The instinct of many contemporary thinkers, Christian as well as non-Christian, has been to see an antinomy between two commitments:
- That God is altogether unimpeachably just, and
- That God allows some people to suffer for an everlasting eternity in hell
The trouble is that, given the classical Christian doctrine of hell, there are some people (precisely, the set of all those persons who are damned) who will be suffering in hell for an infinite everlasting period of time. However, since every sin is merely finite, it seems that it can only deserve a finite punishment. How, therefore, could a just God punish a person infinitely for a finite crime or set of finite crimes?
Unorthodox answers are increasingly near at hand, and have become (ever) so popular of late that it is almost a challenge to find anyone defending the classical orthodox doctrine of hell – only a minority of contemporary Christian thinkers have boldly defended the doctrine. The trend, however, has been towards some form of either universalism or annihilationism. Origen’s universalism has been transfigured into modern forms such as John Hick’s soul making theodicy, which he mistakenly christened an ‘Irenaean Theodicy’ (I refer the interested reader to the work of a past professor of mine, Dr. Mark S. M. Scott). It has also been the drumbeat to which emergent church leaders such as Rob Bell have been dancing.
The typical Anselmian answer to the challenge has been to say that an infinite punishment befits a crime of infinite gravity, such as is obstinately rejecting fellowship with God. This answer has left many contemporary Christians unpersuaded and unsatisfied. For example, some Christian philosophers like Chad A. McIntosh have suggested that the Anselmian response commits an equivocation between quantitative and qualitative senses of ‘infinity.’ As a very interesting aside, McIntosh has suggested that he can manage to maintain that the damned do receive a qualitatively and quantitatively infinite punishment in hell, even while maintaining universalism. He appeals to the idea that God can perform supertasks, and thus that God can actualize an infinite number of transpiring torments within a finite amount of time.
A supertask, for those who haven’t heard of such things, is defined by Jon Pérez Laraudogoitia in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
A supertask may be defined as an infinite sequence of actions or operations carried out in a finite interval of time. The terms ‘action’ and ‘operation’ must not be understood in their usual sense, which involves a human agent. Human agency may be involved but it is not necessary. To show this, let us see how actions can be characterised precisely without any references to man. We will assume that at each instant of time the state of the world relevant to a specific action can be described by a set S of sentences. Now an action or operation applied to a state of the world results in a change in that state, that is, in the set S corresponding to it. Consequently, an arbitrary action a will be defined (Allis and Koetsier 1995) as a change in the state of the world by which the latter changes from state S before the change to state a(S) after it. This means that an action has a beginning and an end, but does not entail that there is a finite lapse of time between them.
I note in passing that this would make Hell and Purgatory indistinguishable from each other, which seems absurd. For a simple reductio of this admittedly ingenious and provocative thesis, perhaps we can give the following sort of argument:
- If God can perform supertasks, then there is a logically possible world in which the Grim Reaper paradox occurs.
- However, there is no logically possible world in which the Grim Reaper paradox occurs.
- Therefore, God cannot perform supertasks.
The question of whether it is coherent to posit supertasks at all, however, is really tangential for my purposes here. What I am interested in demonstrating is that it is logically possible for a Christian philosopher and/or theologian to maintain both of the theses expressed at the outset in orthodox fashion. Let us say that 1&2 (the original 1&2, not the premises of the argument looming directly above) can be maintained just in case they are compossibles, which is to say that there is at least one logically possible world in which they are both true. Strictly speaking, of course, there is no obvious logical contradiction between 1&2 above, thus in terms of narrow logical possibility, they are obviously compatible. However, narrow logical possibility also commits one to saying that the counter-possible “if God is unjust then Hell cannot exist,” is ‘true.’ This is unsatisfying in both cases; we want more, and we should get it.
I will put forward four responses to the problem and argue that if even a single one of them is possible and resolves the apparent tension of maintaining 1&2, then it is possible to maintain the classical doctrine of hell without calling into question the nature of God as paradigmatically just. First, of course, I cannot help but rehearse the Anselmian answer and maintain that a crime of qualitatively infinite gravity also deserves a punishment of infinite gravity. I can then maintain that a punishment of qualitatively infinite gravity requires a sentence which is quantitatively (at least potentially) infinite. For something to be potentially infinite means simply, in the all too familiar words of Dr. William Lane Craig, “that infinity acts as the limit towards which something endlessly approaches.”
This answer isn’t likely to mollify the objector to the classical doctrine though. Presumably they have heard it before, and find it wanting. So then, I rehearse a second answer generally appealed to by Molinists. According to the Molinist there are subjunctive counterfactuals of libertarian-free creaturely acts. The Molinist can thus suggest that, for all we know, the set of all people in the actual world who are or will be in hell includes all and only people who will libertarian-freely continue to sin infinitely many times in hell, so as to incur upon themselves punishment upon punishment in endless succession. Notice that this suggestion is not to be confused with the suggestion that people in hell inevitably sin continuously – if it were inevitable it wouldn’t be categorically free.
There is a third very interesting solution posed by Dr. William Lane Craig, and I will simply provide it in his own words, from his debate with Ray Bradley, Can a Loving God Send People to Hell?
Finally, it’s possible that God would permit the damned to leave hell and go to heaven but that they freely refuse to do so. It is possible that persons in hell grow only more implacable in their hatred of God as time goes on. Rather than repent and ask God for forgiveness, they continue to curse Him and reject Him. God thus has no choice but to leave them where they are. In such a case, the door to hell is locked, as John Paul Sartre said, from the inside. The damned thus choose eternal separation from God. So, again, so as long as any of these scenarios is even possible, it invalidates the objection that God’s perfect justice is incompatible with everlasting separation from God.
This third solution sounds to me like a clever way to repackage the second solution, and so I’m inclined to think that those who find the second solution unacceptable will also find this third solution unacceptable.
There may yet be another, and perhaps even more attractive, solution to this problem. I would like to direct readers to a recent suggestion of Alexander Pruss’ according to which we distinguish between the objective time span which the damned spend in Hell, and their subjective perception of that time span. This is worked out in his post Another Model of Hell Worth Thinking About?.
Recall that the trouble for the person who sneers at the Anselmian answer that a crime of infinite gravity must be met with a punishment of infinite gravity is that the eternal punishment may be ‘infinite,’ but incurring an infinite amount of temporal punishment for sin is simply impossible, and thus such a punishment is absolutely incompatible with justice. Thus, the intuition seems to be that the temporal punishment for sin doesn’t fit the temporal crime. In light of this, Pruss’ model seems particularly attractive. According to this model, there is a distinction between objective and subjective lengths of time (for instance, just as when I experience a certain hour of the day whizzing by, somebody else may experience the same hour of the day as dragging on), and we can at least imagine that a person in hell may experience their first year in hell as having lasted about a year, and their second year in hell may subjectively feel like half a year, their third year may then subjectively feel like a quarter of a year, and so on, so that in principle a person could be in Hell for any amount of time objectively, and they would have subjectively experienced temporal pains only up to a certain much lower finite boundary towards which they are endlessly approaching. It acts as a finite boundary condition which is never subjectively arrived at, but is only ever and always approached.
One neat theological feature of this model, it seems to me, is the way it ties in nicely with the Catholic Church’s teaching about purgatory, or at least common opinion about purgatory. In his book Eschatology our emeritus pope, Benedict XVI, suggested that time in purgatory is perhaps best characterized as a kind of ‘existential’ time.
The transforming “moment” of this encounter cannot be quantified by the measurements of earthly time. It is, indeed, not eternal but a transition, and yet trying to qualify it as of “short” or “long” duration on the basis of temporal measurements derived from physics would be naïve and unproductive. The “temporal measure” of this encounter lies in the unsoundable depths of existence, in a passing-over where we are burned ere we are transformed. To measure such Existenzzeit, such an “existential time,” in terms of the time of this world would be to ignore the specificity of the human spirit in its simultaneous relationship with, and differentiation from, the world.
The best way to make sense of Medieval talk of ‘time’ in purgatory is not to imagine that people in purgatory spend a literal set of days or hours there, but that they spend some existential equivalent to how much time it would have taken them to offer full reparation for their sins. Suppose, as a thought experiment, that there are two nearly identical logically possible worlds in which Tommy is on his death bed. Let’s imagine that in world W, Tommy rejects the Grace of God resolutely in his final moments, and let’s imagine that in W’, Tommy’ accepts the Grace of God. In world W’ we may say that Tommy’ will existentially experience 300 years of purgation. Why not think that in world W, Tommy will ‘existentially’ experience no more than 300 years of damnation, even though this latter is an eternal state (a state never to be succeeded)?
Moreover, to take another page from William Lane Craig, since there is no way for finite addition to result in an actually infinite sum, it seems to be a necessary truth that a person who experiences hell will only ever have experienced a finite amount of the pains and torments associated with hell. Their torment will always be, considered subjectively, merely potentially infinite, and never actually infinite. No person, therefore, can undergo an actually infinite number of subjective or existential ‘moments’ in the agony of dis-fellowship with God. Why not think, in addition, that there is some finite subjective or existential boundary condition to their suffering?
If we can so think, then we can so respond to the objector, and this response seems to hold a greater promise of satisfaction.
 Ratzinger, Joseph. “Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, trans.” Michael Waldstein (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1988): 230.