Saturday, May 10, 2008

Damned if you do, and damned if you don't

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.


  1. You forgot one:
    "You aren't merely in hell suffering exquisite torment proportionally meted out for that limited, finite amount of sinning you did while you are on earth. You're still a sinner, you're still hating God, you're still despising his Word, you're still contemptuous of his people, you're still of that modality that frivolously states, 'Ah! Phelps is in heaven, I want to go to hell!'. Yeah, yeah, well there you are."
    -- Fred Phelps, from Hatemongers

    He receives a shorter sentence for a lesser offense, or a longer sentence for a graver offense.

    But this is a modern development

    Ugh - Ok I realize I'm walking into a trap here... what about Ex 21 (an eye for an eye)? These few examples (eyes, teeth) are surely not meant literally or exhaustively. Surely they mean to imply a principle that punishment and crime should be more or less matched.
    So it seems that this is not a modern theory, but a biblical principle.

  2. Thn,

    "1+1=2" -- Fred Phelps, Hatemongers.

    Guess I'll give up that belief along with Thnuhthnuh too!

    Ugh - Ok I realize I'm walking into a trap here... what about Ex 21

    As to your second point it's punishment and *time* that's at issue, not punishment and *crime.

    Of course we believe that hell is a punishment that fits the crime(s).

    Also, much of the punishment in Israel was for purpose of restoration. But, they typed the people of God. So watch your analogies closely.

  3. thnuhthnuh said...

    “You forgot one…Fred Phelps, from Hatemongers.”

    I think Phelps is in for a rude surprise when he dies. He’ll find himself looking up rather than looking down.

    “Ugh - Ok I realize I'm walking into a trap here... what about Ex 21 (an eye for an eye)? These few examples (eyes, teeth) are surely not meant literally or exhaustively. Surely they mean to imply a principle that punishment and crime should be more or less matched. So it seems that this is not a modern theory, but a biblical principle.”

    I didn’t deny that some sins or crimes are worse than others, and merit a harsher sentence. But OT penology didn’t have a do-the-crime/do-the-time correlation. Criminals weren’t punished by incarceration under the Mosaic law.

    Yes, the punishment should fit the crime. The question is whether the duration of punishment is, itself, punitive (or disproportionate).

  4. To help Thnuh out a bit, the Biblical model of punishment was never based in time in the first place. For example, if you stole an ox from someone, you had to give the ox back and then one of your own oxen (or, if you had none, something of equivelent value) was taken from you and given to the victim. In this way, you experienced the act that you inflicted upon the other person while the other person was restored his property and, ironically, benefitted with an increase.

    This is how the principal of "eye for an eye" came about (which is simply a way to refer to how the punishment should fit the crime).

  5. If I recall correctly, John Gerstner once said that there would be "more justice" in heaven than in hell. Since, Christ fully satisfied the wrath of God toward the elect on Christ. Those in heaven will for ever enjoy all that Christ purchased on the cross. From Gerstner's statement, one could conclude that in hell, God will not exact all the justice that should (ought to) be meted out. In which case, a non-Christian, or a claimed Christian who denies Everlasting Punishment could say that therefore the traditional doctrine of Everlasting Punishment (doEP) must be false since God cannot and will not execute full justice. Those who hold to Conditional Immortality and annihilationism might argue this way, for example.
    They may argue that annihilationism allows for God to fully mete out justice BOTH for the saved AND the damned.

    However, God's justice in hell might be fully meted out and yet the wicked in hell might still continue forever in conscious torment in light of Rev. 22:11. If it is a reference to the "eternal state". How the saved in heaven will forever be fixed in righteousness. Just as the wicked in hell will forever be fixed in unrighteousness.

    REVELATION 22:11 "Let the one who does wrong, still do wrong; and let the one who is filthy, still be filthy; and let the one who is righteous, still practice righteousness; and let the one who is holy, still keep himself holy." -NASB

    If this interpretation is correct, then the wicked will continue to sin while they are in hell, and therefore, will add to their guilt and necessary punishment (even if older sins might have been fully punished already some time in the past of those in hell while in hell).

    Though, some theologians have argued that every sin requires everlasting punishmenting because it's an offense toward and infinitely holy God. And that finite time will never exhaust that. As Aquinas and the Triabloggers have argued.

    Whatever the case, as Christians, we have to believe that God can and will punish sin in a just way.

  6. And here's another little thought experiment for opponents of eternal punishment who say "the punishment doesn't fit the crime/s." Really?

    5 sins a day x 365 days/year is 1825 x 70 years = 127750 sins.

    Now, pray tell, if "the punishment should fit the crime" and we're analogizing from our present situation, then what would happen to a man with that man outstanding crimes if he was caught and convicted of each one? Dare I say he would be thrown "under the jail" not merely in it.

    The problem with those who deny eternal punishment is their low view of their own sins. I'm quite sure we all commit many times more than five a day...

  7. Who in his right mind would ever punish his daughter with such extreme punishments for anything she would do? Not I, that's fer sure. To say that the punishement depends on the status of the person being sinned against, which is what you claim, then when a child sins against her parents that deserves a more stiffer punishment than if she sinned against her brother, and the child of a President deserves a much stiffer punishment than the child of a lowly blue collar worker. You cannot find any analogous case where this applies fairly or consistently.

  8. John,

    God's children aren't punished in hell.