Thursday, January 12, 2017

Common Objection #33- "Infinite Punishment in Hell for Finite Crimes is Unjust!"

I received a thoughtful text from a fellow Christian brother who was wrestling with some questions about hell.  The inquiry he made went something like this, "Why would God punish people for all eternity for a finite amount of sins?"  I thought this was a great question, and I offered him some thoughts of my own and some additional resources he could use to research the issue more thoroughly. I wanted to do the same here.

Before considering the duration of hell, let's make sure we are clear on what the nature of hell is. At the very mention of the word hell, some would conjure up images of Dante's Inferno or medieval ideas of torture.  Hell is not such a place.  As theologian R.C. Sproul explains:

"Almost all the biblical teaching about hell comes from the lips of Jesus. It is this doctrine, perhaps more than any other, that strains even the Christian’s loyalty to the teaching of Christ. Modern Christians have pushed the limits of minimizing hell in an effort to sidestep or soften Jesus’ own teaching. The Bible describes hell as a place of outer darkness, a lake of fire, a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth, a place of eternal separation from the blessings of God, a prison, a place of torment where the worm doesn’t turn or die. These graphic images of eternal punishment provoke the question, should we take these descriptions literally or are they merely symbols?

I suspect they are symbols, but I find no relief in that. We must not think of them as being merely symbols. It is probably that the sinner in hell would prefer a literal lake of fire as his eternal abode to the reality of hell represented in the lake of fire image. If these images are indeed symbols, then we must conclude that the reality is worse than the symbol suggests. The function of symbols is to point beyond themselves to a higher or more intense state of actuality than the symbol itself can contain. That Jesus used the most awful symbols imaginable to describe hell is no comfort to those who see them simply as symbols."1

Of course, the skeptic may ask, "How can God be so cruel?"  Sproul once again is instructive:

"No matter how we analyze the concept of hell it often sounds to us as a place of cruel and unusual punishment. If, however, we can take any comfort in the concept of hell, we can take it in the full assurance that there will be no cruelty there. It is impossible for God to be cruel. Cruelty involves inflicting a punishment that is more severe or harsh than the crime. Cruelty in this sense is unjust. God is incapable of inflicting an unjust punishment. The Judge of all the earth will surely do what is right. No innocent person will ever suffer at His hand."2

So we have good reason to conclude that the punishment experienced by the sinner in hell will be just, but that brings us back to our original question: Why would God punish people for all eternity for a finite amount of sins?

Let's consider a few possible responses.

1. The severity of the crime dictates the length of the punishment, not the time it took to commit the crime. A rape might take three minutes to commit, but the punishment should be certainly longer than three minutes.

2.  Crimes against the infinite, eternal Being are the most severe and may demand eternal punishment. Author J. Warner Wallace explains:

"...it’s important to remember the nature of the crime that eventually leads one to Hell. It’s not the fact you kicked your dog in 1992. It’s not the fact you had evil thoughts about your teacher in 1983. The crime that earns us a place in Hell is our rejection of the true, living, eternal God. The rejection of God’s forgiveness is not finite. People who reject Jesus have rejected Him completely. They have rejected Him as an ultimate, final mortal decision. God has the right (and obligation) to judge them with an appropriate punishment. To argue that God’s punishment does not fit our crime is to underestimate our crime."3

3. People continue to sin in hell (they are sinners); therefore, the punishment continues.  As one writer put it, "Unsaved people do not only sin for 70, 80, 90, or 100 years. They sin for eternity."4

God is not only merciful, but He is also a just Judge.  He cannot violate His own nature and let sin go unpunished.  However, because of God's mercy, He has made a way for us to spend eternity with Him by sending Jesus-the ultimate evidence of His love and mercy.

To see our other replies to common objections, go here.

Courage and Godspeed,
Chad

For Further Investigation

Why Would God Punish Finite, Temporal Crimes in an Eternal Hell? by J. Warner Wallace

More articles from Wallace can be found here.

Video: Is an Infinite Hell Unjust? by Brett Kunkle (Comical, but addresses the question)

An involved and more analytical reply by Glenn Miller can be found here.

Audio: If Sin is Finite, Why is Hell Eternal? by Alan Shlemon

How is an eternity in hell a just punishment for only a human lifetime of sin? by gotQuestions.org

You can find a transcript of a debate between philosopher William Lane Craig and Ray Bradley on the topic of hell here.

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