Let me first explain my understanding of these words (punishment & revenge):

Punishment is typically when you do something to one person to make things better for society, or for that person. It is either something unpleasant, so that the person will not want to do the bad thing, because they know the punishment is there, or they do the crime, but because of the punishment (death penalty / chopping off someone’s arm / being locked away) they cannot do the crime again or will think twice before doing it again.

Punishment, in theory, serves the majority of people. It is a good thing. It has positive benefits to most people (negative to one person – the crime committer – temporarily to solve a social problem).

Revenge is completely different. That is when you cannot control your anger and hurt someone because they hurt you. No positive benefit, other than making the angry person feel better. It is, as I understand it, all about emotions.

Romans 12:19: “It is mine to avenge, I will repay, says the Lord”. Hell does not seem like punishment, it seems like revenge. This makes no sense, given the "good" and "just" descriptions of God.

So, based on the above, what is God, who is good and just, intending by sending people to hell: to punish, or to take revenge? Please include a logical explanation with your answer.


I've been asked to define what I understand as "hell", and the doctrinal context that I want this answered in, so here's my attempt to do that:

I understand hell to be a place of eternal suffering that God created, where He sends people who do not believe in Jesus.

This is what I understand to be the typical protestant view of hell, as described in the bible. If you have a different view, then you may not be the best person to answer this question, because I really want an answer from those who believe this point of view.

I would also like all answers to include some kind of reference, if their source is not simply logic.


5 Answers 5


Neither. Both if these options are built around a human centered view of justice.

In reality, God isn't working under the same constraints as we would be and he has other purposes in mind. It still comes down to justice, but not quite the same kind of justice that would be metered out on a court on earth.

Here on earth, our purposes in "punishment" are usually either corrective or protective. Some punishments are given to try to convince the wrongdoer that "crime doesn't pay". Others guard against future harm, sometimes at the expense of giving the offender any more chances.

Also in human terms, "revenge" is in some way trying to regain something that was lost whether possessions or honor, or at least restore a balance between victim and perpetrator but reversing the crime and setting the original perpetrator back.

God's judgement against sin is not quite either of these things. The nature of His person is not such that he has lost anything that would need to be restored and he is certainly not trying to hurt somebody else the way he was hurt just to get even.

On the other hand all of our ideas in this are in some way just echos of something more real and true; our ideas of "punishment" are but a memory destroyed by our own sin of what God's idea of punishment is.

Hell is a just punishment for the crime humanity has committed. In eternally damning some humans to there, God is doing the only just thing. He is also giving men just what he asked for. In his pride man set himself up as god apart from God, and in sin he continues to demand his independence from God. Being permanently cut off from Him is just the logical extension of that.

At the same time there is an element of vengeance in it. God is extracting from the rebels everything they tried to steel from Him. He is demonstrating for all eternity that HE is Lord, there is no other, and that he will not tolerate evil. Never will it be said of Him that he let the wicked prosper unjustly. While human revenge is unjust, God eradicating evil is not.

  • +1 I was going to answer with something very similar. Ever lasting life is the gift from God without it there is death. Hell is the absent of God. Please consider reading: A New Kind of Christianity ISBN 9780061853982
    – user1054
    Commented Jan 28, 2012 at 15:33
  • Thanks Dan. I have read enough books. I just want to hear a simple, straight and logical answer from someone who actually knows why they believe what they believe, and can give me some direct references in the bible. Caleb here is not saying that hell is the absence of God... he says it's punishment for a crime. Commented Jan 28, 2012 at 17:03
  • @Lost You are correct that isn't what I'm saying. Hell is hell because God is there. I'll fix this up to be more clear and defended when I'm off the road.
    – Caleb
    Commented Jan 28, 2012 at 21:36
  • 3
    FYI, Brian mclearan (a new kind...) is very controversial in Protestant circles. The Emerging Church itself is unsure of where it fits into Christianity, by their own confession. Commented Jan 28, 2012 at 23:05
  • 1
    @sirwilliam This sounds like something you should ask as an independent question. See How to Ask. The basic answer is that God did not create us as his peers as other gods. He created subjects whose rightful place is to worship their creator.
    – Caleb
    Commented Dec 10, 2013 at 13:13

I think punishment versus revenge is a false dichotomy. There seem to be aspect of both represented in the Biblical accounts of hell, but they are not the primary purpose of that dreadful destination.


Here's a basic representation of hell as punitive:

Revelation 20:1-3 (HCSB)
1 Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven with the key to the abyss and a great chain in his hand. 2 He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for 1,000 years. 3 He threw him into the abyss, closed it, and put a seal on it so that he would no longer deceive the nations until the 1,000 years were completed. After that, he must be released for a short time.

The imagery here is of God putting an evil-doer somewhere he can't cause trouble. It's not entirely clear that "the abyss" is Hell proper or the same destination that is mentioned a few verses down. But it is something very like what we usually think of as Hell. This conception of Hell as a prison makes sense with your explanation of punishment being a general good for a society. The New Jerusalem certainly won't be a very pleasant place if the ancient serpent is still hanging around causing trouble.


A few verses later, we see the "hell as revenge" picture:

Revelation 20:7-10 (HCSB)
7 When the 1,000 years are completed, Satan will be released from his prison 8 and will go out to deceive the nations at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them for battle. Their number is like the sand of the sea. 9 They came up over the surface of the earth and surrounded the encampment of the saints, the beloved city. Then fire came down from heaven and consumed them. 10 The Devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet are, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.

The key phrase is the final one: "they will be tormented day and night forever and ever." You can't really say that this is about keeping bad actors out of good society, since they are going to be tormented always and forever. You don't have to look hard to see that the God of the Bible has powerful emotions. The passage you quoted in Romans shows that God reserves vengeance to Himself and Revelation 20 is a description of how He will avenge Himself.

While we are here, the idea of people being tortured forever for committing particularly heinous crimes was far more socially accepted in those days than it is in ours. Perhaps part of our current squeamishness on the topic come from Western society's strong Christian influence that tells us that we ought not to wish bad things on our enemies. This is to the good, but it does make having a correct theology of hell a bit more difficult if we apply the principle to God Himself.

God's Justice

When we think of people "going to Hell", we are usually thinking of passages such as:

Revelation 20:15 (HCSB)
15 And anyone not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.

But we need to back up in order to see what is meant by the "book of life":

Revelation 20:11-12 (HCSB)
11 Then I saw a great white throne and One seated on it. Earth and heaven fled from His presence, and no place was found for them. 12 I also saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life, and the dead were judged according to their works by what was written in the books.

So there are two sets of books:

  1. Books that record the works of all people, great and small.
  2. The book of life that records the names of people who are saved from Hell.

The strong implication here, which is confirmed in the rest of the Bible and most especially Romans, is that everyone will be condemned by the first set of books. God's justice demands that Satan's charges against us be punished according to our deeds. As for myself, and I imagine all honest readers, the judgement is eternal torture. (My personal torture, according to the classic Greek tradition, would be a library of all the books every written and infinite time to read them, but just as I start to open a page someone with an urgent task that I can't put aside will prevent me from reading.)

God's Mercy

Thankfully, God's accounting system includes a second book that allows anyone whose name is recorded to be released on what might be called a technicality. As it turns out, the reason God is able to refer to the book of life is that He demonstrated perfect love by substituting His Son as a sacrifice to cover our sins. God can give us the gift of life:

Revelation 22:17 (HCSB)
17 Both the Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” Anyone who hears should say, “Come!” And the one who is thirsty should come. Whoever desires should take the living water as a gift.

Perhaps the primary purpose of the church is to say to all who will listen, "Come!" because God offers life to all who will take it. In the end, the accounting of Mercy trumps the accounting of Justice. Without the Cross, Hell is the proper destination for all of us who have been tainted with Adam's sin. With the Cross, Hell shows us what God's ultimate sacrifice rescued us from. It is God's way of illustrating the extreme (and rightful) consequences of our sin without His intervention.

Struggling with God

Finally, I would like to personally encourage you (and anyone else who struggles with this question) to continue to challenge God on this. Don't accept easy answers (not even mine). Remember that in the end God blessed Job even though he directed his anger at God and dared to charge Him with wrongdoing. (I've been doing a lot of thinking about Job lately.) As Paul says on the topic of perfect, self-sacrificial love:

1 Corinthians 13:12 (HCSB)
12 For now we see indistinctly, as in a mirror,
but then face to face.
Now I know in part,
but then I will know fully,
as I am fully known.

We can't yet be fully pleased with the answers we have because they aren't complete and clear. We dare not give up on seeking answers from God until He reveals all to us at the end of the age.

  • Hi Jon. Thanks for this long discussion. As you say, the answers aren't complete and clear, which is certainly an honest answer even if it is very inconclusive. The gist of what you're saying is that it's a bit of both, and more. And, from the passages you've mentioned, it does feel more like revenge than punishment to me. Commented Jan 31, 2012 at 20:45

If you are a wheat farmer, and weed appears in your field, you uproot and destroy it. Do you do it as a punishment, or do you do it out of revenge?

I'm not saying that my example above describes the final judgment, it's just an example that there might be alternatives to punishment and revenge.

  • Fair enough. Can you define the alternative in this case? One certainly wouldn't make a weed suffer. Commented Jan 30, 2012 at 20:40
  • I have no idea. Maybe the weed does suffer, but the main reason of the uprooting was not the suffering.
    – vsz
    Commented Jan 30, 2012 at 20:52
  • 4
    This answer ought to include a reference to Matthew 13:24-30 Commented Feb 9, 2012 at 17:10

Having read the whole Bible twice, I don't remember seeing anywhere where there's one particular passage in the Bible that spells it out much above and beyond, "If you sin, you deserve to go there, and God is just and perfect." However being a Christian a long time, wondering about the same thing, and then seeing one particular explanation brought up a couple of different times, I think the following is the answer. It does line up with the general message and nature of the Holy Bible:

Short Answer: Essentially, punishment. Justice.


If I were to walk down the street and just suddenly punch some random person, what are they going to be able to do to me in response to that? Punch me back? No big deal. Even if it's illegal, if I punch another man once and leave it at that, I'm probably not going to jail.

I will go to jail, however, if I punch a cop. And if I punch a high-ranking government official, it could get a whole lot worse than that.

Why? It's the same act of wrongdoing, isn't it? Shouldn't it be the same punishment in all three cases?

It's because of varying levels of authority. The more authority someone has, especially that they have over you, the more punishment is fair and just for you to endure for the same act of wrongdoing. You will see earthly authorities taking this too far sometimes, but this holds true even without acts of abuse. The more disregard to authority, the more dishonor, and for multiple reasons, the greater a just punishment.

God's authority:

Think of how much authority God has. Infinitely much. And He has infinitely much authority over all of creation. So when something is done against Him, a just punishment would be of an infinite magnitude. Some other religions talk about letting your good outweigh your bad or something like that, but given God's infinite authority, one bad thing is all that it takes for you to deserve an infinite punishment.

God's love:

Of course, if this were all about revenge and hate, He wouldn't have sent his Son, would He? And since Jesus and God are also the same person, as mentioned by the Gospel of John, you could also say that God Himself went through all that trouble to freely give you forgiveness - not only salvation from hell, but also the gift of an eternity in heaven. As for Satan and the fallen angels, there may or may not be some actual revenge there, but you have to remember that Jesus did not die for them, and there's almost definitely something extra going on with them.

So, yeah, just punishment, not revenge. But God went out of His way to suffer and to create an escape from that punishment. To take the punishment for us.

Purpose behind Hell:

Hell serves to establish God's authority. That is essentially its purpose. God's authority is real and absolute, not just something on paper.

However sending humans there was never the intention. Going by the English Standard Version, Matthew 25:41 reads,

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal
fire prepared for the devil and his angels.

Though some humans, through forsaking the LORD and not receiving His forgiveness, essentially have to endure justice as a result, hell is for prepared for Satan and his angels instead. (The question is not splitting hairs between hell and Hades, and neither will this answer.)

Basically just having hell there and letting it be a real consequence is enough though; if every single human being were to worship the LORD and receive His forgiveness, which is through Jesus Christ and through Him taking our place on the cross, then that still serves to establish His authority. Hell would still be there as a very real consequence, sin would have still been infinitely punished on the cross through Jesus Christ's death, and God's forgiveness, salvation, and authority would still be very real.

  • What's the purpose of the punishment then? (What problem does it solve) Commented Oct 25, 2013 at 11:48
  • Sorry, I've been busy for the last few days. I just added a section on the end. Commented Oct 27, 2013 at 22:37

Which is hell: punishment, or revenge? It is a bringing back into order the whole of creation.

Punishment & Revenge & Romans 12:19 Yes, there is a Punishment for Sin, It Is Death (Romans 6:23), Romans 12:19 quotes Deut 32:35, Vengence belongs only to God.

Romans 12:19: “It is mine to avenge, I will repay, says the Lord”. Hell does not seem like punishment, it seems like revenge. This makes no sense, given the "good" and "just" descriptions of God. It is a punishment, we have been told from the beginning (Genesis 2:17). Revenge means by definition "To inflict punishment in return for (injury or insult)." [a]

So, based on the above, what is God, who is good and just, intending by sending people to hell: to punish, or to take revenge? Please include a logical explanation with your answer. Since the definition of Revenge means to inflict punishment [a] logically the intent of sending someone to hell is both.

I've been asked to define what I understand as "hell", and the doctrinal context that I want this answered in, so here's my attempt to do that:

I understand hell to be a place of eternal suffering that God created, where He sends people who do not believe in Jesus.

This is what I understand to be the typical protestant view of hell, as described in the bible. If you have a different view, then you may not be the best person to answer this question, because I really want an answer from those who believe this point of view.
I'm not the typical protestant, and may not be the best person to answer this question for you, but I still feel that your honest defense deserves the best explanation that I can muster.

The incorrect understanding of Hell is formed by a melting of concepts. Soon I hope that you will see.

The Old Testament was written in Hebrew. And the Hebrew word for Grave is "Sheol". When someone died, it was custom to bury the dead, therefore placing the body in Sheol, or in English terms "Placing the body into a grave."

The New Testament was written in Greek. And the Greek word for Sheol is Hades [b]. Now in the days of the Roman Empire they cremated the bodies. For Jerusalem the would have the bodies cremated in a valley named Gehenna (Valley of the Son of Hinnom). Now all these words Sheol, Hades, and Gehenna where translated into a default Old English word "Hell".

In another piece of literature that was common in those days named "The Book of Enoch". There is a story about how angels defied God and later where tortured for a duration of darkness. In 2 Peter, an example of this story was used to teach something, the Greek Word that Peter used was Tartaroo [c] (meaning "throw to Tartarus"). This word unfortunately also was translated as Hell.

So what do we get when we mix all these concepts together? Death, Fire, Eternity of Pain, Darkness, and Punishment. So this might make you feel better. If you choose not to believe in God. You will die and stay dead, your body will either be put into a grave, or your body will be cremated. Unless, God decides to raise you from the dead anyways, just for kicks.

[a] http://www.thefreedictionary.com/revenge
[b] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hades
[c] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tartarus

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