Is Hell an Infinite Punishment?

One common argument against the traditional Christian view of hell, understood as an eternal punishment for unrepentant sin (Matt. 25:41-46; Mark 9:48; Rev. 14:9-11; 20:9-10), is that it is intrinsically unjust to inflict infinite punishment for finite sin. This argument has been deployed by both universalists and annihilationists. Defenders of the traditional view have responded to the objection in a variety of ways, but in this post I want to question the underlying assumption that the traditional view entails that hell is an infinite punishment. Not only does this not follow from the traditional view, I suggest, the idea itself should be rejected as incoherent. Objections to the idea of infinite punishment are really a red herring in debates over the doctrine of hell.

What would it mean for hell to be an infinite punishment? On the face of it, there are two plausible ways in which hell could involve infinite punishment. (I am excluding, for obvious reasons, the idea that hell involves infinite punishment because there will be an infinite number of people in hell.) First, the punishment could be infinite in intensity (e.g., in the degree of pain experienced). Second, the punishment could be infinite in duration (i.e., in length of time). Consider each option in turn.

I see two basic reasons for thinking that hell cannot involve a punishment that is infinite in intensity. (In what follows I’m taking for granted, following the biblical teaching about hell, that the punishment consists of conscious torment.) Evidently pain and suffering come in degrees. The pain of childbirth (I have it on good authority) is far greater than the pain of stubbing one’s toe. The pain of losing a child is far greater than the pain of losing a pet. Nevertheless, it’s hard to see how a finite consciousness could have the capacity to experience an infinite degree of pain, whether physical or emotional or any other kind. Furthermore, the Bible implies that there will be comparative degrees of punishment in hell; some will be punished more severely than others in proportion to the severity of their sins (Matt. 11:20-24; Luke 12:47-48). But if that’s the case, the punishments meted out must be finite in intensity. If everyone in hell is punished with infinite intensity then no person’s suffering could be more or less than any other person’s.

What about the idea that the punishment of hell is infinite in duration? According to the traditional view, hell is an eternal punishment. ‘Eternal’ here is to be understood as everlasting: without any end in time. (Note that this is significantly different than the sense in which God is said to be ‘eternal’; according the majority Christian tradition, divine eternality is to be understood as timelessness: God has neither beginning nor end in time because he transcends time altogether, just as he also transcends space.)

In what sense then can an endless duration be described as infinite? Philosophers and mathematicians have distinguished between actual infinities and potential infinities. An actual infinity is a set of items that is not finite in number; the number of items exceeds every finite number. One example of an actual infinity would be the set of real numbers between 0 and 1. Some philosophers, such as William Lane Craig, have argued that an actual infinity cannot exist in reality. (Craig uses this argument to support one of the premises of his kalam cosmological argument for the existence of God.) But as we’ll see in a moment, it doesn’t matter for our purposes here whether or not those philosophers are right.

A potential infinity, on the other hand, is a series or function that incrementally approaches infinity in value but never actually reaches it. The series of natural numbers — 1, 2, 3, 4, etc. — is a potential infinity. Each number in the line is ‘closer’ to infinity than its predecessor, yet every number in the line is a finite number, simply because its predecessor is also a finite number. The series is endless — it has no final item — and yet every item in the series is finite and the total length of the series up to and including that item is also finite. For example, the thousandth item in the series is finite (the number 1000) and the length of the series to that point is also finite (1000 items).

With this distinction in hand, it should be clear enough that if hell is endless then its duration is merely a potential infinity and not an actual infinity. Even if hell is everlasting, no person in hell would ever actually experience an infinite duration of punishment. Since the creation had a beginning in time, and hell is part of the creation, hell must also have a beginning in time; thus, at any point in time, hell has only existed for a finite duration — and the same must go for its inhabitants, of course. The total duration of the punishment suffered by the damned will be ever-increasing, but it will always be a finite duration: one year, two years, three years, and so on. It follows that the traditional view of hell does not — indeed, cannot — involve punishment that is infinite in duration.

Now the original objector might reply that it’s unjust even to inflict a potentially infinite punishment for finite sin. But it’s hard even to make sense of such a claim, never mind to justify it. The simple fact is that at any point in time the punishment suffered by a person in hell can only have been finite in duration (and, as I argued earlier, finite in intensity). Since God never actually inflicts an infinite punishment on anyone, how could he reasonably be charged with injustice for doing so? No matter how much time passes, it is always finite punishment for finite sin. While it may be trivially easy to argue that an infinite amount is disproportionate to any finite amount, it’s much harder to argue that some finite amount is disproportionate to some other finite amount when neither amount is readily quantifiable (by us) in the first place.

In sum, this particular objection to the traditional Christian view of hell fails because it attacks a straw man. The traditional view doesn’t involve an infinite punishment for sinners — at least, not in any sense that obviously implies injustice or disproportionality on God’s part.

66 Responses to Is Hell an Infinite Punishment?

  1. Prof. Anderson,

    I’m hesitant to reply to this because I don’t really like the “infinite” objection to Hell. It overlooks the enormous (in my judgment) problem of attributing to God a reliance on human systems like justice.

    Nevertheless, I think it might help to point out a couple of things: The “infinite” objection seems premised on the idea that (I) the sum total our sins, past present and future, deserves no worse than a punishment of finite duration. Appealing to Craig’s so-called potential infinite isn’t going to get God off the hook if (I) is true. It suffices to violate what we deserve that the duration of Hell is made arbitrarily large for each person. For, whatever our sins deserve, then if the duration is finite, an everlasting Hell will exceed it. If (I) is true, then we must take God to punish us more than we deserve, i.e. to punish us unjustly.

    One popular way out of this trap is to deny (I) by claiming that, even though our sins in this life deserve only a finite duration of punishment, (I) is still false because it ignores future sins, in particular sins committed while being tormented in Hell. On this view, the sinner keeps on sinning before he can be fully punished for his past sins, and this snowballs on forever. One curious corollary to this view is that God’s justice (whatever we take that to be) is never actually served; he’s always a few steps behind the sinner, who can transgress faster than God can punish.

    But in any case, I take the position that any divine punishment at all seems to serve no purpose other than vengeance. A system of justice seems to me to be a crucial component of civilization, but not in any way required for divine conduct. That is to say, the only purposes I can identify for human justice—e.g. protecting the innocent from violent offenders, motivating others not to commit crimes in the first place, etc.—have no analog to the divine realm, where resources of various kinds are presumably unlimited. I have no idea how one might go about demonstrating any purpose for Hellish suffering other than that God merely happens to enjoy seeing sinners suffer. But of course that sort of God is morally repugnant, and it’s certainly not the kind of God which I expect Christians to imagine they worship. But then, how do we make sense of a morally praiseworthy God causing such enormous suffering? I certainly don’t know how.

    Anyway, thanks for the post. It’s thoughtful and interesting, as usual, even if I disagree with its core message.

    –Ben

    • Thanks, Ben.

      Some quick responses to your three points:

      1. “For, whatever our sins deserve, then if the duration is finite, an everlasting Hell will exceed it.” Actually, this isn’t necessarily true. Consider the asymptotic function f(x) = 1/(1+x^2). Every value of the function is a finite value and the definite integral of the function (i.e., the area enclosed by the function and the zero axes) is also a finite value (π/2). Of course, I’m not suggesting that this function represents the degree of suffering in hell! It just serves as one counterexample to your claim, since the function, even though it represents a potential infinite, never exceeds a certain finite value.

      2. The idea that the punishment for a sin can be simultaneous with that sin doesn’t seem to violate any obvious metaphysical or moral principles. In any case, I disagree that justice is only served once the punishment is completed. If the sentence is just, and the fulfillment of the sentence is guaranteed, how could justice not have been served? If a man who committed first-degree murder has been sentenced to death, I am satisfied that justice has been served even if the execution will take place tomorrow morning.

      3. The traditional view of hell is that the punishment is retributive; it is the just desert for rebellion against God. Apparently you reject the idea of retributive justice in principle, in which case it’s no surprise that you find the doctrine of hell hard to swallow. But it’s beyond the scope of the present topic for me to defend the concept of retributive punishment, and others have done that far more capably than I could. All I will add here is that divine vengeance and human vengeance are not on a moral par (cf. Rom. 12:19). Indeed, divine vengeance is coterminous with ultimate retributive justice, simply by virtue of the kind of being that God is. I have no problem with the idea that God takes pleasure in the exercise of justice; indeed, it would be very strange and concerning if he didn’t.

      • Prof. Anderson,

        Sorry for the technical difficulties… my comment should have been placed here. I’ll reproduce it in its proper place (here), and then you can delete the original if you like…

        + + +

        Thanks for the responses! I’m not sure how far you want to dive into this, but I do have some responsory thoughts in case you’re interested…

        1. When I was writing my first response, I actually had to do a sort of double-take, because I too immediately thought of your objection. However, if you look at premise (I), you’ll notice that it specifies that we deserve only a finite DURATION of punishment, not a finite AMOUNT of punishment (which perhaps could be extended over an infinite duration, as you suggest). So thanks to some precise wording in (I), I’m in the clear, there. ; ) Besides, even if we wanted to talk about amounts of punishment instead of durations, it seems like it would violate the traditional doctrine of Hell to say that, after a sufficient length of time, the lake of fire will become merely a slight annoyance!

        2. I suppose it might be possible for a sin and its punishment to take place simultaneously, but given that both such events appear to require a positive duration of time to take place, it’s hard to see exactly how that could work out. Perhaps I should not have used the word “corollary” since there is an alternative possibility, albeit an unusual one. As for justice being served at the moment of pronouncement, or guarantee, I must disagree. We might be tempted to use language such as “justice has been served” once a sentence has been handed down, but such language would be inaccurate, I think. If justice has been served at the time of sentencing, then when the sentence is finally being carried out we would be prevented from saying that justice is BEING served—for it will have already been served when the judge pronounced sentence. Yet it seems hard to deny that the taking place of a just punishment is part of the serving of justice.

        3. I know this is a little off-topic, so I’ll try not to get too involved with it. However, I do want to clarify that I’m not opposed to retributive justice in principle. Retribution can be an important tool in a human system of justice. But I am opposed to retribution as an end in itself. In fact, if we are to take Hellish retribution to involve such heinous suffering, then it seems to me morally perverse to love it for its own sake. So if a morally praiseworthy God loves retribution, then it must be because he desires some end which retribution achieves, and uniquely up to the amount of suffering it involves. Unfortunately, I’ve never seen how it is possible that God could use retribution as an instrument for obtaining some non-immoral end. Maybe it’s possible—I don’t know. But I surely don’t see how.

        Anyway, thanks again for the comments! I hope you find mine interesting as well.

        –Ben

        • Ben,

          Your comments are always interesting and appreciated.

          1. I must be missing something in your response here, because as I pointed out in my post, even if hell is everlasting, at any point in time the actual duration of punishment endured is always finite. As for the lake of fire becoming a slight annoyance, I know you meant that tongue-in-cheek, but I should reiterate that my counterexample was intended as nothing more than that. I’m confident that God’s real solution is better than my hypothetical!

          2. There are meaningful senses in which we can say that justice has been served both before, during, and after the punishment. The question is why we should think God’s credibility hangs on whether justice has been served in all these senses at each point in time. So long as every sin is justly punished, sooner or later, there is no problem with a temporal delay. In fact, the Bible treats such delays as evidence of God’s forbearance. Furthermore, on the Calvinist view God is never “a few steps behind the sinner” because he foreordains all things. All this to say, I’m finding it hard to see any bite in your objection here.

          3. The end which retribution achieves is, of course, justice: the satisfaction of moral debt. That is a supremely moral end, and it’s hardly surprising that God desires it. :) In all serious, I think you misunderstand the nature of retributive justice; you use the words, but you seem to have something different in mind than the classical view.

  2. For the reasons you mention, among others, we should recognize that hell as described in the NT (i.e. Gehenna) is something that exists on this side of death, not the other.

    By contrast, the afterlife is addressed by the terms Sheol (Hades) prior to the coming of the kingdom and heaven after that.

    Thanks for letting me say this.

    • Mike,

      Your comment seems confused to me. I argued that endless punishment doesn’t entail infinite punishment. But if hell is endless (as, e.g., Mark 9:42-48 indicates) then it cannot exist only prior to death, for then it would have an end: the point of death. Moreover, Luke 12:5 makes clear that one is “cast into hell” after death.

  3. James,

    Based on your comment, I went back and re-read your post. I misunderstood my first reading. Now, if I am indeed understanding you, it seems you are arguing that the traditional view of hell only argues that the suffering there is endless and not infinite. That seems to be quibbling over semantics. People who make the objection you are trying to address would continue to make it substituting the word “endless” for the word “infinite.” In fact, “endless” is just what is meant by the objection, not in the sense you define (even if your definition is more precise).

    That is, here’s the concern: to keep someone in hell for as long as the saved are going to be in heaven is disproportionate to the sins committed. If you’re going to refute an opponent you need to have more going for you than technicality of definition.

    But again, maybe I am misunderstanding your argument yet again. Please advise.

    • Mike,

      The difference between infinitude and endlessness isn’t merely semantic, as my post demonstrated. If objectors to the traditional view of hell cannot properly distinguish the two, so much the worse for them. I’m simply responding to the objection as it is commonly stated.

      The point I made in the penultimate paragraph is that once the infinity concept is taken off the table, the objection becomes much harder to defend. On what basis could we conclude that an endless punishment is necessarily disproportionate to the sins committed, given that both are finite but (for us) unquantifiable?

    • Here’s a real-life specimen, from page 2 of Rob Bell’s Love Wins:

      Does God punish people for thousands of years with infinite, eternal torment for things they did in their few finite years of life?

      While one wouldn’t expect a popular writer like Bell to be conversant with the distinctions I’ve made, his rhetorical question is all too typical of the conflation of categories found in common objections to the traditional view of hell. My point here is simply that the infinite/finite comparison is a red herring.

    • pastorvon

      Mike: That is, here’s the concern: to keep someone in hell for as long as the saved are going to be in heaven is disproportionate to the sins committed.

      The trouble with joining in an exchange that has been ongoing is that the questions raised may have already been answered subsequent to the occasion. With that caveat and the admission that I’ve not read the entire discussion.

      Here goes: Mike, who is to say that the judgment is disproportionate to the sins committed?

      My problem with the whole discussion is that you are seemingly debating terms of quantity in a realm where the issue is quality.

      The Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q. 84, for example: “What does every sin deserve? Every sin deserves the wrath and curse of God….”

      It does not matter that there is only one sin or if there are thousands for which an individual in responsible, if there is one for which atonement has not been made, that sin deserves to wrath and curse of God without definition.

      • pastorvon,

        My previous exchanges with James and Paul each ended in impasse so you are certainly not reopening a settled issue.

        You ask, “Who is to say that the judgment is disproportionate to the sins committed?” My answer is “We are.” God teaches us in Scripture to be just and part of justice is making the punishment fit the crime. When James and Paul (our James and Paul, not Scriptures’) insist that God cannot be held to our standards and that He has the power to punish endlessly, I agree with them. But when they say it would be just for Him to do so, I part company with them because the punishment would be infinitely disproportionate to the sins. Because God is just, I believe He lives up to the standards He gives us and that He would not inflict infinite (endless), and therefore disproportionate, punishment.

        The WSC#84 contradicts Scripture (e.g. Luke 12:47-48).

        The only joy that could exist in heaven with an endless hell outside it would be the joy of an older brother who felt no compassion for the prodigal brother.

      • pastorvon

        Mike:

        Then God is unjust for sending any soul to hell for only one sin, i.e, that is, if there were someone who had sinned only one time.

      • Yes. However, He would never do something so unjust as to create a torture chamber, then create a person who, upon sinning one time, would be consigned there forever.

      • The Biblical Case for Everyone Going to Heaven:
        http://wp.me/PNthc-i6

  4. James,

    I acknowledge your distinction; I just don’t see that it makes any significant difference. Let’s say Person A goes to heaven and Person B goes to hell. After 100 million years, your distinction allows you to say that Person B has only suffered a finite punishment and will continue to suffer only a finite punishment. Person B might even acknowledge the validity of your distinction. However, he will have spent 100 million years suffering and will continue to suffering in all the years to come. What difference is it to his experience or hopelessness that it is correctly called finite rather than infinite?

    Or, to put Rob Bell’s challenge in terms fitting your distinction, “Does God punish people for unending years with torment for things they did in their hundred years or less of life?” His rhetorical question stands.

    God’s judgments are indeed retributive, but they are also redemptive. They are intended to teach justice. You are proposing a scheme of punishment that is neither retributively or redemptive.

    As to your exhortation that we have no basis for calling your proposal unjust, this flies in the face of God’s command that we do justice and love mercy. If my child sins and I punish him ceaselessly then I have been unjust. Even the book of Job, which leaves God’s ways largely in the dark, teaches that in the end we will bless God’s judgments and that mercy is the triumphing theme of them.

  5. Mike, FWIW, asking a question about how it is just to punish a sinner with an endless hell doesn’t show that it is unjust. “What could they have done to deserve that?” isn’t an argument for injustice either. If it were, we could show that all punishments are unjust merely by asking the question.

    “If my child sins and I punish him ceaselessly then I have been unjust.”

    And who are the children of God?

    http://www.biblegateway.com/keyword/?search=children+of+god&searchtype=phrase&version1=31&spanbegin=1&spanend=73

    Moreover, if you child murders and you give him the chair, you have been unjust. It’s not your right. Justice may only be served by its being meted out by the proper authority.

    • Paul, perhaps Bell really was seeking information by asking the question. I, however, took it to be a rhetorical question to which the obvious answer is “no.” I don’t follow Bell enough to know exactly where he stands on this issue but, for my part, I would see assigning someone an eternity in a tormenting hell as unjust. I also believed Jesus would back me up on this. Nonetheless, my fundamental reason for believing that everyone is going to heaven is not speculation about what the justice of God would do but rather because I believe it’s the doctrine that the Bible teaches (as I lay out at http://wp.me/PNthc-i6).

      Every human being is a child of God, though only a fraction of us act like Him and therefore deserve the title.

      I agree with you that justice should only be exercised by the proper authority, but I don’t see how that’s relevant to our disagreement. My reference to punishing my own child was an analogy. I did not suggest that I am the child’s ultimate judge.

  6. Pingback: The Mathematics of Hell | The Meandering Mind

  7. Mike,

    I don’t follow Bell enough to know exactly where he stands on this issue but, for my part, I would see assigning someone an eternity in a tormenting hell as unjust. I also believed Jesus would back me up on this.

    Again, that’s not an argument. And, it is distinct from your belief that all will go to heaven. It is consistent for you to claim it is just to punish people with everlasting hell and God will have mercy on all and let them into heaven. So it’s not enough to argue that you believe all will go to heaven.

    “I agree with you that justice should only be exercised by the proper authority, but I don’t see how that’s relevant to our disagreement. My reference to punishing my own child was an analogy. I did not suggest that I am the child’s ultimate judge.”

    Well then it had a crucial disanalogy. You used it to try to show God would be unjust to do something it was clearly unjust for you to do. Moreover, it had the flaw of suggesting that all men are God’s children rather than becoming children through faith in Jesus.

  8. Paul,

    Re: your first paragraph, I’m wondering if you mistyped your thoughts as I cannot make sense of the paragragh as written.

    Re: your second paragraph, I don’t buy your assertion of disanalogy. God is not merely judge of the human race – He is our Father (as Luke’s genealogy makes clear). We were estranged by sin but bought back by the ransom paid for all (1 Tim 2:6).

  9. Mike,

    First paragraph: (i) what I quoted from you isn’t an argument for the injustice of hell; (ii) if you think your latter claim that all will go to haven is an argument for the injustice of hell, it isn’t, because (iii) your belief that all will go to heaven is consistent with it being just that God punish all in hell forever. It could be just that God punish those in hell forever, but God freely decides to have mercy on all and not do it.

    Second paragraph: The disanalogy arises because you tried to claim it would be unjust for you to punish your child with hell, and then you left the implication that it would therefore be just for God to do so as a homework exercise for us. I pointed out that you don’t have the proper authority to mete out that punishment; hence, the disanalogy. Of course, I deny your take on 1 Tim 2:4, so prooftexting the verse is not an argument either

  10. First paragraph: Yes, I believe everyone is going to heaven because it is what the Bible teaches and not because I think that anything else would be unjust. And, yes, I believe that it is the mercy of God that takes us to heaven and not the justice of God. However, given that context, I do believe our respective places in heaven will be a function of the justice of God.

    Second paragraph: In my analogy I made no mention of punishing my child with hell. I said “If my child sins and I punish him ceaselessly then I have been unjust.” I meant sins against me; that is, disobeys me. Inflicting an unending punishment on even the totality of my child’s shortcomings would not be just.

    By the way, I don’t say God doesn’t have the right to do heinous things to us. He is the Creator and He can do anything He wants. It would just be contrary to His character to be unjust, and contrary to the way He has taught us to be.

  11. Mike,

    First paragraph: you’re not following.

    Second paragraph, I don’t see how you could punish your son ceaselessly. And, right, if he sins against you to punish him in an unending way would be unjust. And that matters for God how, exactly? His sins against you don’t deserve endless punishment, but the debate is about sins against God. So you’re begging the question (and still not arguing for the injustice claim you want to make).

  12. Paul,

    As best I can tell, the upper hand you think you have in the argument hangs on the distinction James made in the original post (which I contend is a distinction without a difference) and your contention that there can be no human analogy for what God does in your docrine of hell (which undercuts your ability to call what you think God is doing just – for if you can’t analogize it to something a human being can understand, you’re just being arbitrary to call it just.)

  13. Mike, thanks for the comment, but my real problem is that we’re not having an argument.

  14. Paul, what would you like me to do differently?

  15. Mike,

    “That is, here’s the concern: to keep someone in hell for as long as the saved are going to be in heaven is disproportionate to the sins committed.”

    My question for you is, how can we know that the punishment is disproportionate with the sin? Does the Bible teach us this? Physics? Philosophy?

    “If you can’t analogize it to something a human being can understand, you’re just being arbitrary to call it just.”

    Are you claiming that Paul doesn’t understand his own concept of justice, or that Paul’s concept of justice is incoherent? That seems odd either way. Perhaps you mean that Paul’s concept of justice doesn’t satisfy your analogy. Well, so what? Unless you have an argument for the claim that beliefs about God must first pass the “human analogy” test …this doesn’t have any support.

    “If my child sins and I punish him ceaselessly then I have been unjust.”

    This is granted as true. Now, why should we accept the same about God?

    If my body hits the ground at 100mph, I die. Therefore…God is mortal?

  16. David P,

    We know justice by conscience. Conscience is the organ of our being by which God gives us the ability to know right and wrong.

    Our consciences may become defiled and to that degree not operate properly. Moreover, God is greater than our consciences even when they’re operating properly.

    Nonetheless, we can never afford to violate conscience for we must always seek to do the best we know how. And God can heal our conscience. Best of all, the Holy Spirit can dwell within our conscience enlightening us beyond our previous means.

    My problem with Paul’s calling God’s consigning sinners to a hell of endless duration just is that he does it arbitrarily disallowing any comparison with justice that a human being could understand. I would have no problem if he merely said God had the right to do such a thing. But to say that such a thing is just requires some way of relating such a behavior to our understanding of justice.

    • My problem with Paul’s calling God’s consigning sinners to a hell of endless duration just is that he does it arbitrarily disallowing any comparison with justice that a human being could understand. I would have no problem if he merely said God had the right to do such a thing. But to say that such a thing is just requires some way of relating such a behavior to our understanding of justice.

      I imagine Job’s reasoning followed much the same lines — right up until chapter 38.

      • Actually, it was Job’s three friends who kept insisting that all that had happened to him was just. And God rebuked them for doing so, saying, “you have not spoken of Me what is right as My servant Job has.”

        • Let me get this straight. Job’s three friends said that what befell Job was just, Job disagreed, and God sided with Job? Surely you can’t mean that, Mike. But then I don’t know what you do mean.

          I fear you’ve misunderstood the point of Job 39-42. Why did Job think he needed to repent (42:6)? If you’ve missed the point of those chapters, no wonder you’ve missed my point too.

      • James,

        Job thought he needed to repent because he realized that he’d spoken about things he didn’t understand. If that’s the lesson that you think applies here then you were wrong to write the original post and I was wrong to comment on it.

        • The lesson concerns our understanding of divine justice, not our understanding of matters in general. Job thought he had grounds for complaint against God, but he realized in the end that he was in no position to make that sort of judgment. The same goes, I suggest, for your inflexible application of human intuitions about justice to the traditional doctrine of hell.

      • James, may God decide between us as to whose doctrine is based on human intuitions and whose is based on Scripture and the Spirit.

  17. Mike,

    As you say, we’re fallen. I have no doubt that all—from those in heaven to those in hell—will recognize the justice of God’s actions. We will all admit the righteousness of it, and every single tongue will confess Jesus is Lord.

    I only disallowed your claim that: (i) If Milke Gantt ceaselessly punished his child for sinning against Mike Gannt, (ii) then Mike Gantt would be unjust; (iii) therefore, God would be unjust if he punished his child ceaselessly for sinning against God.

    There are quite a bit of missing premises from (ii) –> (iii). Moreover, Mike does not have the proper authority to mete out that kind of punishment, but whether God does is part of the debate, so it begs the question. Furthermore, it suffers from problems like this: If Mike knew his neighbor would murder his wife unless Mike stopped it, and Mike could stop it, but Mike did not stop it (say, he didn’t want to interfere with his neighbor’s free will), then Mike would have done an injustice to his neighbor’s wife. All humans recognize this would be unjust and immoral. However, God does it will millions of horrific crimes. Hence, Mike also thinks God is perfectly just and moral in doing things we humans would call unjust and immoral if any human did it.

    • I see no missing premeses between (ii) and (iii). Change the metaphor if you like and consider a government which has authority under God to execute judgments against crimes. A just penalty is one that fits the crime. An unjust penalty is one that is called cruel and unusual. If you can find no metaphor in human behavior whereby you can compare it to God’s in your scenario and call both just , then you have no basis to ask humans to consider God as just in your scenario. You can say they have no choice and have to accept it, but you have no reasonable basis to ask them to call it just.

      In your example, God is not held to the same standard with regard to the neighbor because He is able to raise the dead, provide restitution and comfort to the victim, and extract recompense from the evildoer – none of which a human being can do. Therefore, we have to act in the moment but He only has to act in the fullness of time.

      But perhaps we should come at this problem from the other direction, Paul. You say God punishing sinners endlessly in hell is just. On what basis do you make that claim?

      • Mike,

        There are indeed missing premises, that you don’t see it makes no difference.

        You then claim, again, the everlasting hell is unjust, but you refuse to argue for it…again.

        You then claim that having the ability to do raise the dead, provide restitution, etc., makes the action I bring up not unjust. That’s silly. How does it follow that having that ability means you haven’t done something immoral? We don’t call humans immoral for knowing that S will kill S* unless we do something to stop S, having the ability to stop S and refusing to stop S, just because we don’t have the ability to raise the dead etc.

        Moreover, this view would allow kind rich people to not stop theft if they knew about it beforehand, since they can comfort the victim and restore his fortune.

        Lastly, you just made a *distinction* between God and man, allowing God to do what would be immoral for man to do. I make those same distinctions; hence, you’ve undercut your argument.

        I know you won’t appreciate any of this and you’ll respond again with a non-responsive response, so this will be my last comment here.

      • Paul,

        While you and I haven’t been able to come to an agreement here about precisely what is just, I am glad we fully agree that God is…and that He is just.

  18. zaothanatoo

    W.G.T. Shedd argued that the everlasting duration of justice in hell is a direct result of the nature of guilt. Specifically, guilt is permanent and punishment persists (with more or less severity, as noted in the original post) so long as guilt remains. Where’s the injustice in that?

    • zaothanatoo,

      If you think that there ought to be a divine justice system whereby it assigns permanent guilt to sinners which no finite duration of punishment can satisfy, and that the punishment allotted is of Hellish intensity, then sure, it’s not unjust on your view to send sinners to an everlasting Hell. But the controversial point is whether or not your view is appropriate in the first place! Ought there be a divine justice system under which people are assigned to eternal Hellish torment? It seems to me that precisely the opposite is true, for the reasons given in my first two posts here.

      –Ben

      • zaothanatoo

        Ben: “If you think that there ought to be…”

        I never said anything about how I think things ought to be with respect to divine justice, primarily because my opinions on the subject don’t seem relevant to the realities under discussion.

        Ben: “But the controversial point is whether or not your view is appropriate in the first place!”

        I haven’t said anything about my view, so I’m not sure what you think you know about its appropriateness.

        Ben: “Ought there be a divine justice system under which people are assigned to eternal Hellish torment? It seems to me that precisely the opposite is true, for the reasons given in my first two posts here.”

        What standard do you appeal to in adjudicating the appropriateness of divine punishment.

        Regarding your two posts above:

        1.) How do you substantiate your assertion (I)?

        2.) You’ve criticized the common “perpetuity of sin results in perpetuity of punishment” argument, but that’s not my argument. I simply referred to a different argument, namely, Shedd’s argument that perpetuity of punishment is based on the permanence of guilt.

        3.) First, as I understand it, the traditional view of hell does not view retributive justice as an “end in itself,” so that’s irrelevant to the argument. Second, you stated, “Unfortunately, I’ve never seen how it is possible that God could use retribution as an instrument for obtaining some non-immoral end.” As interesting as this biological tidbit might be to some, I see here no argument against the possibility of retribution serving a moral end.

        A sinner appealing to his own moral intuitions as the basis for how divine justice ought to behave seems a lot like surveying the opinions of criminals on the appropriateness of various apprehension techniques of law enforcement.

        Cheers.

      • zaothanatoo

        “What standard do you appeal to in adjudicating the appropriateness of divine punishment.”

        That should end with a (?). Sorry for the punctuation error.

      • zaothanatoo,

        I took you to be approving of the view you described in your first post. If you join me in disagreeing that there ought to be a divine justice system whereby people are allotted eternal punishment for some kind of “permanence of guilt,” then great! But it sounded to me like you were suggesting this view is good and right. As I suggested earlier, though, a God who just loves retribution for its own sake—retribution in the form of Hellish torment—is fairly plainly an evil monster.

        Now, in response to your numbered points…

        (1) If I were to affirm (I) it would be misleading. As I explained in my first post, I’m not objecting to Hell on the grounds that it’s eternal; only I was addressing Prof. Anderson’s topic.

        (2) The permanence of guilt seems to presuppose some kind of divine justice system, which as I pointed out in my first post does not appear to serve any moral purpose.

        (3) If you’re just as perplexed at divine retribution as I am, then that’s fine; I ask no more of you. I mentioned previously that, as far as any of us seems to know, it is POSSIBLE for divine retribution to serve some moral end. But it seems like most Calvinists want to say that they are actually able to identify a good and noble purpose to Hell, and that in particular this dreadful retribution glorifies God somehow. But how? What does it mean to say that Hellish torment glorifies God, other than to say that God just loves to see certain people be tormented? What kind of glory does that bring to a creator deity who can have anything he wants? Maybe that’s not your view; I don’t know. Feel free to disavow it at your leisure.

        As for “adjudicating the (in)appropriateness of divine punishment,” I use the same social bearings that most everyone else uses. What else should we use?

        –Ben

  19. zaothanatoo

    Ben: “As I suggested earlier, though, a God who just loves retribution for its own sake—retribution in the form of Hellish torment—is fairly plainly an evil monster.”

    Me: As I stated earlier, “the traditional view of hell does not view retributive justice as an ‘end in itself,’ so that’s irrelevant to the argument.” I politely suggest that you may want to stop using this “retribution for its own sake” canard and engage in criticizing the various arguments presented.

    To the points…

    (1) In general, I may not be understanding what you’re saying here or above. However, I don’t think your distinction between “duration” and “amount” is significant. If duration is viewed as an amount of time then your assertion doesn’t escape James’ counterexample.

    (2) You’ve presented your opinions on this but no arguments so far.

    (3) Ben: “It is POSSIBLE for divine retribution to serve some moral end.”

    Given S5 modal logic,
    Let D = divine retribution serves some moral end
    Let G = God knows a morally sufficient end for divine retribution

    1. Possibly D [from quote above]
    2. Necessarily, possibly, D. [from (1) and axiom S5]
    3. Necessarily, if possibly, D, then G. [from divine omniscience]
    4. If necessarily, possibly, D, then necessarily, G. [from (3) and axiom K]
    5. Necessarily, G. [from (2) and (4)]

    This argument has the benefit of deriving its conclusion from your quoted premise above, demonstrates that there necessarily is a morally sufficient end for divine retribution, and eludes all of your ensuing issues with various Calvinist claims.

    As for your “social bearings,” given their rather variant nature, do you think it’s *possible* your social bearings have misled you regarding your intuitions about the appropriateness of divine retribution?

    • zaothanatoo,

      You didn’t really engage my central points, and so I’m still not quite sure where you’re coming from. Are you perhaps taking the position that even though we can’t IDENTIFY a morally sufficient reason for sending people to Hell, we can still know that there exists such a reason, which is unknown to us? I’m happy to discuss this further, but it would really help to know what you think about the issue!

      And the numbered points…

      (1) Prof. Anderson’s counterexample of a diminishing-intensity punishment doesn’t hold up to (I), and it doesn’t hold up to orthodox Christian theology, either. I’m not sure why you think it does.

      (2) I didn’t claim to be making an argument on this narrow point (though I have made plenty of other arguments). Instead, I made an observation—and it is that there seems to be no moral purpose for Hellish torment. I was hoping you would either agree with me on this point, or else take the alternative position that there is a moral purpose, and defend it!

      (3) When I say that it is “possible” for God to have a morally sufficient reason for having humans tormented in Hell, I am referring to EPISTEMIC possibility, not logical possibility or the so-called metaphysical possibility. So, unless we can say that it is possible in some other, non-epistemic sense for God to have a morally sufficient reason to have people tormented in Hell, then your modal argument isn’t going to hold up, because your third premise is clearly false on an epistemic interpretation. In particular, since it is also possible that there is NOT a morally sufficient reason (i.e. since we do not know that there is a morally sufficient reason), then there is an epistemically possible world where God does not know there is a morally sufficient reason (because there is none!).

      Some numbering of my own…

      (4) It seems to me important to remind everyone that it is immoral to desire retribution for its own sake, even if you already agree. I am not attributing that position to you, so please don’t suggest I am using it as a “canard.” On the contrary, it drives home the point that we need to find some other means of justifying divine retribution than appealing to retribution itself. It seems you agree, and if so I’m glad!

      (5) I don’t know what else we might mean by moral appropriateness if we’re not talking about the widely-shared social values we’ve been brought up to respect. How do you use your moral terms differently?

      –Ben

      • zaothanatoo

        “You didn’t really engage my central points, and so I’m still not quite sure where you’re coming from.”

        Honestly, I’m having a hard time distinguishing your “central points” from peripheral points. Most of your comments seem to be predicated as mere opinions or bare assertions. If you could point me to some of your central arguments, I would be grateful. I apologize if I’m a bit too dense to see them.

        “Are you perhaps taking the position that even though we can’t IDENTIFY a morally sufficient reason for sending people to Hell, we can still know that there exists such a reason, which is unknown to us?”

        This is close to the conclusion of the modal argument that I presented above. However, I’m not arguing that we *can’t* identify such a reason.

        “Prof. Anderson’s counterexample of a diminishing-intensity punishment doesn’t hold up to (I), and it doesn’t hold up to orthodox Christian theology, either. I’m not sure why you think it does.”

        I think I’ve been consistent in stating that I don’t understand what you’re asserting here under point 1. However, you didn’t respond to me regarding duration/amount, and your assertions regarding “arbitrarily long” punishment beg the question against Shedd’s argument referenced above, which you’ve yet to respond to directly.

        “I didn’t claim to be making an argument on this narrow point (though I have made plenty of other arguments).”

        We must be working with different definitions of what is and is not an argument, I suspect. :)

        “Instead, I made an observation—and it is that there seems to be no moral purpose for Hellish torment. I was hoping you would either agree with me on this point, or else take the alternative position that there is a moral purpose, and defend it!”

        I think that I rather clearly disagreed with your observation and I have defended the position that there is a moral purpose for everlasting retributive punishment in both the modal argument and Shedd’s forensic argument.

        “When I say that it is “possible” for God to have a morally sufficient reason for having humans tormented in Hell, I am referring to EPISTEMIC possibility, not logical possibility or the so-called metaphysical possibility.”

        I recognize that the thrust of your claim is epistemic, but surely you don’t intend it as *merely* epistemic. What (other than logical or metaphysical possibilities) would you use as the condition for your epistemic claim “as far as any of us seems to know”?

        “So, unless we can say that it is possible in some other, non-epistemic sense for God to have a morally sufficient reason to have people tormented in Hell, then your modal argument isn’t going to hold up, because your third premise is clearly false on an epistemic interpretation.”

        What’s clear to one is sometimes mud to another. You’ll have to substantiate why premise 3 is false on an epistemic interpretation; and as I said above, your epistemic claim must rest on certain broader possibilities.

        And I’ll give you one more argument tonight, just for fun. Epistemic claims of possibility must be predicated on omniscience, since any knowledge claim by a finite individual might be contradicted by some yet unknown fact. The only way to know that a given belief is true is to know that all contraries and contradictories are false. But this entails omniscience. So any knowledge claim must begin by derivation from the revelation of an omniscient mind, the mind of God. And that revelation declares the everlasting justice of all-knowing God in the places James referenced in the OP. So any claim regarding epistemic possibility presupposes the existence of God, who has revealed Himself as a Perfect Judge.

        “In particular, since it is also possible that there is NOT a morally sufficient reason (i.e. since we do not know that there is a morally sufficient reason), then there is an epistemically possible world where God does not know there is a morally sufficient reason (because there is none!).”

        So let’s say that it’s not epistemically possible that there is not a morally sufficient reason, given the argument above from omniscience.

        “It seems to me important to remind everyone that it is immoral to desire retribution for its own sake, even if you already agree. I am not attributing that position to you, so please don’t suggest I am using it as a “canard.” On the contrary, it drives home the point that we need to find some other means of justifying divine retribution than appealing to retribution itself. It seems you agree, and if so I’m glad!”

        On this, I agree with James that you don’t appear to fully grasp what we’re talking about with respect to retributive justice. Unfortunately, I can’t think of any “succinct” treatments on the subject of the top of my head. So I’ll just punt on it. Shedd’s Dogmatic Theology has a length section on the subject, but it’s some heavy lifting.

        “I don’t know what else we might mean by moral appropriateness if we’re not talking about the widely-shared social values we’ve been brought up to respect. How do you use your moral terms differently?”

        I’m using them in terms of divinely revealed moral commands. I suspect that if you visited another continent you might realize that the values you’ve been brought up to respect are not as widely-shared as you currently believe.

        Thanks for your thoughts. Cheers.

  20. Prof. Anderson,

    First of all, I can’t seem to find a way to reply in the proper thread, so this spot will have to do. Sorry for any inconvenience. That said…

    1. As I suggested in my first post, I think premise (I) above is really what the anti-infinite-punishment folks are after. As long as (I) holds true, it doesn’t matter if the duration of the punishment never arrives at an “actual” infinite. It suffices that the punishment is arbitrarily long in duration; then that violates (I). You suggested that the punishment could diminish in intensity, but this too violates (I) so long as the duration is arbitrarily large—and of course it also violates the traditional view of Hell as a place of great torment (as opposed to mild annoyance).

    2. Well it wasn’t exactly an objection, which is why you might not find any “bite” in it. But it might bother some people to find that at no point in time has justice been finally and actually served (in the fullest sense). I just thought perhaps you might be one of them.

    3. I guess I just don’t see how someone could have a moral debt of suffering to God. You suggest that I am misunderstanding the classical view of retribution. Well, perhaps this would be a good time to point out that I’m not a trained moral philosopher, and so I’m liable to make such mistakes. If you have a link or a citation handy, you could refer me to a (hopefully succinct) explanation of what you take retribution to be, and I would be happy to check it out. For my own part, I have been using the term in the sense that retribution visits desert on a moral lawbreaker as assigned by some respected system of justice.

    Whatever it is that you mean by the term, though, I can’t find any interpretation which would justify God subjecting humans to hideous torments. For instance, when you say that God wants to see our moral debts satisfied, I must ask, what more is there to paying moral debts than simply having God enforce a set of rules he draws up? Is the enforcement itself what God loves so much, or does he want to see some other end served by enforcing them?

    Maybe I’m missing something obvious. If so I beg your patience. But I have to be honest, here, in that I think an appeal to justice or debt doesn’t help but to delay finding a moral end to Hellish punishment.

    Thanks for your response,

    –Ben

  21. zaothanatoo

    James,

    Thanks for the interesting post and allowing us to conduct discussions of this nature here on your blog. I’d invite any criticism you might have of my comments/arguments above, as I recognize that my understanding of modal logic is fairly sophomoric in comparison with your own. I’d be glad for the correction. Faithful are the wounds of a friend, and all that… :)

    • zaothanatoo,

      Let me see if I understand you correctly. It sounds like you will agree that retribution is not a moral end in itself. You evidently think that Hellish torment is instrumental in achieving some moral purpose, but you appear unable (at least so far) to actually identify what that purpose might be. (This, by the way, is one of those central points I mentioned—that even though there might be some moral purpose for eternal torture, we haven’t been able to find out what it could be.) So you apparently take the position that, even though we don’t know exactly what the moral purpose is, we at least know THAT there exists such a moral purpose. It just happens to be elusive to us.

      If you disagree with the idea that we haven’t been able to identify a purpose, then I’m quite curious, what do you think it is? Because it’s certainly elusive to me!

      For support of your position that there exists a moral purpose for Hell, you turn to the following lines of evidence: First, you raise Shedd’s “forensic argument.” As I mentioned earlier, though, this argument (as you presented it) takes for granted the controversial point that there ought to be some kind of justice system in place under which eternal torture and permanent guilt are assigned to moral lawbreakers. But of course I vehemently disagree with this suggestion, for the reasons I’ve already outlined. Second, you constructed your own modal argument; yet as I have pointed out, it doesn’t work on the epistemic interpretation of possibility presupposed by the first premise.

      Most recently, you presented an argument that access to an omniscient mind is required in order to have knowledge. I see several problems with this, however: First, the only way I know to make sense of the argument results in an internally inconsistency; in particular, you appear to start things off by arguing that omniscience is required in order to have knowledge, but then you turn around and deny that conclusion by saying that mere access to an omniscient mind is sufficient. Yet if that’s not what you meant, then I’m at a loss to see how you think any knowledge claim “entails omniscience.” Second, it simply is not the case that we need to hold in our minds an active belief in every single of (an infinite number of) logical deductions from some piece of knowledge. If it were, then since such a task is impossible (even for a Calvinist) it would mean none of us have any knowledge, a clear violation of how we use the term. Third, the sum total of all logical deductions from a piece of knowledge is not the sum total of all truths, as Hume pointed out in his famous essay. Fourth, the existence of an omniscient mind has no immediate bearing on the morality of torturing people forever in Hell.

      To sum, you haven’t offered up any moral purpose for Hell. And while you’ve attempted to make up for that by offering other arguments to show that a moral purpose exists, I don’t find them convincing, for the reasons given.

      –Ben

      • zaothanatoo

        Ben,

        Let me see if I understand you correctly. You have a lot of opinions regarding the appropriateness of divine retribution as testified to in Scripture (i.e. everlasting conscious torment) which have been derived from your social group’s values. You’ve made many assertions (read: not arguments) on the basis of those opinions. You don’t find any of my arguments convincing since they contradict the aforementioned social values and opinions.

        I’m not sure where to go from here, so I think I’ll just briefly summarize my case and hand the last word over to you. Thanks for your sharing your thoughts and ideas.

        1.) Retribution is justice according to what a crime deserves, by definition. When you say things like, “I am opposed to retribution as an end in itself,” or “I’ve never seen how it is possible that God could use retribution as an instrument for obtaining some non-immoral end” you are saying Humpty Dumpty-style nonsense. Even your most recent clarifying post on retribution is actually a defense of *reconciliatory* justice (predicated on consequentialism), not retributive justice.

        “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” :)

        2.) James demonstrated that everlasting punishment in hell is not infinite, you’ve agreed that retributive justice (of some kind) against the guilty is appropriate, but asserted that the duration is inappropriate. Shedd’s argument essentially points out that a person is permanently guilty, so the length of time they are punished simply matches the length of time they are guilty: everlastingly. You’ve asserted that this begs a controversial question of whether or not there ought to be a system which enforces everlasting torment and permanent guilt on moral lawbreakers. But the argument doesn’t assume these things; it argues from the nature of guilt to the duration of punishment. If someone is punished for their guilt for ten minutes or ten millennia, they will be equally guilty at both points in time. Anything less than everlasting punishment is arbitrary.

        3.) The modal argument stands, unless epistemic possibility is to be considered in vacuum. Epistemic possibility depends on logical and metaphysical possibility (“as far as we know”). As I said above, consider premise 1 to be stated in terms of logical possibility and your objection is moot. If you’d like to argue for why epistemic possibility should be considered without reference to logical possibility, go ahead, I’m all ears… er, eyes… you get my drift. :)

        4.) The sketched argument from divine omniscience is peripheral to the discussion. I was just mentioning it in passing. I will simply point out that your contention regarding an internal inconsistency is easily resolved by recognizing two orders of knowledge: God’s thoughts are primary, we have Analogical Thoughts. :)

        To sum, you haven’t offered any arguments for consideration. Admittedly, I haven’t attempted to provide you with any moral purpose for hell (which seems to be the thing you are most interested in), but my point has been that your contentions regarding the duration of punishment are arbitrary, that knowledge is derived from revelation, and that if God testifies that there is a moral purpose for hell then no social group’s opinions have sufficient authority to overturn it.

        Thanks again. The last word is yours. Cheers.

  22. Prof. Anderson,

    I was looking over what I had written before, trying to figure why you thought I had misunderstood the concept of retribution. Looking back, I see that maybe I could have done a better job of communicating the point about retribution being an end in itself. Allow me to try to clear that up now… (and please forgive the grisly illustration)…

    Suppose I have a daughter, and a violent offender, call him Hank, murders her; and suppose further that I learn that he is guilty of this terrible crime. In this situation, I’m going to burn with desire to visit retribution on Hank, and it’s NOT going to be because I have some other end in mind which retribution is instrumental in achieving. No, I just want that criminal Hank to suffer! From my internal perspective, it’s all about making him pay for his crime. He has hurt me deeply by murdering my daughter, and I want him to see him suffer like I have, because that’s just the sort of vindictive person I will become after being so deeply wounded.

    But now let’s step back and look at it from an external perspective. As moral agents, should we tolerate or perhaps even celebrate my desire to visit retribution on Hank? I think that the answer is yes, we should—but it’s not because retribution is just a wonderful thing IN ITSELF. Retribution causes a great deal of suffering (it would cause Hank to suffer, for instance), but we all recognize that in human society it also serves important purposes. Namely, because we know people tend to value retribution, potential moral lawbreakers are deterred from their crimes, and this is an enormous benefit to everyone. Since the benefits (deterring moral lawbreaking) outweigh the drawbacks (causing certain people to suffer), we take retribution as having great value to us as human beings. But it’s not because we love retribution for it’s own sake—on the contrary, if retribution had no deterrent benefits, then we should be loathe to tolerate it given that it leads to such great suffering. But so it happens that retribution IS beneficial, and for that reason it’s sometimes hard to imagine living without it.

    Notice the different between the internal and external perspectives: When I want to visit retribution on the murderer Hank, I’m not thinking about making sure future criminals are deterred. I’m not wondering, “well if I don’t visit retribution on Hank, maybe people won’t take me seriously…” No, I’m just burning with a brute desire to make that guy suffer! There is no INTERNAL instrumentality to my impulse to retribution. On the other hand, the reason that other people will respect my retributive desire (to a point, anyway) is not because retribution is such a great thing in itself. On the contrary, as we have observed, retribution is an immediate cause of suffering on the part of those found guilty of crimes. But we celebrate my retributive desire because we know retribution serves a useful role in human society. So, from an EXTERNAL perspective, retribution is instrumental in achieving the goal of minimizing suffering in the long run by improving the overall safety of our societies.

    If we look at retribution in that way, then it seems plain why we shouldn’t tolerate divine retribution in the same way we tolerate human retribution. An omnipotent creator-deity with presumably unlimited resources has no need to cause some people to suffer as a deterrent to others. And since retribution consists largely of making certain people suffer, it would be immoral for us to celebrate that unless it served some other, sufficiently counter-balancing moral end.

    The question, then, is what moral end does divine retribution achieve? You suggest that it serves the ends of justice and satisfaction of moral debt. But notice that retribution serves these ends is in a CONSTITUENT way: Retribution is a component of justice, and we can have everything else that divine justice gives us without demanding the retributive component. Suppose we call this divine justice* (where the star * denotes “sans retribution”). Why should we prefer divine justice to divine justice*? It seems to me that divine justice is little more than divine justice* with a bunch of extra suffering thrown in. For God to have the preference of adding all that retributive suffering to divine justice* seems to me quite monstrous.

    Anyway, I hope that clears up any miscommunication on my part.

    Thanks,

    –Ben

    • Ben,

      I’ve been trying to figure out why we’re talking past each other on this point, and I believe it’s because I hold to a classical view of retributive justice and you (apparently) hold to a modernist view of retributive justice (which I would suggest is really just a secularized simulacra of the genuine article).

      On your view, retributive justice has to be instrumental in nature; it must always serve the end of some other conception of justice (e.g., deterrence or restoration). But on the classical view, retributive justice is a species in its own right; a distinct conception of justice that must be considered alongside other conceptions (though not necessarily incompatible with them). On this view, an immoral act incurs a fitting penalty simply by virtue of the fact that it is immoral and not because it serves some other end.

      Consider this example. Suppose you and I are the last two people on earth, and I kill you in a fit of rage because you spilled Dr Pepper all over my signed copy of The Nature of Necessity. On the classical view of retributive justice, I deserve to be punished simply by virtue of the fact that I murdered you, and not because it serves some other extrinsic purpose, such as restoration or deterrence. Indeed, in this scenario it’s hard to see how any such extrinsic purpose would be served, given that I am now the only human left. (Note that the issue here is whether I should be punished, not whether I could be punished.) On the classical view, then, wrongdoing necessarily incurs a fitting penalty; the penalty isn’t contingent on the implementation of some other species of justice (and certainly not on societal conventions or utilitarian principles).

      Now, I will be the first to grant that such a conception of justice only makes sense within a theistic worldview. But then, that’s precisely the point in this context. Given your secular humanist view of retributive justice — which, I suggest, differs substantially from the classical view — it’s no wonder that you have difficulty in principle with the doctrine of hell.

      Anyway, I appreciate the stimulating interaction, Ben. This will be my last word on this topic.

      • Prof. Anderson,

        Okay, well I’ll go ahead and let you have the final word then, except I wanted to let you know that I appreciate the time you’ve put into responding.

        Thanks again,

        –Ben

  23. Ben,

    “And since retribution consists largely of making certain people suffer, it would be immoral for us to celebrate that unless it served some other, sufficiently counter-balancing moral end.

    Retributive justice has an essential normative-aesthetic feature, it’s that the punishment “fits” the crime. It is fitting to punish S with X for committing Y. I propose this “fittingness” is far more important and essential to retributive punishment than the things you bring up. When something is fitting it is to an extent intrinsically good and beautiful. As Zaibert writes,

    “Retributive punishment, that is, punishment justified by desert, exhibits this aesthetic element even more decisively, for desert (arguably itself a type of fittingness claim) also possesses, in addition to an ethical dimension, an aesthetic dimension.39 The most perspicuous characteristic of fittingness claims is their aesthetic dimension. States of affairs which exhibit fittingness are to the extent that they exhibit it, and other things being equal, beautiful; insofar as states of affairs which include someone getting what she deserves are a subclass of the states of affairs exhibiting fittingness, then they, too, are beautiful (even if what she deserves is painful, even if it is punishment). — Leo Zaibert, The Fitting, the Deserving, and the Beautiful (Journal of Moral Philosophy, 2006, Vol 3(3): 331-350.

  24. zaothanatoo,

    Thanks for letting me have the last word. I’ll go ahead and let you have the final say on the arguments themselves, but I do want to clear up some apparent misconceptions about my position…

    Now, you do have some parts of my view correct. For example, you are quite right that actually finding a moral purpose for Hell is one of my chief concerns (as opposed to merely arguing whether or not there exists such a purpose to be found). And I definitely regard God’s system of eternal torment as monstrous.

    Unfortunately, you have apparently misinterpreted other parts of my view. For instance, you suggested that I take retribution to be appropriate as long as it is sufficiently short in duration, when in fact I regard divine retribution of ANY duration (even finite) as morally unacceptable. Perhaps more importantly, you seem to think I won’t accept your conclusions because to do so would contradict my judgment; in actuality, I won’t accept them because the arguments you give for them either rely on disagreeable premises or dubious inferences. Furthermore, I’m not a consequentialist, though somehow you took me to be defending a kind of consequentialism in my last post.

    Beyond that, I’m disappointed that you don’t recognize the reasoning I’ve outlined in support of my views. Have I really been so unclear that you missed every single one of my arguments? What about (3) from comment 539? Or the second paragraph from comment 502? Or the fourth paragraph from the same comment? Or the sixth paragraph from <a href="http://proginosko.wordpress.com/2011/03/22/is-hell-an-infinite-punishment/#comment-546"comment 546? The fourth paragraph from comment 545? The list goes on… I know I’m not a perfect communicator, but am I really so terrible that all my reasoning has been lost in transmission, and that you think I’m just spouting “Humpty Dumpty-style nonsense,” as you put it?

    So I guess we’ve been severely handicapped by these communication difficulties. Hopefully next time around we’ll have greater success than we’ve had here. In the mean time, I’m sorry I wasn’t able to get you to see why I take the position I do. Maybe other readers will have better luck.

    Take care, and thanks for the conversation.

    –Ben

  25. James,

    Got a question. Doesn’t this objection arise from the understanding that sins committed against a God of infinite holiness require the punishment (or sacrifice) to be of infinite value? I have also understood this to be one of the reasons for the deity of Christ being an absolute necessity (along with the Bible’s clear declaration).

    However, I have always understood this to mean (“infinite”) in a qualitative sense, and not a quantitative one.

    With this in mind, couldn’t this “qualitative” understanding likewise be applied to the objection to infinite punishment. Would simply pointing out the fallacy of equivocation on their part be a better defense?

    • Roger,

      Thanks for the comment! I agree with Gordon Clark (at least, I think I do) that the term ‘infinite’ is much abused and misapplied in theology. I grant that there are good senses in which God’s attributes are “infinite” (i.e., they cannot be exceeded) and Christ’s atonement is “infinite in value” (i.e., no atonement could have been more valuable than Christ’s). However, as my post indicated, I have concerns about the claim that hell involves “infinite punishment” and about the inference from endlessness to infinitude. At the very least if the term ‘infinite’ is to be used in this context, it must be carefully defined and qualified so as to avoid absurd conclusions and obvious objections.

      To address your specific question: I’m not sure what it would mean for a punishment to be qualitatively infinite rather than quantitatively infinite. Perhaps I’m missing something obvious; if so, it wouldn’t be the first time. :) In any case, if your point here can be shown cogent, I would see it as complementary to my response rather than a competitor to it. What do you think?

  26. zaothanatoo

    Ben,

    I’d like to withdraw what I said regarding consequentialism. It was clearly a misconstrual of your statements and a mistake on my part.

    I would also like to apologize for the “Humpty Dumpty” comment. Originally, I meant it sort of jovially, but in retrospect I think it crossed the line into unkindness.

    Will you forgive me?

  27. zaothanatoo,

    Sure thing. Don’t sweat it.

    –Ben

  28. James,

    I think for a punishment to be qualitatively infinite rather than quantitatively infinite would mean that it satisfies the demands of God’s justice perfectly. It would leave no loose ends and be a perfect rendering in every conceivable way.

    However, If it is understood in the qauntitative sense, whether in duration or intensity, then it would be a kind of justice that could never be fully realized (by definition alone). It would be the same as allowing a neverending deficiency in perfect justice (and therefore holiness) to freely roam with no hope of fulfillment.

  29. pastorvon

    Mike Gantt: relative to your essential denial of the existence of any sort of place as hell, what is your source of information to this allegation?

  30. >> BENJAMIN: One curious corollary to this view is that God�s justice (whatever we take that to be) is never actually served; he�s always a few steps behind the sinner,

    I don’t see how this is a failing or unjust. Punishment, by definition, must FOLLOW evil acts – it certainly can’t precede them! Non issue.

    >> BENJAMIN: But in any case, I take the position that any divine punishment at all seems to serve no purpose other than vengeance.

    I hate to quibble over words, but I think of vengeance as just punishment, while revenge is the term for an unjust, out of proportion, hate driven, vigilante infliction of punishment. When God says “veangance is mine, I will repay,” I understand this as a claim that God is both in the position of authority to repay, and will repay justly.

    >> BENJAMIN: the only purposes I can identify for human justice – e.g. protecting the innocent from violent offenders, motivating others not to commit crimes in the first place, etc. – have no analog to the divine realm

    First, I think your list of purposes for human justice is incomplete. In addition to

    1. protecting the innocent (presumably through incarceration or capital punishment)
    2. the deterrent effect of punishment

    There are at least two more:

    3. Reform of the prisoner (“Penitentiaries” are supposed to produce penitence)

    Punishment (except for capital punishment) is part of helping the prisoner to repay his debt. Not only does this remove any debt to society hanging over his head, it can help clear his conscience, which is part of what frees him to be a good citizen in the future.

    4. Establishing Justice

    When the ‘scales of justice’ are not balanced, people take matters into their own hands. Establishing justice removes the need for people to have to be involved in vigilante justice, which is not dispassionate and logical like civil justice is supposed to be. It ends ongoing animosity (ideally).

    In light of eternity, you are correct, the first two are not applicable. The third is only applicable if you believe in some sort of purgatory, which Protestants do not.

    However, the last item most definitely DOES apply to eternity, and I think the Bible promotes this as the main reason for hell – JUSTICE.

    >> MIKE: you are arguing that the traditional view of hell only argues that the suffering there is endless and not infinite. That seems to be quibbling over semantics.

    I agree, this is semantics, and does not address the main accusation – endless/infinite punishment for finite sins.

  31. BTW, inspired by this post and discussion, I’ve written a couple posts on this. Thanks for visiting:

    Why eternal punishment?

    What good does eternal punishment accomplish?

  32. dgsinclair,

    I’m not sure what you mean when you say that “establishing justice” is one of the purposes of justice. That doesn’t seem to help us with motivating any system of justice at all, whether earthly or divine.

    –Ben

  33. Ben,

    It’s just an old fashioned way to say that justice must be consistently executed and enforced.

    What I mean is that if justice is not equitably and consistently enforced, people end up taking justice into their own biased, emotional hands instead of allowing it to be impartially and dispassionately administered by a party with no direct interest in the conflict.

    Also, in an eternal sense, it means that it is morally right to have justice fully and fairly meted out – God would be UNjust and unloving (to the victims) to not punish rapists, liars, or any other sin.