Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Counterfactual sin

One stock objection to hell is that the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. We only commit a finite number of sins in this life, so everlasting punishment is disproportionate.

There are different ways of fielding this objection. For now I’ll make one point: we only commit a finite number of sins in this life because we are mortal. We stop sinning in this life when we die.

If we lived 800 years instead of 80, we’d commit 10 times as many sins. And that, in turn, raises the specter of counterfactual sins. All the sins we’d commit if we had the opportunity to do so. If we could sin with impunity.

Often a man will refrain from sin, not because it’s wrong, but from fear of the consequences. If he thought he could get away with it, he’d do it. Likewise, a handsome man, or rich man, has greater opportunities to commit adultery or fornication than a poor homely man.

So even if, for the sake of argument, we accept the framework of the critic, it doesn’t follow that everlasting punishment is disproportionate. That’s a very superficial view of sinners.   


  1. Since the reprobate will sin eternally in hell by cursing God eternally, the eternal crime fits the eternal punishment.

    In fact, one could argue that the reprobate will sin on average more in hell than when they were in their mortal bodies, since there will be no common grace in perdition.

  2. True, the reprobate don't cease to sin when they die. They cease to sin in this life, but continue to sin in the afterlife.

  3. "Since the reprobate will sin eternally in hell by cursing God eternally"

    Well, if eternal life is not going to get any better for the reprobate-in-hell, then cursing God or not cursing God is not going to make a difference for the reprobate.

  4. Just to clarify, my post did not involve an implied contrast between sinning in this life and not sinning in the afterlife (although that holds true for Christians).

    Rather, I was making the point that the stock objection to eternal punishment rests on a tautology: By definition, how much we sin *in this life* depends on how long we happen to live.

    From a cumulative standpoint, the guy who dies at 96 may sin far more than than the boy who drown at 16. But that's an accidental difference. The cut-off is fairly arbitrary.

    So even if (arguendo) hell is supposed to correspond to our "finite" sins in this life, it's artificial to think we'd only be punished for what we had the time to do, even if we would have continued to sin in this life had we continued to live. If we never died, we'd sin every day (barring special divine intervention).

    The critic of hell is acting as though God wouldn't or shouldn't extrapolate from what we actually did into the unrealized future, had we lived as long as Methuselah, or longer. But that's not very logical.

    And, as I also mentioned, you have related issues. Not just what would a sinner do with more time, but more opportunities.

    I think there are other arguments for eternal punishment as well. I'm just addressing a very popular, but very shortsighted objection.

  5. How does any of this help since God, being holy and just, can, and will only punish people for their actual sins?

  6. Of course, that's a loaded question since your question takes for granted a false premise. You may not like it, but in Scripture, original sin is a sufficient ground for condemnation. Actual sin is an aggravating circumstance.

    Moreover, how is it unjust to punish sinners for their propensity to sin–whether or not their propensities are universally realized?

    For instance, a criminal's plan to commit a massacre may be thwarted by circumstances. Take a suicide bomber who intends to murder innocent bystanders at a shopping mall, but his explosive jacket denotes before he reaches the scene of the crime, thereby killing himself without harming the target?

    He's just as guilty for the crime he planned to perpetrate, but failed to execute. Criminal intent is culpable, whether or not he successfully implemented his plan. Likewise, someone can be charged with conspiracy to commit murder even if he didn't commit murder.

    You have an exceedingly shallow grasp of guilt.