In the debate concerning the final fate of the unrepentant, the argument is frequently made that a finite number of sins warrants infinite punishment because the sins are against God, who is infinite. The level of punishment deserved, it is argued, is based not on the sin but rather on who is sinned against. Since God is perfectly holy (usually described as “infinitely holy”) and is infinite and eternal, any sin against God warrants infinite and eternal punishment.
For the sake of ease, I will refer to this as the “infinity argument” here.
Consider the words of Jonathan Edwards:
But God is a being infinitely lovely, because he hath infinite excellency and beauty. To have infinite excellency and beauty, is the same thing as to have infinite loveliness. He is a being of infinite greatness, majesty, and glory; and therefore he is infinitely honourable. He is infinitely exalted above the greatest potentates of the earth, and highest angels in heaven; and therefore he is infinitely more honourable than they. His authority over us is infinite; and the ground of his right to our obedience is infinitely strong; for he is infinitely worthy to be obeyed himself, and we have an absolute, universal, and infinite dependence upon him.
So that sin against God, being a violation of infinite obligations, must be a crime infinitely heinous, and so deserving of infinite punishment. 1
J. Warner Wallace gives us a modern example of the argument:
If your sister catches you lying about your income last year, you might lose her respect. If the IRS catches you lying about your income last year, the resulting punishment will be far more painful. What’s the difference here? It certainly isn’t the crime. Instead, we recognize the more authoritative the source of the code, rule or law, the greater the punishment for those who are in violation. 2
Wallace further asserts, in a different article, “Since God is the source of justice and the law, His nature determines the punishment. Since God is eternal and conscious, all rewards and punishments must also be eternal and conscious.” 3
But is this so? Does God’s infinitude mean that all sins against him warrant infinite punishment? And, though this is usually taken for granted, does such infinite punishment necessitate an infinite conscious experience of wrath?
Some Major Holes in How the Infinity Argument Is Normally Presented
I do not consider this argument to be completely without basis or merit. To some extent, the gravity of the sin can relate to the one sinned against. However, the nature of the one sinned against is a factor in deciding how serious a sin is. It is not the determining factor.
For example, I think we would all agree that it is worse to kill a human, who is made in God’s image, than it is to wantonly kill a dog or a cat. We also know that you certainly get into much more trouble lying to the government than lying to a stranger. The nature of the one sinned against comes into play.
However, we can surely think of instances where the status of the one offended is not the sole consideration. For example, as Dr. James Spiegel of Taylor University points out, it is certainly worse to torture a dog for an extended period of time than it is to make a rude gesture at another human, even though a human is a higher order of being. 4 Similarly, lying to the IRS may be more of a crime than lying to your sister. However, the penalties for lying to the IRS are far less severe than the penalties for murdering someone, even if the victim is a homeless, drug addicted Syrian refugee with Down syndrome (or someone else whom the world considers to be of relatively little value). And surely we can agree that this is just and right, even though governments have not always placed such a high value on human life in the past. In both cases (and many others), the level of evil in the act itself is more significant than the ostensible majesty or authority of the victim.
Other holes exist even in some examples of the punishment for a crime being determined by the nature of the one sinned against. In many cases, what seems like the same kind of crime or wrongdoing is actually materially different. Going back to the act of lying to the IRS versus lying to a regular person, the difference in seriousness is not just about the entity sinned against. As far as the law is concerned, if you owe taxes, then that money rightfully belongs to the government. To lie to the IRS about your income, therefore, is tantamount to theft. 5 Under normal circumstances, lying to your sister about your income would not be part of you depriving your sister of money that is rightfully hers. Therefore, it isn’t truly a matter of the same exact sin being committed against two different people. Similarly, perjury isn’t just about lying to the government versus just lying to a nobody. Perjury can have a materially unjust result (such as an innocent person being punished or a guilty person being let free), and that is why it is considered worse than lying to your neighbor. It isn’t just about lying for lying’s sake.
And these points are all aside from deeper moral questions. For example, does a more severe earthly punishment necessarily mean that a sin is greater in God’s eyes? We know governments can punish crimes far more severely than they deserve. And could it not be argued that to lie to your sister is a worse moral crime, depending on the specific circumstances and to what extent the sacred trust of family is broken? All of these things must be considered as well. It is not the case that the value of the one sinned against is the only factor in determining the punishment deserved for a sin.
Likewise, when dealing with different orders of creature (e.g. bug versus cat versus human), level of development can actually impact how much the victim is harmed by the act. For example, the reason most people are okay with eating lobsters and crabs that are boiled alive is that it’s traditionally believed that they don’t actualize the experience of pain the way a higher animal would. It isn’t that a lobster is less important than a cat or a dog, and therefore it is not that big of a sin to subject the lobster to an unnecessarily slow and excruciating death. Rather, it is because lobsters and crabs are basically giant sea-insects that have no central nervous system, and so it is believed that they don’t process the experience as being nearly as agonizing as a more developed animal would. The act itself is different because, as a lower level of creature, they experience the act differently.
The Folly of Trying to Make Sense of Infinity
Furthermore, once infinity gets involved, seemingly simple lines of reasoning get really jumbled. For example, if sin necessitates infinite suffering, or in some variations, creates an infinite debt owed to God, then at no point can the debt actually be paid. The whole point of the infinity argument is that the just punishment for sin is infinite, but you never actually reach infinity under the traditional view! An infinite debt has not been paid until infinity is reached, and the eternity of suffering has been completed. The problem is, infinity is by definition unreachable (when finite entities such as humans are involved), and eternity, by definition, does not end. If infinite suffering is the just punishment for sin, then justice is never really satisfied. 6 At no point ever, for all of eternity, for ever and ever forward, will anyone have suffered infinite punishment. Therefore, no one will have ever suffered the punishment they deserve.
This raises another issue as well. The unsaved can never pay back their infinite punishment debt, which means God can never collect the full amount owed. We might expect, then, that God would at least make everyone suffer to the absolute maximum degree possible. Just as creditors try to get as much of their money back as possible from a debtor who is in bankruptcy and cannot repay it in full, so we would expect God to exact as much suffering as is absolutely possible in order to come as close to what is owed as he can.
However, even most fire-and-brimstone teachers seldom believe everyone suffers as much as possible. Most traditionalists believe in degrees of punishment in hell. For many this is an argument against annihilationism, since they claim (incorrectly) that annihilationism does not allow for the degrees of punishment demanded by justice. 7 But degrees of punishment imply that people are not suffering as much as is possible. 8 If the sweet old lady who was “spiritual but not religious” suffers less severely than a maniacal dictator who killed millions of people, then that old lady suffers less than she otherwise might have (since she could have been doomed to suffer as bad as the maniacal dictator). Again, if everyone deserves more conscious suffering than they could ever experience, why doesn’t God at least try to get as close as he can?
Speaking of degrees of punishment, if hell is infinite punishment, but some people in hell are punished twice as severely as others, does that not mean that you ultimately are multiplying infinity times two (or any other number)? Of course, one could resolve this problem by pointing out that at any given point, the punishment suffered by those being tormented in hell is only finite. But this just raises again the issue that no one, according to traditionalism, actually suffers infinite punishment at any given point.
Lastly, the earthly analogies also start to fall apart when we start applying them to an infinite God. For example, it is said that because of who God is, sinning against him warrants a more severe punishment than committing the same exact sin against someone else. But is it even possible to genuinely sin against another creature without sinning against God? How would that work? I mean, if you torture a cow for the fun of it, then surely you have sinned against the cow but also against God. But if you humanely kill a cow to eat it, and have committed no sin in God’s eyes for doing so, can you say you sinned against the cow? There certainly is no punishment for the act, either in this life or in eternity.
The same principle applies to sins against humans. How would one sin against a human without sinning against God in the first place? And what about the fact that, according to traditionalism, all humans live forever? If God’s being eternal and conscious means that sinners must suffer eternal conscious punishment, then does sinning against a man but not sinning against God still warrant eternal conscious punishment since humans are all eternal and conscious beings (according to traditionalism)? But then again, how could you even sin against a man without sinning against God in the first place anyway?
Do you see how jumbled and confusing this all starts to get? Once you start trying to bring infinity into the mix, trying extrapolate can quickly raise more questions than they can answer.
What About the Eternality of Annihilation?
Another problem with the traditional reasoning is that, even if it succeeded in demonstrating that sins against God deserve infinite punishment, annihilation is itself a form of infinite punishment. After all, within this framework, one sin results in eternal death instead of eternal life. Obviously annihilation is not infinite in terms of the punitive experience of the unsaved. It is not infinite in the way that eternal torment could be said to be infinite. 9 However, insofar as a person who lives forever can be said to have infinite life, so someone who dies the second death and is gone forever misses out on that infinite life and therefore suffers infinite loss. And it is not only annihilationists who say this; some traditionalists have likewise argued that annihilation is a form of infinite punishment. 10 11 12
Now, in light of the above arguments that eternal torment does not satisfy the need for infinite punishment, can annihilation be said to do any better? Truth be told, I am not entirely sure. Spiegel argues that if it can be shown that God requires infinite punishment, annihilation, unlike eternal torment, does satisfy it. 13 What gives me pause is an argument I heard third-hand some years ago: if eternal torment does not satisfy the need for an infinite punishment because at no point has anyone suffered infinitely, then annihilation does not satisfy the need for infinite punishment either because at no point has the unsaved person been dead forever.
Now, it does seem to me that the two views are materially different in that once the wicked person suffers the second death, according to annihilationism, they are no more dead as time goes by. Nobody gets more and more annihilated over time. It’s not as though their actual level of deadness increases continually, heading towards being infinite deadness but never reaching infinite deadness. But then again, it still the case that the result of God inflicting final punishment on them (i.e their being dead/destroyed) has not been the case for eternity. The real question ends up being whether that really matters.
The messiness of figuring this out should not surprise us; my whole point in the previous section was how mucked up things get when we start trying to reason about infinity. In the worst case scenario, neither eternal torment nor annihilation can technically solve the need for infinite punishment. And if this is so, it just takes us back to square one, and the traditionalist infinity argument is still refuted because infinite punishment would not be necessary in the first place.
What Are We to Make of All This?
We have established that the infinity argument has some merit to it, but cannot prove eternal torment. The status of the one sinned does potentially affect the severity of the punishment due, but it is not the only factor, so we cannot simply assume that God’s nature automatically warrants infinite punishment. Even if we could, it’s not clear that eternal torment would achieve this. Annihilation is in some senses infinite, but in others not. Whether it could satisfy justice’s hypothetical need for an infinite punishment is not so clear either.
All of this is made still more complicated because it requires us to think in terms of infinity and to try to make sense of it with analogies of finite, earthly things. What at first seemed like sound and understandable philosophical arguments for eternal torment show themselves to be anything but. If you have studied annihilationism in depth, this might seem like a recurring pattern to you: what seemed on the surface like a clear case for the traditional doctrine isn’t so clear when you dig a little deeper.
What is an annihilationist to make of the infinite and eternal aspects of annihilation in relation to hell and divine justice? To me, the first step is to ask what the Bible teaches. In the end, isn’t that what we all should be doing? What does the Bible teach about hell?
It seems to me that the cart has been put before the horse in many traditionalist apologetic works that utilize the infinity argument. It is one thing to look at the Bible, (incorrectly) think that it teaches eternal torment, and then try to come up with an explanation for how eternal torment could be just. I have to imagine that this is how this argument arose. But to try to argue that the infinity argument definitively shows that eternal torment is the just punishment for sin is a doomed mission.
The conditionalist is left with the fact that he or she must explain a seeming disparity between sin and punishment. After all, to kill someone eternally because they ate fruit from a forbidden tree does still seem a bit harsh. 14 This is where there is some value to the infinity argument. Perhaps we cannot show that the infinite nature of God requires infinite punishment. Perhaps we cannot even say that either eternal view of final punishment would satisfy a need for infinite punishment. But the underlying point givse us something to work with. To sin against a perfectly good, perfectly holy, uncreated creator God must surely be an incredibly grave thing.
Furthermore, what if there is more to it than just a single sin? Who is to say that anyone who would sin once would only sin once? This forces us to delve far deeper into the theology of sin than we can do here. However, what if there are no friends of God who would sin once and never again? Perhaps apart from Christ there are only two paths going in opposite directions: one path is the path of God, where there is no sin or evil, and the other is the path against God, where sin infects you to the depths of your heart. One who is on the good path never sins, not even once. Anyone who commits one sin harbors within themselves sin and rebellion against God and all that is good. The wildcard, of course, is Jesus, who transforms those who have sin in the depths of their hearts. But those who are not saved by him will follow the road away from God, i.e. remain in sin and against him, until the very end. 15
Ironically, it is a traditionalist who was using the infinity argument whom I think explains the finality of rejecting God very well.
People who reject God have rejected Him completely. They have rejected Him to their death, to the very end. They have rejected Him as an ultimate and final decision. God then has the right and obligation to judge them with an ultimate punishment. 16
I agree wholeheartedly. I myself do not expect anyone, even at judgment, to truly repent The unsaved will lament their impending doom, but although they would want to live forever in perfect joy, I believe that they still will not want God, the sole source of all joy and life. The finality of their rejection, coupled with the nature of God, can provide a good possible explanation for why the unsaved suffer a fate that is eternal and infinite in its effect.
Application to Apologetics
One final point to consider is the application of all this to apologetics. In fact, what inspired me to write this article was not so much a desire to advocate for annihilationism (I have never considered the infinity argument to be much of a threat), but rather, to address some uses of the infinity argument in apologetics that leave much to be desired.
After all, traditionalists and conditionalists are doctrinal opponents on this issue, but we are united in the greater goal of bringing people to Christ and his gift of eternal life.
We all need to have good, solid defenses for the Christian worldview. I don’t think 1 Peter 3:15 was merely talking about being able to answer “Jesus” when people asked why we live like people with hope in something. And good apologetics are becoming all the more important as western societies largely become post-Christian, and more and more skeptics and atheists come out of Christian backgrounds with an ax to grind. A lot of atheists have heard the infinity argument used to justify the traditional doctrine. Often, apologists present it not simply as a possible explanation for the justice of hell, but rather, as a clear and obvious answer. But if a skeptic were to think about it, and I’m sure some have, they would see what I see and would not be convinced. You cannot simply say that because of who God is, punishment in hell must be infinite. It may be a potential explanation for why hell would be infinite once you establish that it is so, but if you go too far, you will be rejected. 17
Of course, even any explanation that I can give of the eternal nature of hell (as the Bible actually teaches it) is entirely speculative. But if we are to have good explanations, we must dispense with bad explanations. The argument that God’s infinite nature requires or proves that hell is a place of eternal torment is one of those explanations.
- Jonathan Edwards, “The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners,” reproduced at Christian Classics Ethereal Library, n.d., http://www.biblebb.com/files/edwards/je-justice.htm (accessed on March 20, 2016).
- J. Warner Wallace, “Why Would God Punish Finite, Temporal Crimes in an Eternal Hell?” Cold Case Christianity With J. Warner Wallace, n.d., http://coldcasechristianity.com/2013/why-would-god-punish-finite-temporal-crimes-in-an-eternal-hell/ (accessed March 19th 2016).
- J. Warner Wallace, “Can The Existence and Nature of Hell Be Defended? (Free Bible Insert),” Cold Case Christianity With J. Warner Wallace, n.d., http://coldcasechristianity.com/2014/can-the-existence-and-nature-of-hell-be-defended-free-bible-insert/ (accessed March 19th 2016).
- James S. Spiegel, “Making the Philosophical Case for Conditionalism,” A Consuming Passion: Essays on Hell and Immortality in Honor of Edward Fudge, eds. Christopher Date & Ron Highfield (Pickwick, 2015), 83.
- The IRS will seldom if ever go after someone who lies about something that doesn’t one way or another amount to fraud or otherwise depriving the government of money.
- Spiegel 83-84
- e.g. Robert Morey, Death and the Afterlife, (Bethany House, 1984), 154.
- At least this is so in any coherent scenario I can envision.
- In light of the above points, it cannot be said that eternal torment satisfies the requirement for infinite punishment. However, it can still be said to be infinite in that, like infinity, its cumulative suffering increases without end unto eternity.
- Witsius, Herman. The Economy of Covenants between God and Man: Comprehending a Complete Body of Divinity, Volume. 1, (Thomas Turnbull, 1803), reproduced at Google Books, n.d., http://books.google.com/books?id=aUUAAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary#v=onepage&q&f=false, (accessed on March 20, 2016).
- John Blanchard, Whatever Happened to Hell? (Evangelical Press, 2014), Kindle Edition, Locations 4096-4098.
- Craig Blomberg, “Eschatology and the Church: Some New Testament Perspectives.” Themelios. 23, no. 3 (1998): 4, reproduced at Theologicalstudies.org, n.d. http://www.theologicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/eschatology_blomberg.pdf (Accessed on March 20, 2016).
- Spiegel 85.
- That isn’t to necessarily say that Adam and Eve might not have ultimately covered by the blood of Jesus, but their sin makes the point pretty well for rhetorical purposes.
- Following the path analogy, Jesus turns us around and for the rest of our first lives carries us up the bad road, back to the way of the good road. Because we are still on the bad road, i.e. still in the process of being transformed, we do not always live completely without sin. But God forgives us in his mercy as he continues to bring us up the road. When we reach the end, sin is no longer present in the depths of our hearts.
- Wallace, “Can The Existence and Nature of Hell Be Defended?”
- For what it’s worth, I know of no good apologetic defense of the traditional doctrine. This should not surprise us, of course; the traditional doctrine is false, and therefore it should be quite hard to defend.