Is Eternal Hell A Fair Punishment For Being Born Sinful?

is-eternal-hell-standardA Christianity Today magazine cover story in June 2011 reported on modern science’s challenge (agreed to by a greatly expanding number of conservative evangelical theologians) that it likely was not physically possible for a literal Adam and Eve to exist. Influential Presbyterian minister, best selling author and theologian, Tim Keller, said in the article, “If Adam doesn’t exist, Paul’s whole argument — that both sin and grace work ‘covenantally’—falls apart.” If no literal Adam, then no humans made perfect from the beginning and therefore no “fall” into an irreversible sinful nature that babies are born with from then on. Instead God must have created us, or intended us through evolution, to be the way we currently are.  Yet people have always possessed significant, though limited, moral capabilities and freedom to make their spiritual/physical state better or worse through healthy or unhealthy choices.  Death is nothing new.  In contrast to what the Bible teaches, humans did not cause death to suddenly enter into cosmic existence. In this case, it is plausible to say that humans still need salvation/rescue/guidance/healing for specific situations/conditions (such as the Jews’ emancipation from slavery in Egypt or a blind person being given sight by Jesus), but that a systematic and intrinsic impurity within humans, to whatever degree this is present at birth, is not the fault of any human decision, but by design. I believe that, even if this is true, human sin still is real and exacerbates problems and sicknesses (spiritual or physical), but not in a form of such profound internal/external disarray that requires a punishment of hell if completely upright ethical performance (or even repentance) is not put forth.  In another one of my posts, I explore this related question: If physical death entered the world because of human sin, why does science demonstrate that death always existed?

The bulk (if not all) of the responsibility for human nature at birth and in the basic mechanics/abilities of human beings (no matter what this entails) must be God’s, since He/She created us and placed us in this earthly context. When humans are held accountable for sin, by God, nature or fellow humans, the punishment or consequence must accurately “fit the crime” and not be disproportionate, such as in condemnation to hell and separation from God and the loss of potential happiness for eternity (all due to a rebellious life lasting an extremely short time period compared to the immense temporal length of the afterlife). For example, if a person committed horrendous atrocities for much of their seventy year existence, an appropriate imprisonment in a purgatorial location/circumstance could be applied for a thousand years or something like that, with the constantly available opportunity for repentance/penance (without need for a sacrificial atonement) which would effectively petition God for relief from punitive sufferings in duration and/or amount.

The confusion, frustration, absurdity, pain, ignorance and apparent futility endemic to human existence must be taken into account when administering judgment upon a person. As Jesus cried out, people know not what they do. This does not excuse acts of evil carried out with full or partial knowledge of what it meant or the terrible devastation that it may cause (regardless of the person’s intention/attitude) to other people, animals, the ecosystem and/or the person herself/himself . I remember a sermon preached by a prominent evangelical pastor, Erwin Lutzer, in which he said that fair judgment for sin is levied in correspondence to both what knowledge the person had of what they were doing and what opportunity/capacity they had to resist the negative choices. Jesus taught similar things, like when he explained that to whom much is given, much is required.  Or we could reference the tradition of Socrates and Plato by assessing the virtue or deplorability of a person’s actions based on what the person understood of the true, the good and the beautiful and what they chose to do with this knowledge.

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One comment

  1. Hey Andy, very interesting post. You’ve raised quite a few issues. I got something of revelation on this the other day. I was asking the question: “Who gives God the right to judge?” Which made me think: “Well, who gave the International Court the right to judge?”

    If we take Gaddafi as an example. If he survived, was captured and then tried by the International Court most of the world probably wouldn’t question that. In fact most of us would demand he be sentenced for life. Saddam Hussein was less fortunate as he was hanged- sentenced to death.

    So if we understand that the International Court can judge. Why not God? Who is the owner of the world since he created it.

    Surely though the thought of judging humanity horrifies God. That is why he went to such extreme measures to try and prevent it. He knew that people would tear Jesus apart, yet he took the risk, he made the ultimate sacrifice.

    Now we can still challenge the physical existence of Adam but it’s far more difficult to challenge the existence of Jesus. There is no doubt that he existed and clear biblical records are proof of what happened to him.

    Now, why would God send Jesus to be butchered innocently on a piece of wood, if it was for nothing? Where is the logic in that?

    Well perhaps God did it because he wanted to rescue us from the impending judgement of humankind which he is absolutely horrified about giving.

    Because the basic fact is that we can never measure up to God’s standard. No measure of ethical or moral or good living can ever help us to achieve it. This makes sense because if we could achieve it, we would be able to be God’s equals. And the creation never has the power to equal the Creator.

    Which basically leaves us helpless. The only way we can attain God’s standard is through believing in Jesus. It’s through throwing our hands in the air and saying: “I can’t do this!” That’s when Jesus says: “I can!” And by accepting that gift we recieve the power of Jesus.

    See, it’s not so much that our punishment is hell. It’s more like our destiny is hell and God wants to save us from it.

    When Adam (or whoever it was) chose against God he put humanity on a journey with hell as the final destination. I bet you, no matter how good we seem to be, somewhere in life we would have made that same decision. And even if it was just one choice it falls fall short of the glory of God.

    Since then on it’s been God’s singular and focussed mission to rescue us from the insane destiny we chose for ourselves.

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