By Al Serrato
Trying to explain how a good God created Hell can be a daunting task for the Christian apologist. In my last post, I considered the challenge that God could not be “good” if he created a place of “torture.” I tried to make the case that there is a difference between torture – which implies intentional infliction of punishment for the pleasure of doing so – and torment, which is the necessary byproduct of God’s legitimate act of separating Himself from those who have rejected Him, who died while still in rebellion against Him. A related challenge often encountered when discussing the doctrine of Hell is the seeming unfairness in endless punishment for what appears to be brief – in some cases, extremely brief – temporal actions. This challenge can put the Christian apologist on the defensive, trying to justify what seems on its face to be wildly excessive punishment. As I suggested in my last post, providing an intellectual response to such challenges may have limited effectiveness when dealing with someone who is approaching the issue from an emotional standpoint; logical answers don’t often make someone feel better about what is bothering them. But, in my experience, at any rate, I have found that some people insist that no intellectually satisfying answer is possible to a challenge such as this. So here goes…
The assumption underlying the challenge here is that there should be some correlation between how long the offending act took to commit and the punishment that is attached to it. The first step in responding is to recognize that from even a human, temporal perspective, the amount of time a crime takes to commit bears very little relationship to the length of punishment it merits. After all, a person’s life can be snuffed out in the wink of an eye, an act which, if committed with premeditation and deliberation, rightly merits a sentence of life in prison. If a person, consequently, spends 80 years in prison for a shot that took three seconds beginning to end, the math could appear a bit excessive. But, obviously, there is more at play when we consider this issue a bit more deeply. Focusing on the time the act took does not capture the essence or quality of the act that made it worthy of punishment.
Consider for a moment two men, each firing a single shot at his intended victim. The first uses a high powered handgun; the second, a plastic air pistol. Each involves a similar action – expelling a projectile from a pistol – and each takes no more than a few seconds. But the one-act, in that instant, stops a vibrant, beating heart, while the other only momentarily stings. We punish these acts differently because the harm of murder has nothing to do with the time it took to commit. No, while the trial may focus on proving what the shooter did, the reason we pursue the matter so earnestly is based entirely on the harm that was inflicted. The murder victim remains dead, after all, despite the fact that a moment earlier, he had every right to live until the point of his natural death, which may have been decades away. The sting of the pellet, on the other hand, causes no lasting harm and is soon forgotten. In a very real sense, every day of living, of planning, of enjoying the company of loved ones, that was ripped from the deceased amounts to a re-infliction of the harm. Moreover, the agony that is inflicted upon the victim’s family and friends will also last for decades. Indeed, many survivors of violent crime are never the same again, daily suffering from the mental trauma that takes root in the moments after the crime. From the killer’s perspective, the criminal conduct for which he suffers punishment may seem quite limited; he merely pulled a trigger and never felt the pain, physical or emotional, that ensued. But, the harm is anything but limited when viewed from the perspective of the victim or the victim’s family.
But, the challenger will respond, how does this possibly apply to God, and to the question of eternal punishment? God, of course, cannot be victimized. We cannot really harm Him, and I am not suggesting here that He suffers as a result of our conduct. But this misses the point. Christians believe that God provides a path to salvation. We do not need to suffer eternal torment in Hell. We are not chosen at random for such punishment. The issue of fairness is answered by the understanding that God has the right to separate Himself from people who have rejected Him.
That this punishment is eternal is the result of the fact that God is eternal, and he made us for eternity as well. Though our bodies will die, our souls live on. Let’s consider for a moment what this means: while we may have forgotten many, or even most, of the times that we erred, the times that we hurt others, the times that we did not live up to what was expected; He has not. Each of our sins, each of the times that we chose to act or think in a way we knew violated His perfect will, each of those instances may seem to be the distant past to us, but God is not limited by time. As an eternal being, He perceives every moment of our past as an endless, eternal present. Consequently, each of our offenses against Him, however incapable they are of injuring Him, is nonetheless eternally present to Him. How does He maintain the attribute of perfect justice if he does not attach a consequence to wrongdoing? A human judge would not be fair if she did nothing in response to crime; how does a perfectly just God ignore what we have all done?
These are harsh realities, and intellectual understanding does not make them easier to embrace. That is why Christians for 2000 years have also provided the good news. While we merit the separation that follows a life of rebellion, there is a means for salvation, through the life and death of Jesus, a means by which we can obtain forgiveness for our sins. In short, Hell awaits only those who persist in their rebellion, who “die in their sins.” And what does this phrase mean? Well, at the very least, it means that rather than seek the forgiveness offered by Jesus, we have instead chosen to ask God for a trial as to our lives. We have chosen to stand before God, unapologetic, demanding that He accept us just as we are, proud of our lives and our choices. Judge us and find us worthy, we demand. What choice does this leave to a perfectly just judge?
Seeing the issue from a non-temporal perspective places the issue in a different light: what else is there for beings who were created for eternity but who have rejected God’s offer of salvation? Thank God, then, that the eternal Son stands in the gap for us, with the power and the love and the eternal will to receive the punishment that would otherwise await us.