One Helluva Problem

Part 2: Desert

Abjan van Meerten
14 min readDec 20, 2022

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This is the continuation of my first article on Hell; see also part 3.

3. Do all people deserve eternal punishment?

The foundational principle of ECT is retributive justice: everyone is personally ‘retributed’ in accord with their own deeds. In other words, everyone gets what they deserve.

If this principle of personal merit is held consistently (which it must be, since it is foundational), people cannot be punished for sins they did not themselves commit (i.e., Adam’s transgression), nor rewarded for righteous deeds they did not themselves do (i.e., Christ’s righteous act).

Abandoning this principle would fundamentally destabilize the system: anyone can now be punished or rewarded for anyone’s deeds. Legal chaos would ensue and God’s integrity and impartiality as judge would be corroded. Moreover, the very rationale of retributive justice is destroyed, which is that people are ethically motivated by the prospect of personal punishment or reward. If they are punished or rewarded on the basis of someone else’s merit, why care about their own moral behavior?

So, the principle of personal retribution precludes the position that humans are from birth deserving of eternal punishment because they inherit Adam’s guilt (the doctrine of original guilt). People can only be punished for their own actual sins. (This is corroborated by Rom 5:12, translated correctly.) [1]

Now that we have moved this issue out of the way, we can consider the main question.

(1) Yes — people deserve eternal punishment

One might still argue that humans deserve eternal punishment because of their own actual sins. Now, a serious problem immediately surfaces. If humans deserve infinite eternal punishment, then it means that God’s justice will never be served; it’s always in the process of being served. So, there will never be a moment when one can say: all crimes in the universe have been sufficiently punished. Retribution never reaches the point of proportionality.

Now, three further arguments can be used against eternal retribution (and two objections will be discussed along the way).

Argument 1: Impossibility of Infinite Harm

A major question is whether people can commit a sin that is so grievous as to merit infinite torture. This is because of the retributive principle of equal retaliation, which says that punishments should fit the crime. They should be in direct proportion to the degree of harm done. [2] Now, it is questionable if humans are able to inflict infinite harm, whether to other humans or to God.

  • Humans are by definition contingent beings with finite capabilities to inflict harm. But even if it was possible for humans to inflict or receive infinite harm, then God has ample reason for preventing them from doing so in his providence (e.g., love for potential victims).
  • God is, of course, an infinite being, so he is hypothetically able to inflict infinite harm (i.e., ECT). However, God cannot receive infinite harm, for if God could be ‘harmed’ by humans, then he would not be the perfect God of classical theism; it would touch on his immutability and self-sufficiency. God cannot be ‘deprived’ of anything.

Objection: Infinite Worth, Infinite Punishment?

Someone might interject that God’s infinite worth means that any sins against him, however small, deserve infinite punishment (again, using the principle of equal retaliation). However, five things can be said against this, besides the non-biblical (and quite medieval) origins of this whole line of thought.

  1. Firstly, and preliminarily, if Jesus on the cross actually carried infinite punishment (for millions of people!) in a limited amount of time — so PSA — , then that would also be possible for other humans. A rationale needs to be provided for the infinite duration of punishment for people in Hell as against a limited duration of punishment for Jesus on the cross. (By the way, limited duration would solve the problem noted above of justice never being served.)
  2. Now, as Parry reminds us, [3] if all sins are infinitely deserving of punishment, then all sins are equally bad! This is simple math. Let’s call the sin of lying ‘Y’ and the sin of murder ‘Z’. If we multiply Y and Z with ‘infinite’ (i.e, the worth of God), we get the same results. And this means lying is just as bad as murder and is punished in ultimately the same way! This goes against the retributive principle of proportionality between crime and punishment. The infinity of merit and punishment means that sins always average out. Applying this to PSA, if Jesus would have died for a single sin, he would have experienced the exact same punishment as if he would have died for a million sins — namely, infinite.
  3. But more importantly, the ‘value’ of the plaintiff (in this case, God) is not the only or even dominant factor in determining the severity of punishments in a retributive justice system. One must also take into account the relevant laws, the transgressive deed (actus reus), and the intentions of the defendant (mens rea), so that a proportional punishment can be determined. And these other factors arguably mitigate the punishment (see below).
  4. But even if God’s ‘value’ would be the dominant factor, it would be hard to measure. For example, what is the value of a human compared to God’s? At most, such value is an economic metaphor, but it does not hold up if it is held consistently and literally, which it must be if it is applied to a legal situation like this. (Then we would end up with an Anselmian theological system of economics, which has its own problems. [4])
  5. Lastly, in my own view, God’s ‘value’ consists precisely in his self-emptying love and power to save toward humans, flowing from the deeply relational, covenantal beauty of Father, Son, and Spirit. God’s value consists in valuing others and emptying himself for them. This gives a very different picture of justice (see part 1 on God’s ‘glory’). No longer is God bound by a contract with humanity. He is free to forgive.

Argument 2: Capability, Mental Competency, and Free Will

Secondly, there are factors concerning mens rea that mitigate any divine punishment. Human actual sins stem from original sin, that is, from existence ‘in Adam’. Since the Fall, drastic changes have occurred with respect to human capability, mental competency and free will. Therefore, the pre-Fall accountability structure between God and humans, otherwise referred to as the ‘covenant of works’ (one could call it a contract), has been proportionally weakened due to the Fall. Humans are, for a large part, excused.

Excursus: The ‘Adamic’ Powers

A short discussion of ‘Adamic’ existence might be useful. [5] The starting point is that humans are created by God and for God (Rom 11:36), who is the Good. This implies three things:

  • Since God is the Good, and humans find their origin in God, humans are substantially good.
  • Since God is the Good, and humans find their telos in God, human will and desire and rationality is oriented toward the Good, that is, humans always act toward some end that is perceived as ‘good’. Accordingly, they are only free to the degree that they act toward the true Good, God. [6] As Reitan writes:

“…genuinely rational freedom (...) is found when two conditions are met: first, the rational faculty is neither deluded nor ignorant about what is good, thereby providing a fully satisfactory account of what is good; second, the will is not subject to the control of any non-rational faculty, thereby inevitably choosing in accord with the rational faculty” (cited in this article, which is worth reading as a whole).

  • What’s more, since God is the Good, and all things find their origin in God, all things are substantially good. Evil, on the other hand, is not something substantial (finding its origin in God), but a privation of goodness.

Now, in ‘Adam’, the originally good situation is invaded by evil powers that enslave humans, both internally and externally: [7]

  1. Internal: the power of the Flesh is not, contrary to popular opinion, ‘sinful human nature’ (quelle horreur!), but rather a power indwelling the human that parasitises good humans, so that their mind is darkened, their thinking becomes futile, their heart is hardened, their desires are deceitful, etc. (cf. Eph 4:17–19, 22). In this way, the Flesh makes humans susceptible to external oppressive powers.
  2. External: the power of Sin enslaves fleshly people to destructive behaviours (‘sins’), that ultimately lead to Death — that is, the ultimate privation of goodness, and thus the great enemy of God (1 Cor 15:26). So, sinning is inherently irrational. No one chooses evil because it is evil, but because they mistakenly perceive it as some form of the Good. Sin stems from ignorance — as, in fact, the first sin in Eden bears out.
  3. Now, this dynamic of Sin leading to Death, playing on the Flesh, happens in the context of the World ruled by evil spiritual forces, all contributing to a huge system of deception, much like an Orwellian society. Now, since humans are enslaved to these powers from birth, they cannot know that they are being deceived! They are captives who think they are free, until they are actually freed by divine revelation to find their proper end in union with God. (One could also think of a Matrix metaphor.)

All of this means that the human capability to do good, their mental competency to act rationally, and their freedom of will to live ‘freely’, that is, rationally oriented toward the Good (all of which come down to the same thing), are all severely limited ‘in Adam’ by enslaving cosmic powers. This, in turn, means that the ‘pre-Fall’ legal structure between God and humans (if there was any) can no longer be upheld in the same strict terms. To the degree that humans are in bondage, culpability is mitigated. Actus non facit reum, nisi mens sit rea…

Objection: Accountability and Capability?

The primary objection that ECT-adherents now bring up is that, in their divine legal system, accountability is not correlated or proportional with capability, mental competency, or free will, contrary to in the modern legal system. Humans can be both ‘determined’ in their actions by immoral forces and be held morally accountable for their actions by God. They argue that the Kantian principle ‘ought implies can’ should not be retrojected into Scripture. [8]

And indeed, libertarian free will is the foundation of our modern moral structure, whereas, according to ECT-adherents, it is irrelevant to God’s morality and justice (at least in this definition). However, an important feature of classical theism is that God is the source of all rationality and justice (etc.), not as the most rational and just being, but as Rationality and Justice in himself. This means that our conception of justice should be in fundamental agreement with divine Justice.

To shortly expand on this: if we would say that God’s divine justice is utterly unlike our justice, or even just slightly, so that we would call it ‘unjust’, then still calling it ‘justice’ has become meaningless. If divine justice is human injustice, or human justice divine injustice, then the whole term ‘justice’ has lost its meaning and we are simply playing with words. We can only talk about God’s justice because we have the concept of human justice, and these two are related to each other in some fashion — namely, the latter exists because it participates in the former. Human justice is only just to the degree that it participates in divine justice — or, more precisely, God who is Justice. (The same goes for being, truth, goodness, beauty, etc.)

Nor can we say that whatever God does is just simply on account of the fact that he does it. Again, justice would lose its meaning. God does not act arbitrarily; that is the reason why Christian faith can ‘seek understanding’. It is true that neither does he act in accordance with some standard of justice outside of him. But God acts in accord with the Justice that he himself is — that is, he acts in accord with himself, what we would call his ‘character’. That is his ‘freedom’ — not arbitrariness, but full consistency. (Cf. this article by DBH.)

Returning to the issue at hand — the correlation between capability and accountability — we are faced with two options:

  • If we deny that correlation and hold on to ECT, we should urgently start reforming our fundamentally misguided justice system! [9] Notably, we should banish the principles of capability, libertarian free will, and mental competency from our law books. Notably, we should start holding mentally incapacitated people, such as the schizophrenic, fully accountable.
  • If we affirm that correlation, we should reject ECT and rethink divine Justice. If we think that our justice system is just, at least in some of its basic principles, then it only makes sense for God to affirm similar principles, in this case regarding capability, mental competency, and free will. [10]

Argument 3: Mens rea — Most humans are incapable of knowing God’s will

Thirdly, it is questionable to what extent humans can even know they are transgressing God’s Law, i.e., through natural law, apart from special revelation. [11] (Arguably this applies to the majority of the historical world population, which has never been in contact with Scripture.)

  • First of all, nature should reveal the accountability structure between God and humans, that is to say, (1) that God exists, (2) that he is the Creator and Ruler of everything that exists, (3) that humans therefore owe him obedience, and (4) that, if they do not obey, there will be certain punishments (and eternal ones at that). In sum, nature should reveal retributive monotheism, which it arguably doesn’t. (The burden of proof lies on proponents.) And even if it did, such an account of God (and humans) would be insufficiently Christological, as Karl Barth reminds us. Nature does not reveal that God is Triune and that he is loving, to take just two very crucial data. Just by looking at nature, one might derive a God that is powerful, for sure, but also random in using that sovereign power, and quite malevolent at times — a God that is more compatible with emperors than a crucified Lord, and, as it turns out, a God that fits the picture of ECT particularly well.
  • Now, nature should not just reveal the accountability structure, but also the specific ethical commandments to which humans are held accountable. If God’s Law is said to be represented by the Ten Commandments, then it does not just involve generic ‘neighbour love’, but also monotheistic worship of the Israelite God, aniconism, reverence for the divine name (what would that be?), monogamy, and sabbatarianism, all of which cannot be derived from nature and the conscience. In modern legal terms, natural law is ‘void for vagueness’. However, even if it could reveal all these things, it would be an insufficiently Christological account (again) of God’s Law. Doing God’s will (‘Law-keeping’) means acting Christ-like, including, for example, being compassionate and self-sacrificing, and these cannot be derived from nature.
  • And even if we suppose that nature and the conscience reveal the divine-human contract of retributive justice and its ethical specifics (a very big ‘if’), humans would still not be able to retrieve all that information because of their Adamic existence (see above), which is marked by mental darkness, slavery, deception, blindness, delusion and ignorance (see, again, Eph 4:17–19; also 2 Cor 4:4; Gal 4:8).
  • Lastly, special revelation does contain all the necessary information, but those who possess it still need divine enlightenment because of their same starting position ‘in Adam’. And this divine enlightenment arguably happens only after (and through) the Spirit’s regeneration, when believers in retrospect come to recognize their sins (and this messes up the ‘law-gospel’ ordo salutis).

At this point in the discussion, I would challenge adherents of Justification to establish the foundational position of conditional, retributive justice in their notion of God on Christological grounds, without just citing texts that seem to be compatible with it (such as Rom 2:6–11 and 1 Thes 2:8–9 [on which see Campbell]), and to justify denying this position to elective, unconditional love (as hinted at above) on the same grounds.

Now we can move on to the alternative answer to our original question:

(2) No — people do not deserve eternal punishment

At this point, the ‘E’ of ECT has crumbled down. Hell is now a temporary place of conscious torment. Then the question becomes: what happens with these people after their limited punishment (still presuming that Hell is about punishment in the first place?

  • Restoration — The most logical options is that they are redeemed. They have served their time, so to say, and they can now re-enter ‘society’. Most ECT-adherents, however, will simply assert (without any basis) that redemption is impossible in the afterlife.
  • Annihilation — But then the only remaining option seems to be annihilationism, which is not what ECT-adherents want (and which has its own problems). (See part 3 for a discussion of these two options.)
  • (Intermediate existence — A hypothetical option would be that, after their temporary punishment, people continue existing outside of Hell, but also outside of Heaven. Nevertheless, such a place is hard to imagine.)

This was the continuation of my first article on Hell; see also part 3.

Endnotes

[1] Cf. David Bentley Hart (DBH): ‘The claim is manifestly a contradiction in terms: The very notion of an “inherited guilt” is a logical absurdity, rather on the order of a “square circle.”’ That All Shall Be Saved (Yale 2021), ch. 3.

[2] See Thomas Talbott, The Inescapable Love of God, 2nd ed. (Cascade Books, 2014), ch. 9, ‘Punishment, Forgiveness, and Divine Justice’.

[3] Gregory MacDonald [Robin Parry], The Evangelical Universalist (Cascade 2012), ch. 1.

[4] That is, it would necessarily imply that God has ‘rights’ to certain goods and services, from which he can be ‘deprived’ by humans (against classical theism), and whose value would be determined by the market (i.e., supply and demand) and expressed in certain currency. All of this is clearly nonsense. See Douglas Campbell (DC), The Deliverance of God (Eerdmans 2013), 2.2.6, ‘Christology and Atonement’.

[5] For this section I have especially used DBH, TASBS, ch. 6, ‘Fourth Meditation: What Is Freedom? A Reflection on the Rational Will’, integrating it with a Pauline apocalyptic framework.

[6] This definition differs from both the libertarian and compatibilist accounts of freedom:

  • Libertarianism: freedom is the ability to act on a choice between different courses of actions, without external constraints (thus deriving the ‘ability to do otherwise’).
  • Compatibilism: freedom is the ability to act in accord with one’s motives, even while being determined by external forces.
  • ‘Classical theism’: freedom is the ability to act in accord with one’s rational (and truest) motives.

Thus, for classical theists, the pinnacle of freedom is being unable to ‘do otherwise’ if that otherwise means acting irrationally — as Augustine says, non posse non peccare; again, see DBH.

[7] I have omitted the cosmic powers of the Law (and not-Law) here for the sake of brevity; it is by far the most complex of the ‘powers’. For an unparalleled discussion, see J. Louis Martyn, Galatians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Yale 2004).

[8] E.g., Thomas Schreiner, ‘A Reformed View’, in: Michael Bird (ed.), Four Views on the Apostle Paul (Zondervan 2012). Of course, it is ironic to hear such an assertion from someone who fiercely defends a system so deeply shaped by Modern (conservative) culture; see DC, Deliverance, ch. 9, ‘Dangers — The Modern European Pedigree’.

[9] It is true that, with the definition of freedom provided in this article, I too think our justice system should be reformed, at least to some degree. Against libertarianism, negative freedom an sich becomes irrelevant (if it ever existed). Against compatibilism, positive freedom an sich becomes irrelevant too. What matters is rational freedom, both negative and positive: being free from irrational constraints, and being free to act on rational motives.

However, this means that the principles of capability, mental competency and freedom of will are not abolished, as with compatibilism, but rather sharpened. They apply even more broadly than with libertarianism! Now, the focus becomes even more on rehabilitation and restoration and much less on retribution.

[10] Cf. David Bentley Hart: ‘Far from constituting an obstacle to analogical statements about God, it is precisely this difference between the finite and the infinite, or between the immanent and the transcendent, that secures the rational basis of all such statements. … God is not a moral agent, but only because he is transcendent Moral Agency [or Justice] as such. … Thus, he is unlike finite moral agents precisely by being infinitely better than they.’ TASBS, ch. 2.

[11] For a discussion of Rom 1:18–32 — arguably the only biblical text talking about ‘natural law’ in these terms— see DC, Deliverance, ch. 11.2.1–2 (textual under- and overdeterminations in the traditional reading), and ch. 14.1–3 (Campbell’s own reading).

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Abjan van Meerten

Thoughts on the liberating theology of Paul and the universal love of God