Hell paradox: a contradiction regarding the relation of crime and punishment in theism.

Many religions such as ►Islam and fundamentalist variants of ►Christianity (particularly in the ►US) promote doctrines of Hell as a place where eternal punishment is administered to sinners. Since, however, a human being can commit only a finite number of sins during her lifetime, such everlasting penalty without any prospects of forgiveness seems to contradict our normal sense of justice. We normally think punishment, to be just, must be proportional to the misdeed(s) to which it is a response. (This proportionality requirement, known as the lex talionis, finds expression in widely varied ancient sources. "[Y]ou shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand ..." Exodus famously enjoins us; "Let the punishment match the offense," wrote Cicero.) It seems impossible for infinite punishment to be merited by finite wrongdoing. Yet God, the one who is supposed to mete out exactly such punishments, is also supposed to be infinitely just.

One way in which the defender of theism might try to dissolve the contradiction is by pointing out that while the number of anyone's sins may be finite, their severity need not be, and that the proportionality requirement pertains to the severity of the crime(s) committed, not just the number. (After all, a single murder conviction draws harsher punishment than a dozen, or a hundred, minor shopfliftings.*) This requires, of course, that sense be made of a crime's being infinitely severe, and thus meriting infinite punishment. Can sense be made of this? Perhaps the theist will say that the fact that it constitutes rebellion against God makes sin infinite in its wrongfulness. A result of this would be that every sin merits infinite punishment — a hard saying, no doubt, but one that some forms of theism may readily accept. (And not merely the more retributively-minded ones; in particular, Christians who are repelled by the seeming harshness of this doctrine may still be comforted by its implication — that the forgiveness of sin is an infinite blessing, the alleviation of an infinite and, consequently, inexpiable burden of guilt.) Of course, if ►Borges is right that all human deeds must have finite significance in comparison to God's infinitude and infinite perfection, this attempt to dissolve the contradiction fails.

The Hell paradox bears some resemblance to the ►problem of evil. Both turn on the irreconcilability of God's infinite justice and benevolence with some evident injustice or suffering that is either allowed, or perpetrated, by God. The problem of evil focuses on the logical impossibility of a being such as God even allowing suffering, at least unjust suffering, to occur; the Hell paradox focuses on the logical impossibility of such a being's actively inflicting suffering that is both so great, and so seemingly unjust, as the supposed eternal torments of Hell.

Both the Hell paradox and the problem of evil are popular arguments used in ►atheistic circles, generally with the aim of either disproving God's existence or revealing His true and tawdry character. However, the Hell paradox is less of a threat to theism per se than the problem of evil is; the most that the former shows is that either God is not perfectly just and benevolent or there is no Hell of the kind described above. Thus, one can accept the paradox and remain a theist without inconsistency by repudiating the doctrine of Hell as a place of eternal punishment.


*A notable class of exceptions is the wave of "three-strikes laws" recently enacted in the United States, which treat multiple commissions of fairly minor offenses as equivalent to a single commission of a much graver offense. The fact that this is precisely the feature of such laws that opponents of them fasten on, however, testifies to the prevalence of the notion that a just punishment must be proportional in severity to the crime.

© Johann Christian Lotter   ■  Infinity  ■  Links  ■  Forum