Is eternal punishment in Hell just?

-half panel, The Crucifixion & The Last Judgment, Jan van Eyck, ca. 1440–1441, oil on canvas, transferred from wood, 22 1/4 × 7 2/3 in, 56.5 × 19.5 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

-by Karlo Broussard

The Eternity of Hell

Okay, someone may concede that punishment in general is not inconsistent with God’s goodness.

“But,” they’ll say, “eternal punishment? Doesn’t that seem unjust, since eternal punishment would be disproportionate to the sin that’s committed only in a small moment of time?”

Here are a few ways we can respond.

First, the objection assumes that a punishment has to be equal or proportionate to a fault as to the amount of duration. But this is false. If the duration of punishment had to correspond to the duration of an offense, then it would be unjust to give a murderer a prison sentence any longer than the time it took for the murderer to kill his victim.

But that’s absurd. As the Jesuit philosopher Bernard Boedder writes, “[T]ime cannot be the standard by which punishment is to be determined” (Natural Theology, 340).

The measure of the punishment due for sin is the gravity of the fault. Aquinas explains, “The measure of punishment corresponds to the measure of fault, as regards the degree of severity, so that the more grievously a person sins the more grievously is he punished” (Summa Theologiae suppl. III:99:1).

In other words, it is the internal wickedness of an offense that is the measure of expiation for it.

Now, as Aquinas points out in several places within his writings, the gravity of an offense is determined by the dignity of the person sinned against. For example, punishment for striking the president of the United States is going to be greater than punishment for striking a fellow citizen in bar brawl.

Since God is ipsum esse subsistens (subsistent being itself), he is infinite in dignity and majesty. Therefore, his right to obedience from his reasonable creatures is absolute and infinite. There is no right that can be stricter and every other right is based on it.

A willful violation of this right, which is what a mortal sin is, is the most severe offense a human being can commit. Boedder explains it this way: “A willful violation . . . of this right implies a malice which opposes itself to the foundation of all orders” (Natural Theology, 340).

For Aquinas, it is an offense that is “in a certain respect infinite” (Compendium Theologiae, 183). And because it is infinite in a certain respect, Aquinas concludes, “a punishment that is in a certain respect infinite is duly attached to it.”

But, as Aquinas points out, such a punishment can’t be infinite in intensity because no creature can be infinite in this way. Therefore, Aquinas concludes, “[A] punishment that is infinite in duration is rightly inflicted for mortal sin.”

Now, it’s important to note that for Aquinas an infinite duration of punishment can be just only if the sinner no longer has the ability to repent and will the good. Well, the sinner after death no longer has the ability to repent, since the soul can no longer change what it has chosen as its ultimate end after death. Therefore, we can conclude with Aquinas that the infinite duration of punishment in hell is just.

The Alternatives Don’t Work

Another way that we can respond to the “Eternal Punishment is Unjust” objection is to see the alternatives to eternal punishment, temporary punishment or annihilation, don’t stand up to the scrutiny of reason.

Consider temporary punishment. Perhaps the soul receives an intense dose of punishment and then enters heaven upon being relieved of it. This would be an injustice. For example, let’s say I find out that my fourteen-year-old son ditched school and went to a party with his older teen friends and got drunk and smoked a joint (this is merely hypothetical, mind you).

Suppose further that I punish him by saying, “Son, you’ve been a bad boy, and as a result you’re going to stay in your room for ten minutes. But when that time is up, pack your bags because we’ve got tickets to spend the weekend at Disney Land and visit the new Star Wars Land.” (He loves Star Wars).

How does this register on your justice monitor?

My guess is that it doesn’t rate very high—especially if my son refuses to apologize for his misconduct. The duration of the punishment is much too small relative to the reward he is given.

Similarly, a temporary stint in hell—no matter how long the term—is much too small of a punishment relative to the everlasting happiness of heaven. It would be unjust for God to give heaven as a reward to a person that committed the most grievous offense of all, the permanent rejection of God’s absolute right to obedience, worship, and love.

Annihilation is also an unreasonable alternative.

How could a person experience the punishment justice demands for permanently rejecting God if he were annihilated? The gravity of violating God’s absolute right would be reduced to nothingness if there were no punishment for it. Justice would not be served.

Furthermore, it would violate God’s wisdom to annihilate the human soul.

Why would he create a human soul with an immortal nature only to thwart it?”

Love & His mercy,

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