The Tentative Apologist
2/1/10 at 05:26 PM 0 Comments

When there is hell to pay: On the problem of eternal punishment

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In the last post I turned to the most difficult of Christian doctrines, the doctrine of hell as eternal conscious torment. There certainly are passages that seem to suggest this doctrine. For instance, consider Jesus' chilling words in Matthew 25:41:

"Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels."

Those are the words. And we are left to ponder them. God, by definition, is the very embodiment of justice. But how can eternal punishment be just? This seems totally out of sync with contemporary theories of jurisprudence which focus on two primary justifications for inflicting punishment: reformation and deterrence. That is, we punish people with the hope of reforming them (hence the shift in nomenclature from "prison" to "correctional institute") and we punish people to deter others from acting in like fashion.

Unfortunately the judgment of eternal fire fits neither of these. To begin with, it cannot be punishment as reformation if the person is to be punished forever. A fire that reforms does not exist within mainstream Protestant theology though for those so inclined (e.g. Catholics) it is known as purgatory. But let's be clear: purgatory does not go on forever and thus if it exists, it is not the eternal fire Jesus describes here. So this won't address the problem.

So could the point of an eternal hell be so that it might serve as a deterrent to others? That is, could people be punished eternally to serve as an eternal warning to others not to act in like fashion?

Incredibly some Christian theologians have suggested this idea but it is flawed on multiple levels. First, even if a deterrent were of use to keep others from falling into sin, that would hardly make it just to subject someone to eternal punishment merely for this reason. Compare: slicing a hand off may be an effective deterrent from shoplifting but that is hardly adequate as a rationale to justify mutilating the shoplifter.

Second, this idea of hell as deterrence has it all wrong since people living in a glorified, redeemed state will not need a deterrent to keep from sinning. There will be no possiblity of sinning either from the purified enviornment nor from one's sanctified character.

Finally, even if God did require an eternal deterrent, surely he would not need to subject real people to real suffering. Instead if he needed to he surely could create a virtual hell which would be readily available to anyone needing a reminder of the consequences of sin.

So we're left with our dilemma: if eternal punishment serves neither as reformation nor deterrence, then what is its point?

The point, according to the mainstream tradition, is found not in reformation or deterrence but rather in pure, unadulterated retribution. (The word "retribution" comes from a Latin word meaning "repayment".) Hell is eternal punishment because the damned individual has incurred infinite debts owing an infinite payment.

However, when you think about it, this only multiplies our questions. In 1981 Dudley Wayne Kyzer was convicted in Alabama of a vicious triple homicide. His sentence was, for many years, the longest ever recorded in the annals of justice: two life sentences plus ten thousand years. That's long. Hitler's sentence, had he lived to face justice at the Nuremberg Trials, would presumably have been even longer. But even the longest sentence of finite duration (e.g. a billion billion years) is still only the first moment of eternity. What could possibly warrant a retributive punishment of infinite duration and incalculable suffering?

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