Arguments Against Universalism: Justice Must Be Served, Part 2–Just Desserts


Not that kind of dessert; but I couldn’t resist the visual pun!  🙂

Back here we began the discussion of the traditional argument in favor of Hell (and thus against universalism) which asserts that God is just in condemning to Hell the souls of those who are not saved (by whatever specific criteria that is determined).  In that context, we looked at the functions of punishment for transgression, and we came up with the following:  restitution, prevention, deterrence, rehabilitation, and retribution.  After discussing these various motivations for punishment, I concluded with this:

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?”

Thus in trying to determine if it is just for God to damn certain people for eternity, we actually have two questions.  The first and most obvious is, “Is eternal punishment for one’s sins just?”  This is the question I’ll discuss in this post.  However, the very question brings up another, subtler question, to wit:  “Is retribution a just motivation for punishment at all?”  That question I will deal with in the next post in this series.

To return to the first question, then, we will assume, for the sake of argument, that retribution as such is just.  Whether this assumption is actually correct is something we’ll save until next time.  For now, if it is the case that retribution is just, then proportion is obviously the crucial issue at hand.  We wouldn’t give capital punishment for jaywalking, for example, or give a mass-murderer community service hours to do!  Thus, the traditional case for Hell goes something like this:

  1.  God damns some people (perhaps many or even most) to Hell.
  2. This damnation is eternal, and entails eternal suffering.
  3. From 2, the suffering of the damned is infinite.
  4. This eternal damnation and infinite suffering is just.

So is this valid?  First, we have no way of knowing whether 1 and 2 are true or not.  Various dogmatic statements of various religions may claim so; but we have no empirical or logical way of knowing.  Statement 3 does follow logically from 2.  Finally, if advocates of the traditional view of Hell (which I abbreviate TVOH) are correct, then it follows that 4 must be true, since God is perfect and among other things is perfectly just.

I think the key here is the combination of propositions 2 and 3.  Is eternal punishment and infinite suffering, even for a Pol Pot or an Osama bin Laden, just?  Generally we believe the punishment should “fit the crime”, that it should be proportionate.  A parent might take away a child’s privileges or ground him or her for a day or a week; but all jokes aside, the parent wouldn’t ground the child for life.  A good parent would never beat a child in punishment.  Likewise, we fine a jaywalker, imprison an embezzler, and execute a murderer.  The severity of the punishment fits the severity of the crime.

So, is any crime severe enough for infinite punishment?  Even Pol Pot, though he brought about the death of millions, committed finite crimes.  If he were sent to hell and punished appropriately for each of the people who died at his hands–say a year of punishment of the grisliest kind for each life taken–that would be about a million years.  Hardly conceivable to us; but still finite.  After a million years–or two million or ten million, if one million is too lenient–would Pol Pot’s desserts be finally just, the slate finally wiped clean, justice finally served?  But if not, why not?

For that matter, what about John Smith, average schmoe who goes to hell for killing one person?  Perhaps he goes to hell for a “non-violent offense”?  After all, in traditional theology, there are many mortal sins–adultery, some degrees of lying or slander, etc.–that could send one to hell without anyone needing to be killed.  Theoretically, in the tradition of the Catholic Church, at least, masturbation, deliberately missing Mass on a Sunday or Holy Day, or deliberately eating fish on a Friday (any Friday back then; Fridays during Lent now), are all mortal sins.  A person could go to hell eternally for beating off, skipping church, or eating the wrong thing on the wrong day just as much as Pol Pot or Osama bin Laden.  Think about that, and let it sink in. I’m not necessarily endorsing any of these views, though pre-Vatican II Catholics will remember them well enough.  I’m pointing out that Hell, as traditionally conceived, seems to be a one-size-fits-all punishment for a vast panoply of sins that seem to be of wildly different degrees of severity.  Next door to Pol Pot is someone, in the words of the late, great George Carlin, “still doing time on a meat rap”!

One mitigating factor is that there are said to be different levels of Hell and different degrees of punishment–see The Divine Comedy.  Thus the punishments of the guy who ate a hot dog on a Friday are presumably milder than those of Pol Pot.  On the other hand, infinite is infinite–it seems that any punishment, taken to infinity, would be about equally bad.  On the other hand again, some infinities are bigger than others, so maybe the eternal punishment of John Smith who ate a hot dog on Friday is less than the eternal punishment of Pol Pot.  The mind reels.

In any case, the example of non-violent offenders, so to speak, helps us clarify our thinking.  It’s easy to think that a Pol Pot or Bin Laden or Jack the Ripper or Jeffrey Dahmer deserves Hell, and lots of it.  Someone who was nasty and really hurt people, but who didn’t kill droves of people, though–what about them?  Of course, the logic ultimately applies even to the (un)worthies mentioned here.  Is there a limit after which Pol Pot or Bin Laden or the Ripper or Dahmer is expiated, their sins paid off, so to speak?  And if not, why not?  Even the sins of these monstrous people are finite, however vast they may be; so how can infinite punishment be just?

The usual assertion given in theology is that

A.  All sins are ultimately against God, and

B.  God is infinite,

C.  Therefore, the sin is infinite and thus,

D.  The sin deserves infinite punishment.

Now B is obviously true by any traditional definition of God.  No debate there.  A is a little murkier, but I’m willing to grant that.  If a parent has two children and one steals from the other or hits the other or some such, it is arguable that, insofar as the parent makes it clear that the children are not to behave thus, such behavior not only is a violation against the other child (which is obvious), but also a violation of what the parent has told the child not to do.  Thus, the act is an act against the sibling and against the parent.  I realize this is not the most airtight analogy in the world, and that the concept is debatable.  For the sake of argument, though, let us assume that A is correct.  B, as stated, goes without saying.  C and D are where we run into problems.

The most obvious problem with C is that if all sins are against God–and if we assume A, then they are–then there is no distinction between venial and mortal sins.  It might seem odd for John Smith to go to hell for skipping church or eating a hot dog on a meat-free Friday; but if even his saying an unkind word to a sibling when he was ten is equally a sin against the infinite God, then why is that not worthy of Hell, too?  It is indeed perplexing.

More perplexing still is the logic of C even if we confine it to mortal sins.  Back here I discussed this issue as follows:

If I violated an order by my boss, the gravity of the violation doesn’t depend on whether my boss is Donald Trump or Jack, the local plumbing contractor.  If I violate a law, I’m guilty whether it’s a federal, state, or local law.  It’s hard to see how the fact of God’s infinity makes Original Sin of infinite gravity.  By this rationale, all sins, being ultimately against God, are infinite–something that seems intuitively mistaken.

The context there was Original Sin, but it works equally for any sin.  If I punched Donald Trump in the face, that’s no worse than punching Joe Schmoe in the face.  Because of his clout, The Donald might be able to get more done against me than Joe Schmoe would; but in the abstract I don’t deserve worse punishment for punching a billionaire than for punching a random person in the street.  Thus, even if we grant that all sins are against God, it’s hard to see why the mere fact that God is infinite makes the sin become infinite.  In fact, Leviticus 19:15 specifically says that one must not favor the rich just because they’re rich or the poor just because they’re poor–it says we are not to “pervert justice”.  This seems strongly to militate against the theory that sin against God is ipso facto infinite.

All in all, then, it seems that infinite retribution for even the most heinous of sins cannot be just in any meaningful way.  Even the sins of a Jeffrey Dahmer or a Pol Pot, it seems, would eventually be expiated, however long that might take.  Assertions to the contrary seem to be just that–assertions, not backed up by logical argument, but merely asserted as supposedly evident.  I think we have reasons to disagree with those assertions, as we’ve seen here.

So we’ve concluded that infinite retribution is indeed unjust.  That leaves the question of retribution as such.  Is retribution itself just, at least if it’s proportionate to the misdeed, or do we need to consider it more deeply?  That’s what we’ll consider next time.

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

Posted on 02/05/2016, in Bible, Catholicism, Christianity, ethics, philosophy, religion, theology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

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