Is Hell Just?

In discussions regarding reasons to doubt Christianity, I often hear people reply an argument from hell. The argument roughly is this:

  1. If God exists, He always does what is right
  2. It is wrong to send people to hell
  3. Under Christianity, God exists and sends people to hell
  4. Christianity is false

The argument is valid, so the Christian must respond by disputing a premise. Few of us would dispute 1, and only universalists and annihilationists make a meaningful disputation of 3. But I am neither of those things, so I will here dispute 2.

The first atheist catchphrase we hear in defence of 2 is this: finite sins do not deserve infinite punishment. This is a very common claim, but I think it is one of the worst attempts at justifying 2.

First, let’s be clear about the types of finitude. Either finitely many sins, finitely severe sins, or sins that take a finite duration. These are the ones I see defended. Each fails. It’s not clear how finitely many sins matters, for two reasons that will become clear later, and another I will present now: I claim that a single sin makes one worthy of hell. Just one is enough, since a single sin is infinitely bad. It doesn’t take multiple murders to make one worthy of the death penalty, just one. It’s not clear how sins are “finite” in severity: every sin is a sin against an infinitely perfect being who is infinitely innocent and infinitely undeserving. Each sin is a fall of an infinite distance: from perfection to imperfection. How is a sin finitely severe? And each sin takes finite time to commit, but crimes and punishments are never proportional in time. Crimes which take a second may have year long sentences, while crimes which take an hour may have month long sentences.

Second, we can point out that this is a kind of misunderstanding of sin. A sin is not merely an action, but is a condition, an attitude of the heart. Yes, people may commit “a” sin. But it’s not merely sins that people are condemned for, but sin. For failing to be what they should be. For not being the kinds of people that were righteous. It’s not clear what the quantity referred to here is, such that that quantity can be finite.

Third, I can even accept that “finite” (whatever that means) sins result in a finite sentence in hell. But since the sinner continues sinning in hell, at the very least by cursing God, they continue adding time to their sentence. So while at any time their remaining time in hell is finite, it functionally never ends. So in this sense, an infinite time in hell is actually the result of infinitely many sins.

Suppose instead of appealing to some kind of infinity, the argument is made more simply: hell is too bad. No one deserves it. It’s not clear how this is justified other than moral intuition (other than denying the truth of justice itself, but that’s a poor response. If hell is supposed to function as a reductio against Christianity, then we must either take a Christian conception of justice (people getting what they deserve) or else argue that under Christianity, justice is false. Good luck), and I think we can give a good reason why this moral intuition is flawed.

As sinful people, we don’t see the full horror and severity of sin. We think it’s “no big deal” the same way a man raised in a culture of slavery thinks slavery is “no big deal” or a man raised in a culture of rape thinks rape is “no big deal”. We are not objective judges of the severity of sin. We don’t let criminals decide gaol sentences, we don’t take rapists seriously when they balk at a death sentence for rapists, which they would do if they were raised in a culture where rape was common.

Not only are we guilty sinners ourselves, but we’ve been raised in a world where sin is common, thoroughly baked into our entire life, often dismissed as “no big deal”, and often even celebrated. How can our moral intuition be well formed enough to objectively judge what the right punishment for sin is? There is only one objective Judge, and He has made His proclamation.

With that moral intuition called into question, let’s lessen the force of it a bit more. Hell is certainly unpleasant, and ought to be avoided. Worse than any suffering that can occur in this life. But scripture seems to imply that hell will be worse for some than it is for others. Those who are particularly evil will receive a harsher penalty. Don’t imagine hell as being one blanket for all: everyone will receive the just penalty for their actions.

Consider also: people in hell are not the same as they were in life, in many important ways. Being separated from God, thrown into the outer darkness, they are separated from all that is good. They would be almost unrecognisable to us, shadows of who they once were. Not a single one will repent of their sin in hell. They might be sad that they are being punished and wished they had avoided that punishment, but none of them will truly repent of the evil that they had done.

Finally, we must point out that little is told to us about the nature of hell. It may be the case that our conceptions of hell truly are unjust. If that turns out to be the case, then God will do something else, since God is just. This argument, if it were sound, doesn’t defeat Christianity, only classical conceptions of hell. I’m probably wrong about at least a third of my theology. I don’t know what I’m wrong about, and I try very hard not to be wrong, but if it turns out I’m wrong about hell then I won’t renounce Christ.

With all this in mind, I don’t think hell is a good reason to doubt Christianity. Either justified with poor logic, demonstrably faulty moral intuition, or not fatal to Christianity as a whole.

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