Addressing Objections: The Infinite God Requires Infinite Punishment Argument
One common objection to the view that God’s judgment of sin is temporal and purposeful is the view that an infinitely holy being is infinitely offended by sin and therefore infinite punishment is required. Below is a summary of this line of reasoning, as put by a proponent of the hell doctrine, who is responding to critics of his view:
The second way to respond to this step in the critic's argument is to argue that the critic is mistaken in her belief that the sins we commit in this life merit only a finite penalty. If all sin is sin against God, then all sin is of infinite weight since it amounts to a transgression against an infinitely great being. This response, however, rests on two controversial assumptions. First, it assumes that all sins are sins against God, and second, it assumes that the gravity of an offense is in part dependent on the type of being offended.
While both of the claims have been criticized, neither seems especially problematic. Since the Christian holds that all moral commands find their source in God, it is reasonable to think that all transgressions are at least sins against God. It may be true, of course, that if I bring harm to an innocent person, I have sinned against that person, but there is no reason to think that this precludes my having sinned against God as well. We think something similar in cases of transgressions of laws of the state. Crimes which I commit against citizens in my community, are certainly crimes against them, but it is also perfectly reasonable to see these crimes as crimes "against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania," at least if you live in my state.
The second assumption might seem slightly more controversial. If the gravity of the crime is increased with the greatness of the person offended, it seems that slapping Gandhi or Mother Teresa should merit a greater penalty than slapping my next door neighbor. But this hardly seems right and our criminal law certainly takes no account of such differences. It is true that, when put this way, the principle in question seems implausible. But maybe this is not the principle that lies behind the penalty model. One might say, for example, that the weight of an offense depends, not on the greatness of the person offended, but on the greatness of the type of being offended. Thus, bringing injury to a tree, a frog, and a human would merit increasing penalties. Plants, animals, and humans are three quite different kinds of beings. While bringing injury to one human may merit the same punishment as bringing the same injury to any other human, it may merit a greater penalty than bringing the corresponding injury to a dog. In light of this, why is it implausible to think that offenses against God, who is infinitely greater than any human, merit a correspondingly greater penalty?
The trouble with the second assumption might, however, be put a different way. The critic might say that this view seems to have the consequence that all sins are of equal weight, that is, that all sins merit the very same penalty, since all are, in the end, sins against God, and thus of infinite weight. But something seems strange, the critic continues, in holding that telling a "little white lie" ("Yes, I think your tie is very nice") and torturing someone to death merit the same penalty. But such a strange consequence is not actually required on this view. One might think that the most minor of sins merits punishment of infinite weight (duration or intensity), and think that more serious sins merit ten times as much. This means, of course, that no one in hell could ever satisfy the penalty merited by their offense. But that is not an objection against the penalty view. To focus on duration, maybe the penalty merited by our sins is so great that it would take punishment of infinite upon infinite duration to satisfy. But there is nothing in this that the advocate of the penalty model must shrink from. In fact, that is exactly what the model asserts. (Michael J. Murray, Reason for the Hope Within: Heaven and Hell, p. 293-294)
Although I agree with the first premise that all sins are against God, there are a couple of assumptions that I think merit discussion regarding this argument. First, the argument suggests by analogy that we can injure God in some way, which I believe to be false because of his greatness.
Second, it assumes that because of God’s infinite greatness, any offense or sin requires infinite punishment. I dare you to find a single Bible verse that uses this logic. There is simply no Scriptural or philosophical reason to make this assertion. It is purely an assumption, a theological construct created to justify a doctrine that violates our consciences. Why is it that only God’s requirement for punishment is infinite? What about his love and mercy? Wouldn’t these also be infinite using this reasoning? Indeed they would, but the difference is that there is Scriptural support that "His mercy endures forever" (Psalm 136) and that His "love never ends" (1 Corinthians 13:8). Not so with the false "logic" that infinite greatness requires infinite revenge.
In addressing the apparent injustice of experiencing endless torment for telling a “white lie” while experiencing the same penalty for heinous crimes, the author simply bypasses the objection entirely. Instead he creates a silly mathematical equation in which he automatically assumes the validity of infinite punishment for a “white lie” and then asserts that any worse offenses might merit infinite punishment times ten. Infinity times 10 is still infinity, he reasons. OK… but this doesn’t address why the penalty for telling your wife that you like her dress is eternal torment. It simply sidesteps the issue with a pseudo-mathematical equation.
While I agree with the author that it is clear that people do not deserve God’s grace and cannot earn it, the philosophical argument for the necessity of infinite punishment seems very weak.
In fact, philosophically, I think the opposite argument has more merit. If someone hurts a lesser being, said being tends to lash out with more ferocity and vindictiveness.
For example, if someone were to harass a dog (especially an insecure, maladjusted one) by poking it with a stick, it might bite the perpetrator. If this same person were to offend a mature person, the person would more likely confiscate the stick and have a less vicious consequence for the perpetrator, because the person is greater and more secure than the dog. The mature person would likely be more merciful.
Hasn’t God shown his great mercy toward us through his Son? Why would we assume that he would be vindictive like the insecure, offended dog of the illustration?
The argument for the necessity of infinite punishment is therefore philosophically weak, but it is even weaker scripturally. I would challenge you to find a single Bible verse that supports that idea that God’s infinite greatness requires infinite punishment. I doubt you’ll be successful. Instead I think you’ll find that all of God’s judgments were temporal and purposeful. In his law, the penalties fit the crimes. For example, Leviticus 24:20 shows this principle where injuries are repaid “fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; just as he has injured a man, so it shall be inflicted on him.”
You will not find a single instance of torture being recommended in God’s law, especially not of infinite duration and intensity!
In fact, Jesus suggests that God is even more merciful than His law suggests. Read His words:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also” (Matthew 5:38).
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? (Matthew 5:43-46).
What is going on here? Did God change? I think not, since we know that He is “the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8).
Does he command us to love, bless and pray for our enemies, but turn around at the judgment with ruthless disregard for his own? No, He too sends the rain and makes the sun rise for his enemies and not just His friends.
It seems clear that God allowed us to exact some retribution in the law more for our sakes, since we need to see justice in our daily lives and because our human hearts are hard. It is difficult to live by the law of forgiveness that Jesus taught and demonstrated. As Jesus replied when questioned about the Mosaic divorce laws, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning” (Matthew 19:8).
So, in a sense, the law was given to limit the human tendency to overdo vengeance. An eye for an eye prevented excessive revenge, which people are prone to. People don’t just want the other person’s eye; they want their heads. Men didn’t just want to get divorced; they wanted to leave the wives who offended them with nothing and no way of survival.
This is why arguments usually escalate. If I say something hurtful to you, you’ll probably say something even more hurtful to me, and the cycle continues until we’re both yelling. We know this is what happens from experience.
But Jesus showed us a different way when he was hanging on the cross, completely rejected by those he came to save, saying “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
In this, I believe, Jesus showed us the very heart of God.
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