One Helluva Problem

Part 2: Desert

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.

(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.

  • 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.
  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.
  • 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:
  • 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.
  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.)
  • Reform our justice —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 courtrooms. And while we’re at it, we should reintroduce governmental violence, such as torture and the death penalty. (Just imagine a society wherein the mentally disabled are held fully responsible to the point of torment or the death sentence… I hope we can all agree that such people do not need punitive retribution but medical treatment.)
  • Rethink divine Justice — Alternatively, if we do think that our retributive justice system is just, at least in its basic principles, then it only makes sense for God to affirm similar principles, e.g., regarding capability, mental competency and free will. [10]
  • 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. However, even if it could, this 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. This cannot be derived from nature. In modern legal terms, natural law is ‘void for vagueness’.
  • 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).
  • 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).

(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 comes up: what happens with these people after their limited punishment?

  • 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 much 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 impossible to imagine.)


[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.

  • 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.
  • ‘Classical theism’: freedom is the ability to act in accord with one’s rational (and truest) motives.



Thoughts on Pauline theology and the Christian life

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