Steven Nemes has been blogging on hell. I’m going to excerpt what I take to be his core arguments and comment on them:
“It seems to me problematic to suggest that any particular sin would warrant eternal punishment. This is problematic precisely because justice for that sin could never be served -- because it deserves infinite punishment, there will never be a point in time after which the offender will have paid in full for his crime; and if that is true, then there'll never be a point in time at which complete justice will be dished out. If that's true, then if people in hell deserve infinite punishment for any of their individual sins, then justice will never win out; there will never be a point at which justice defeats injustice, and good defeats sin and lawlessness once and for all.”
Several problems with this argument:
i) It turns on the commercial metaphor of the offender paying his debt. But while that’s a useful illustration of retributive justice, it’s not something we should take too literally. It’s not as if the offender has actually accrued certain numerically specifiable units of guilt which must be recompensed by commensurate units of punishment.
ii) It’s easy to dream up symmetrical penalties for certain types of offenses. Dante was good at that sort of thing.
However, other offenses resist a superficially symmetrical penalty. For instances, some things have sentimental value rather than intrinsic value. It’s a question of how much an individual values them. To it means to someone else.
Take a child’s drawing. It may not be an artistic masterpiece, but it’s precious to her mother. Or, to ratchet up the stakes, suppose the child dies of leukemia. This drawing is one of the few things the grieving mother has to remember her child by.
Objectively speaking, the drawing isn’t worth very much. It lacks aesthetic excellence. Yet the drawing is unspeakably precious to the grieving mother.
Suppose a sadistic offender, just to be mean, burns the drawing. He picks the one thing which would be most hurtful to a hurting mother.
What would be the appropriate punishment? To burn one of the offender’s childhood drawings? But his drawing hardly has the same value for him. Indeed, his drawing may be utterly worthless to him.
Or, to take another example, suppose the offender makes his living by cheating gullible seniors out of their life-savings.
What’s the appropriate punishment? A symmetrical punishment would be for the judge or victim to defraud his own parents of their life savings. But, of course, that wouldn’t be fair to his parents.
iii) We could also turn Steven Nemes' objection around. Instead of first deciding what we think the damned deserve, then meting out a suitable punishment–we could begin with the divine punishment, and take that as our cue for what the damned deserve. If the damned suffer everlasting punishment, then that of itself tells us what they deserve. That’s exactly what they had coming to them.
iv) Indeed, isn’t the unremitting duration of hell punitive in itself? The damned know, from one day to the next, that there will be no let up.
Even something that isn’t inherently unpleasant can become unbearable if that is all we’re exposed to. Indeed, even something that is normally pleasant can become unbearable if that’s all we’re exposed to.
The damned know that things will never get better. And that, itself, is punitive. There is no light at the end of the tunnel. Or if there is a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, that’s firelight. Hellfire!
v) Let’s also remember that we’re not speaking of justice in the abstract, as if we personified justice. As if justice were a Platonic hypostasis.
No, this has reference to wronging a person. Failing to discharge our obligations to God or man.
So justice is, in part, a question of what is just punishment in the eyes of the offended party.
“The reason is this: on a “vicious circle” view of hell, there will always be some more sin to be punished, and it seems as if the people in hell are going to be getting only more and more callous, more hardened against God, and so on. But then the display of God’s justice—the good that is brought about by it—hardly seems greater than the very unfortunate fact that there exist individuals who are forever doomed to become more and more evil, more and more disinterested in seeking their own good, etc. That state of affair’s obtaining (the latter) surely seems horrible, and it’s not obvious that the former’s obtaining outweighs its ‘badness’.”
i) The question of what’s good isn’t a simple question, for there is more than one potential party to the transaction. Good for whom? The punishment may not be good for the offender, but is the offender entitled to beneficial punishment?
ii) And even intuitively speaking, isn’t there a value in seeing the consequences of evil run their evil course?
“In my last post, I considered the suggestion that there are some states of affairs that are good, but it would be better if they never obtained; I suggested that the punishment of some evildoer was something like that: it is good that evil is punished, but it is better for there not to be a need for punishment. It also seems as if the more evil is performed, and the more need there is for justice to be shown, the less valuable on a whole the states of affairs that obtain are. If someone does what is wrong and is punished once, that is good, though it'd be better if it never happened at all; but if someone is perpetually doing what is wrong and is continually being punished, with no rehabilitation or anything of that sort, and there will always be evil committed, that state of affairs doesn’t seem valuable in the least; the continued need for a display of justice seems unfortunate rather than valuable.”
i) The question of what is “better” is not a simple question. Leibniz famously thought the principle of sufficient reason induces God to choose the best possible world. But a number of modern philosophers don’t think there is one best world to choose form. Rather, they think different good worlds encapsuate incommensurable goods.
ii) On a related note, what is better for one party may be worse for another.
iii) At a concrete level, we live in a world in which it’s easy to imagine just about anyone’s life being better in some respect or another than is currently the case. God didn’t make their life as good as he could have.
Just take our little fantasy about what we’d ask for if a genie granted us our three wishes. The hard part would be narrowing the choice down to just three wishes.
Now Nemes might say this is deceptive. Yes we can imagine many “improvements,” but these have unintended consequences. However, that consideration subtracts from his intuitive appeal.
“I don’t know about the plausibility of this. You might question whether it could be that a person could merit eternal, unending punishment for some particular sin they’ve committed; how could any finite action committed by a finite agent warrant infinite punishment?”
Since I’ve often commented on that objection, I have nothing new to say at this point.
“Of course, it may be that people in Hell will always be sinning, and hence will always have something to be punished for, and thus God’s justice will always be on display. But then I wonder whether or not this is a good thing. I could imagine an objector saying: It seems like some goods may be good, really good even, but the world would be better if they didn’t have to come about—and justice and punishment of evil seems like one of these things.”
That repeats an objection I just dealt with.
“You might even question whether or not an eternal hell constitutes some sort of defeat or failure on God’s part—assuming, of course, that hell is punishment. For if hell is eternal, and if it is eternal in virtue of the damned always having some new sin to be punished for, then it seems as justice will never be served definitively or finally—there will always be some sin to conquer, some iniquity to destroy, and there will never be a final victory of good over evil.”
That’s the classic objection of the universalist. But, of course, it only represents a defeat if God predefined the terms of victory such that this outcome undershoots the mark. But why should success be framed in those terms, anyway? Doesn’t that beg the very question at issue?