New Testament Doctrine (§ 1).
Historical Christian Belief (§ 2).
Tendencies of Recent Discussions (§ 3).
Two Leading Views (§ 4).
Endlessness (§ 5).
Ι. New Testament Doctrine. This presentation is limited to punishment after death; all reference to earthly punishment is not excluded, but this is considered only so far as its nature and aim have a bearing on the future state. In the New Testament punishment is part of the eschatological program which follows upοn the judgment (q.ν.). The wicked are sent into Gehenna (q.v.), or into a condition designated variously as unquenchable fire, the undying worm, outer darkness, weeping and gnashing of teeth, eternal destruction, and the second death (Mark ix. 43, 48; Matt. xxv. 30; II Thess. i. 9; Rev. xx. 14; cf. II Pet. iii. 7, and Jesus' parables of judgment--the tares, the drag-net, the wedding guest, the virgins, and the talents). Punishment is described as positive (as above), as natural (Gal. vi. 8; Col. iii. 25). and according to degree of guilt. The finality of punishment is supported by contemporary Jewish belief, by the term Gehenna and destruction (Gk. olethros, apōleia), by the parables of Jesus in which finality is implied (Matt. xiii. 39-43, 47-50), by the period at which judgment is consummated, and by the contrast of the state of the wicked with that of the blessed (Matt. xxv. 46). Yet, since the New Testament teaching is practical rather than theoretical, other intimations have been found there, concerning its nature, aim, duration, and outcome (see ANNIHILATIONISM, and UNIVERSALISM).
2. Historical Christian Belief. Historical Christian belief concerning the nature of future punishment has been determined in part by the doctrine of the resurrection of the same bodies that died (see RESURRECTION), of hell as a place and its fire as real (E. D. Griffin, Sermons not before Published, etc., "Hell Composed of Material Fire," pp. 46-53, New York, 1844). In particular, Christian mystics have been fond of dwelling on the physical condition of the lost, with every refinement of imaginative ingenuity, inventing tortures which reflected the most terrible and revolting forms of human suffering (Dante, Inferno; H. Suso, Der ewigen Weyssheit Büchlein, chap. ix., Dillingen, 1567; Jonathan Edwards, Works, vii., pp. 387-388, New York, 1829). Punishment has also been conceived of as separation from God, as remorse, as penitence which could not issue in repentance, the sense of one's own vileness, and the like. The aim of punishment has been regarded as vindictive or vindicatory, as disciplinary and deterrent. Its duration has been most commonly taught as endless, based on such considerations as the continuance of penalty commensurate with that of blessedness, the limitation of redemption to the present life, the total absence of even common grace in the world of the lost, and the inability of the sinful soul to change itself. From early times here and there voices have been raised in advocacy of a limit to this condition, either through annihilation or restoration, or a gradual mitigation of the severity of retributive suffering. Yet even when theoretic considerations have inclined toward milder views, the demands of the religious appeal have often enforced the more rigid interpretation. Christian belief has preponderated on the whole in one direction, but it has never been crystallized into a dogmatic formula.
3. Tendencies of Recent Discussions. Present day discussions of future punishment direct attention to four principal points--its nature, purpose, degree, and duration. It is no longer conceived in terms of material fire, but as spiritual experience, regarded by some as a positive infliction by God, by others as natural and in accord with immanent and universal moral order, again as a gradual wasting away of the organic powers of the being or as a divine judgment in which the very personality ceases to exist. Its purpose is either vindicatory or deterrent or disciplinary. As to duration, it is held to be either irreversible, whether immediately at death or at the latest after the judgment, or else as continuing for a temporary period only, determined by the force of resistance to God or by the degree of sin, thereafter to issue in a final restoration to harmony with God or in an extinction of the being. By reason of the limitation of human experience to the present world, however, man is unable to picture the form of the punishment; but since the moral order is universal, character and condition are known as inseparable, in the moral consciousness are found the principle and law of retribution--the principle that of accountability, the law that of cause and effect. Moral obligation and penalty originate and are realized in the same relations. Punishment is essentially ethical--how ethical one can understand by comparing Jesus' teaching with that of his own or of a later period. Jesus did indeed speak of outer darkness, fire, the undying worm; but he more commonly represented punishment as taking place in ethical relations, e.g., that of payment in kind. Penalty is often conceived as suffering. This interpretation may be traced in part to experience of civil punishment, in part to the stinging pain of a quickened and reproaching conscience, and in part to a literal use of the New Testament. But there is moral stupor as well as anguish; men are "past feeling," "branded as with a hot iron." It is a common belief that the circumstances of the other life will be radically different from the present, and that therefore insensibility will give place to awakened and remorseful suffering. But on the one hand it is conjectural whether, from the moral order of the world as known through revelation and experience, there is sufficient reason to believe that at the instant of death the torpid conscience, the unresponsive will, the insensible heart will be quickened to preternatural and unending activity; and on the other hand, so long as the moral nature, memory, and vicissitude are real in a moral and spiritual universe, the sinner may waken to fierce and uncontrollable remorse.
4. Two Leading Views. There are two leading views as to the purpose of punishment--retribution and prevention. As retributive, the evil-doer receives back the consequences of his deeds; punishment demonstrates the nullity of his moral rebellion. This may be the experience of vengeance, of public sentiment, or of the deserts of the sinner. As preventive, punishment is deterrent or reformatory. He who suffers for his wrongdoing deters others from a like course of action; while reformatory punishment recalls the sinner to himself, to his folly and the inefficacy of his action, to his wickedness, so that in the moral arrest he may become aware of the pleading ideal of his own higher nature and the benign good-will of God. Whether the retributive shall be the only aspect of punishment in the sinner's condition after death must from the analogy of the earthly life be determined in part by the soul itself. No final decision on this subject can, however, ignore the universal Fatherhood of God and his eternal moral government.
5. Endlessness. Concerning the endlessness of future punishment, the mind can form no adequate notion (cf. Edwards, Works, vi. 451). Arguments for its endlessness are drawn from many directions. (1) Words and pictures in the New Testament imply finality. (2) Preterition or reprobation of some here below renders future salvation for such impossible. (3) The offers of pardon are restricted to the present world. (4) The judgment occurs at the close of the redemptive era, and hence is final. (5) Every single sin unrepented of deserves endless retribution. (6) Character tends to final permanence, as seen in the strengthening of the wrong decision, the consequent bondage of the will, and the intensifying of the sinful opposition to God in view of punishment experienced; naturally, final permanence can be attained but once. (7) The conscience expects and demands unending retribution in another life. (8) Finally, reference is made to the long history of this belief, and the eminent supporters of it in every age. Relief from the painful conclusion here reached is sought in many ways: appeal to human ignorance; a probationary period between death and the judgment for those who in this life have not finally refused God (see PROBATION, FUTURE); the incompatibility of the ultimate loss of any soul with the perfection of the Creator; the injustice of everlasting punishment for sins committed during the short span of the earthly life; continuance of punishment for a time after death, but God will finally succeed in his purpose of grace, or, on the other hand, the incorrigible will be eventually worn out with their punishment. See ESCHATOLOGY.
C. A. BECKWITH.