Friday, October 18, 2013

Objections to Divine Forgiveness and Divine Punishment

          Sometimes skeptics do not bother disputing if there is a God; instead, they want to attack the coherence or factual accuracy of specific Christian doctrines. Of course, in some cases, this is not a legitimate reason for rejecting Christianity (much less theism). In others, we still want to preserve these specific teachings.

I recently read a blog in which divine forgiveness was attacked for being unjust. It is paraphrased as such: imagine you have committed a crime for which justice demands you are punished. As you stand before the judge, he says, “While it is true you are guilty of this crime, I nonetheless offer you a full pardon, and you will have to face no punishment for your crime whatsoever, so long as you agree and accept my offer.” We rightly would cry out that justice has not been done![1] The same thing, it is alleged, is going on with divine forgiveness. The Gospel is nothing more than a “get out of jail free” card that does not involve justice at all. If Christians agree with the Gospel, then they should also accept allowing murderers and rapists to go free (so long as they accept the offer of freedom). Will this criticism stand? We will find out.

The next criticism was against divine punishment. The idea is that those who reject God’s offer of forgiveness will be punished for their sins. This punishment is to be eternal (everlasting for the rest of time). The idea is again illustrated in analogy form. Suppose you have committed some crime, say perjury or petty theft (something relatively less immoral than, say, mass murder). As you stand before the judge, your punishment is handed down: you are hereby sentenced to spend the rest of your life in prison, without the possibility of parole. The punishment does not fit the crime! So it is with Christianity. If people are sent to Hell, then they are given an infinite punishment for a finite crime. Even claiming murder or something of that nature merits an infinite punishment, most people are not murderers or things of that nature. So it seems whatever punishment people receive, it ought to be finite (even if really long, such as for people like Hitler). Will this criticism stand?

Let us first refer back to the attack on divine forgiveness. This is one of those doctrines that must be embraced in order to be a true follower of Christ. So is it like the analogy purports? Not quite. For the analogy forgets that justice has been satisfied in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ was not some ordinary man who decided to pay for sins. Nor was he merely guiltless. In fact, Jesus was God the Son. God, who is the foundation of goodness itself, is the only possible being who could pay for sins. Justice was satisfied in that sins were paid for by the punishment on an infinite good; the infinite good can therefore cover an infinite number of sins (even though there never will be such a number). Therefore, because of the quality of Christ’s sacrifice, the quantity of sins covered will never be a problem. So we see the scenario that the analogy gives is not even in principle possible (that is, where Christians would view such a move as legitimately serving justice). The whole idea of penal substitution is not that just anyone takes our place, but that it is Christ who does! It will not do to insist that the objector does not believe these claims about Jesus, since the attack is on the coherence of divine forgiveness and justice. The best the objector can hope to do is to give a good reason to think that Jesus could not be such a sacrifice, but that won’t depend on this type of analogy (as that proof, whatever it might be, would be sufficient to defeat the Christian worldview with respect to divine forgiveness). It seems divine forgiveness survives after all.

What about divine punishment? Interestingly, a punishment lasting throughout all time is not an essential part (logically) of Christianity’s truth. One may have to make some tricky moves, but it does not immediately follow from the claim “Hell is not everlasting” that “Christianity is false.” Some make this very claim. As an evangelical, I think I ought to hold that Hell is really everlasting punishment (since the Bible certainly seems to teach it!), so that I cannot take this escape route. So what is my answer?

First, and most importantly, sins are not committed against other people (in the relevant sense). Certainly, you can do something to someone that was sinful, and you should not have done it, and you offend your fellow man—but it is God against whom you have sinned when it comes to forgiveness and punishment in this realm. Psalm 51:4 states, “Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight….” This is after David’s most famous sin situation, where he slept with Bathsheba and sent Uriah, her husband, to the front lines to die. David recognized that what he did was horrible, and since God is the objective foundation of holiness, it is God to whom he should apologize first (with respect to sin, God is the one who was violated). This is because God is the law-giver.[2] So, if the punishment is for the offense of sin against God, this put it in a new perspective. So why does God get so offended that he sends people to Hell for an everlasting time? Well, the answer is because he is holy he cannot be in a right relationship with those who are not holy. As it turns out, any sin committed by anyone is not holy. Therefore, no one can be with God in Heaven (without divine forgiveness as discussed earlier). Therefore, it won’t matter what sins are done or how often; logic dictates without forgiveness they are doomed to Hell.

So why can’t they come out? Surely, once they get there, they will want to get out. Possibly this is the case. However, it seems two answers are available. First, it may be the case as some claim, that, like demons, condemned people will simply continue to sin, and so accrue further punishment. Their hardened hearts will continue to oppose God (this is found in people throughout the biblical record, including Pharaoh). It is not rational, but no one claims that opposing God is rational at all. Next, it is reasonable to think that freedom may very well end at the end of life. God so orders the world that whoever would believe in him in specific circumstances hears and is saved, and whoever would reject God does so. So, since they would not believe, God is justified and fair in “sealing their fate” at the end of life. Every sin deserves punishment, and an offer rejected is fairly represented as an election of punishment. Whichever solution is taken, divine forgiveness and punishment cohere with a loving and just God.

[1] Interestingly, this outrage is very plausibly a moral outrage for justice, so that a problem is incurred in denying the Christian worldview. But that’s a different subject.

[2] Look at it like this: suppose you are in a traffic accident that was a result of your carelessness. You may owe restitution and an apology to the people you hurt, but with respect to the law, you have committed a violation against the state.


  1. Hi Randy,

    You wrote: So why does God get so offended that he sends people to Hell for an everlasting time? Well, the answer is because he is holy he cannot be in a right relationship with those who are not holy. As it turns out, any sin committed by anyone is not holy. Therefore, no one can be with God in heaven"

    I was trying to think how a sceptic might respond to that. The best I could come up with was this:

    I guess the sceptic might argue that God is being a bit petty, They may point out that us Christians must know of unbelievers who are extremely good people who don't steal, lie, etc., and would certainly never even dream of doing something seriously wrong such as commit adultery or murder someone. They might further note that at least some of these "good" nonbelievers agree with biblical values like not getting drunk & not having sex before marriage and, thus, for all intents and purposes are Christians (in all but name). Why can't these people live in the new heavens and earth with Jesus? Why can't God just "put up" with the "small" sins they commit through eternity?

    Maybe us Christians might respond by saying it's not just a question of them sinning as such but it's also that they are unrepentant about their sin before God, though they may indeed be repentant towards fellow humans they hurt through their "small" sins. How would you respond to that sort of argument anyway, Randy?

    1. Hey James, yes I think you're on the right track. My point in the quoted section is to show that it's a bit of a logical issue: God cannot simply permit sin in relation to his being. That's why Christ died--to provide a payment for sins, and to allow us to "partake in the divine nature," as the Bible puts it. This is available to everyone, and so even though it's a logical issue, God has gone to great lengths to allow every person the opportunity to be with Him forever. It's also worth noting that God cannot overcome logical issues, as that would be to deny his nature, as he is the ground of truth and logic.

    2. OK, thanks. Just as an aside, what's your view on the nature of eternal punishment? From Daniel 12 we see that "shame" seems to be part of it but just wondering whether you think the New Testament teaches that physical or mental pain is also involved (or maybe both)?.

    3. I do know that "Hell," as the intermediate state between the time of someone's death and the final resurrection at judgment, cannot be physical; their physical bodies are in the ground. I do take a literal view of Hell, in that I believe it is literally real, but I can't be too dogmatic as to what constitutes the precise nature of Hell. The eternal state isn't even quite clear that it's 100% the same physical bodies as humans have now. I think eternal torment consists, fundamentally, in separation from God. I don't know that people will necessarily regret it: I think, perversely, they may actually end up resenting God, and further accrue punishment (or at least, confirming that they are worthy of punishment). Just some speculations. :)


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