Cramming for the final

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What crime deserves an eternity of punishment?

Sounds like a marriage that if you say one wrong thing, your mate will ask for a divorce. Or the first time a child does something wrong, they are shipped off to the orphanage. Not a lot of room for error and comes off sounding very unforgiving. It is probable the person asking such a question is being rhetorical. By that I mean, they are simply asking the question to make a point; they are not really interested in your answer. Is the Pope Catholic? Do trees grow in the woods? Do I look fat in this dress? If you’re married, you better know how to answer that one. Or, one that would fit the above question, “You don’t expect me to actually believe any idiotic answer you come up with, do you?” You could approach such a question by asking a question in return. For example, “Do you believe in eternity?” or “Is there such a thing as a crime?” or “Can someone be punished for eternity, and if so, who would be doing the punishing?” Depending on your question, and their response, you have quite a few different possible directions. If it is determined they don’t even believe in God, you could bring up the argument that everything created must have a cause, everything that has a design has a designer, or everything built must have a builder. But I want to discuss the question from the perspective of a skeptic, someone who may or may not believe in God, but honestly can’t understand why they would be punished for a single crime, and that punishment would be everlasting. You might even struggle answering that question. If you’re one, don’t feel bad, you’re not alone. Most Christians don’t spend their time reading about and thinking about, how to respond to such difficult questions. Also sitting down, and typing out a thoughtful response, is a very different matter than responding to difficult questions on the fly.

What crime would deserve an eternal punishment? Most of us, when we first consider such an event, focus incorrectly on the crime itself. Would Hitler deserve an eternity in Hell for the slaughter of six million Jews? How about Stalin in his 30 year reign? Forced labor camps, masses of peasants and involuntary exile, World War II losses, political crimes, famine due to government policies, etc. Estimates range from 30 to 60 million. Would Stalin deserve an eternity of punishment? Without a doubt, Stalin was one of the worst, yet if you really think about it, eternity is a long time for 30 years of murdering even tens of millions of people. Maybe a year for every person killed would sound more reasonable, that way Stalin could have up to 60 million years in hell. Any time off for good behavior?

A couple weeks ago, Todd, our youth group leader, used a rope as an example of eternity. It was a great visual aid that he shared with everyone on Sunday. He had one end of a rope in his hands, (maybe six inches), wrapped in what looked like black electrical tape. The rest of the rope ran across the room and disappeared out the window. We were asked to imagine the rope that went out the window, continuing on forever. Around the earth, past the moon, sun, out of our galaxy, through and past other distant galaxies, going on forever. Todd then talked about how we live for this miniscule 6 inches of rope, when we should be concerned with the eternal end. When you put a crime or crimes in that perspective, it makes it even less palatable or reasonable that someone should be punished for eternity because of a deed or deeds they committed within those 6 inches of rope. If the ropes does not work for you, picture someone, after 70 years of deeds, being punished for billions and billions of endless suffering years. Does not sound fair to me.

As I said, a common mistake made when looking at this question is focusing on the crime, and not the judge. Ask any trial lawyer, one of the first questions they will ask is who the judge will be during the trial. Knowing the judge will often determine strategy and tactics used in the course of the trial. As important as knowing the judge is considering who the crime was committed against. Ray Comfort explained it this way in, The Defender’s Guide For Life’s Toughest Questions. Say you said you were going to beat your dog, it is doubtful there would be any consequence. Now if you threatened to beat up a police officer, then you could expect an arrest and an investigation, which could result in some jail time. Finally, if you were to threaten to beat up the President of the United States, then the result would be swift, severe, and possibly years in prison. The threat was the same across the board, but it was the individual, who was much more significant in each case, that made the difference.

The John Gill Commentary put it this way.
“Their excuses will not be regarded, their pleas will be of no avail, their pretensions to interest in Christ, and love to him, will be set aside; the sentence will remain irrevocable, and there will be no appeal from it, for there is no higher tribunal to bring the cause before; judgment having passed, the execution of it immediately follows: these goats, or formal professors, shall be obliged, whether they will or not, to depart from the presence of Christ; the angels will be ordered to take and cast them into everlasting burnings; they will be driven by them into hell, the place appointed for them; where they shall endure (yxun vnwe) ‘everlasting punishment’…”

Ouch! Sounds like bad news if you offend the Eternal God and Creator of the universe. It is not the crime that increases time served, but who the crime offends. In this case, the one being offended is not ‘only’ the judge, but the jury as well. Ask the skeptics if they have ever lied? If they are being honest they will say yes, and that of course makes them a liar. Ask them if they have ever cheated, again most will say yes, and that makes them a cheater. You can continue asking them if they have used the Lord’s name in vain, lusted after another person, or hated anyone. You see, Christ did not draw the line at the acts, but also the thoughts. Point out to them you are in the same boat, no one can escape the crimes we just listed, but Christ Himself who lived a perfect, flawless life, and who paid the price for our guilt. Matthew said in 5:28 “If a man has lustful thoughts of another woman he has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” John said, “Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him.” Some may object, stating they don’t do these things very often, but it only takes one lie to become a liar. One event of cheating to become a cheater. Hating one person to be a murder.

Once they understand the consequence of their crime or sin against a perfect and holy God, and that every crime, no matter how small, must be dealt with, then they can see how important the figure of Christ is and what he did for us on the cross. Our God is perfect and holy, and sin cannot abide in his presence. We are all sinners and are incapable of leading perfect lives, but the blood of Christ washes us perfectly clean so we can spend eternity with the judge and jury.

A single crime that deserves an eternity of punishment still sounds pretty harsh, but what about that we have but one decision to make to ensure an eternity of joy and everlasting peace? You never hear an atheist point out the fact that so many, when they embrace Christ, understanding their wretched and hopeless condition, get what seems to be a ‘get out of jail free card’ for eternity. What if Hitler and Stalin embraced Christ before their deaths? As unlikely as it sounds, had it happened we would spend eternity with them. Sounds distasteful doesn’t it? Maybe now you have an impression what an atheist thinks/feels when we say they are going to spend an eternity in hell if they don’t accept Christ as their Lord and Savior. It does sound like a single question final, and if you get it wrong, you lose in a very big way. True, but if you only make one right decision, then you also get to spend eternity in heaven.

Greg Koukl explains that Christianity is offensive enough without our making conditional statements which not only ignore the circumstances of the person asking the question, but that our reply can have eternal consequences. If you don’t know an answer, admit it, or maybe ask some questions yourself while you reflect a considerate reply. They may be more open to the Good News than what you think, so your reply is important.

But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…” 1 Peter 3:15

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