In an earlier blog post, I argued that sinners in hell reach a point at which they no longer sin. In the comment thread, Chris Wettstein has asked: “If, then, the reprobate will not be ‘sinning’ can they be said to be ‘loving God’ and ‘loving their neighbour’?”
I started to write a response to Chris’s question in the comment thread, but it became too extensive for that venue, and so I decided it would be best to make my remarks in the form of a follow up blog post, thereby making them available much more widely and perhaps increasing the likelihood that something helpful might result from conversation. Here is my initial attempt at a reply.
That is an excellent question, Chris. If you have read later posts from me, you know that I did eventually conclude that Scripture teaches that God will ultimately destroy the wicked. In the post which prompted your question, I had proposed how an annihilationist might appropriate the insights of “reconciliationism,” and I am now in the position where I have done so. It seems most likely to me that in addition to being retributively punitive, the suffering of the wicked in the after life aims at the subjugation of their rebellious wills. As Bawulski has described the situation, that subjugation is not a form of repentance which brings about salvation, as universalists believe. It is an acknowledgment that Jesus is Lord; it has no joy or praise in it, but it is a cessation of resistance and rebellion.
I now posit that it is likely that the moment at which a sinner reaches that point, having been justly punished for the sins done on earth, and having quit denying that Jesus is Lord, is the time at which God’s purposes for their conscious punishment have been achieved. He then withdraws from them, as a final act of judgment, his sustenance of their life. From an annihilationist perspective, then, I think that a good answer to your question is forthcoming. The frustrated submission of sinners’ wills to the truth that God is indeed Lord of all gives God a measure of satisfaction but it is certainly not equivalent to the love for God which God graciously gives to the redeemed. Such love is, however, beyond the capability of the unmitigatedly unrepentant wicked and is therefore not their moral obligation. Beyond that point, no reason remains for keeping the wicked alive, so they die the second death and are destroyed in body and soul (Mt 10:28).
I am assuming that you are a traditionalist, and so I’ll endeavor to speak to your question from within that perspective. I confess that it is not easy for me to do this in a way that seems thoroughly satisfactory to me, and I am thinking that you have possibly put your finger on an entailment of the traditional view of hell that would move a person in the direction of annihilationism. Nonetheless, here are some further thoughts.
Below is a very helpful triangle developed by the folks at Rethinking Hell. It splendidly depicts the alternative understandings of hell which are currently being proposed. You’ll notice an arrow moving from traditionalism toward annihilationism (which they call “conditionalism”). It is labelled “dehumanization,” and it is an option that I encounter fairly frequently these days in reading or speaking with traditionalist evangelicals. That perspective would probably provide the most helpful framework within which to explain why sinners in hell eventually cease to sin, even though they do not love God with all their hearts, souls, minds, and strength, nor their neighbors as themselves.
Parenthetically, I wonder: will there even be “neighbors” in hell? Recently, it has occurred to me that in a place where sin is unrestrained, social relationships would be impossible, so that the residents of hell would all be living in something akin to solitary confinement. Narcissism would be so total, that even if others were around, individuals would be completely wrapped up in their self obsession.
Coming back to “dehumanization,” it seems to me that the hollowing out of human personhood by complete abandonment to sin would make love totally impossible. Christian ethics has always maintained that one is not morally accountable for something unwilled. Perhaps, sinners in hell who finally bow their knee to Jesus will find it to be an act so awful that it will drive them “out of their senses” into total madness. In such a state a person would be without conscience and without moral accountability.
I’m speculating here, Chris, not speaking with any strong certainty. As I said, I find the cessation of sin in hell not a problem, if God finally destroys the wicked, as I believe he will. But if I were pondering the question you have raised from within a traditionalist framework, I would venture something like I have suggested here. I welcome comments and better proposals.