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.