How can people live forever in Hell if God's consequence for sin is death?

Question from a reader:

In your book Heaven you say that the unsaved will live in Hell. The bible says that the wages of sin is death, which is not life.  So how could the wages of sin be life?  

Answer from Julia Stager, EPM Research assistant:

You ask a great question, and the answer comes in how we define life and death. If life is defined as existence and death is defined as non-existence, the argument “you can’t be dead if you’re in Hell because if you’re there you’re still alive” makes sense. However, in Scripture we see death defined differently.

When God spoke with Adam in The Garden He said “...but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Gen. 2:17, ESV). Yet the Bible then records how Adam and Eve ate the fruit and kept on “living.” On that day Adam and Eve did not experience physical death, but they experienced spiritual death. From this passage we learn that the best definition of death is not ceasing to exist.

I believe death is separation. Spiritual death is separation from God and physical death is separation from this earth. Adam and Eve spiritually died on the day they ate the fruit of that tree. Their fellowship with God was broken, they were expelled from The Garden and given a life on earth apart from that intimacy with God they had experienced.

We are all born as spiritually dead (Ephesians 2:1; Colossians 2:13). We are born spiritually separated from God and in need of reconciliation with Him. That reconciliation was provided by Jesus’ physical and spiritual death, and physical resurrection and spiritual reuniting (I believe His spiritual death occurred when Jesus spoke on the cross “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me” Matthew 27:46).

Though we are born separated from God we have the opportunity to become spiritually alive by believing Jesus is Lord. If we become spiritually alive and then physically die, we are separated from this earth but are eternally united with Christ (Phil. 1:23). However, if we physically die while existing in a state of spiritual death, our spiritual death becomes permanent and we will eternally exist estranged from God. Interestingly, both those who are spiritually alive and those who are spiritually dead will be (apparently physically) resurrected and sealed to his or her everlasting physical destinations:

  • Acts 24:15 “having a hope in God, which these men themselves accept, that there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust.”
  • John 5:29 “and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.”
  • Daniel 12:2 “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.”

Therefore, those who rise and are condemned are eternally dead though they continue to exist. Hell is worse than annihilation, it’s eternal separation from God, love, fulfillment and everything good.

Julia (Stager) Mayo holds a Master of Arts in Biblical and Theological Studies from Western Seminary, where she works as an administrative assistant. She was previously part of the Eternal Perspective Ministries staff, and still does occasional research work for Randy Alcorn.

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