Why do many people feel that everlasting punishment is unjust?
1.One factor may be social conditioning. In modern penology, there’s a correlation between crime and time. The convict is sentenced to serve a certain amount of time behind bars. He receives a shorter sentence for a lesser offense, or a longer sentence for a graver offense.
But this is a modern development. And it has nothing to do with the retributive theory of punishment. Rather, it’s predicated on the remedial theory of punishment. Rehabilitating the offender by sending him to a “penitentiary” or “reformatory” or “corrections facility.”
On the face of it, there’s no intrinsic correlation between time and crime. The original idea was to give the offender enough time to think over his crimes, experience remorse, and mend his ways.
But the assignment of different intervals of incarceration for different types of crime is quite artificial.
2.Apropos (1), modern penology also metes out a harsher or more lenient sentence depending on whether the convict is remorseful. Why do we draw that distinction? Did, say, the Code of Hammurabi care about whether an offender was remorseful or not? Or is this another modern development?
I suspect it reflects a residual Christian outlook. In Christian theology, we do distinguish between penitent and impenitent sinners.
However, contrition is not, of itself, a mitigating factor. In Christian theology, a sinner is forgiven, not merely because he is contrite, but because he is redeemed. It assumes the principle of penal substitution, which is a form of (vicarious) retributive punishment.
I suspect that both (1) & (2) reflect a secularized theory of redemption. They were influenced by Christian theology, but have lost sight of its necessary underpinnings.
3.I think opponents of hell also operate with the unquestioned assumption that the duration of hell is, of itself, punitive. That part of what makes a punishment punitive is the duration of the punishment.
It’s possible that this is true. If, for example, you were to punish someone by torturing him, then it’s worse to be in agony for a longer period of time.
BTW, I’m not saying that torture is an appropriate form of punishment. I’m just using this to illustrate the intuition that the duration of punishment is, itself, a punitive exercise.
4.But we might also question this assumption. After all, any punishment is going to take place in time. So the temporal aspect may just be a necessary, but incidental, mode of punishment.
On the face of it, there’s no intrinsic relationship between time and peccancy. Mere passage of time doesn’t make you any less culpable.
It may be that hell is everlasting precisely because peccancy is a timeless property. Once you do something wrong, that will always be true. It will not be any less true 10 years from now, or a 100, or a 1000.
Since the lapse of time is irrelevant to your guilt, it’s irrelevant to your just deserts. You never cease to be guilty.
In Christian theology, what absolves a sinner of guilt is not the passage of time, but atonement. And a sinner cannot atone for his sin. So unless a sinner is redeemed, he remains in his state of sin.
5.Human beings trivialize wrongdoing because we couldn’t survive unless we cut each other some slack. So it’s easy to forget that once wrong, always wrong. If I ever did something wrong, that never goes away.
Of course, some people are wracked with guilt. It crushes them.
But like a field medic who becomes inured to the sight of pain and suffering, many of us have become inured to our own wrongdoing. It’s a defense mechanism. That’s the only way an unbeliever can get through the day.
This makes it difficult for a sinner to appreciate the justice of hell.
6.Finally, the opponent of hell may have it backwards. Everlasting punishment might actually be less than the damned deserve. For even though the punishment is unending, it’s not a punishment which the damned experience all at once. The perception of time is incremental. I can only suffer so much at one time because I can only process so much at one time. So my punishment is meted out small doses.
Time is a limit. Time is linear. And the experience of time is successive. Hence, temporal punishment is always limited, even if it never comes to an end. For the intensity of the punishment is spread out over time. Diluted by time.