Lessons from a Tragedy at the Cincinnati Zoo

On Saturday, May 28th, 2016 a four-year-old boy climbed past some barriers and fell into the gorilla exhibit at the Cincinnati Zoo. The boy’s life was in danger. In order to save him, zookeepers shot and killed Harambe, a large, male gorilla.

This story—which is tragic on many levels—can nevertheless help us to think about several questions that often arise in the brotherly debate between those who believe in eternal conscious torment and those who believe in annihilationism. Specifically, I would like to draw out three lessons.

Lesson #1:  Whom You Sin Against Does Matter

The shooting of Harambe, while tragic, was justified because the life of the little boy is much more valuable than the life of the gorilla. If a pet dog had fallen into the exhibit, it would not have been right to shoot the gorilla. This points to the truth that whom you sin against does make a difference.

Traditionalists try to explain how it could be right for God to torture people for a trillion years, and then keep going forever, even though they had only sinned for eighty or ninety years. Perhaps the most common explanation given is that sinning against a being of greater worth deserves greater punishment. The argument continues by saying that since God is of infinite worth, sins against Him deserve infinite punishment. This argument was recently addressed by Joseph Dear. In this post I will repeat a little of what he shared, but mainly add some additional thoughts.

Like Joseph and many other conditionalists, I agree that the worth of the one sinned against is a factor in determining how serious a sin is. The Bible does not explicitly teach this point as far as I can tell, but it does seem to be implied by several Bible passages. For example, this principle seems to be implied in Malachi 1:8-14 when God argues that since the priests would not bring blemished sacrifices to a human governor, much less should they bring them to Him. This principle also seems to be implied by the fact that the greatest commandment is to love God. This command is specifically stated to be “first,” while the command to love people is “second” (Matthew 22:36-39).

But to state that sinning against God is more serious than sinning against other humans, at least in some ways, is still a long way from proving that eternal conscious torment is the punishment that God should and will mete out to unbelievers.

Going back to Harambe, if somehow the boy had been rescued without killing the gorilla, no reasonable person would argue that Harambe should be tortured for the next ten years because he dragged the boy around the moat and caused the boy some injuries. This brings us to the next lesson . . .

Lesson #2:  Ignorance Mitigates the Seriousness of Sin

When Harambe dragged the boy and caused him some injuries, Harambe was doing something to him that is considered wrong. Yet, no one wanted him to be shot. Had the boy been rescued without him being shot, no one would have wanted to punish Harambe. Why not?  Because as far as we can tell, Harambe was not knowingly doing anything wrong. If a little boy was dragged around by a strong adult man and injured, we would all agree that he deserves severe punishment. But Harambe probably did not intend to harm the boy.

We understand that ignorance does not make a wrong act right. However, ignorance does mitigate the seriousness of a sin and therefore reduces the punishment that is deserved.

This same principle is also seen when we consider the four-year-old. Does he deserve punishment for entering a prohibited area?  If he did, then I think we would all agree that the injuries he received are already more than enough. If he had gotten out of the enclosure without harm of any kind, we might agree that some form of correction from his parents would be called for, but nothing severe. What he did was wrong, yet he could not understand at his age how serious his actions were. But what if an adult had leaped into the exhibit for no good reason and Harambe was killed to save them?  If the adult got out without injury, we would agree that some type of significant punishment (perhaps jail and a very large fine) would be called for. So, we see again that the level of understanding of the sinner affects the seriousness of sin and the severity of punishment.

Does the Bible teach that our level of understanding is a factor in how God will punish our sin?  Yes, the Bible teaches this principle very directly and explicitly, and it does so in the context of final judgment. Our Lord taught us:

The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the unbelievers.

The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows.

But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked. (Luke 12:46-48, NIV)

This same principle is seen in the laws God gave to Israel:

If a bull gores a man or woman to death, the bull is to be stoned to death, and its meat must not be eaten. But the owner of the bull will not be held responsible.

If, however, the bull has had the habit of goring and the owner has been warned but has not kept it penned up and it kills a man or woman, the bull is to be stoned and its owner also is to be put to death. (Exodus 21:28-29, NIV)

Finally, we see the principle at work in the heartfelt cry of our Lord from the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34, NIV).

Lesson #3:  The Bible Tells Us What We Couldn’t Figure Out On Our Own

So, on the one hand, people sin against God, Who is far greater than any created being. This makes our sin very serious. In a way, all of our sins are sins against God, which makes them far weightier than people usually realize.

On the other hand, human beings struggle to understand God’s greatness. This is especially true for those who are not saved and therefore know less of God’s glory. In a sense, unbelievers are sinning with a degree of ignorance. This factor mitigates the weight of their sin.

Analogies from the incident at the zoo can only take us so far. We need to look to God’s Word for more answers. On our own, we could never expect to guess what punishment any person’s sin deserves when final judgment comes (although, as we will see, our God-given conscience does point us in the right direction). It would probably be beyond us even to weigh out the two factors we have discussed, let alone the many other factors God likely takes into account. Thankfully, He does not leave us on our own to weigh out these factors. God does not tell us all the details of how punishment will work, but He does reveal to us the following truths in His Word:

  1. The amount of conscious suffering is finite. This is seen when Jesus describes people receiving either “many blows” or “few blows.”  We don’t know how many blows “many” and “few” are, but it’s a lot less than infinite!
  2. God has given us a conscience that warns us of the ultimate penalty our sin deserves. While a person’s conscience can be ignored and damaged, it is not completely obliterated. God tells us that “Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them” (Romans 1:32, NIV).
  3. The Bible clearly and repeatedly teaches that the final fate of the unrighteous is to perish (John 3:16), be destroyed in both body and soul (Mathew 10:28), be burned to ashes (2 Peter 2:6), and to die a second time (Revelation 20:14).

We are given very little information about the nature and amount of conscious suffering that the unsaved will endure when they perish. But I think that the Bible does indicate that this suffering will be proportional to a person’s sin and that one factor to be considered is how much of God’s will a person knew. However, the punishment for sin is not conscious suffering per se, but rather an eternal death sentence (Romans 6:23), where suffering can occur while it is being carried out.

As many conditionalists have pointed out, as well as some traditionalists, being dead forever is a form of eternal punishment because the unsaved suffer the loss of eternal life and joy. So, yes, sinning against our great God is extremely serious and brings terrible consequences, including such eternal loss. But no, sinning against God does not warrant being tortured forever. As we’ve seen, this rests not on opinion or speculative argument, but on God’s revealed truth.


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  • Peter Grice

    Nice reflections—thanks, Mark!

  • Robroy MacGregor

    Though I thought this was a really good write up, I’d just like to point out that the Gorilla was not shot for any sin he had committed. He was shot for what, according to our understanding of the nature of male gorillas is, he was GOING to do.

    IOW, this was simply an act of saving the boy’s life, based on what was aniticipated to happen. If it had been a man instead of a gorilla and a reasonable person thought the man was going to kill the boy, he would likewise have been shot.

  • Robroy MacGregor

    We picked up a stray puppy someone dropped off at our house about 8 months ago. He was growing up into a REALLY nice and well trained dog.

    Sadly, he killed all twelve of our almost fully grown chickens. We understood it was his nature, even though in every other way he was a really nice dog. But we could not continue with egg producing free range chickens and keep the dog, so we got him to a shelter. If there had not been a shelter I simply would have shot him. He would feel no pain, but the switch would be simply flipped.

    This is how I see the fate of the lost. God made us with the nature we have. He did it on purpose. It is a constant struggle for all of us to one degree or another. But if we are not his, well, you are dispatched. End of Story.

    And yes, the chicken in my avatar was one of the victims.

    To be clear, I feel no animosity toward the dog. It is his nature. But he can’t live with us. Again, I believe it is analogous to the fate of the lost, except there is no “shelter”, so the other option is exercised.

    • Mark


      Thanks for your thoughtful replies. You usefully point out the admittedly severe
      limitations of an analogy between people shooting a gorilla and God judging people. You are undoubtedly correct that the gorilla was not shot as punishment, but strictly to save the life of the boy. Pointing out the limitations of the analogy can hopefully help us to focus on the valid points. Namely:

      1. The gorilla was doing something wrong (in the broad sense of “not pleasing to God”) and its actions were more seriously wrong because they were hurting and endangering a boy as opposed to merely another animal. So, who we hurt (sin against) does make a difference.

      2. The lack of understanding of the gorilla makes his actions less worthy of punishment, as is also true of the young boy. So, our ignorance is a mitigating factor in the seriousness of our sin.

      Your own analogy is also helpful. As the dog who killed your chickens cannot live with your family, so sinful people cannot live with God in eternity. The dog would have kept killing your chickens, and unredeemed people would keep hurting other people.

      All of this emphasizes the “third lesson”. While analogies can help us make points and
      understand complex issues, they are limited. This is why we depend on God’s revealed truth in the Bible. In the case of the final fate of those who never accept Christ, the Bible teaches they will be destroyed (Philippians 3:19).

      BTW, I hope your dog finds a home without chickens and that your family can find a new dog that is “chicken-friendly”.

      Grace and Peace,
      Mark (with Hope and Joy!)

      • Robroy MacGregor

        Yes, we took the dog to a shelter where they would find it a good home. That’s why we did it.

        And to expand the analogy, if there were only dog pounds around here where it would certainly hang around in despair for a couple of months before they euthanize it, I’d have just put it down myself.

        This is the thing about “punishment” after death of the physical body. To me, it is either “consequences”, as in, You didn’t accept Jesus’ saving grace so you won’t receive immortality”, or “punishment” as you would give your child, to teach them a lesson. A lesson that they can apply to their life going forward.

        Honestly, this is where the “varying degrees of loss/punishment” suggest to me that those being punished just may be being taught a lesson from which they can learn going forward. If everyone who dies without the Lord is annihilated, how long they “suffer” before that annihilation is completely irrelevant. What’s the point? The only way I can reconcile it is one of two ways:
        1. It is just saying some will be more grieved by their fate than others, and internal suffering results, as in, “perception is reality”.
        2. There is another age to come where those that die without Christ will in fact still be with us.

        I REALLY have a hard time with number 2. Way too much scripture at least seems to go strongly against that.

        • Mark


          Thanks for your follow-up reply.

          Like you, I find that there is way too much scripture against the concept of universalism to accept it. And based on the lack of any direct Biblical
          support for the idea, I do not believe there will be any post-mortem opportunities for salvation. The Bible emphasizes the urgency of people repenting and turning to Christ now while they still can.

          When discussing the purposes of “punishment”, I feel that you left something out that the Bible includes. The Bible includes “pay back”
          as a reason for punishment. God forbids us as individuals to seek revenge/pay back on our own, not because “pay back” is intrinsically wrong, but because God reserves it for Himself:

          NIV Romans 12:19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,”
          says the Lord.

          “Pay back” is a good and literal translation. This same concept is also taught in Hebrews 10:30, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-7 and other scripture passages.

          I have known people who have been very deeply and severely hurt by other people. I’m sure you also know people like this. Forgiveness is not easy. It helps them to forgive when they realize that while their forgiveness does mean that they will not personally seek payback, it does not mean that the harm they suffered will never be paid for. Every
          sin will be fully paid for, either by Jesus on the cross, or by the person who committed the sin if they do not accept Christ.

          How that payback might affect conscious suffering before the second death is something which the Bible gives only a little information
          about. So, it is not surprising that among conditionalists there are different views on this detail. We all trust that God is just and we also agree that the Bible teaches that main and ultimate penalty for sin is eternal destruction which entails missing out on the joys of Heaven forever.

          • Robroy MacGregor

            Yes, and I think that payback is annihilation. Capital punishment of the soul.

            Thing is, I’m in my 60′s now, and I understand the concept of “if everything comes to an end, then nothing matters.” It means that if one is going to be destroyed by God, there is no point in intentionally making it “hurt” unless the pain is never ending. So the only pain I can imagine happening is the pain people feel as the destruction takes place, and even then it is a bit self inflicted via their perception of what they have lost.

            To use my dog as an example, let us suppose that my answer was to put him down. What would be the point of first taking a blow torch to parts of his body, smashing his paws with a hammer, etc. before I put him down? Even if he had the human ability to fight his fleshly nature and not kill all my chickens, what would be the point of doing anything other than simply put him down?

            To me, any pain inflicted in the second death is simply the byproduct of the destruction process and, really, pretty much irrelevant since the person is destroyed. The only purpose of inflicting pain intentionally would be to teach them a lesson, but you would not bother to teach a lesson to a person that is about to snuff it.

            i.e. I think when the bible discusses differing degrees of “punishment” it is talking about the perception of the person. To give another analogy, a man may look up and see a meteor coming down and say, “this is gonna leave a mark” and feel for himself and his family that is about to die. He will suffer great pain before it hits.Meanwhile, his horse will think, “Ooh, look at the pretty light” until that brief time before it hits when he thinks, “gosh, it’s getting kinda hot”. The man’s knowledge makes him suffer more before the end comes.

  • HaakAway

    Thank you Mark for the work. I consider the #1 section about whom we sin against is not truly supported. One of the unique things about the OT law was indifference to the class of the vicitm or the perpetrator [as opposed to Hammurabi's Code]. “Equal before the Law” applied there if I recall.

    Your two biblical examples that you admit are implications are not true examples in my book
    Malachi is an argument of “lesser/greater” … “If you wouldn’t kick a dog, why woldl you kick a person?”
    The greatest commandment is comparing the commandments themselves not the Author of the commandment I think.

    Thanks for the link to Joey Dear on this for further thoughts when I have more time.

    I do not recall the ECT proof texts for this point but so far Biblical evidence, once again, seems to favor that which sentient being is sinned against does not change the punishment.

    • Mark


      I’ve appreciated a number of comments you’ve made previously, and your comments on my own post I also find helpful. You make some good points.

      I do believe that the value and worth of who we sin against (God, and people made in God’s image) is part of what makes our sin serious. But I agree that the two examples I gave from the Bible do not “prove” that the punishment a person receives is partly based on the worth of who we sin against, although I still think they point in that direction.

      I am so thankful that those of us who understand that the Bible teaches that the ultimate fate of the unsaved is complete destruction do not have to depend on extra-Biblical arguments like “God is infinite, so sin against Him requires infinite punishment”. Annihilation is in fact an eternal punishment, but we do not need to depend on implications and extrapolations based on human logic and understanding. We just have to believe that when the Bible teaches clearly, directly, and repeatedly that the
      unsaved will be destroyed, perish, burned to ashes, be no more, and die a second time, that these statements are true.

      I thank God for you and others in our “online community”.

      Grace and Peace, Mark (with Hope and Joy!)

  • Tly

    You said,”If a pet dog had fallen into the exhibit, it would not have been right to shoot the gorilla. This points to the truth that whom you sin against does make a difference.”

    There are multiple problems within this example. Firstly, if Harambe is the “whom” of this argument, then the conclusion you draw is not supported by changing the boy/dog variable. The “whom” variable would be better examined by changing a gorilla to an alligator and leaving the boy variable the same. Is it then a lesser “sin” to shoot an alligator to save the boy? Or up the value of the “whom” by placing the boy in the hands of hostage holding deranged man. Is it then a greater “sin” to shoot the man to save the boy?

    This brings up a second problem…you are trying to examine “sin” through a situation that is not sinful, even though it is unfortunate. To examine relative sin, you would have to start with something that is always sinful, like stealing…

    Which is the greater moral violation of the commandment “thou shall not steal”?:
    1.) stealing $100 from a feed the children fund
    2.) stealing $100 from the collection plate in church
    3.) stealing $100 from the purse of the person sitting next to you in church
    4.) stealing $100 of items from Walmart
    5.) taking $100 of office supplies from work
    6.) making a $100 false expense report at work
    7.) lowering your taxes by $100 through a fraudulent deduction
    8.) stealing $100 from a rich man to give to a poor man.

    Then, there are other variables to complicate the matter. If it’s more sinful to steal $100 from the feed the children fund than it is to steal $100 from the rich man to give to the poor man, then what happens if those two sins are carried to the fullest extent while keeping the victim the same: is it still more sinful to steal ALL of the feed the children fund than it would be to steal ALL of what the rich man had in order to give it to the poor? This gets a little tricky.

    I think the bottom line is that no direct correlation can be made with regard to the “whom” sinned against and the severity of the violation given an equivalent degree in the break of the moral standard (the sin).

    I’m not so sure it’s more sinful to steal $1 from the collection plate (an example representing a sin against God) than it is to steal $1 from the purse of the lady sitting next to you in church (an example representing a sin against mankind) than it is to steal $1 from Walmart (an example representing a sin against a diluted group of people).

    • Robroy MacGregor

      I think sin and forgiveness are the same in one way: It’s not about who it is done to. It is about who is doing it. i.e. It doesn’t matter how bad your sin is and it doesn’t matter who you sinned against. You sinned. You missed the mark. And with forgiveness, YOU forgive. It is not about who you forgive. It doesn’t matter how grievous the action was you forgave. And both are binary. You either sinned or you didn’t. And you either forgave or you didn’t.

      The case of this shooting is that it was done to prevent a future action that required death of the potential perpetrator. It was not about punishment. It was about keeping a future event from happening. The only requirement was that the entity being stopped was of equal or lower value than the child. It doesn’t matter whether the entity was about to kill the child on purpose or accidentally, There were only three factors involved:

      1. The entity was of lower value than the child.
      2. The entity was of equal value to the child (another human) and was about to kill the child INTENTIONALLY (i.e. had full knowledge of the outcome on the child).
      3. A reasonable person would very strongly believe that the child would die if the entity was not dispatched.

      That makes the decision pretty easy. I love decision logic. The only hard part is number 2. If another human is engaging in an activity that will VERY probably kill the child, I’m not sure I’d want to “play God” and ask which of the two humans was of the greatest value. The only exception would be if the action would almost certainly kill BOTH of them. Then you are taking one life to save another.

      And in that last sentence is why I’m in favor of abortion ONLY if it is to prevent the imminent death of the mother.

  • Mark

    Dear Commenting Brothers in Christ,

    You have made some good and valid points! I appreciate how the Lord can use brothers and sisters in Christ to keep us humble and honest.

    I feel a bit like a chef who prepared his special hamburgers for some guests. He had worked hard to perfect his hamburgers and was convinced they were delicious. To complete the meal he also prepared some fries, which he unfortunately somewhat overcooked. At the end of the meal, as the guests left, they focused their comments almost entirely on the fries. Initially the chef (who was perhaps a bit prideful when it came to his cooking) felt defensive. Why were they focusing on the fries and ignoring the wonderful hamburgers? But then he realized that if he had been the one given the meal, he too might have been distracted by the overcooked fries.

    What I mean is this. When I wrote the article, to me the second lesson (about ignorance being
    a factor in determining punishment) was the second most important of the three “lessons”. The third lesson (about the Bible explicitly teaching that the final fate of the lost is complete, irreversible destruction) was the most important. The first “lesson” I viewed more as a “side dish”. Alas, perhaps my “side dish” was not well prepared, and so it has distracted from the
    points which are more explicitly taught in the Bible and also more directly relevant to our understanding of the final fate of the unrighteous.

    In order to refocus on the hamburger, I’d like to share my underlying thoughts when I wrote the article, which perhaps I did not do as good a job of making clear as I could have.

    I intended to provide a counter argument to the traditionalist claim that because God is so great, sinning against him must be punished by eternal conscious torment. This is a very common argument. Indeed, Denny Burk uses this argument in defense of ECT in his section of the new book, Four Views on Hell.

    The traditionalist argument may be presented like this:

    1. Sinning against people is more serious than sinning against animals, and so it is reasonable to think that sinning against God is more serious than sinning against people.

    2. God’s value is infinite.

    3. Therefore, sinning against God requires infinite punishment in the form of ECT to satisfy

    A very simple and effective rebuttal which I agree with goes like this:

    1. Point #1 is not explicitly taught in the Bible, but even if it is true . . .

    2. Annihilation is in fact a form of eternal, infinite punishment as it involves being dead forever and infinite loss of the joys of fellowship with God in His new creation.

    While the above rebuttal is sufficient, I intended in my article above to provide a fuller rebuttal to the traditional argument. My fuller rebuttal goes something like this:

    1. Although it is not explicitly taught in the Bible, I concede that the Bible implies that part of the reason our sin is so serious is that our God whom we are sinning against is so great.

    2. While this is true, the Bible clearly and explicitly teaches that our ignorance is also a factor in determining what punishment we deserve. In this context, the Bible teaches that any amount of conscious suffering experienced in the process of final punishment will be limited and finite.

    3. As humans we cannot precisely and confidently weigh out all the factors and accurately determine what punishment our sins deserve. But, our God given conscious does accurately warn us that we deserve death, without specifying the mode of death or how much suffering might come while dying.

    4. We do not have to rely on analogies, human logic, or even our imperfect conscious, because God has clearly, consistently, and repeatedly told us in the Bible that the punishment for sins which are not forgiven by grace through faith in Christ will be perishing, complete
    destruction of body and soul, being burned to ashes, and dying a second time.

    5. We should keep in mind that this final permanent death is a form of eternal punishment.

    Most of your comments have taken issue with my concession in point #1 out of the five points above. This point is not necessary for the main argument to work. I should have presented the first point better, or perhaps left it out. I apologize for the distracting french fries. Next time, I’ll try to prepare them better. In the meantime, I pray you will still be blessed by the hamburger!

    Grace and Peace, Mark (with Hope and Joy!)

    • Robroy MacGregor

      I think your original post as well as your follow up are excellent. I especially like your number four. However, I think we sometimes get sucked into world views that should be attacked at their root.

      An example: We are given dominion over animals. i.e. to animals, we ARE god. We can’t sin against animals, though we may sin against God in our treatment of them.

      My ONLY complaint regarding your original post was that I didn’t think the analogy fit for two reasons:

      1. I don’t think the animal was sinning.
      2. It was shot to prevent something from happening, rather than because it had done something wrong. i.e. a man doing the same thing would have been shot as well, if the concern were the same.

      Your broader point is spot on, at least in my opinion. And I thought you stated and defended it well.

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