Hell and Justice

I've been rethinking hell. It's been along time since I took seriously the idea that humanity deserves eternal suffering. But I decided I should try to make a cool-headed assessment of the various possibilities. I’ve approached this by considering what might constitute a just cause for damnation.

1. Anything at all, or even nothing
This is the view that God needs no reason for causing his creatures infinite suffering. Rather than God being just because He acts justly, His actions are just because they're performed by God. God alone makes the rules; there are no transcendent moral laws by which He abides. The interesting and troubling implication of this view is that there is nothing inherently wrong about any action, however horrific it may seem to us. So the only reason why rape is wrong is that God says "Don't rape people". If God didn't command us not to rape, there would be nothing wrong with rape.

So is justice a transcendent law, or merely a part of creation? I suspect that most of us can imagine something an almighty God would be capable of doing which would be wrong. (He may in fact be prevented from doing it by His inherently just nature, but that's another issue.) I think causing immeasurable suffering to a helpless and undeserving creature is an example of something that would be unjust even for God. Consequently, if we are to believe in damnation, we must believe that it is something we deserve.

But you could take the opposite position - that anything God could possibly do or command would be just. My problem with this, besides the effect it has on my stomach, is that this makes justice kind of an empty concept. How can we make sense of saying "God is just" if "just" simply means "what God is"? If all God’s qualities are understood this way, it’s difficult to understand why He’s worthy of worship or obedience or love.

2. Someone else's sin
So if I've established that God is in some way constrained to act justly, the next question is whether (or to what extent) I understand what justice is. Is it possible that my own intuitions about justice could be wildly mistaken, and that justice permits - or even requires - one person to be punished for the sins of another? I'm don't think I could imagine anything that seems more fundamentally unjust, but it appears that at least some biblical authors disagree. Could it be that every one of us is guilty and deserving of damnation because of our ancestors' sins? That even infants who do not have free will and thus have never sinned are nonetheless under the righteous wrath of God? I have a hard time believing that my moral intuitions - intuitions which I'm told are given to me by God, those same gut feelings that tells me rape and murder are wrong - are so drastically mistaken on this point. The idea that we are justly found guilty of crimes we have not committed is beyond my imagination.

If this is justice, am I meant to comprehend it? Might I some day understand rationally that children are guilty of their parents' sins, and that every one of us really deserves to burn for Adam's disobedience? Or is it something that I must take on faith? If I were to try to believe that what seems to me the most grievous of all possible injustices is, in some unfathomable way, completely just, I would have to have to have enormous confidence in the source of this doctrine, and in my correct understanding of it. I'm a long way away.

3. One's own sin
If we accept that God acts justly, and that our understanding of justice is not wholly mistaken, we can move on to the question of eternal punishment. I fully understand that I am an imperfect creature, both by nature (which is not my doing, and for which I am not deserving of punishment) and continual choice (for which I do deserve punishment). I recognize that I do not deserve to stand before a holy God because of my willful unholiness. But do I deserve infinite punishment for my finite sin? If I've decided to believe that there is such a thing as justice apart from the will or whims of God, and that it is at least somewhat comprehensible to me, can I make sense of the idea that unending torment is a fitting punishment for finite sins?

The first thing we have to get out of the way is the idea that some people deserve eternal torment and others don't. If there were any relationship between the degree of sin and the degree of punishment, no one could possibly deserve infinite punishment. As creatures with finite wills and powers, living finite lives in finite worlds, we cannot do infinite evil. So either Hitler does not deserve eternal suffering, or you and I and Mother Teresa all deserve it as well. If we believe in eternal punishment we must sever the intuitive link between the severity of a crime and the severity of its punishment.

Which is a hell of a task. Even ignoring the mind-boggling prospect of infinite suffering, can we accept that all crimes are deserving of equal punishment? Can we accept that a lie is precisely as damning as an act of genocide? I can't see how.

Once again, we cannot say that we're so evil we deserve eternal punishment. Either we deserve it because we are less than absolutely perfect, or we do not deserve it. Is eternal torment just punishment for the smallest imaginable sin? Again, I can't see how.

My conclusion at this point is I don’t believe a just God would punish anyone with eternal suffering. This is not the same as believing there is no hell. I've by no means considered all possibilities here, but it's a start. I may consider other options in a subsequent post. Anyway, let me know if you disagree on any point.


Filth- Man said...

I am hoping to write a book on hell one of these days, but I'm starting to think I should just plagarize your blog instead.

I agree- eternal torment does not seem to be a just punishment for, well, anything. If you were a professional torturer, maybe you would deserve a lifetime of torment (eye for an eye, as Moses said) but not forever.

For what it's worth, I'm starting to think that hell as "exclusion" rather than "punishment" makes much morse sense... sure both suck, but the emphasis in "exclusion" is on humanity's continuous (even after death) willingness to submit to God. And yes, I believe that someone might change their mind after death... "hey, this rebellion thing is kinda stupid" and be forgiven, by a God who is supposed to be all-merciful.

Finally, the fact that so many Christians (and others) can't really stomach the thought of hell should make us suspect that something could be wrong with the theology. After all, our consciences were given to us by God- and the Spirit helps us tell right from wrong- right? I half imagine Matthew (the Gospel writer) sitting up in heaven shaking his head: "gee, I shoulda phrased that differently!"

Filth- Man said...

as you may have guessed, that should be "humanity's UNwillingness to submit to God" for those in hell.

Je Dois said...

wouldn't the real gift have been everlasting life for all without strings attached? I find it makes much more sense then those that don't believe what we believe are going to burn for all eternity. If God truly loved us, why would create a place where we would feel his absence for all of eternity?
Hell doesn't make sense like most things I find in the Bible...again, I revert back to the cultural progression of reglion theory that we are still following the belief system of a nomadic desert people...

good job with the post

Anonymous said...

I have compiled some testimonies of atheists and physical evidence of life after death.. I have to listen to what it says.. just the FACTS please.

There is extensive evidence from scripture that HELL was NOT MEANT FOR HUMANS, however, our own refusal to accept or seek a relationship with G_D combined with our love of things promoted by the fallen angels dooms us to be condemned with them.

Look up 'Doctrines of Demons" a John Ankerberg presentation @UTube..

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