; italics are mine).

This paragraph is in the context of Frame’s description of the various ways in which God is benevolent even to the wicked, throughout their lives, so it must not be read as the sum of his consideration of God’s goodness to unrepentant sinners. But, lest we wonder why God would keep alive those whom he has adequately punished and effectively subordinated, I think that Frame enunciates a perspective that contributes constructively to the total picture.


By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

8 replies on “Do the residents of hell continue sinning endlessly?”

I find this proposal to be a fruitful contribution to the overall conversation. It seems to at least offer some consolation of victory and reconciliation while maintaining justice against reprobation. Thanks for the food for thought.

Great Post.
Thank you for putting words to less articulate thoughts that I’ve had myself.

Just one question: If, then, the reprobate will not be “sinning” can they be said to be “loving God” and “loving their neighbour”?

Thank you for your excellent question, Chris. I started to answer it here but concluded that it needed wider consideration, so I have put my response in a blog post which you can read at your leisure and then pursue your question further in the comment thread there, if you wish.

There is no point in calling the default doctrine of Hell a “traditionalist” position, it is not a position, it is what Hell really is and one of the core aspects of Christianity just as the Trinity. Hell has always been eternal just like Heaven has always been eternal and this is the central theme throughout the entirety of scripture refering to the afterlife. Souls are immaterial and immortal by definition, they have a beginning at conception and they have no ending, this is also one of the common aspects of natural revelation that all civilizations acknowledge through history, alongside with the afterlife.

Now it is true that soul sleep and annihilationism are false doctrines and heresies that are advocated by cults such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seven Day Adventists which have very corrupted histories and almost no credibility, although Seven Day Adventists specific are very good for some other parts such as the Book of Daniel. It makes no sense in rejecting the existense of Hell even though it is a core aspect of the afterlife.

It is also true that universalism has a long history and is credible to some point since it is basically an addition to the doctrine of Hell by reconciling the punished humans to eternal life after some time without removing Hell as a place for Satan and his angels, although it kind of turns the function of Hell into Purgatory for the lost in the long term, and it diminisses the Cruxifixion of Jesus and the meaning of his sacrifice for our sins, if anyone can go to Heaven regardless of their actions, it sounds kind of wishful thinking in the end.

Conditional Immortality (a.k.a. annihilationism) is not a false doctrine. The judgment on the unrighteous IS eternal – they are eternally destroyed and miss out on eternal life. A number of early church fathers believed it and it has volumes more scriptural support than the traditional view (which I believed for all but the last 6 months of my Christian life). The immortality of the soul is from Plato, not the Bible (Jesus will only grant immortality to His followers). I summarized the biblical arguments I found in my recent deep investigation of conditional immortality in this short Google Doc: . As a non-demonational Protestant, I was highly reluctant to consider an alternate to my Traditional view on hell, but I would have had to ignore far too many scriptures once I actually started researching it to remain with that view.

Christian Universalism in no way diminishes the cross. To the contrary, it expands the sacrifice of Christ to cover all men eventually. Ie he is the savior of all men, especially those that believe on Him here. Ie God wills ALL men to be saved.

Christian Universalism states that all men will be saved THROUGH Christ’s sacrifice and not by their own works or by their punishment in hell.

Whether it’s true or not, I don’t know, but I hope it is. I hope that the last man in hell is eventually broken enough that he turns to Christ for forgiveness and in God’s love, it is granted.

There are certainly decent arguments for this but I wouldn’t teach it as doctrine or fully believe it until I see it.

Too many are following this belief and pushing homosexuality and other modern day sinful lifestyles for me to believe it’s from God. However, there were early Christians who believed this.

I’m still trying to find the passage in the Expositions on the book of Psalms where Augustine States clearly that sin ceases in hell. This is the logical conclusion of his pondering the implications of ex nihilo creation on the rest of doctrine. A creature created from nothing, turns back to nothing by turning away from his creator, so that’s in is the worst possible condition of man: annihilation. God’s answer to this clearly involves eternal the preservation of the creature, since all of his works are eternal (Eccl 3:11), and he will not allow sin to undo/annihilate them.
Also reasoning from ex nihilo creation, “Grace” is properly a metonymy which signifies that a self-existent God always acts gratuitously with regard to His creatures, having no obligation to them. Everything is gratuitous, including hell. “Saving Grace” itself is a problematic concept, especially in view of Isaiah 26:10, and “sola gratia” is an ambiguous concept, since God clearly only works gratuitously, but this is a mode and not a means. The practical application of this is that God’s favor is common to both the righteous and wicked, yet the favor of giving justice to his elect (Isa 1:27 states justice is a means of salvation) is truly a superior blessing, as Christ tells us in Matthew 5:6 and Psa 106:3.
The problem with the typical “traditionalist” view of hell is it obligates God to wrath as if he were the plaintiff or prosecutor in a courtroom where his creatures were his equals before the law. This is a diminutive view of God typical of the second millennium, which was steeped in the dualistic and atomistic thinking of Aristotle and the pagan Greeks.
A God who has no obligation to create his creatures, also has no obligation to sustain them, as if Justice were somehow outside of God, in the way that the Greeks asserted that being was outside of God. Athnasius’ appeal to God’s just and strong character (On the incarnation…) is a far better option then the typical second millennium dualisms between grace and truth, mercy and judgment, justice and favor, all of which attempt to dissect the indivisible God, especially given the agreement of John 1:17 with Psalm 25:10.
God chooses gratuitously to preserve the wicked in hell, just as he gratuitously restores those he calls and chooses to full, ordinate love, which is the same as Justice/Righteousness and it’s fruit: Shalom (Is 32:17).
We need to recognize that second millennium definitions of hell, sin, wrath, salvation are so saturated with Aristotelian categories that they are almost unrecognizable in the language of the Nicene Church. This is probably why Luther called Aristotle a monster, and rejected Calvin, the Reformed camp, and the Heidelberg catechism, wherein question 5 deviates so far into dualism but it contradicts the comprehensive view of scripture, especially the Scripture’s recognition that we are but dust, abject and laughable in our pride. Malachi 4:3 gives a clear rendering of how God and His righteous ones relate to the wicked: not by some fierce and frenzied melee, but by simply walking on them as if they were gentle ashes under one’s feet.
The lamentable over-fixation on textual analysis by the Reformers contributed somewhat to this problem. The Scripture clearly functions not primarily as a loose collection of individual star verses, but of interconnected constellations of thought, something the Westminster Confession grasps, yet not to the extent of the ante-Nicene, Nicene, and post Nicene Church.
The Reformers also tended to ignore Peter’s warning about Paul’s writings, and incautiously mediated all of scripture through Pauline epistles before mediating Paul through the robust theology of the Law and Prophets (esp including Wisdom literature), without which Paul sounds like a heretic.

I feel like I’m missing some context for some of your thoughts, but it’s clear it’s because you’ve thought on this deeply. Have you published anything on this topic?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

HTML tags are not allowed.

145,573 Spambots Blocked by Simple Comments