Arguments Against Universalism: Justice Must Be Served, Part 1–Retribution


Back here, having addressed arguments against universalism that miss the point, I said,

In the next two posts in this series I’ll look at arguments for Hell that at least address the issue.  I’m dividing them into the more traditional arguments that God directly punishes sinners, who deserve what they get, and more modern arguments that take a more psychological approach and locate Hell in the viewpoint of the damned themselves.

Thus, I want now to look at the former of these notions:  that God directly punishes sinners, with the corollaries that they deserve that punishment; or to put it another way, that eternal damnation is in fact just.  In order to do this, before even discussing “just”, we have to begin by unpacking the meaning of “punishment” itself.  After all, if a person has transgressed moral law, there are several different responses society can have, all loosely lumped under “punishment”.  These responses are distinct, though, and are very different in what they attempt to achieve.  First, there is the notion of restoration or restitution.

If, for example, a person steals a hundred dollars from me, it’s reasonable for me to expect that he return it to me when the transgression is discovered.  If he’s already spent it, then it must be taken from future money he earns.  Almost everyone would agree with the justice of such an approach.  Similarly, if a person causes injury to me, it’s reasonable to expect he reimburse me for the cost thereby incurred.  For example, if he causes me to break my leg, it’s legitimate that he pay for the cost of treating it.  This is the concept of payment of damages in a civil suit; and most people would agree with this concept, too.

Another response to transgression is prevention or containment.  The logic of sending a burglar or rapist or murderer to jail is that while imprisoned he can’t steal from, rape, or kill again (at least not in the outside world–within the prison is often another story).  Capital punishment is the ultimate prevention–an executed criminal will never commit any crimes ever again.

Related to, but distinct from prevention is deterrence.  A person, fearing imprisonment, execution, or even stiff fines, will theoretically be less likely to commit a crime in the first place; or if he has committed a crime and been so punished, less likely to be a repeat offender.  In theory, the harsher the punishment, the stronger the deterrence.  A person would be more strongly deterred by possible death than imprisonment; and more by imprisonment than by even a fairly high fine.

Rehabilitation is the next approach.  The idea is that either by imprisonment, probation, or court-ordered psychological or other treatment, one who has committed a crime can be persuaded to turn his life around.  He can learn skills or better behavior patterns that will allow him to reintegrate into society and large, becoming a productive member of society who will not commit crime again, one who will in fact contribute to society in a positive way.

The final concept of punishment is retribution.  The idea is that certain criminal or transgressive actions logically entail a certain appropriate response.  The most succinct statement of this is the so-called lex talionis, “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” and so on.  This principle is stated in the Code of Hammurabi, and a form of it appears in Leviticus 24:17-22.  It is important to note that the concept of retribution is distinct from those mentioned above.  Obviously there is no attempt at rehabilitation.  Though we often think of retribution as if it were a form of restitution or recompense, it’s obviously not.  If a thief returns my money, I have my money back.  If one who breaks my leg pays for the surgery and medical care, he has covered the damages.  However, if I break his leg back, or put out the eye of one who has put out one of mine, neither my leg nor my eye is restored.  Certainly “a life for a life” does not bring back the dead.

Retribution as understood here is also not about prevention or deterrence.  Retaliation in kind may prevent a repeat offense (especially in the case of a life for a life); and it may be a deterrent, maybe even a strong one (I’m not going to want to maim another if he gets to maim me back).  However, neither of these is seen as a motivation for retribution.  My breaking the leg of the one who broke mine is seen as “payback” or something intrinsically deserved.  Whether it prevents the malefactor from further crime (since he’s now limping!) or deters others who see what happened is not the point.  Even if it could be proved that no such prevention or deterrence happens, this would not be seen as invalidating retribution.  Retribution is seen as a more or less self-evident just response to a transgression.  In short, it has no instrumental goal, but is seen as required in and of itself. 

Obviously in the context of universalism, this is highly relevant.  Hell certainly won’t rehabilitate the damned, since they are said to be damned eternally, incapable of reform.  It won’t give the saved restitution–if someone murders me, no amount of Hell he experiences will bring me back to life.  Further, whether I go to Heaven or Hell is traditionally said to be dependent on my own spiritual state.  In short, Heaven is not a “restitution” to me for getting murdered.  If I’m in a state of mortal sin, I’d go to spend eternity in Hell with the one who murdered me.  Prevention and deterrence are not operative here, either.  Fear of Hell might keep a living person on the straight and narrow.  However, after the Last Judgement, when everyone is either in Heaven or Hell, neither prevention nor deterrence has any further purpose.  The saved can no longer sin, so there is no necessity to deter them from evil.  Even if the damned were “let loose” from Hell, the saved can no longer be harmed in any way, so there’s nothing the damned can be prevented from doing to the innocent.

Thus, the only logic of Hell can be that it is a just retribution.  If an eternal Hell exists, retribution is its sole logical purpose.  Thus, in looking at this  issue, the question is not “Is eternal damnation just?” as such, but “In what way and to what extent is retribution, or more precisely retributive punishment just?”  That’s what we’ll look at next time.


Part of the series “Universalism (What the Hell?!)


Posted on 18/04/2016, in Christianity, philosophy, religion, theology and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. I’ve read this post and the one on free will, and they’re incredibly well thought-out. You’re doing a great job here.

    Can’t really respond to it at this point since I haven’t yet read the entire series and don’t know if my own position is addressed there (non-universalist because I believe in absolute free will and perceive God’s role in the particular judgment no so much as an active sentencer but more as one who passively confirms the result we’ve chosen by way of our lives). I want to read the entire series before making a real response, but for now I just wanted to say I’m reading and enjoying your work. Thanks for posting!

  1. Pingback: Arguments Against Universalism: Justice Must Be Served, Part 2–Just Desserts | The Chequer-board of Nights and Days

  2. Pingback: Arguments Against Universalism: Justice Must Be Served, Part 3–An Eye for an Eye? | The Chequer-board of Nights and Days

  3. Pingback: Universalism (What the Hell?!): Index | The Chequer-board of Nights and Days

  4. Pingback: Arguments Against Universalism: Your Own Damn Fault, Part 1–Rules are Rules | The Chequer-board of Nights and Days

  5. Pingback: Arguments Against Universalism: Your Own Damn Fault, Part 2–Better to Reign in Hell | The Chequer-board of Nights and Days

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