The Injustice of "Infinite Hell for Finite Sins" Argument


#1

Hi group, I’m just looking for critical feedback on the below argument. By my lights, one of the main objections to traditionalism is that its view of hell is unjust. There’s many reasons for this, but one popular objection is that it is unjust to punish anyone with an “infinite hell” when they’ve only committed “finite sins.” I take the term infinite to be non-literal, standing for something like “endless.” Anyway, I’d just like to get some feedback on the below to see if it’s an argument worth pursuing, to work on the weak spots, or to see if I should just trash it. Thanks for your consideration:

Here’s a rough sketch of the argument


Need criticism of "The Evangelical Universalist" for 2nd Ed!
#2

I know DC personally as a fellow Christian apologist on the internet, btw, and am very glad to see him (or her) here.

So be care-ful, as I will be inclined to be rather protective of him as a good and strong opponent to have around!

(My comments on the argument itself will follow later; I just wanted to personally vouch for him-or-her first.)


#3

My first impression before lunch, btw, is that I agree with DC’s rebuttal generally speaking (though I may possibly disagree on some particulars). Fortunately, I never use this argument. :mrgreen: But it is certainly a popular one; and is also used by some universalist scholars even when they aren’t making an appeal to the general populace but rather to educated readers. So it is certainly worth taking time to analyze for rebuttal either way.

I’ll give the rebuttal a more detailed look-over after lunch.


#4

Hi DC,

Side note — I’m wondering why the idea of “infinite” punishment seems muddled to you? Could you elaborate?

Your argument is pretty good. It would work under certain assumptions. Like if we assume we only receive from God exactly what we’ve earned.

Here’s the problem I have with it:

“The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Sin pays her slaves a salary: Death. It is an earned allowance.

But God gives His slaves a gift: Life. It is grace, unearned, given because it pleases the giver.

It is unjust to punish a man more than he has earned, but it is the right of the Master to give His servants more than they have earned.

I’m reminded of the parable Jesus tells, where some worked all day, some less, others only an hour. At the end of the day, they all receive a day’s wage. The ones who earned their pay complain that it isn’t fair that others who didn’t work so much get to receive as much. But it is fair–they received what they worked for–that was just. The others received what they worked for as well, and if the Master chooses to gift them with more, that is no one’s business to interfere with or complain about.

Rewards may exceed effort, as it pleases the rewarder, but punishment may never be excessive without becoming unjust.

Sonia


#5

Hi Sonia,

The aside: On traditionalism, no one ever experiences an actual infinite punishment, either in terms of intensity or duration of the punishment. On the intensity point, there’s no reason to believe that traditionalism demands that the intensity of the punishment for some unredeemed sinner is infinite. First, I don’t know what it would mean to experience an infinitely intense punishment, could I even experience that? Second, traditionalism has suggested that the damned suffer degrees of punishment (some are punished more severely than others), which would suggest that the damned don’t experience an infinite amount of intensity in their punishment. On the second point, hell is an endless duration, and so cannot be an actual infinite. At every point in time the duration of punishment is finite, and will always be so, even if the latter points always gets “closer” to infinity than the previous ones. The distinction here is between an actual and a potential infinity. No damned person will ever experiences an infinite duration of punishment.

As to your second point, I agree with you that we cannot earn our salvation in any sense, it is a gift. My argument, however, focused on the Two Adams—Adam and Jesus. Take the case of Jesus, I suggested that he did indeed earn “infinite” rewards, honors, titles, for his finite action/s. It doesn’t seem to me that the Bible indicates that he earned only finite rewards, honors, titles, etc., but was graciously given greater rewards than he merited. In fact, in my taxonomy, that couldn’t be since I view grace as demerited favor, and Jesus, being sinless, never received any demerited favor.

Sorry for the long response.

Hi Jason,

I was unaware that you weren’t a fan of the argument! You’re correct that it is a popular objection. I’ve seen many universalists on the internet employ it, and, as you note, it’s in the scholarly literature as well. As you know, see for example, Thomas Talbott ‘Punishment, forgiveness, and divine justice’, Religious Studies, 29 (1993), 151–168; Jonathan L. Kvanvig The Problem of Hell (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993); and ‘Heaven and hell’, in Philip L. Quinn and Charles Taliaferro (eds) A Companion to Philosophy of Religion (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1997), 562–568; D. P. Walker The Decline of Hell: Seventeenth- Century Discussions of Eternal Torment (Chicago IL: University of Chicago Press, 1964); Jerry L. Walls Hell: The Logic of Damnation (Notre Dame IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992), and Gregory MacDonald The Evangelical Universalist (Cascade Books, Wipf & Stock, 2006). Macdonald/Parry begins his salvo against traditionalism on p.11 with this objection. I realize some in the above are not universalists, but they have received the objection from either universalists or atheists—I am in no way comparing the two! And the objection has been dealt with by the above, as well as J. Cain, Oliver crisp, etc. I just haven’t seen my particular objection in the literature, which could be a sign that it’s a bad objection! :slight_smile:


#6

DC,

Yes I thought I recalled Robin and Tom both using that argument in their work, although I couldn’t remember for sure.

To forestall some critique of this remark to Sonia, “No damned person will ever experience an infinite duration of punishment,” I realize your point is that the concept of “an infinite duration” is a technical category confusion between an ontological characteristic proper only to God on the one hand (infinite) and a quantitative characteristic regarding derivative reality on the other (duration).

(This point is very similar to my linguistic argument that the adjective ‘eonian’ as used in the NT, is indicative of the object of the adjective being provided uniquely by God. However, once that concept is factored in then there could in fact be ‘infinite’ ‘duration’, in the sense of the duration being uniquely provided by that which is properly ‘infinity’, i.e. by God. But the duration itself is not intrinsically infinite, even if it happened to continue sequentially unbroken always. On the other hand, the duration in this sense would still be infinite even if the duration ended!–so long as the ending was due to ‘the infinite’.)


#7

I don’t see how a person would have a problem with this? Even a universalist should agree that sin potentially could eternally separate us from a holy righteous God because sin is exceedingly sinful. It only takes one sin to eternally separate us from God because He is so holy and righteous and can’t have sin in his presence. Offend an infinitely holy God and receive an infinite holy punishment. This is man centered yet again, more about the offense and the person committing it than the one true God being offended.


#8

Oxy,

You do realize DC is arguing in favor of your position there, right?

Although, he is doing so in a more careful and nuanced fashion, so that he doesn’t end up requiring that you or he, the sinners, must and shall be eternally separated from and/or punished by God, leaving no room for God’s salvation of sinners from sin. As that would be a denial of any kind of gospel of salvation whatever. :wink:

Edited to add: your second attempt, now found above, is significantly better. :slight_smile:


#9

Hi Oxy,

Yes, as Jason said, I’m arguing that a universalist should allow for this. However, this has the unsavory consequence of undercutting one of the major argument against the traditionalist view of hell (and argument used by several prominent universalists, see citations above). I view that argument as resting on [P], and since you claim it is possible that an finite sin could merit an infinite punishment then that defeats [P], as it’s a necessity claim. If all sides could agree that the infinite-punishment-for-finite-sin argument is not very good, this would make for good progress in the debate. After all, there’s still a ton of worthy arguments in the universalists toolkit that promise to keep traditionalists busy for quite some time!


#10

Now on to particular comments on the argument.

[P] could stand to be refined a bit, whether in correction to universalistic proponents or otherwise, in considering what it means to claim that it is unjust (necessarily or otherwise) for S to deserve something. The statement as it stands is a self-contradictory claim, unless desert is construed to have no correlative relationship to justice. The universalist is either making such a claim (of no correlative relationship between desert and justice), or is instead trying to claim that S does not after all deserve P on the grounds specified.

I myself would quickly shut down an attempt to disengage deservedness from justice; although I won’t go into details why here, my reasons involve the relationship of justice to trinitarian theology, a relationship I find and believe to be unique to such a theology. But even universalists who agree with some (many? most? I know not all…) non-universalists that ‘justice’ primarily involves infliction of punishment on doers of injustice (such that this is what is most important in talking about the justice of God being fulfilled), will have trouble I think disengaging deservedness from even that notion of justice.

The issue then is whether any (S)inner deserves (i.e. whether it is just for S to receive) infinite §unishment for finite sins, or whether any (S) does not deserve so (thus receiving it would be unjust)–keeping in mind problems with understanding “infinite”, but also thus in understanding “finite”!

If “infinite” and “finite” are understood to be “an unending sequence” and “a temporary sequence or instant” respectively, then the principle would be illustrated just as validly if “an unending sequence” is only longer than the sequence of S’s relevant action by any amount. The question then is whether any S can deserve a P that lasts any longer than the sin of S, however long it took to do that sin.

And of course we commonly agree that S can fairly deserve such punishment. We even typically agree that S can fairly deserve such punishments when the quality approximates to that of “an unending sequence”, even when strictly speaking the timeframes involved are equivalent or reversed! So for years of betraying his country (as a spy for example), a man may be punished with a life sentence in prison, regardless of whether his remaining life sequence in prison is longer or shorter than the timespan of his betrayal. Or for betraying his country, a man may be executed, even though the execution may easily take less time to complete than the betrayal did.

The universalist making this appeal will have to be prepared on the same principle to challenge any punishment lasting any time longer than the crime took to commit; and I do not see any universalist being prepared to do so.

As DC also says, the argument of proportionality would also seem to involve injustice being fulfilled if a righteous man is rewarded any time longer than the time spent doing that for which he is being rewarded; and again no universalist anywhere will be prepared to challenge that. The argument from a principle application of temporal proportionality fails, as rebutted by DC so far (along with extensions to the illustration as I supplied above.)

What if “infinite” is treated as an ontological qualifier? As DC has argued, I think rightly, there is a way of trying this which ends in mere category error (thus is useless for a universalistic argument against non-universalistic punishment in that regard as well).

But what if “infinite” is treated as an ontological qualifier in the sense that the punishment comes from The One Who Is Infinite? By topical parallel, the sin comes from the one who is finite.

So the question is now, in effect, whether S, as a finite entity, deserves to be punished by God for sinning. I am entirely prepared to challenge any universalist (or anyone else) who thinks S would not deserve to be punished by God for sinning; but in practice even ultra-universalists (who deny any post-mortem wrath of God) still agree that S deserves to be punished by God for sinning. They may think God only punishes sin in this life, and/or they may think God has pretermitted all punishment by punishing Jesus Christ (who or Who was innocent of sin) for our sins, but they still typically agree sinners (not to say non-sinners like the Son of God) deserve to be punished by God for those sinners’ sins.

So much for any variant of universalistic argument from this direction so far.

There are, however, several other things to consider, including (but not limited to) the question of whether a person must necessarily deserve unending punishment for a sin that has ended; and if so why that would be–an argument often made (in several ways) by non-universalists in favor of hopelessly final punishment (of various sorts), and to which the universalistic argument mentioned by DC is chiefly presented for sake of rebuttal. Whether the rebuttal attempt fails or not, is there something there worth rebutting after all? Perhaps one or more versions of the idea are indeed worth rebutting even if at least one version of that idea is not? Or are all such attempts from non-universalists worth rebuttal?

That, and other topics, would be well worth discussing, too (I mean in this thread, in reply to DC’s original post); but so far as he goes, I think DC shows well enough that the common rebuttal attempt represented in his (counter-)rebuttal fares poorly.


#11

I would (and did :wink: ) also say that, as Oxy phrased it, there are some far more unsavory consequences that non-universalists ought to very quickly complain about as well as universalists! (Edited to add: although I think so far you are avoiding the problems endemic in the logic of Oxy’s approach.)

To your citations, btw, I can add from memory George MacDonald in his written sermons; as well as at least some of the Patristic universalists; although I don’t have precise references at hand.


#12

*[1] Adam would have deserved everlasting (reward) life had he fulfilled the law in the garden—a finite action.

[2] Jesus endlessly deserves glory, honor, titles (reward) for the finite actions he undertook in his active and passive obedience, also earning everlasting life for his people.*

A few comments. I’m not sure that Adam was ever promised unconditional eternal life, was he? From what I see in the texts, off the top of my head, Adams living forever would have been dependent on NOT sinning, whether it was ten years or ten million years after his creation. I’ll have to look into that.

Jesus deserves endless glory for 2 reasons: what he did AND who he is. Jesus could only accomplish this because of who he was. We DON’T deserve heaven. It is a gift so the comparison doesn’t work. The scriptures are full of examples of God giving LESS punishment than people deserved and MORE reward than they should ever get. This is called mercy and blessing. When and if we get heaven, we are not getting what we deserve, we are getting infinitely, abundantly beyond more than we could ever deserve or imagine. David deserved to die for the murder of Uriah. God had mercy. Nehemiah said that God gave them less than they deserved in his prayer of repentance.

I’ll give more thought to it, but this is just my initial reaction.

Chris

P.S. WELCOME!


#13

Thanks for this! Some of it is very helpful, the rest is helpful simpliciter. I especially appreciate the point in the first paragraph [edit: I initially had “say that” in [P], but I didn’t want it to read that the injustice was in the saying that S deserved P, so I took that out and left it like that. Your point about the clarity is well taken]. I’ll chew on this for a bit and get back to you. :slight_smile:


#14

Hi Chris,

On Adam, cf, material on the covenant of works CoW, esp. from the Reformed tradition. There is debate about the matter, no doubt, but it is by no means clear that the CoW is false. The position here is that we have a probationary period, during it Adam was able to sin and able not to sin, if he would have passed the test, kept the law, then he would have won everlasting life for him and all his. He would have been made only able to do good, unable to sin. However, he failed, and became only able to sin (total depravity).

On Jesus, yes, he was able to do what he did because he was the God-man, nevertheless, he does deserve “infinite rewards” for his “finite actions.” The point is the finite actions, and Romans 5:18 seems to suggest this, i.e., with the “one act” that earned life for his people. Moreover, since I am convinced that it was possible that he could have sinned (see Oliver Crisp on this), I don’t think universalists who push the objection I’m addressing would think it just for Christ to be endlessly punished for his finite sin, even though he was the God-man. Third, the argument could turn around since the traditionalist might argue that the only way Jesus was able to take God’s punishment completely was because of his divine nature, thus, no finite person can fully pay for sin in hell, hence it must go on endlessly.

Thanks for the welcome!


#15

DC,

My one main critique against your (counter-)rebuttal, is not actually against your rebuttal in its form per se, but against your example of Christ. Dirtboy beat me to posting it though. (I was going to isolate it from my other comments, but didn’t have time to write it up yet due to ‘work’ work back here at the office.)

Dirtboy puts it pretty well, I think. Christ is a sui generis example–unless some kind of Arian Christology is true, and probably even then thanks to the grace of God. (And I know you aren’t an Arian, or at least you haven’t been in the years I’ve read you and I haven’t heard of you changing positions on this.)

And even in the case of the trinitarian Son, the Son does not first earn reward from the Father, but from all eternity (whether considered in relation to the temporal time of created reality or in regard to the fundamental level of God’s own eternal self-begetting, self-begotten self-existent reality as the ground of all reality) the Father graciously gives all to the Son. Nor does the Father thus ‘first’ ‘earn’ (even as the ontological arche of the Person of the Son) the Son surrendering all back to the Father; but rather the Son surrenders with the same grace as the Father begettingly gives.

This is not to deny that anyone can earn anything, whether punishment or reward; I only insist (as a supernaturalistic theist, much moreso as a trinitarian theologian) that whatever may be earned is earned within the overarching framework of the grace of the Father and the Son (as well as the grace of the proceeding Spirit).

Your example could be modified with this more in mind, though, without negating the force of your argument (so far as I can see).


#16

DualCitizen: Seems one of the main motivating arguments for universalism/against traditionalism is:
[P] It is necessarily unjust that S deserves an infinite Punishment for S’s finite sin/s.

Tom: P is not an argument FOR universalism. At best it’s JUST an argument AGAINST the traditional view. P may be true and the traditional view and UR both be false while annihilationism is true.

Personally I don’t think any finite being’s sin can warrant/derserve infinite (unending/irrevocable) punishment, but I’m just saying that § itself isn’t a stand alone argumetn for UR.

Tom


#17

I am sure that some of us will cough “{eis pantas anthropous} in 5:18” (Greek sounds a lot like someone coughing up a furball :mrgreen:); but that is probably a discussion for another thread. Certainly none of us here will disagree that in one just act by Christ {eis pantas anthropous} His people shall be made just into life’s justifying. :slight_smile:

Edited to add: Tom, I fixed the attribution of your quote to who actually wrote it, namely DC, not Chris/Dirtboy, who was only quoting DC.


#18

DC,

I don’t view Jesus as having *earned infinite *reward because of some finite work. I view Jesus’s acts as those of an already infinitely/unsurpassably worthy person (the Son) acting in a finite context in ways that have implications for others. His acts *demonstrate the unsurpassable worth/value (infinite value, if you like) of the eternal Son. They (his finite incarnate acts) do not *earn him infinite reward in the sense you’re thinking.

As I see it,
Tom


#19

Thanks Janson! I got turned around there.

Tom


#20

Hi Tom, I wrote for universalism/against traditionalism. However, it could be one argument for universalism in a cumulative case argument, esp. if annihilationism is false, and an “infinite” hell is unjust, then this makes universalism more probable.