QUESTION: How is hell morally justified? Infinite time for a finite crime?
A THEOLOGICAL CAN OF WORMS
This question opens a huge theological can of worms that Christians have been divided about for a long time: the question of the duration of hell. To be sure, the dominant view has been the traditional take that hell will last forever. Considering some of the things Jesus himself said about it (like when he said the lost will “go away to eternal punishment.” Matt 25:46) it’s reasonable that the common Christian position has been that hell is infinite in duration.
However, throughout Church history, especially in the early church period and now more recently, the assumption that hell lasts forever is less uniform in the Church. This non-traditional view has been called “annihilationist” because it holds that souls in hell are eventually annihilated. (This is different from the Universalist position which says all souls are saved.)
Why would anyone who takes Jesus words seriously ever hold this view? The reason is that Jesus favored metaphors and language that emphasize destruction in hell, which indicates a finite, not an infinite timescale. To give only the most obvious example, the most famous verse in the Bible indicates the death, not the endless existence of the lost: “For God so love the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16)
TRADITIONAL VS ANNIHILATIONIST
Now obviously, if the second view is correct the moral problem of infinite punishment for finite crimes goes away. Therefore, I would suggest you look into this deeply. A book that will help you is “Erasing Hell” by Francis Chan who says:
“The debate about hell’s duration is much more complex than I first assumed. While I lean heavily on the side that says it is everlasting, I am not ready to claim that with complete certainty and encourage you to continue researching, but don’t get so caught up in this debate that you miss the point of what Jesus was trying to communicate.” (pg. 86)Francis Chan
I would encourage the same, and if you think Annihilation is what Jesus was trying to communicate, your question about an eternal hell’s moral justification is a non-issue.
But given that the traditional view has been accepted by most Christians at most times in History for good biblical reasons, we should be prepared to defend how a hell of infinite duration could be reconciled with the finite nature of our crimes that would put us there.
So, I’ll try to do something Francis Chan doesn’t do, and that’s reconcile the two irreconcilable ideas!
First, the problem inside your question assumes that once a person dies that no further crimes are being committed. Why would we think that? We might assume that someone who was depraved, and evil has no other person to hurt after he dies, thus he cannot keep on sinning. This is why we imagine even the worst of us have only a finite capacity for racking up our badness score.
But what if death does not put a stop to our sin? Assume after death a soul enters the afterlife in the condition it was made by the owner, hardened toward God, turned in on itself, myopic and narcissistic and utterly proud. We sometimes think that all souls go through a sort of Scrooge-like revival upon death, or at least that death wakes them out of the fog they were in and all “see the light”.
But should we think this is so? In the parable Jesus tells of the rich man and poor Lazarus (Luke 16:19), both die and enter the afterlife. The rich man is now aware he is in a different state, and an unpleasant one, but his hard heart and prideful indifference to others carries with him. He feels the torment of hell, but he still thinks he can boss people around. He asks that the poor Lazarus that he abused in life be his slave in death as well. He senses his situation is not ideal, yet he feels entitled to special favors for his living family members.
In other words, death has not fixed him automatically. He continues to sin after death. So the man is judged into hell for the condition he made his soul in life, and CONTINUES to be judged after death. If his reasoning soul, which he hardened in this life, continues forever in the direction he set it in, his crimes can no longer be called ‘finite’.
OUTSIDE OF TIME
Second, we need to be prepared to have a more nuanced view of what eternity really means. We think about time from the perspective of our physical existence now, and time is linear. It’s like a line, traveling one moment to the next, only in one direction and you can never experience two moments in time at the same time. If eternity is like this – simply a prolongation of time – it is disproportion to think of eternal damnation in light of sins limited by time and space.
But many would disagree that the state of ‘eternal life’ or ‘eternal death’ that the Bible talks about is merely a prolongation of time. In fact, it’s a little talked about secret in Christian circles that some have an aversion to heaven(!) so long as they think of heaven as merely a prolongation of time. The words “boring” and “tedious” and “I’d get tired of even paradise if it went on forever” come up a lot.
What if in eternity, we are entering a different state when it comes to time. What if when we died we were exiting time altogether! Just think, we have discovered that time had a beginning. Thus, time itself is a finite feature of this universe, living inside this universe such that if the universe died, time would also die. AND we discovered it’s a non-uniform feature at that! Relativity Theory tells us Time can be experienced differently depending on how fast you are moving relative to other bodies.
If Time is this flexible and finite, can it not be true that when we die Time is no longer defined by the seconds that tick by on some universal clock, but by the endurance of a new state of being? The state of being “saved”, the state of being “damned”. If this is true, then the eternal nature of hell is not defined by infinite time, but rather by entry into “lostness.” This eternal state is like the eternal God, no beginning or end, it simply is the ever present now. It is not a question of disproportionate punishment then, it is a question of which timeless reality was selected for in this life? A reality of life, communal joy and oneness with God, or a reality of privation, exclusion, and banishment?
DESTROYING A SOUL
Third, speaking of privation and exclusion, these point to the different metaphors Jesus uses when talking about hell. Fire is the most prevalent. And if we focus on this literally (which almost no Bible scholars think we should), we miss the most obvious thing about fire: fire destroys. And Jesus did say that God could “destroy both body and soul in hell.” (Matt 10:28) This prime metaphor gets to the duration of hell. Destruction suggests a thing ceases to exist or is unmade. As I mentioned above, some take this to mean that a soul could be annihilated – that the suffering in hell would end when the soul is fully destroyed.
Maybe that’s the case. But if we keep fire in mind, that symbol tells us that nothing that burns is ever truly annihilated. It simply turns into something else. CS Lewis noted this when he wrote:
“The destruction of one thing means the emergence of something else. Burn a log, and you have gases, heat and ash. To have been a log means now being those three things. If souls can be destroyed, must there not be a state of having been a human soul? And is not that, perhaps, the state which is equally well described as torment, destruction and privation? …what is cast (or casts itself) into hell is not a man: it is ‘remains’.” (Emphasis original)CS Lewis (Problem of Pain)
I think that quote itself comes the closest to reconciling the traditional view with the annihilationist position. Hell is infinite in the sense what is there is there forever, but hell is finite in that what is there is not what we think of as people existing forever, rather ‘what used to be people’.
Either way, I think we can conclude two things: that the problem of disproportionate punishment fades away as we consider the different experience of time in eternity and the different experience of being ‘unmade’ in eternity.
Once we get through that controversy, we can see that the point Jesus made was simply to inform us that the stakes involved in securing our souls in this life are unbelievably high. And without being reconciled to God, he said, it is not safe to die (Luke 12:20-21).