Monday, January 04, 2010

Hell and the Justice of Everlasting Punishment

On two grounds one could object to the biblical idea that infernal everlasting punishment is just:

1) The finite and completed amount of time in which Christ suffered before death;
2) Everlasting punishment supposedly is not commensurate with the evil deeds for which God will punish people.


The first objection

The crucifixion, suffering and death of Christ nowadays is typically articulated or described with the following phrase: “paid the price,” as in “Christ paid the price for our sins.” Because so many Christians today portray the suffering of Christ as “the price” for every sin of every reprobate who will eventually go on to be consigned to the lake of fire and everlasting punishment, it is only natural for one to stop and think: Hey, since it is the price for our sins, how could everlasting punishment be just, since it simply is much longer than death by crucifixion?

This is a fair question to ask and one which is not entirely novel. An easy answer could be “The short death of an eternal person carries a weight equal to that of the eternal death of a finite being.” I can see someone offering up this would-be solution, and it is not one that I accept. However, it is an idea that is not without merit. Suppose there was a luminary who was born into a life of luxury and high prestige and who really lived it up, all until he stepped away from that lifestyle, became like an unimportant pauper living on the streets, and then died an ignoble death involving his being mocked and his having to endure unspeakable pain and discomfort? The pain of knowing that you willingly put yourself in this position, and that you could instead be lounging in sunny Miami had you not made the decision to put yourself in this position--this has to count for something.

A better answer would be to explain what should be an obvious truth underlying the claim that “Christ paid the price for our sins”--it is understood by all, or rather it should be so understood, that no one is saying that the suffering of Christ is just like the punishment of sinners. No one thinks or asserts that people who reject Christ will on Judgment Day be sentenced to death by crucifixion. In other words, ideally the post-Arminians who run around saying “Christ paid the price for our sins” are merely asserting that either two things are required for justice or appeasement of divine wrath: the suffering of Christ or the everlasting punishment from which no reprobate will escape.


The second objection

The second objection begins with the notion that punishment which is not commensurate with the crime is neither good nor just. The objection itself is that everlasting punishment is not commensurate with the evil deeds for which one is punished. However, the objection is suspect on one hand and moot on another hand.

Think of the concept of infinity for a moment. Actual infinite numbers are impossible to begin with, and anything that we refer to or speak of in language is more or less defined or bounded. So in one possible sense, to say that one will be punished forever, or that one will live forever, etc. need not be anything other than to say that he or she will experience a certain state of affairs until the end of time.

However, if someone harbors the admittedly reasonable belief that the word “everlasting” as in “everlasting punishment” necessarily or really conveys the connotation of recurrent acts of extending time such that the duration of one’s punishment could continue to be extended--such that saliency of the phrase in question is in its connotations as opposed to denotation--then he should keep a number of things in mind:

1) He does not know what effects everlasting punishment will have upon the human body or the human person. It could well be that severe initial phases of punishment damage pain receptors or diminish the body’s capacity to feel pain, such that duration of punishment becomes a necessary means of proper, commensurate punishment. In fact, we hear about the destruction of wicked people in 2 Thessalonians 1.7-9 and 2 Peter 3.7, and what is a person destroyed but a person who is beaten down and thrashed if not broken to pieces and ruined? The full range of capacities which he had when he was born is no longer with him.

2) He seems to assume that once lawbreakers and rebels are consigned to the lake of fire on the coming Day, they will stop sinning. Yet the Bible seems to carry no indication that one stops sinning at this time, and sinners who even today are angry with God will have new reasons to be angry once they see the infernal flames begin to grow higher and higher all around them. Sinless perfection of personal conduct will very possibly never be attained by reprobates, and any future sins warrant future punishment--you get new punishment for every new sin.

3) What people are punished for is cosmic treason and rebellion against God and for transgressions against his law. And you have to stop and ask yourself and answer the questions: How much is God worth? How bad of a thing is it to thumb your nose at the divine? Is it a small or trifling thing to shake your fist at the infinite, holy, just, good, mighty Creator, Sustainer and Sovereign Ruler of the universe and all its vast array of beauty and good things? No, it is not a small and trifling thing to rebel against God.

So if you are punished forever for even just one wrongdoing, this may well be a just thing. Meanwhile, if God is willing to have some mercy upon Christ such that Christ’s suffering amounts to less than everlasting punishment, who can object to this? God is the offended party, and the offended party may have mercy as he will.

4) The appeal to commensuration is possibly a double-edged sword. If I walk up to a random stranger and sucker-punch him, then I deserve to be sucker-punched in return. If I pick on ugly, unpopular kids at school for fun, I deserve to have someone pick on me for fun. This is what commenurateness is all about: eye for eye and tooth for tooth, not prolonged torture for random sucker-punches or Chinese water torture for sardonic grins.

Correction: This is part of what commensuration is about. If I punch the stranger and he feels no pain and suffers no harm, then apparently he has no right to punch me in return to the point where I am pained or injured. Or if I pick on someone and he suffers no emotional distress as a result and is unbothered by my meanness, he has no special right to pick on me. However, if the physical pain I inflict on the first person takes several days before it goes away, and if the second person is traumatized for several subsequent days, and if we will be honest about the matter--then apparently I am suddenly deserving of punching and mocking with effects lasting several days

And one can guess what that seems to imply. If God were grieved by the unjust and harmful things that his creatures sometimes do, and if that grief were to persist forever, then sinners would suddenly become rightful candidates for punishment which is nothing less than everlasting.

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