Isn’t infinite/eternal punishment for a finite/temporal sin a bit disproportionate???


Feb 10/2008


This question came in:


Hello, my name's Mxx and I'm a high school student (currently a senior). I'm currently in a small debate with a skeptic who asks why God goes with eternal suffering. I have referred him to the many articles on your site, and he does agree that punishment to the evil-doer (evil-dider?) should be meted out. However, he asks why God allows an eternal exile/condemnation and not...say...50,000,000,000 years and then go to Heaven (sounds a bit like purgatory actually)? I want to answer him, but I can't. In fact, here's what he typed:


‘Taking the example of a serial rapist, lets say his crimes were so evil that he deserves to suffer for 5,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years. That is still NOTHING compared to eternity. Simply put, you cannot do anything bad enough to deserve hell. And certainly nothing you could do in your pitiful life of a mere few decades that could justify it.’


Perhaps the answer isn't as complex as it seems (i.e. - rebelling against an infinite God requires an infinite punishment?) but his argument seems a bit intimidating. He agrees that God does have the right to intervene within His community He set up (and He even took the blow through His Son) and such, but the amount of time (or timelessness) for this punishment, to him, seems HIGHLY unreasonable.


Thanks and God bless,







Mxx, thanks for your question, friend, and for engaging those around you about this Love...


I like the fact that your discussion-partner thinks well--it's always refreshing to see someone thinking analytically about important things like this!


As I starting thinking about his position question, I realized that he was making the common assumption that all crimes/sins were finite. And accordingly—and reasonably, in my opinion—if that were the case then they could not really justify an infinite punishment. The imbalance wouldn’t be fair, and indeed (as the ‘best’ skeptic in antiquity—Porphyry—pointed out) it would contradict Jesus’/Bible’s teachings about ‘proportionality’ in judgment (e.g., degrees of punishment, degrees of sin, reap what you sow, ‘with what measure you use, it will be measured back to you’, the various ‘levels’ in the sacrificial system of the OT/Tanaach, etc).


Your suggestion—‘rebelling against an infinite God’—was one of the earliest answers of Antiquity given to the question, in Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo (“Why God (became) a Man”, roughly). Here is a summary of that position on eternal punishment:


“The second principle on the basis of which the traditional view of hell has been defended says that it is not so much "ordinary" offenses that make people liable to everlasting punishment, but more specifically sin against God; it is the disobedience to God that counts as an offense worthy of eternal punishment. The idea behind this principle is that guilt is not merely relative to the offense, but also to the status of the offended party. Applied to the social status of people in a feudal society, for example, this principle entails that an offense committed against a king deserves greater punishment than the same offense committed against a serf. Applied to God it means that disobeying God, whose greatness is infinite, deserves an infinite punishment in return. A spokesperson for this line of argument within Christian theology is St. Anselm of Canterbury in his book Cur Deus Homo (book I, chapters 11-15). Marilyn McCord Adams summarizes the argument Anselm develops there as follows:


‘Anselm believes that guilt is proportional not merely to the offence, but to the offended party's worthiness of honour. God is infinitely worthy of honour. And for men to show God honour is for them to be voluntarily subject to his will. Consequently, a man can incur infinite guilt by even the slightest act of disobedience. But "satisfaction should be proportionate to guilt." Therefore, the slightest act contrary to the will of God renders us infinitely guilty and liable to the maximum punishment for us-total and everlasting unhappiness. [“Hell and the God of Justice”, in Religious Studies 11 (1975), cited in “Can the traditional view of hell be defended? An evaluation of some arguments for eternal punishment”, Anglican Theological Review,  Summer 2003  by Wilko van Holten]


But you were right to place a question mark behind it! We normally do not measure the atrocity of a murder, for example, by how important the victim was (at least not in the legal system):


“As Adams notes: ‘it seems the height of immorality to suppose that the amount of guilt incurred in killing another person depends on the dead man's social status.’"



[Although there may be another way to salvage a similar approach: we might consider a person who usurped the authority of a federal judge and began handing out self-serving sentences and fines (to be paid to themselves) more guilty than one who only took over a town judge’s powers, and the ‘rebellion against God’ motif is more in line with the concept of  ‘usurping and/or impersonating an authority’ than with killing a federal judge or killing a town judge. This model might change the dynamics of the ‘status-based’ discussion considerably, but is unnecessary for our purposes here.]



The proportionality issue is also summarized in the above article, and it sounds similar to your friend’s:


“According to this theory [retribution: like for like, equal for equal], the penalty of everlasting suffering is only justified if someone had done the same to someone else. But is it possible or even conceivable for human beings to inflict everlasting suffering on a fellow human being? The harm that humans can do to each other--however great this sometimes can be!--seems necessarily limited in time, given the finitude of human existence. Death either of the sufferer or of the perpetrator would seem to bring all earthly suffering to an end. How then can everlasting punishment ever be deserved? Thus Marilyn Adams, again, argues that "The 'an eye for an eye' principle might justify God in visiting some punishment on some people after death. But given the finite length of human life and the finite extent of human power to cause suffering, it could not by itself justify God in making someone totally unhappy forever."



So these two standard approaches (i.e., status-based, equal-payback) won’t be much help in your situation.


But at least two other approaches to this issue came to my mind, that might be worth considering:


First, as I looked again at the example (serial rapist), I realized something important: there is no such thing as a finite sin/crime. Each crime/sin actually HAS eternal consequences. If someone commits a rape, the damage to the victim MIGHT end at death, but what that statement does not take into account is the eternally different stream/ripples of events which flow from that rape. For example, we KNOW that the victim will not be able to do as much good to others during their healing period, since they are not ‘back up to speed’. During their recovery time (assuming they actually recover all the way—not a foregone conclusion at all nowadays), their interaction with other people will not be as ‘value generating’ as it would have been without the rape. Everything they touch—often for the rest of their life—is different (often less ‘vibrant’ or with less vitality). The other way to say this—importantly—is that every eternal stream of consequences they generate/participate in after that event suffers. They ‘lose’ time during recovery and their post-recovery impacts are often compromised—at least slightly, and often considerably. And thus the people they interact with do not ‘get the best’, and they are compromised somewhat…And the dominos keep falling over…


Even if they had fully recovered within ONE DAY of the rape, that one day alone will INVARIABLY generate countless threads of suboptimal, eternal, ‘replicating’ reality, either through non-action or distressed-lifeforce sub-action. There is no escape from this—even if we do NOTHING, that has eternal consequences of some type. [Note, btw, that good can have the same power!]


Some crimes are obvious in this—if I murder someone who later would produce children and grand-children  and great-grandchildren etc, my ‘finite act’ of murder clearly has ripple-down effects that continue indefinitely into the future. [Of course, emotional damage (e.g., rape), physical damage (e.g., irreparable injury), or even economic damage (e.g., vandalism, fraud) can have a similar no-progeny result.] These are eternal consequences of a single ‘finite’ act.

But I really shouldn't stop there, I realize now, because there is no reason to assume that these external effects in external history are the only consequences. The common assumption is that the effect on the victim ends at death, but why shouldn't we question that? Any physical effects (e.g., recurring pain?) would (presumably) terminate, but if the soul/personality lives on in some way (with even minimal continuity with the past--at least enough to guarantee 'personal identity', in the philosophical sense) why would we believe the 'etches' forced upon that soul by crimes-within-history would somehow miraculously disappear at death? We certainly have no evidence one way or another, since all REAL (quasi-)propositional data about the post-mortem experiences of humans comes solely from 'sacred texts' which purport to be revealed by One outside of death (i.e., God). Apart from SomeOne/SomeSource who transcends death, we don't have ANY grounds for ANY speculation about what the soul is like after passing through death. In fact, all the evidence from THIS side of death would argue the contrary, that--barring some miraculous renovation by God (the wonderful promise of some of the monotheistic religions)--the marks that our past makes upon our souls ALWAYS continues with us.

I remember as a little kid somebody trying to explain to me how there could be 'degrees of heaven' (an analogue of the NT doctrine of 'rewards'). They used the metaphor of ballons. They took two ballons--one large and one small--and blew them up. They asked: "are the ballons full? are there any empty spaces in either ballon?". The point they drew was obvious, even to me the ten-year-old: one's ability to appreciate heaven/righteousness/peace could be varied by how much pre-conditioning one had in experiencing heaven/righteousness/peace NOW. If this approach is sound, then it MIGHT suggest that the victim COULD be 'damaged' in their soul/heart to where their capacity for future bliss were 'reduced' (without being 'sullied'--the little ballon was still full, but it just didn'thold as much air as the bigger ballon). So, damage on a soul  COULD--theoretically--continue to have effects indefinitely as well.

A special case of this would (theoretically) be where my evil makes someone so bitter they won’t respond to the love of God in the good news about Jesus. It makes them choose their own path of self-destruction, hope-abandonment, and callousness. And then, let’s say, that person ends up in hell. In this theoretical case, the consequences of a pre-death crime would have post-death/eternal consequences for someone. That’s very eternal. [This is just a theoretical case because the factors involved in someone ending up in hell are more numerous than single events (although some single events have been known to so traumatize individuals to this degree).]


The perp would certainly not envision (or even ‘intend’—maybe) all these eternal consequences, but even if they did, there is a good chance that would not stop them anyway. At point-of-crime, it’s all about ‘me’…and how YOU can be used sacrificially to provide some desired ‘good’ to me—stolen money, sense of power, feeling of superiority, illegal pleasure.


[Philosophically, we encroach here just a bit here on the principle of double effect. This principle has various forms but it is normally used to argue that it is OK to do something good, if there are unavoidable-yet-foreseen evil effects, under certain circumstances. The main circumstance is that the good is ‘bigger’ than the evil, of course. But in our case the perp doesn’t ‘foresee’ anything but his own “presumed eternal” satisfaction and the suffering of the victim is not even considered evil per se. The principle does exclude the ‘let us do evil that good may come’. Overall, it has questionable relevance to our point here, in the main. But the issue of ‘intention’ would need more analysis to see if ‘intended/unintended’ are actually dichotomous—I don’t think they are… I think some acts of evil intend ANYTHING evil it can produce (i.e., Evil*.*), without any expectation of WHAT evil could come from it. But this is another topic for another time.]


My point here is simply to ‘document’(?) the fact that all events within time are in fact unbounded events—they create streams of cascading consequences which fan out from each event. It would be reasonable, of course, to assume that even though the consequences fan out ever wider and wider (without end), that they also are diluted in terms of single-agent culpability. In other words, a negative effect “5 hops out” in the event sequences will only be PARTIALLY my responsibility, and will likely be ‘shared’ by other ripples from other parties not involved in my original event. So—as a mathematical metaphor—if my “quantity” of negative impacts from a single crime expands by a factor of 4 every week, but my personal responsibility for each subsequent event shrinks by a factor of 4 every week, then the multiplier of these yields the result that my “total amount of guilt” remains constant indefinitely (with a nod to Zeno, of course).


Please note that I am NOT trying to come up with a ‘proportional’ justice scheme here, or explain the power of the Cross to deal with this, but merely to articulate a plausible argument that events in time (good or bad) are infinite in consequences already.


So, this was the first facet that came to mind—in trying to understand how some act could have an eternal aspect or dimension: the effect of an action on time-as-a-web-of-consequences.


The second facet surfaced rather quickly to me, since I have seen this manifested in my own life over and over: the effect of an action on me-as-a-continuing-entity.


Just as my crime would affect the world outside me in never-ending and cascading ways, so too does it effect my own ‘inner world’ and inner being. I change when I chose (and especially, implement) evil. My evil (i.e., the values and processes I ‘lived’ as I did my evil action) become integrated into my character, into ‘me’, into ‘who I am’, and into ‘who I WILL become’. My next choices are influenced—to some degree—by my choices a minute ago. And so on back through my life… I can ‘work on’ bad behavior, I can try to implement new behaviors (as I try to fade out the old), and I can try to suppress behavior ‘suggested by’ my internal character, but this just shows the power of antecedent actions on myself.


I am a ‘world’ inside me--just like the external world--and both of these are impacted indefinitely by my choices today.


Theologians, btw, use this self-definitional aspect of moral choice to explain how people can become so evil that they cannot break out of it and make incidental good choices. CS Lewis illustrated this truth in The Great Divorce when all the inhabitants of hell were allowed to travel to heaven and remain there—but there were no takers. The inhabitants of ‘hell’ (his literary version, that is) had so self-sculpted their characters by bad choices that they had no appreciation (and actually, no tolerance!) for the virtues and qualities of heaven. Their choices had become who they had become and who they would continually and eternally choose to be—every time they would be offered a chance to change/choose.


For completeness, I should also mention the theological possibility that people who end up in hell continue to do evil/sin there—to each other. There is no reason to believe that, once they arrive in hell, they begin being ethically perfect(!), loving God and loving their neighbor, suffering wrong at the hands of their fellow-citizens without cursing back or reprisal, carrying another’s burden sacrificially, thinking the best about their neighbors, etc… This alone provides an endless reason for punishment, although this would not fall into the category of our earthly-as-finite case.


[This self-sculpting is good and bad news, too. I can choose compassion, service, gentleness, peace, etc each minute and it will continually ‘seep into’ my character--eternally!]


So, I hope those two concepts of how ALL events have never-ending consequences in the world-outside-me and in the world-inside-me, will be of use to your friend in approaching this issue. They probably will not be robust enough concepts to build theories of atonement (but it might—the concept of Christ’s Cross-of-Love freeing me from my sin-shaped character is very, very biblical, for starters), heaven-and-hell ‘levels of reward’, etc upon, but all these concepts NEED to do here is show that the concept of an ‘eternal punishment’ (and ‘eternal rewards’) can be understood as reasonable, given a connected view of human life and society.





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