Anselm, hell and retributive justice
I’ve been horribly ill recently, so bear with me as I try to get back into the swing of sounding cleverer than I actually am. Your prayers for a restoration of my health are most welcome, by the way. Incidentally, this is why my ‘series’ are on hold – until my health returns.
In my post on the death of my Uncle Noel, I took a shot those who scandalise Evangelical annihilationism, and suggested it was great that the likes of Wenham (and Stott etc.) have, as far as I see, won their case to have their views accepted as Evangelical. This judgment is affirmed in the recent Evangelical Alliance (ACUTE) report, the conclusions of which have been published here. Admittedly, when talking with David Hilborn (Head of Theology at the Evangelical Alliance UK) about this book I got the distinct impression that annihilationism was granted honorary Evangelical status only begrudgingly. Nevertheless, granted it was.
In the comments to that post, Anthony Martin stated the following:
“To me, the notion of annihilationism just diminishes the sinfulness of sin”. His point is a good one.
This was then followed by a response from Q (our very own annihilationist), and another by Anthony. Here is how I would respond to Anthony’s comment, and I wanted to do so in a bit more length given that it is an important argument against annihilationism:
If one thinks of hell’s punishment as retributive, i.e. as punishment simply because the sinner deserves it, then the notion of an eternal conscious hell of torment runs against the problem of justice. How can finite sin be met with eternal conscious torment? How can that be just?
In response to this question, Anselm argued that the apparent problem could be resolved in the following way: God is infinite, and because any sin is sin against God (cf. Ps 51 ‘Against you, you alone have I sinned’), it follows that sin must incur infinite punishment.
However, there are problems with this reasoning (and here I refer to Gregory MacDonald’s The Evangelical Universalist for a more detailed discussion):
1) It is clear to anyone, as MacDonald writes: ‘the gravity of an offence is determined not merely by the status of the offended party but also by the nature of the offence’. Thus the punishment of hell must also take account of the nature of the sin, not just the ontological worth of the offended.
2) As Thomas Talbott argues, if every sin is infinitely serious then the idea that we can grade offences collapses. If it is responded that perhaps people experience different levels of punishment in hell, albeit eternally, this still isn’t compatible with the logic based on God’s infinity = infinite punishment, as then the punishment is not based solely on God’s ontological worth but on the specific nature of the sin. This would then mean that the justice problem (apparently solved by recourse to God’s infinite worth) rears its head again, as things aren’t totally dependent on this infinite ontological worth, but also the specific nature of the sins.
3) Besides, is divine punishment in scripture ever simply retributive? God is holy love. I.e. God’s love is expressed as much in hell as is his holiness, otherwise we have to compartmentalise God’s nature, and ignore important passages of Scripture on the way (e.g. 1 John ‘God is love/light’).