Infinite harm

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One thing every traditionalist agrees upon is that those in hell deserve infinite punishment. The standard reason given is that those in hell have sinned against an infinite God, therefore their crime is infinite.

(Other reasons are certainly possible. Another somewhat commonly given reason is that those in hell will continue sinning for all eternity, thus meriting infinite punishment. It seems a little injust to me to give someone an infinite punishment because of the infinite crimes they will commit in the future, but that's why I don't use that argument.)

But back to the matter at hand, the standard argument is that the crime is infinite because it is committed against a God who is infinite. Now this is all fine and good in a feudal society, but it strikes me as a pretty weird argument in a Western democracy. We don't, in theory at least, punish a thief more harshly for robbing the president than robbing a beggar. Should we be?

Now, that's not to say that the Feudal system is wrong in which the severity of the crime is measured by the stature of the victim, but certainly the argument can't stand alone. You need to present the argument and then prove that the feudal system is right. So far, I've never seen a traditionalist do that.

So I think that the Feudal Justice argument is at least incomplete, if not wrong. But I agree that we've committed an infinite crime. How do I go about showing it without the Feudal argument?

I posit that we all have a part in crucifying Christ. Killing God is a pretty straightforward infinite harm in a way that is not so clear in other sins. How we are all involved requires a bit of speculation. I am forced to speculate that the Tree of Knowledge is symbolically connected to the Cross, and that the eating of the fruit is connected to killing Christ. Thus, in Adam, we've all killed Christ. It's a pretty big stretch. Most Christians will agree that we all have a part in killing Christ, as long as they don't think to hard about how they're involved.

At any rate, having committed the infinite harm of killing Christ, we deserve infinite punishment. How do you guys go about showing we deserve infinite punishment?

12 Comments

You've forgotten the argument I put forward on my blog, i.e. that the eye for eye principle allows for eternal punishment because the effects of sin last eternally.

There is also the undeveloped argument that I have of "uncleanness" also being punishable. Wouldn't be popular.

May not be back here for a 24 hours but I'll be interested in seeing how you continue these posts.

Augustine's justification for an eternal hell has always seemed more compelling to me. People growing in righteousness and seeking to live in God (even if it's dependent on the work of the Holy Spirit) have chosen to live that way and thus have chosen to be part of the kingdom of God. In sinning and not repenting and following God, the reprobate have assumed the ways of hell and will continue to live apart from God in eternity. No other fate is just given their state and their choices. Hell is simply separation from what such people have rejected.

Some might see this as abandoning the punishment element altogether, but I think that's a mistake. Augustine view is that punishment and justice consist of treating people according to the natural outworking of their choices, and that never fully happens during this life because of common grace. It only happens through Christ receiving it on the cross or through us receiving it after death.

As interesting as that perspective is, Jeremy, I don't think it takes into account the active involvement and wrath that the Bible portrays God as having. The concept of allowing people to continue in their own choices without common grace may well be part of it, but it's certainly not the imagery the Bible uses or the impression it gives.

It's a pretty active example of God's wrath when Paul describes it in Romans 1 (i.e. giving people over to their sin). It seems to be an implication of all the language about being separated from God (and therefore his common grace). I do think it's biblically-rooted. There's most certainly metaphorical imagery that almost no one today takes literally, such as worms and fire, and it doesn't take those literally, but I don't see how that means much. The idea that it's God-imposed suffering rather than simply a result of sin is just as far from such imagery. (Annihilationism is, too, for that matter.)

I must admit, I'm not completely sure I understand your above comment, but you seem to be saying that God's direct and active punishment as opposed to letting sinners suffer consequences can be explained as imagery. I'm not sure you can use the imagery argument in all cases. Hebrews 10:26-31 certainly does not seem to be saying God will allow people to suffer the consequences, nor does it seem metaphorical. "Vengance is mine; I will repay" needs to be violently reinterpreted in order to get to that conclusion.

No, I'm saying that the imagery in scripture is consistent with Augustinian views as much as it's consistent with other views of hell that don't take all the imagery literally. I'm also saying that the language of direct and active punishment is used in Romans 1 to refer to God doing something that is very much like the Augustinian view, just in a lesser form in this life. I'm talking about turning someone over to the worst condition possible to live with the consequences of being in the worst shape one could possibly be in. I don't see it as violent reinterpretation to speak of that in terms of vengeance and repayment. It's justice being served. It's even poetic justice.

We may have to disagree there, Jeremy. I appreciate the directive language in Romans 1 but I don't think phrases like "Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves" in Romans 1 are comparable to phrases like "a fury of fire...will consume the adversaries" in Hebrews 10 and elsewhere, especially considering, as you say, they are describing two different situations.

I understand that the descriptions of judgement can be seen as non-literal imagery, but the consistency of God's direct action in punishment all through the Bible leads me to think that the punishment is more than (but not excluding) a "giving up" of the unredeemed.

The only thing I'm using Romans 1 for is to show that it sounds as if God is deliberately doing something wrathful in what Augustine says hell is like, and in this case it's not even as bad as what Augustine says hell is like (because it still involves common grace). There's a reason the language is more fearsome with hell. It is more fearsome, and that's true on the Augustinian view.

I agree that direct action language does count in favor of God as a direct agent in causing suffering, but the question is what God takes direct action in doing. You seem to be suggesting that the only way to make sense of direct action language is if the direct action God does is to torture people directly. I'm trying to point out that the direct action God does might as easily be directly robbing people of all the benefits of common grace and anything that can be derived from the presence of God or the presence of those who are spiritually in God's presence. That is indeed a direct action.

Another argument in favor of this is that Romans 9 treats being saved and being damned in ways that aren't grammatically parallel. Those destined for salvation are actively saved by God (it's actually passive voice with God assumed as the one acting). Those who are damned are treated with the middle voice, as if they're playing a much more significant role in their own damnation. Some read this just about choices made in this life, but why does it need to be left at that? I don't see why it shouldn't extend into the separation from God, assuming people will actually be conscious and still making choices. There's certainly an indication in Revelation that the wicked who ultimately reject God in the end will be given over to greater and greater wickedness as their choice to reject God confirms itself in their own character to greater and greater degrees.

Okay, I understand, and while I agree that such a construction could well be part of eternal torment, I do see more in the language used. My reading is that the many descriptions of adding punishment instead of subtracting to punish strongly indicates that humans are not merely left to their own increasingly sinful devices. My opinion is that if your suggestion was correct, the Bible would use imagery that lent itself to that interpretation far more easily than the present imagery does.

I think removing common grace does amount to adding punishment. It certainly increases suffering. I'm not sure there's a lot of good imagery to reflect exactly that, but I don't think the biblical imagery is all that far. Being burned but not consumed and eaten by worms but not consumed actually seems pretty apt to me to describe separation from God and the worsening of oneself to the point of extreme suffering on every level.

Fair finite punishment for any sin is impossible because the sinner commits his sin without provocation. Any punishment dealt out would necessarily be a provoked response to the original sin, and is therefore not a fair compensation. Fair compensation for an unprovoked sin can only be achieved through infinite punishment, and thus, never truly achieved.

This idea that people will choose to be in hell assumes that sinners are ignorant and not as self-serving as anyone else. Believe me, they will be begging to get out of Hell and will realize everything they had done wrong. But the only way to compensate those wrongdoings is to punish them infinitely. They will try to wheel and deal anyway they can to get out of it. They won't be obvlivious to it, they are not idiots as you try to convince yourselves. They are simply facing the only just compensation that is possible in the universe for their unprovoked actions.

"This idea that people will choose to be in hell assumes that sinners are ignorant and not as self-serving as anyone else"

Exactly who do you have in mind for the anyone else? Jesus?

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