Sunday, January 25, 2015

Hell: Does the Punishment Fit the Crime?

The Book of Revelation

I read Revelation a couple days ago. And quite frankly that book really packs a punch if you read it all at once! Very intense stuff in there. 

Naturally, one of the scarier elements of the book includes the awful and horrific descriptions of the judgments, as well as the Antichrist’s kingdom and the awful reign of terror it will have. 

But none of these really compare to the unspeakably terrifying depictions of hell in Revelation. 

9 And another angel, a third, followed them, saying with a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, 10 he also will drink the wine of God's wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. 11 And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.” (Revelation 14: 9-11; ESV)

Eternal Punishment: Does it Fit the Crime?

One of the biggest objections to Christianity is the doctrine of eternal punishment. How could a just God condemn someone to an eternal punishment, with no possibility of relief, for finite crimes? On the surface, this seems extremely disproportionate to the crime. 

Furthermore, wouldnt a loving God just kill the unbelievers after punishing them in proportion to their crimes? Why make them suffer for all eternity?

The idea of hell bothers me, as it should any person with any ounce of compassion for others. (Same goes with God, who is more compassionate than anyone. Hell bothers him too). 

Different Attempts at Reconciliation

I have analyzed different suggestions to reconcile the eternal nature of hell with the justice of God. Some of them help. But in my opinion, only one of them fully stands up to scrutiny while also aligning with the Biblical text. Here are some of the major theories: 

  1. Hell as punishment for the infinite crime of rejecting God
  2. Hell as separation from God and/or God giving people what they really wanted
  3. Hell as ongoing punishment for ongoing rebellion against God
  4. Hell as experiencing the full effects of sin forever
Still a Liar?

I think there is some truth to all of these. But I only think one of them (or a modification of one of them) addresses the issue of proportionality. But before I tell you which one I think works best, lets go back to Revelation:

But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.” (Revelation 21:8; ESV)

Notice it does not say all the people who used to be cowardly, or murderers, or sexually immoral, or idolaters, etc. It speaks in the present tense. So in some sense, the people thrown into the Lake of Fire still are detestable, murderers, sorcerers, idolaters, etc. or whatever they were during their lives. 

Philosopher William Lane Craig, when analyzing different alternatives to show the justice of eternal punishment, points to this:
“I find it striking that when in the book of Revelation the bowls of God’s wrath are poured out in judgment upon mankind, those judged are not repentant but curse God all the more:” (1)
Repeatedly, in the face of all of the plagues, the people just hardened their will and did not give glory to God or repent of their sins. This seems to be one of the motifs/recurring themes throughout Revelation. 

The Apex of Human Foolishness

Furthermore, this theme of unrepentance seems to continue to bear itself out. 

19 And I saw the beast and the kings of the earth with their armies gathered to make war against him who was sitting on the horse and against his army. (Revelation 19:19; ESV)

How insane! Jesus has returned, they know he is God. But yet, the kings of the earth have the foolish audacity to try to go to war with him. They do not admit they were wrong and try to make amends. But instead, like blind fanatics, are silly enough to bring tanks and guns to a fight with God. They bring a toothpick to a gunfight, so to speak.

Character Formation 

Over the course of our lives, we make free moral choices. Through these choices, we form ourselves into the person we will become. After all, according to philosopher Richard Swinburne, if we do something good, it gets easier every time we do it. And likewise if we do something bad, it gets easier. (2)

Clearly, young people are more “malleable” than older counterparts. A 65 year old man who has been a die-hard Republican his whole life is more likely to stay Republican than a die-hard college kid who is a Republican.

What if there is a tipping point, at which the probability of a free creature changing its mind about how it wants to live, finally tapers off and approaches zero? Surely we all know people have “made up their mind” about something. And we know, even after a million years, they would never change. 

But what is God supposed to do with someone who has formed their character to the point of no return? After all in 1 Timothy, it says God has “perfect patience.” But what if the human in question has already crossed the event horizon in the character formation process? 

God’s “Perfect Patience”

Now, according to God’s “perfect patience” as it says in 1 Timothy 1:16, it seems logical that if God could somehow reverse their fate, he would. But it seems after this character formation process, they have literally made themselves into who they have wanted to become. They have made themselves into the person they are permanently going to be. 

There comes a point where any “repentance” that takes place would be entirely under duress. They would repent, not because they turned their affections away from sin, but because they got caught. It is my contention that those in hell are in the latter category. And St. Thomas Aquinas seems to agree:
Accordingly the wicked will not repent of their sins directly, because consent in the malice of sin will remain in them; but they will repent indirectly, inasmuch as they will suffer from the punishment inflicted on them for sin. (3)
But it seems even some who get “caught” don’t even repent under the duress. And I believe those who worship the beast in the end times are in such a category as well. And it is not unfair to say that they will likely be punished worse than others, hence the very vivid descriptions of torment for the beast worshipers.

As one prominent theologian, D.A. Carson, recently said:
Hell is not filled with people who are deeply sorry for their sins. It is filled with people who for all eternity still shake their puny fist in the face of God almighty in an endless existence of evil, and corruption, and shame, and the wrath of God. (4)
Now this may seem outlandish to some. After all, wouldn’t everyone repent under duress!?

But think of it this way. God isn’t actively pouring out his wrath on people for sin at the moment. If people already don’t like God, will him taking these actions make them love him more? 

On the contrary, they will likely hate him more. The Second Coming is not going to magically make all of the people who hate the Christian God suddenly like him more. It will simply intensify their frustration in many cases.

Divine Justice and Proportionality

So it seems we have come to the conclusion that at least in some cases, the damned never repent. But what is Divine Justice supposed to do with someone who has irreversibly decided to never repent? Surely God will not just choose to “agree to disagree” with them on matters of sin.

It does not seem unjust, that God would continue to make that person suffer, in proportion to their rebellion against him. As their rebellion continues, so does their suffering. It is only just that they suffer, to know that they are wrong, even if it is for all eternity. 

Another way to look at this is that the people who have decided to make themselves into evil people forever have an external state (pain) that forever reflects their internal state (i.e. an evil heart). 

Un-Modern View of Justice?

Now this doctrine of justice may seem terribly barbaric and against modern themes of justice and human rights. After all, if someone stole something, and doesn’t regret it, we don’t keep them in jail for eternity until they are sorry. We just fine them proportional to the offense, and it is done. 

But is it? In fact, it is more in line with modern ideas about justice than we might think on the surface. For if a thief is truly unrepentant, he will steal again, when set free. And is thus experiences the penalty again when caught again. So theoretically, his punishment lasts as long as the mal-intention continues.

In contrast to real life, no stealing will take place in hell. But the intention could forever remain, and thus suffering forever remains within them. 

C.S. Lewis compares the pain of punishment to a flag of truth planted in the soul. 
Pain) removes the veil; it plants the flag of truth within the fortress of a rebel soul. (5)
Lewis also explores the possibility that even in response to the pain, the soul does not repent. 
I said that Pain plants the flag of truth within a rebel fortress. We were then discussing pain which might still lead to repentance. How if it does not—if no further conquest than the planting of the flag ever takes place? (5)

God's Compassion

Of all the doctrines of Christianity, I dislike the doctrine of eternal punishment far more than any other. But this does not mean it isn't just. 

In fact, I would expect anyone with any ounce of compassion to feel the same. But we know, that God is the most compassionate person in existence. So it follows, he would take great pains for people to avoid this fate. 

And it seems he has. That the Being of his status would allow himself to be tortured to death to open salvation to all humanity is quite compassionate indeed.

Two Questions in One

This post addressed the proportionality issue of hell. It answers the question "does the punishment fit the crime?"

But it doesn't answer another objection. Most people phrase the question "how could a loving God send people to hell for eternity for not believing in him?" It seems this post answers that first question as to why there is a hell at all and why it is eternal. But the second question, I will answer in a subsequent post. 


  2. What is God's Judgment, Speaker: Richard Swinburne. Closer to the Truth TV Show

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