Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Why is Hell Eternal When Sin is Temporary?

Sin is something that happens once and passes.  So the whole business of hell being eternal seems like it is WAY out of proportion.  Even in our human justice system, there is this idea of proportionality of punishment.  Doesn't it seem unjust that God would punish us eternally for something that we did during the short years of our earthly lives?

4 comments:

Daniel Kim said...

Before we begin discussing this, I would push back (just a little) on the presumption in this question that hell is a place of punishment that people get thrown into for an infraction that they committed. That is the presumption of this question, and I think it's only partially true that hell is some kind of a punishment. But the Christian doctrine of hell is much deeper than that. Perhaps that's a topic for another post.. but in short, hell is fundamentally a condition of being separated from God, ultimately because we as free-willed agents have chosen to reject God. So in a way, hell, more than some kind of punishment for our infractions, is the final result of our choice to reject God. That's when God finally concedes and removes His presence from us forever, as we had wished. That obviously didn't do it justice, so you could take a look at our Course 101 material (chapter 3) for a slightly more expanded treatment of the doctrine of hell.

Having said that, I do understand why this objection still comes up… Because there is an aspect of hell which is supposed to be a just punishment or the just consequence of our sins. And when seen that way, it just seems like eternity is a disproportionate consequence to our sins… because we have this perception that our sins are temporary, so hell’s eternity seems like it’s way “too much” of a punishment. Yes, it does seem that way... but if you think about it from a Christian perspective, I think it's false for us to think that our sins are temporary.

First, sins are not temporary because history is not temporary. When we lie, when we ravage someone else’s heart, when we cheat someone, when we steal someone's innocence, when we mar our own soul, that act is done, and it’s etched into history. We can’t press the “reset” button and erase that. No matter how much we try to forget about it, the reality is that that act was done, and that's permanent... even if our memory of it fades.

Daniel Kim said...

Second, sins are not temporary because the effect of that sin also goes on eternally, because sins damage souls that live eternally. If you damage someone's car, there's a proportional cost to that. If you rip someone's clothes, you can look at the market value of that and pay for it. Well, we can put a cost on it, because a car and clothes are mere objects that don't persist forever. But what is the cost of marring and damaging someone's soul? I think the human justice system limits the liability of sin, because the world's justice system cannot fathom the fact that human beings are eternal creatures of indescribeable value (made in the image of God). I'm not suggesting that human courts should therefore make punishments eternal; they cannot afford to do so for practical reasons. And since the world rejects eternality of the human soul, our world can, in a way, put a "price" on an individual and exact payment for damaging it. However, what if the Bible is true that we are more than our bodies? What if the Bible is true that we are eternal beings made in the image of God? Then to mar the human soul (even your own, because you do not own yourself, since your life was given) would be an act that has an eternal consequence.

To summarize, I think all of this really hinges on whether or not we think human souls are eternal. If we're not eternal, then our sins are temporary, since all of our sins will be erased forever once the memory is gone (or when humanity ultimately goes extinct in this indifferent universe). If that's reality, then our wrongs can be "priced" proportionately to our temporality. However, if reality is that we are eternal beings meant to have an eternal relationship with God, then we can see that our souls (as well as our sins) are far more significant than we’ve ever imagined.

I think once we understand the eternal nature of our sins, we can also come to appreciate the profound central truth of Christianity -- the sacrifice of Jesus Christ as an atonement for our sins. Because our sins have eternal consequences (and therefore require eternal punishment), the ONLY proportionate atonement for our sins is the sacrifice of eternal Son of God. Our eternal sins cannot be atoned for by paying a temporary price. But as Hebrews 7:27 says, Jesus "does not need to offer sacrifices day after day", but he "sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself."

One final note to add...
I think it’s kind of telling that we (myself included) have emotional problems with hell being eternal, but never about heaven being eternal. If hell’s eternity seems disproportionate, then by the same logic, heaven’s eternity should also be disproportionate.. Don’t you think? But I realized that I myself never wanted to object to eternity in heaven. :)

Anonymous said...

My lingering question is: Why would those who are separated from God continue to exist? God could destroy them if they will never be useful to Him. If hell is meant to punish people for doing wrong and rejecting God, why would they never get another chance to make the right choices? I thought punishment is meant to modify behavior.

Daniel Kim said...

Good question. There are some people who believe that God would destroy people rather than have them exist forever separated from Him (called Annihilationism).

Annihilationists take words like "destruction" and "death" and consider them to be evidence of God wiping out our existence upon judgment. Overall, I think there is more biblical support for the idea that we exist forever in hell, so I believe Annihilationism is driven more by the emotional reaction against hell more so than an honest interpretation of the text.

Some responses to your question are:

1) The biblical portrait of life is that there is inherent value in existence, apart from the quality of life or its usefulness. Life is valuable for its own sake; its value does not depend on how useful or happy or sad that life is. So if you're having a horrible day, your life's value does not change -- it's still valuable. If you become old / senile and no longer very useful, does that mean your life is less valuable? The biblical portrait of life says: no, you are exactly equally valuable as when you were active and useful. That's why taking of one's life (and of course someone else's life) because "it's not worth it" is considered a sin in the Bible. If God destroyed people in hell, it would mean that God's view of life is that it's not valuable for its own sake, but its value depends on its quality or its usefulness, which is contradictory to the testimony of the rest of the Scriptures.

2) Regarding the chance to make the right choices... I hear you on this, and I can't understand why or how, but it seems like there is something very permanent that happens when we behold the full glory of God (called the Beatific Vision). At that point, something seems to happen to our free choice that fixates the choice.
Anyway, I think this point is another topic, because if God does indeed destroy people in hell, then they would surely never get another chance to make the right choice. At least with the traditional view, we could entertain the possibility (like CS Lewis seems to do in the book The Great Divorce) that the permanence of hell is a perpetual willing choice of the residents of hell.

3) Finally, I think punishment is not just to modify behavior. Of course, there is punishment to modify behavior. But there is a sense of a "just retribution" that is irrespective of whether or not any behavioral change results from it. Let's say there is a person who did some evil act and is so deluded that he is completely unwilling to change and would rather die than to admit his wrong. Should we still punish him? Yes, we should. Despite our knowledge that no behavioral change would come from this, our sense of justice and truth cannot swallow the prospect of simply excusing that person just because of the lack of behavioral modification. We should look at heaven and hell in the same way. Heaven is not a reward to make us behave, and neither is hell a punishment to make us behave. They are the final statement of truth that God is God, and He is right. The existence of heaven and hell stands as a testimony that truth will have the final word, and that testimony stands regardless of how people might or might not respond to it.

Hope that helps.