Is Hell Really Just?

By L. Alfred James

How could it be just for God to send a person to hell forever, or even for him to “allow” a person to consign themselves to hell forever? Isn’t eternal punishment overkill? Doesn’t it seem like a lack of justice?

This is among of the most common questions people have about the doctrine of hell, and it is often a serious intellectual stumbling block for people who are seriously investigating Christianity.

The Principle of Proportionality

One of the most important components of a theory of justice is the idea of proportionality. Quite simply, this is the idea that “the severity of punishment should be proportionate to the gravity of the criminal conduct.”1 In common parlance we often say, “People should get what they deserve.” Or, as one philosopher says: “it is morally fitting that a person who does wrong should suffer in proportion to his wrongdoing.”2 For the sake of simplicity, we will call this the principle of proportionality.

This is rather easy to understand. When an extremely severe punishment is inflicted on a criminal—if it truly is justly inflicted—it is only because something of great worth was harmed (or neglected, or put at risk, etc.). Nothing else can justify an extremely severe punishment. Moreover, the level of worth (or, to use a similar word, the value) that is attached to the object that was harmed (or neglected, or put at risk, etc.) is to be distinguished from the level of harm that was done to the object itself. Thus, something can be totally destroyed, defaced, or ruined in a way that is thorough and severe, but this does not mean that a just legal system will assign a severe penalty to the perpetrator of that destruction.

justiceFor example, I might totally destroy a disposable paper cup that I find in your house, a cup that is your property, and that you would like to keep for future use. I might actually smash it beyond recognition. Nonetheless, even though the devastation is so thorough, and even though you can never use this paper cup in the way you intended, I do not necessarily deserve to be severely punished.

But if I were to thoroughly destroy your house, well, that would be a different story. I clearly would deserve to be severely punished. In fact, even if I were to do mild harm to your house—such as painting graffiti on the front of it—I would rightly be sentenced to some serious punishment. In most American states I would have to spend time in jail. This is because a house is of much greater value than a paper cup. And—because of this higher value—vandalizing a house is considerably graver than utterly destroying a disposable paper cup.

Thus, it is not primarily the level of damage that is done to any particular thing that determines the gravity of the crime, and whether or not a severe punishment ought to be inflicted on the perpetrator. Quite the contrary. The primary factor (though not the only one) for determining the gravity of a crime, and the severity of the penalty incurred, is the worth of the thing that was harmed (or neglected, or put at risk, etc.).

This is why Charles Finney, in his Systematic Theology, applies this same principle to sinning against God. This principle goes a long way towards demonstrating the justice of hell. Finney says that it is the worthiness of God that justifies eternal damnation:

Which is the greater crime, for a child to insult his playfellow, or his parent? Which would involve the most guilt, for a man to smite his neighbor and his equal, or his lawful sovereign? The higher the ruler is exalted above the subject in his nature, character, and rightful authority, the greater is the obligation of the subject to will his good, to render to him obedience, and the greater is the guilt of the transgression in the subject.3

presidentThis fits with our own experience as citizens of, say, the United States. If you were to walk up to your neighbor and slap him on the face, he might yell at you, or try to punch you, but it is not very likely that you will face any jail time or other consequences. However, if you walk up to the President of the United States and slap him in the face you will be in prison for many years. Why? Because the president, as the president, holds such a lofty and important office.

Another theologian, Alan Gomes, said something similar, summarizing W. G. T. Shedd’s thoughts:

The nature of the object against which the sin is committed, as well as the nature of the sin itself, must be taken into account when determining the degree of heinousness. As W. G. T. Shedd observes, stealing in general is a crime, but stealing from one’s mother is even more despicable because one owes special allegiance to one’s parents. Torturing an animal is a crime, but torturing a human being is an even greater crime, worthy of greater punishment. The criminal act is the same in each case (i.e., stealing and torture), as is the person committing the act. But “the different worth and dignity of the objects upon whom his action terminates makes the difference in the gravity of the two offenses.”4

Thus, the principle of proportionality lays a firm foundation for understanding why the doctrine of eternal punishment is not only acceptable, it is downright necessary. If there were no such place as hell, and those who reject God—or who go their entire lives neglecting him—only get a slap on the wrist in the afterlife, it would indicate that God is not all that glorious, exalted, and worthy of worship. It would indicate that God is just some relatively unimportant being, and ignoring him is not really all that terrible (or, “no big deal,” we might say).

If this is correct, and I think it is, it means that the only way to get rid of hell, or to tame hell and make it less terrible, is to demote God. That’s something I’m just not willing to do.

1. A. von Hirsch and N. Jareborg, “Gauging Criminal Harm: A Living Standard Analysis,” Oxford Journal of Legal Studies 11, no. 1, (Spring 1991), 6.
2. John Rawls, “Two Concepts of Rules,” in John Rawls: Collected Papers, ed. Samuel Freman (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999): 21-22.
3. Charles. G. Finney, Lectures on Systematic Theology (New York: George H. Doran Company, 1878), 211.
4. Alan W. Gomes, “Evangelicals and the Annihilation of Hell, Part Two,” Christian Research Journal (Summer 1991), 9-11.

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