Benjamin L. Corey

Benjamin L. Corey

BLC is an author, speaker, scholar, and global traveler, who holds graduate degrees in Theology & Intercultural Studies from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and received his doctorate in Intercultural Studies from Fuller. He is the author of Undiluted: Rediscovering the Radical Message of Jesus, and Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith.

Would An Eternity In Hell Even Be Fair? (The Problem of Proportionality)

 

So, you’re a sinner.

Just one sin lands you in that category. No matter how small or large of a transgression, that one, smallest sin, comes with it the penalty of an eternity of torment in hell.

One lie. One act of theft. One impure thought. Just one sin earns eternal torment.

Or, so that’s what they taught us.

The more and more I process the traditional view of hell, the more the premise of it all doesn’t even make sense.

When we consider matters of justice, we seem to have an instinctive understanding that consequences should be proportional to the offense. When consequences are meted proportionally, we sense fairness. When consequences dramatically exceed an offense, we instinctively recognize they are an unjust response to the offense.

We even find this lesson in the Bible– when Moses introduced the system of an eye-for-an-eye, he was putting a limit on retributive justice, and teaching that any punishment must be proportional to the offense.

Or, a modern day example: if a child were not taking school seriously and had poor grades, it would be considered fair and just to restrict some extracurricular activities until grades improved. However, if a parent were to respond to these poor grades by grounding them for the next four years, we’d see that as unjust and an overreaction, because the consequence would lack proportionality to the offense. Furthermore, such an action would show the parent was more concerned with punishing the child than actually helping them improve their grades (punitive justice instead of restorative justice).

Those who argue in favor of the traditional view of hell abandon this moral and biblical view of justice being proportional to the offense. Instead, to justify the doctrine of eternal conscious torment, they argue that justice must be proportional to the one offended. Since God is infinite and without end, the punishment for offending him must also be infinite and without end.

In Four Views on Hell, Denny Burk states it this way: “To sin against an infinitely glorious being is an infinitely heinous offense that is worthy of an infinitely heinous punishment.” (p.20)

In fact, to reject this idea that God needs to punish sin with eternal, everlasting torment, is something Burk says represents a “diminished” view of God and is evidence that we are failing to take sin and judgement seriously.

I, of course, couldn’t disagree more strongly.

Those of us who reject the idea of eternal conscious torment do take God and justice quite seriously– so serious in fact, that we recognize injustice when we see it.

We are made in the image and likeness of God. We are given a conscience from God. And that conscience bears witness to the reality that consequences for wrongdoing must be fair and proportional to the offense, not the one offended. For example, we punish murder on the basis of murder itself. The law does not say that the punishment for murdering a kind person should be more harsh than the punishment for murdering an unkind person.

This is also why we don’t burn people alive in town squares anymore. It’s why we find the idea of cutting off someone’s hands for stealing to be repulsive. It’s why we don’t cut off our kid’s tongues when they get caught lying to us.

It’s why we don’t do a lot of things: We know that true justice is always proportional to the offense

The view of eternal conscious torment is the ultimate case of justice lacking any degree of proportionality. Those who try to overcome the objection of proportionality are unable to do so on the basis of morality, ethics, or even Scripture, since even Scripture prescribes death, not hell, as the penalty for sin (see Genesis 2:17, Ezekiel 18:20, Romans 6:23).

One cannot show that it is morally good to torment someone in flames for billions and billions of years for a stolen piece of bread. One cannot show that it is ethical to torment someone for billions and billions of years for speaking a single lie. And certainly, one cannot make the case from Scripture unless they completely redefine the word death to mean something it doesn’t.

Thus, there is often this appeal to immediately remove God from moral or ethical standards of what our own conscience tells us is right or wrong. We become forced to say, “Yeah, that’s horrible, and I’d never do it to my kid because I love them, but it’s okay when God does it.”

The only way to skirt the issue of proportionality is to essentially dismiss the argument and make up things that are not found in Scripture. This is precisely what Burk does when he claims that God being an infinite being, must thus punish the smallest offense infinitely– the Bible doesn’t say that. It’s an argument from Anselm in the 12th Century, but not from the Bible.

We instinctively know that when punishment lacks proportionality, it is unjust– even the Bible teaches this! Thus, to affirm the traditional view of hell we have to find ways to assuage our dissonance in order to explain away something our conscience and biblical principles tell us is wrong, wrong, wrong.

Instead of trying to do ethical gymnastics to show that it is good and right for God to torment someone for eternity over a stolen slice of bread, we would be better off listening to our God-given consciences which tell us that punishment without proportionality is not justice at all.

Benjamin L. Corey

Benjamin L. Corey

BLC is an author, speaker, scholar, and global traveler, who holds graduate degrees in Theology & Intercultural Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and earned his doctorate in Intercultural Studies from Fuller.

He is the author of Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith, and Undiluted: Rediscovering the Radical Message of Jesus.

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  • I hesitate to respond, because I am fearful of being seen as someone who is immaturely hollering at a playmate who has taken my favorite toy truck away from me, and won’t give it back. Such is not the case. Benjamin, I sincerely do wish to hear all that you have to say, with the love and respect to which you are entitled.

    If, when I got to Heaven, and found out that everyone had made it – every single person that had ever lived, at any time in history – then I would be gloriously, deliriously happy!

    However,

    I think you are looking at Hell through the eyes of a human being, in which the Holy Spirit does not dwell and has not filled or baptized. Yes, I do believe you’re mistaken about Hell. Not, I am NOT saying that I believe you are a heretic who isn’t saved, who doesn’t know God, through Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Whether or not you are is up to God to decide and judge. (For the record, I believe you are just as much a Christian as anyone I know, whom I believe, definitely is.) Yes, I do believe Hell is a literal place, and that those who do not know Jesus Christ as LORD and Savior, will be there. I do not like that. Yes, I do believe that the devil is a real being, and I don’t like the idea that there is such a place for people who are being deceived by him. (I see the enemy of God as an incredibly handsome white male, impeccably dressed in a tuxedo, not a one-piece red suit, with a tail, and horns, who carries a pitchfork. But, being a deceiver, he can appear as anything and anyone he desires; the Bible says he can disguise himself as an angel of light [2 Corinthians 11:14]) I do not consider anyone at all to be my enemy; being human, and imperfect, I’m sure I’ve done stupid things that have offended and upset people. I pray daily that God will abundantly bless anyone whom I have offended, and show them His exceedingly abundant love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness. I sincerely hope there is something else other than Hell, for even the worst of the worst.

    Every single person has the choice to embrace God, and come to Him, through Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, regardless of what one has done. It is not a requirement that we understand God, or His ways, beforehand. Indeed, none of us will ever understand God, in this life. To the same degree that the concept of Hell is bad, and an incredibly-awful, terrible place, Heaven is a wonderful, glorious place, and God’s love, mercy, grace, forgiveness, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, self-control, faithfulness and gentleness are all exceedingly abundantly above all that we can ask or think. I pray, every day, that hundreds of millions of people will come to God, through Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, and be in Heaven, with me. I won’t be there because of anything I’ve done; it will be 100% because of what God has done. I’m not a good person. I need what God has to offer. I have sinned, and fallen short of the Glory of God. Only the Blood of Jesus can wash away my (or anyone’s) sins. Only the power of the Holy Spirit can bring me to God. By grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, is my salvation, or anyone else’s.

    Therefore, God doesn’t send anyone to Hell. Anyone who will be in Hell, will be there, not because of what they’ve done, in this life, but because of what they HAVEN’T done. Anyone who finds themselves in Hell, for all eternity, will be there because they didn’t call on God, through Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit. That’s the only way, so that no one in Heaven will be able to brag or boast about his or her efforts and/or works, in this life. It will be all about God!

    That being said, I trust God with things I don’t understand, and do not like. I sincerely hope that I am wrong about Hell, but I’d rather proclaim that there IS a Hell, a literal fire-and-brimstone prison in which a person is fully conscious and fully aware of his or her sins and also of the opportunities he or she had, to embrace Christ, and to avoid Hell altogether, and be wrong, rather than proclaiming that there is NOT a Hell, and be wrong.

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