Wednesday, September 20, 2006

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’).


At 9/20/2006 8:39 PM, Anonymous Jim said...

By his of course I mean Anselm, not Cruger.

At 9/20/2006 8:39 PM, Anonymous Jim said...

Nice posting, Chris. One question- why does Anselm look like Freddy Cruger? And, do you want the 3 volumes of his writings I have? I read them a decade ago and haven't looked at them since.

At 9/21/2006 12:51 AM, Anonymous Seumas Macdonald said...

Have you considered, though, that sinners who are punished in Hell continue to exist in a state of sin against God? Hell does not, it seems to me, describe a place where they cease their rebellion, therefore an eternal punishment would fit their eternal rebellion.

At 9/21/2006 2:06 PM, Anonymous Exiled Preacher said...

It is only since the 1970's that evangelicals have advocated annihilationism. J W Wenham set the ball rolling with his The Goodness of God (1974). The historic evangelical position is that the wicked suffer eternal conscious punishment in hell. Annihilationism is not an authentic expression of Bible-based evangelical doctrine.

In point 3. of your post you asked, "is divine punishment in scripture ever simply retributive?"

The simple answer is yes. Granted that God exercises corrective justice upon his own people to discipline them and call them back to himself. But God also punishes sinners becuse they justly deserve his wrath. It is difficult to construe some of the famous judgement events in the Old Testament Testament as acts of corrective justice. What of the flood and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah? Are they not examples of retributive justice?

At 9/21/2006 2:35 PM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

Jim! You're amazing! I'll talk to you later on IM.

Though the three volume work by Freddy Cruger sounds interesting too!

Hi Jeltzz, I'll look at this objection - via Carson - in the next post, thanks for mentioning it.

Hi Guy,

Thanks for your point about point 3 - indeed, the flood does not really come across as corrective. Good point, thanks. I would definetly rephrase that point now. Though perhaps most of the time it can be seen as corrective, even against the nations in the prophetic judgment passages - cf. the narrrative structure behind Isaiah with the 'survivors' theme. This reasoning appears even more radicalised in Paul)

Concerning your claim: "Annihilationism is not an authentic expression of Bible-based evangelical doctrine" - well, the church must continually reform its views according to scripture, and the annihilationist case has, I think, a stronger biblical foundation, when the scriptues are handled responsibly. Hence, if it isn't historic evangelical doctrine, oh well. But if it is not bible based, then I have a problem. "Martin Luther, this doctrine of justification by faith is far too new, that is not an authentic expression of the churches faith." How did he respond? By the way, I'm personally not a convinced annihilationist. Personally, I couldn't give a stuff if something isn't historically evangelical. Those of us in this tradition know that so much has been misunderstood and neglected that I have very little time to be evengelical unless there is better reason that 'its what evangelicals have always believed'.

Oh, and thanks again for that lealet - a nice little presentation.

At 9/21/2006 7:37 PM, Anonymous Exiled Preacher said...


I wasn't suggesting that evangelical doctrine is beyond revision in the light of Scripture. I would argue that annihilationism is not the authentic voice of evangelicalism because it is not Biblical.

Would you say that the Father's wrath upon the Son as he bore our sins on the cross was retributive or corrective? Or are you unhappy with the whole idea of the cross as a propitiatory sacrifice?

At 9/22/2006 5:11 PM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

Hi Guy, perhaps the Flood wasn't just retributive after all (?). Cf. the discussion in 1 Peter.

"I would argue that annihilationism is not the authentic voice of evangelicalism because it is not Biblical."

I guess that is where I would disagree. I think the bible is multivocal on this issue, and annihilationism is a legitimate one.

"Would you say that the Father's wrath upon the Son as he bore our sins on the cross was retributive or corrective? Or are you unhappy with the whole idea of the cross as a propitiatory sacrifice? "

I'm not sure what to make of propitiatory sacrifice yet. I don't have the time to get into the debate, but my provisional view is that propitiatory sacrifice is a legitimate NT metaphor, among others, for teh significance of Jesus' death. But I'm not sure I would understand this wrath of God in the same way as hell's, for the simple reason that Christ was inocent. But you raise a good point, and I'll need to go and mull over it. Thanks!

At 9/22/2006 6:42 PM, Anonymous Exiled Preacher said...


Yes, Christ was innocent, so God was not correcting him for any wrongdoing on the cross. Jesus is the propitiation for our sins. He bore the retributive wrath of God that we deserve so that we may not have to endure his wrath for ourselves in hell.

God did not spare his own Son the full weight of his holy anger against sin, but delivered him up for us all. This was the "cup" that Jesus shrank from taking. This helps to explain the cry of dereliction when the Son entered the outer darkness as he was made sin for us. We are saved from wrath through him. Outside of him we remain under God's terrifying wrath.

The cross also has implications for the matter of whether sin deserves an infinite punishment. If God's majestic justice could be satisfied with anything less than infinite punishment, why did he send his Son to die for us? The Son could propitiate God's infinite wrath because he was an infinite Person. Were he not homoousios both with human beings and God, his sacrifice would have been worthless.

It is only those who are in Christ who are shielded from the the infinite, eternal wrath of God.

At 9/22/2006 11:35 PM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

Of course, everything you say is what many of us have been raised on, and we know it like the back of our hands, and love much of it. I wonder, though, I wonder ... no, I'll leave my thoughts to later posts.

I thank you for keeping me in check with your comments on this post.

At 9/25/2006 6:58 PM, Anonymous ntWrong said...

Exiled preacher:
I'm late coming to this conversation, but in case you're still reading the comments ….

Jesus is the propitiation for our sins. He bore the retributive wrath of God that we deserve so that we may not have to endure his wrath for ourselves in hell.

This is true, and it raises a profound problem for the doctrine of eternal torment. Jesus bore the penalty that was owed to us for our sins, but that penalty was death … not eternal torment.

The wages of sin is death, as Paul says in so many words. And Paul's statement corresponds to the penalty paid by Christ.

By the way, you will note that I am making a biblical argument here! Whatever you may think of annihilationism, it is facile to dismiss it as unbiblical.

At 9/28/2006 1:30 PM, Anonymous Exiled Preacher said...


Because Jesus was the Son of God, his suffering and death on the cross were of infinite value. Christ did not need to suffer for our sins for all eternity.

The wicked will suffer eternal punishment because their sins have offended the infinite majesty of God. Their punishment will therefore be of infinite duration.

Are you suggesting that for the New Testament death invariably means the annihilation of the soul? If so what does that say about Jesus' human soul after the cross? Did his soul cease to exist?

If you visit my blog, I reflect on some of these questions in the most recent post: "Infinity, eternal punishment & the cross".

At 9/30/2006 5:23 AM, Anonymous Brian Hamilton said...

I'm coming late to this post, I know—and I'm digressing from the previous comments. I've no particular stake in the annihilationist debate at this point, but I do feel it necessary to defend Anselm, who is so often reduced to a straw man.

Anselm would agree with you (and MacDonald) that 'the gravity of an offence is determined not merely by the status of the offended party but also by the nature of the offence.' If he held that humans owed something infinite to God, then, as finite beings, we would have fallen short from the moment of creation. Rather Anselm's is the very orthodox point that what what we owe to God is the entirety of our being and the whole devotion of our will. This is a completely finite, though from our vantagepoint unimaginable, duty. But one glance away from the face of God creates a debt than we cannot pay alone--not because the debt is infinite (it is exactly what we owed already, plus a little more in the manner of restitution) but because we lack the ability to pay that debt. Whatever give, we would have owed besides. The debt can be filled only by a gift not otherwise required by God.

Note, Anselm does not make this point in order to justify an eternal hell. On the contrary, he makes it to underscore the way that Jesus' unnecessary gift of life re-establishes the integrity of the divine-human relationship. If hell is eternal for Anselm (and it presumably is), it is only because hell is precisely that place where humans and God continue to be estranged by a broken bond of love. It's not that the estrangement itself is infinite, it's that we are incapable of even the most finite repayment.

At 9/30/2006 5:27 AM, Anonymous Brian Hamilton said...

I apologize, incidentally, that my first comment on your blog is criticism! I've only just begun to read it within the last month or so, and quite enjoyed it. Tonight just happens to be the night that I'm procrastinating a paper on Hugh of St. Victor, reading his sections on atonement with Anselm on the brain (he fatally alters Anselm on a few points, unfortunately), and stumbled upon your post. The prior post is preceded by a note of gratitude.

At 9/30/2006 12:06 PM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

Thank you so much for these friendly comments. My aquaintance with Anselm is only second hand, so I find your comments most interesting and informative. I shall pursue a closer study of Anselm.


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