This post is part of a series.
Of the three philosophical arguments marshaled in this series in support of Conditionalism, the argument from proportional, finite justice is the most powerful, if not most important.
However, it is critical to understand the case against the Traditional view from this perspective for the same two reasons – it is perhaps the most important philosophic consideration, and in our view, Traditionalism fails miserably on this point.
This comparative point is not made merely to claim that, in the absence of other viable positions, Conditionalism is true – the positive case for it must still be made. However, the abysmal showing of Traditionalism on this most important point is pressed in order to shake it from its entrenched orthodox primacy.
The Intuitive Strength of The Proportion Argument
Conditionalists stress that their primary objections to eternal conscious punishment (ECP) is exegetical. But the philosophical and intuitive case against ECP is significant and must be explored.
Before we get to intellectual objections to the perceived injustice of ECP, we must not overlook the strong intuitive evidence against it by the challenge of the dis-proportionality of eternal punishment. We should be careful not to dismiss this intuition, nor employ it in a genetic fallacy argument against Conditionalism (e.g. “You just reject ECP because you feel it is unjust, therefore your other arguments are untrue.”)
Individuals who are oriented towards logical argumentation, and who view intuition as mere subjective emotion rather than a meaningful tool in our epistemogical tool kit, may dismiss intuition as mere hunches to be disregarded. This mistake, also commonly made by materialist atheists who claim to reject all subjectivity, is at least a practical mistake, if not an intellectual one.
The practical error in ignoring the intuitive rejection of eternal torment is that many, many people, rightly or wrongly, rely on their gut level reactions, especially when it comes to moral and ethical decisions. In fact, this strong emotional reaction is commonly seen among atheists who use their objection to eternal torment as one of their primary reasons for rejecting Christianity. Yes, they bring intellectual reasoning to bear upon the issue, but we should not miss their emotional component as spurious or not ontologically important to their positions.
The intellectual mistake in disregarding intuition, which I have discussed in more detail here, is that it is a valid component of our toolkit that we all use in finding truth. Being subjective, it is certainly fallible, but it is still valuable in that our minds, which have spent our lifetimes attempting to integrate our experiences and intellectual understandings, have the ability to use intuition to alert us of possible ethical wrongs from a deeper place beyond our limited conscious understanding.
In real life, we do not ignore such indications, and in the intellectual life, we should value this information, even if it is not definitive. In practice, intuitive indications are often a necessary first step alerting our intellect to re-evaluate an issue. In addition, it is a common, if not perhaps a necessary part of ethical, moral, and religious decision making that intuitive conviction precedes full intellectual understanding.
In fact, many of us make ethical, moral, and religious commitments based on intuitional convictions alone. This normal process of trust before full verification is what Anselm meant by the phrase “faith seeking understanding.” As much as this offends the empiricist mindset, it is how humans work in actuality, and that needs to be acknowledged and accommodated.
In summary, intuitive objections are more felt than understood. They alert us to prominent problems that we need to intellectually explore, and the intellectual approach may then unearth more objections than intuition has indicated. The gut-level distaste for eternal suffering of any living being is immediate for most of us, and sounds like torture. Would a loving God employ such cruelty? Such intuitions are a good first evidence to the contrary.
The Philosophical Arguments Against ECP
Let’s briefly examine the objections raised by the intuitive points above, and take in the more complete scope of philosophical problems with ECP related to the infinity of ECP.
1. ECP Violates the Law of Proportional Punishment
Commonly, this rule of retributive justice is known as ‘an eye for an eye’ or ‘the punishment must fit the crime.’ In philosophy, this principle is called by the Latin term Lex Talionis. This concept is central to the Old Testament view of justice (Exodus 21:24, Deuteronomy 19:21), and forms the basis of what is arguably God’s measure for the administration of justice by humans.
Some critics point out that even this ‘one for one’ justice is too severe a view, remarking that the Deuteronomy passage includes the phrase ‘show no pity.’ They also conclude from Jesus’ commentary in Matthew 5:38 that Jesus disapproved of such a justice, but pointed to something softer. However, if we assume that Jesus confirmed the entire OT law (Matthew 5:17-18, same passage as his criticism), then it may be more likely that he was criticizing the common use of it by many to forgo forgiveness and justify vigilante vengeance, and to extract as much as possible from others in disagreements.
In fact, the only place in the Old Testament where we see justice NOT distributed by a court is in Numbers 35:9–30, and even that is arguable. The point is, the God who expects us to act justly has given us definitions for what that includes regarding retribution (and other facets of justice, discussed below), and Lex Talionis is the main one. Since ECP is by definition eternal, there is little or no proportionality when compared to temporal sins, often done mostly in ignorance (even Jesus admitted as much regarding His crucifixion, Luke 23:34).
2. ECP Amounts to Torture
First, we must define torture, v. what is valid punishment. The United Nations Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT) provides the following definition of torture:
“Any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.”
Does ECP meet this definition?
- Intentional infliction severe pain – YES
- Coercive in order to induce an action – NO, there is no action required
- Unlawful use of force not otherwise lawfully sanctioned – NO
OK, so maybe ECP fails to be torture by this definition. But there is a secondary argument – that from the purposes of punishment.
3. ECP does not satisfy the functional definitions of Just Punishment
This argument centers around discussions of the functions of punishment, which include 1
- Deterrence – punishment that warns others who may be dissuaded from bad acts by seeing the fate of those already caught
- Retribution – a just payback for the losses suffered by the victims of a crime. Justness in this case is determined either by pre-existing described penalties, or by some principle for determining valid punishments or deprivations.
- Rehabilitation – punishment and/or treatment that changes the criminal in a way that enables them to stop breaking the law
- Restoration – restoring the criminal to normal society, and often, restoring their relationships with victims.
- Incapacitation – removing the criminal from healthy society permanently, either by incarceration or death.
Here, we can see that ECP falls outside of the typical functions of punishment. Not only are all of the above punishments finite in nature, they have a desired end in mind which is never accomplished by ECP – justice.
- Deterrence – while the threat of hell might serve as a deterrent, the actual punishment of eternal suffering does not, since when the punishment is being delivered, there is no more chance to change. For this reason, ECP has little deterrent function, except as a threat, which lessens its definition as a traditional deterrent. Arguably.
- Retribution – This is where ECP may fail the worst – with eternal torment, retribution is never arrived at, never accomplished, even if it is proportional. Thus, its justice may never be done.
- Rehabilitation – Universalists (and some Traditionalists like Jerry Walls) try to reduce the injustice of ECP by allowing for post-mortem repentance, brought on by the suffering of hell. If this were true, this ‘eternal but escapable’ torment would be rehabilitative and perhaps even a deterrent. But the traditional view does not allow for such second chances, and it can be argued that for all intents and purposes, post-mortem repentance can be argued to lead inexorably to Universalism, since the unrepentant have an eternity to repent.
- Restoration – Again, without any chance of repentance, none of these people will be restored to God or to anyone else.
- Incapacitation – There is a valid comparison to a lifetime in jail, where the criminal is removed from society – but there is no reason to torture them if they are isolated from the society of the redeemed in eternity. That would be unnecessary, and therefore, cruel. I note that capital punishment is also incapacitation, but without suffering, and as we shall see, this commends Conditionlism.
In summary, while ECP can’t fall directly into the definition of torture, and so ‘succeeds’ in that ethical argument, neither does it fall significantly inside of our definitions of just punishment. Rather, it fails to satisfy any of the functions of justice fully. It fails to meet any of the requirements of forward-looking (consequentialist) justice (deterrence, rehabilitation, restoration), adds unnecessary cruelty to the backward-looking (deontologic) function of incapacitation, and never completes the remaining backward-looking function of retribution. 2
4. The Nature of God
The nature of God obviates the use of torture, as well as disproportionate punishments. If ECP is torture or fails to be proportional and therefore just, then these injustices would violate the just nature of God.
I have lately taken to read the New Testament which I assure you is a very good book; but there is one article to which I cannot accede; it is that of the eternity of punishment. I cannot comprehend how this eternity is compatible with the goodness of God! ~ La Fontaine (1621-1695)
5. The Utilitarian Argument – Cruelty Begets Cruelty
Many atheists have remarked on the inherent cruelty of ECP, and have also noted what havoc the effects of imitating such ‘justice’ would create in human society:
Is there any moral enormity which might not be justified by imitation of such a Deity? And is it possible to adore such a one without a frightful distortion of the standard of right and wrong? Any other of the outrages to the most ordinary justice and humanity involved in the common christian conception of the moral character of God, sinks into insignificance beside this dreadful idealization of wickedness. ~ John Stuart Mill in The Utility of Religion
Or, as Thomas Paine so much more succinctly observed:
The belief of a cruel god makes a cruel man. 3
Traditional Defenses of Eternal Torment
Naturally, Traditionalists have had to address these accusations, and have done so in the following ways:
1. Proportionality through ongoing sin
Some Traditionalists, including philosopher and apologist William Lane Craig, argue that eternal punishment is proportional because the damned, being unregenerate, continue to curse God, and so their sin goes on for infinity. 4 John MacArthur also writes:
In hell they continue to hate God. In hell they continue to curse God. In hell they continue to mock God and blaspheme God and hate Christ. So the punishment never catches up to the sin because the sinning never, ever, ever ceases. You understand that, that’s really important. People don’t go to hell and then never sin forever and just get punished forever. They go to hell and keep on sinning forever, so the punishment can never catch up with the wretchedness. ~ John MacArthur 5
Quick Rebuttal – If sin is ongoing, then one could justify ongoing punishment. This might satisfy the proportion argument, but there are other logical problems here.
For example, if the sin of their lifetime was finite, as is there ongoing sin in eternity, there is a point at which their punishments have caught up with their sins. Does this mean that their sins are now atoned for, though they are still unregerate? If, with the last imposition of justice, they fail to curse God, are they done being punished? Or is it from there on a tit for tat, with them cursing God’s last blow, and God striking them again?
This ever deepening ongoing sin model basically proposes eternal punishment for finite, but ongoing sins. If the sinner has any kind of free will at all, it is then possible for them to stop sinning, and therefore, end their ‘eternal torment.’ If they have no free will at all, then this situation devolves into God punishing them in an endless tit for tat – I can’t find the reasons why I find this absurd, but perhaps one of my readers can explain why that might be so.
2. Proportionality through the infinite dignity of the victim (God)
This position agrees that the severity of the punishment must match the crime, but argues that the sinner’s crime is of infinite severity because it is against the infinite goodness and dignity of God, and therefore merits an infinite, eternal punishment.
The human analog would be the killing of magistrates or police officers – it is worse because it endangers society and is more than a crime against merely a person. It is a crime against authority that society has agreed to live under for its own cohesion and safety. Even hate crime laws are attempting to follow this rule – that crimes that encourage hate in our society are greater than those that are done for more private reasons.
William Craig makes this argument:
To reject Christ is to reject God Himself. And this is a sin of infinite gravity and proportion and therefore deserves infinite punishment. We ought not, therefore, to think of hell primarily as punishment for the array of sins of finite consequence which we have committed, but as the just due for a sin of infinite consequence, namely the rejection of God Himself. 6
Quick Rebuttal – While this line of reasoning may be acceptable, the analogy may not carry over to God for two reasons. First, even though greater punishments may be valid for harming those in authority, all such punishments are still finite. Once they become infinite, all proportion is essentially lost. Even if sinning against God endangers the community, and might require a harsher punishment, is the harm done to the community infinite? No.
Second, if punishment is meted out based on damage to the victim, an omnipotent God can’t really be harmed, so no punishment would be required. Unless God’s offended holiness is enough, though he has not been harmed.
Again, the infinite nature of the punishment pushes it out of the pale of proportion, and God’s omnipotence means that He is not truly harmed at all.
3. Proportionality through the Ultimate, Unforgivable, Eternal Sin
Some Traditionalists point to examples of eternal sin such as Jesus’ description of blasphemy in Mark 3:28-30, a sin that can never be forgiven, and by extension, should be eternally punished (this somewhat relies on other arguments for the eteranality of punishment, like the two directly preceding).
Quick Rebuttal – If one can never be forgiven, and yet is immortal (Conditional Immortality denies the innate mortality of the unregenerate) 7, then by default they MUST be punished forever. However, if the premise of immortality fails, then so does this argument, unless one really believes that an unforgivable sin is also infinite in severity.
4. Proportionality not required of God – Divine Command Theory
Some Traditionalists argue that, while God required proportionality in our own justice system, it is not required of Him since He is not tempted to abuse His authority, and for perhaps some other inscrutable reason, eternal punishment is just even though it is not proportionate. Essentially, if God deems it right, then it is, even if we have no philosophical means to justify it.
Quick Rebuttal – Appeals to mystery are, of course, not an argument. I hope I have not created a straw man here, but I wanted to mention this option as an ‘out’ for the Traditionalist. But it’s not a very strong argument.
5. Depersonalization of the damned
Some Traditionalists are sensitive to the cruelty that seems inherent in eternal suffering, and seek to lessen it with the doctrine of depersonalization – noted scholars like William Craig and N.T. Wright are in this camp.
My suggestion is that it is possible for human beings so to continue down this road, so to refuse all whisperings of good news, all glimmers of the true light, all promptings to turn and go the other way, all signposts to the love of God, that after death they become at last, by their own effective choice, beings that once were human but now are not, creatures that have ceased to bear the divine image at all. With the death of that body in which they inhabited God’s good world, in which the flickering flame of goodness had not been completely snuffed out, they pass simultaneously not only beyond hope but also beyond pity. There is no concentration camp in the beautiful countryside, no torture chamber in the palace of delight. Those creatures that still exist in an ex-human state, no longer reflecting their maker in any meaningful sense, can no longer excite, in themselves or others, the natural sympathy some feel even for the hardened criminal. 8
Quick Rebuttal – There are at least two problems with the depersonalization argument. First, it assumes a threshold beyond which a person is no longer able to either (a) recognize pain, or (b) make conscious moral decisions. If they no longer have cognition of pain, aren’t they for all intents and purposes ‘annihilated’ as persons? Why call this eternal if, as far as the person is concerned, they have ceased to exist? What justice is there in continuing to beat a dead horse?
Regarding the inability to make conscious moral decisions, since grace and regeneration, unavailable to the damned since the start of their punishment, is required for repentance, when have they EVER been able to make a conscious moral decision? If this is the definition of personhood, then they have not been persons since the start.
The second issue with the depersonalization argument is, as Brown and Walls have pointed out, that the more wicked may, by definition, be closer to the threshold of depersonalization than the less wicked. This would mean that they would arrive at that point earlier, and in so doing, spend LESS time suffering in hell (though perhaps greater intensity) than those less wicked, which seems the opposite of what proportion requires.
On both of these arguments, over time, a person becomes increasingly evil until, eventually, having reached some threshold, he ceases to exist. If this progression toward non-existence occurs in hell… then we might worry that some in hell, namely, those that are becoming evil at the fastest rates, face better overall fates than those whose progression toward evil/annihilation is slower. The slower one’s descent, the longer one will spend in hell. If one will not go to heaven, then the way to make one’s stay in hell as short as possible is to make oneself as depraved as possible as quickly as possible. We might question, however, whether doing so should enable one to minimize one’s total stay in hell. 9
6. Post-mortem repentance
Philosopher Jerry Walls has written a tidy trilogy on the afterlife, whose third title, Purgatory: The Logic of Total Transformation, promotes not only the idea of eternal hell, but the possibility of both post-mortem repentance and sanctifying purgatory (as opposed to satisfactionary purgatory).
So while we are not concerned here with the defense of purgatory, it is interesting that Walls in part justifies his belief in ECP with the caveat that God’s justice is maintained by allowing those in hell a second chance now that the evidence of hell is directly present.
In fact, Walls tacitly puts forth purgatory as answering the injustices of the Traditional views of Hell this way:
The fact that purgatory plausibly holds mercy and justice together in vivid fashion is no doubt a large part of the reason that the doctrine gained such a strong foothold in Christian theology. 10
Quick Rebuttal – While Walls is correct that Purgatory might address some of the other moral challenges to ECP, like the fate of those who have not heard the gospel (this ‘problem’ also exists for Conditionalism) or those who repent at the last minute (thereby presumably deserving more time in sanctification before heaven), but it fails to address the original judgment that the punishment is infinite – so this does not directly answer the problem of proportionality for ECP, though it does give God an ‘out’ in that the punishment is not irreversibly infinite.
The principle of proportional justice is the lynch pin of the analysis of God’s judgment in the afterlife, and by this one measure, the Traditional view has a lot of ‘splaining to do. While in my view it is not technically torture, it amounts to as much because it flagrantly violates any sensical application of proportionality, fails in almost every facet of ‘just punishment,’ and it’s justifications, while many, have meaningful rebuttals.
And as we shall see in the next part, Conditionalism, in addition to its strong, of not superior exegetical case, fares much better (though perhaps not perfectly) by the measure of proportionality.
- Banks, Criminal Justice Ethics p. 103-121 ↩
- Punishment, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy ↩
- Thomas Paine, as quoted by Joseph Lewis in Inspiration and Wisdom from the Writings of Thomas Paine (which contains no pagination or source citations) ↩
- Do the Damned in Hell Accrue Further Punishment? ↩
- The Truth About Hell ↩
- Can A Loving God Send People to Hell: The Craig-Bradley Debate ↩
- Immortality in the Early Church with John Roller, Rethinkinghell.com ↩
- Wright N.T., Surprised by Hope, p. 182 ↩
- The Problem of Hell – Annihlationism: A Philosphical Dead End? p. 53 ↩
- Purgatory: The Logic of Total Transformation, Kindle Location 612 ↩