Does the punishment fit the crime?
This is a key concept in modern society. In the name of justice, fairness, reasonableness, compassion, and many other related motivators, western society is adamant that no criminal suffer unreasonably for the wrong they committed. Even a state willing to execute criminals finds itself concerned about limiting the suffering of the condemned.
According to Evangelical Theology, the biblical god created Hell to punish the unrighteous. Hell is the eternal aftermath of judgment. Since god created Hell, as his perfect punishment, one would expect that punishment to reflect his nature. Theologically, Hell is the execution of god’s perfect Justice. But if god is omnibenevolent, perfectly good, loving, merciful, and forgiving, as well as just, we would not be remiss to expect his final punishment to also embody those aspects too. After all, god is who he is, and nothing he does can ever fall outside his nature.
So, how does one get to Hell?
I don’t know for sure, but I’d bet you asking random people on the street would result in answers like, “Doing very evil things, murder, rape, molesting children, torturing people,” and so on. However, that’s not what Evangelical Theology teaches.
J.I. Packer says: “(…and if they encountered the gospel) rejecting Jesus rather than coming to him.” He offers several references to back this up. (John 3:18-21, Romans 1:18-2:8, and IIThes 2:9-11)
We won’t go into General Revelation (those who haven’t heard the gospel, but who can be aware of the existence of god through nature) right now. In truth it’s an even more unacceptable dogma. In showing the illogical nature of the doctrine regarding the Revelation of the Gospel, the doctrine of punishment under General Revelation hasn’t a leg to stand on.
For those who have heard the Gospel, neither the sins or the good deeds of the past have any bearing on their eternal destiny. Either they accept Jesus as Lord, or they don’t.
So here are a couple scenarios:
1 – Joe Smith is a bad man. As a child he tortured animals and started fires. As an adult he built up a rap sheet with his anger and his fists. He date raped a girl in high school and got away with it because you just didn’t talk about such things in those days. He abused both of his wives and his three kids. He drank hard and lived hard. He cheated on his taxes and made his money under the table. He cheated on his wife and slept around all the time, giving his first wife 3 venereal diseases and his second the two she didn’t already have. He got into fights with people whenever he could for whatever he could. He committed some small crimes when times were hard, severely beating a shopkeeper who tried to stop him once. He served 15 months for that one. His other stint in jail was for nearly 7 years, when during a drunken brawl at a pool hall he accidentally killed a man with a broken whisky bottle.
At the age of 56, with a liver as hard as a rock and the rest of his body worn out from decades of abuse, he lays on his deathbed. He is overloaded with regret. His girlfriend is there for him, along with two of his three kids. His oldest won’t have anything to do with him. He knows how wrong he was, and he wishes he could have a second chance. He wishes he’d listened in catechism. Well, kid #3 is a born-again believer. She is worried for her dad’s soul, so she asks her pastor to come visit. Pastor Ed comes by early in the evening and shares the Good News of Jesus Christ to Joe. “Joe, everyone’s a sinner. No matter what you’ve done, what sins you’ve committed, Jesus died for those sins. He died so that people like you and me don’t have to suffer eternity in hell. If you believe that Jesus died for your sins, and you ask him to come into your heart and by his blood wash away all those awful sins, he will forgive you. You will be white as snow, and even if you were to die this very night, you would awaken on the other side to find yourself in eternal paradise with him. ‘I tell you the truth, today you shall be with me in paradise!'” Well, this is too much for Joe. He can’t change his life, but he can change his eternity. His heart overwhelmed by all his regrets, he prays with the minister for Jesus to forgive his sins and live in his heart. He is at peace. That very night, he dies…
Where does Joe end up?
2 – John Doe is, temporally speaking, a really good guy. As a child he was thoughtful, giving and sensitive. He was bullied at times, but bore it with scant annoyance, making as many of them as he could his friends so they wouldn’t treat him so. He was a disciplined kid, a decent student, and a responsible collegian. He never went through the rebellious stage in life, rather spent his teenage years trying different activities and getting involved in public service groups to try and find out what he really wanted to do. He studied psychology and sociology in college and became a family counselor. He married at 25, had 3 kids, and was kind and loving to all of them. His kids turned out pretty well, and when one of them struggled with delinquency, he was patient and understanding and helped them grow through it. He is generous almost to a fault with his money and time. He gives to charity and volunteers to help the less fortunate. He and his wife (and the kids when they were at home) haven’t spent a Thanksgiving at home for years. Instead they’ve spent the day serving dinner to the homeless and impoverished. All of his peer have a tremendous amount of trust in him and look to him as one of the nicest, most giving guys they know.
He is an agnostic. He doesn’t know if anything’s out there or not. But he does his best to live the golden rule, to treat others with love and kindness. When he is approached by anyone religious, he is always gentle and kind, but he says he’s not really religious, but he’s glad it works for them. He does these things because it just seems the right thing to do. After all, we’re all just people on this little planet.
Now he’s 77 years old and some health problems have caught up to him. He’s philosophical about the nearness of the end, and is satisfied he lived as well as he could. He says goodbye to his loving wife of 52 years and his children, who all surround him as he fades away.
Where does John end up?
Before we answer those two questions, let’s throw one more bit of Evangelical theology into the mix. According to Christian theology, Christ died for the sins of the whole world. There is some dispute as to what that means. J.I. Packer’s Concise Theology teaches that Christ only died for the elect, those that actually choose to come to Christ, but that he didn’t die for anyone else’s sins. He even says that said doctrine isn’t inconsistent, but of course it is. The reason for that is that if all have free will, then the free gift of forgiveness through the blood of Christ is available to any and all that call on the Name of the Lord. Since every person in the world is said to have that freedom of choice, then Christ’s death was sufficient to cover every sin of every person ever to live. The doctrine I was taught at the two churches I served at throughout my Christian life (SCBC and KCBC) indicated that Christ died for all sins, and that it was up to the individual to either accept this forgiveness that was already secured, or to reject it out of hand, condemning him or herself solely by their own choice.
Do you see it yet?
According to Evangelical Christian theology, Joe is enjoying the fruits of paradise in the presence of almighty God, his soul bought with a price, fully forgiven and free from shame and regret.
On the other hand, John is roasting on a spit in hell. John will suffer in flames and isolation forever, without respite. There will be no end. After 10 million years, it will be like day one, with 10 billion years still to come. Forever is a very, very long time.
What was John’s crime? Apparently John didn’t realize that all his good works and helping of others didn’t mean jack in God’s economy. John didn’t recognize his need of Jesus and instead depended on his limited abilities to do good to others. In the Christian worldview, good works should ONLY be an outgrowth of one’s gratitude for salvation in Christ. By themselves they are empty.
And what about Joe? Aren’t there any consequences for him? Well, not really. He might be saved as one escaping the flames, but he’s in paradise, saved, in the presence of God, perfect in every way, and never has to worry again. Despite his horrible life and many sins, he accepted Jesus, so he gets all the goodies forever.
John tried to do right and there is NO recompense for his good-hearted effort. In fact, when Christians tell this story, they’ll say “John tried to do right” with a condescending sadness, the tragedy of trying to do right rather than recognizing he’s a dirtbag who can never really do anything good outside of the urging of Christ and his Holy Spirit.
Now, I suppose this would all be well and good, if that’s all there was to scripture. If it said, “Look, God’s pretty unfair. It’s not about the good or bad you do. It’s all about Jesus. Just accept him and we’ll be buds. Otherwise, I’ll burn you up.”
But the scriptures Christians follow say that god is Just with a capital J. They say his forgiveness and mercy know no bounds. They say that he is loving – scratch that, that he IS love.
What kind of love takes sincere effort to do good and hands out eternal torture? What kind of justice let’s bad Joe Smith into heaven and sends decent John Doe to hellfire and brimstone?
And what about forever? Let’s say John Doe, good as he is, makes a few mistakes. We all do. He yells at his kids now and then, says “goddammit,” looks at pretty girls a little too long, and occasionally gossips about an annoying workmate.
In what economy do ANY or ALL of those sins deserve ETERNAL damnation? In what way is there justice in torturing forever and ever someone whose mistakes were so minor and relatively benign compared to Joe Smith’s?
And see, we haven’t even begun to touch on those whom have never heard the gospel, and are still sent to damnation. That’s even worse. It doesn’t need explaining at all, because the above example, where at least the person heard of Jesus, is already reprehensible.
In actuality, it is horribly unjust, and a remnant of Ancient Near East tribal religions, in which god was vengeful, wrathful, and demanded appeasement, with the petulance of a child at times. Christians will answer that God’s standard is absolute perfection, and that only the propitiation of Christ’s blood can provide that perfection in the face of original sin.
Then I would ask – why then would God accept such a sacrifice? The act of a god-man bleeding out on a tree isn’t truly equal to all the evils ever committed in the world. Christians point to the crucified Christ and expound on his astounding sacrifice, the pain he endured on the cross, and equate it with the weight of all the evil done in the world, as though taking all of that on was an almost impossible task, one that takes the god-man to perform. He loved us enough to die, they say – I said.
But you know what? It really isn’t *that* impressive either. After all, according to the New Testament scriptures, he KNEW he was going to rise again in three days. If someone with full authority said to me, with the same assurance that Christ had, as he had the mind of god, “Hey, Anthony, listen: the world is in big trouble. It’s going to die, and everyone on it. But here’s the thing. You can save your wife and kids and, well, everybody else. It will be tough, but it will only last three days – actually, just about 2 days, the way we count them. We’ll kill you, pretty brutally. It will take you a good 3-6 hours to die, and it’ll hurt like a son-of-gun. You’ll be in hell for about a day and a half, but then you’ll rise again, and you’ll be perfect, and your wife and kids will be safe forever – as will the whole world,” what would I do? I’ll tell you what I’d do. I’d go for it, in a hot minute. Less than three days of suffering and I can guarantee that my wife and kids will live in bliss FOREVER? I never have to worry about them again? You bet your last dollar I’d do it, and so would you.
It would be a whole other issue if he didn’t know he was coming back. But he did know, according to the scriptures. What sort of sacrifice is that? They’ll say, “But it was worse than that – he was separated from the father for the first time in all of eternity.” So WHAT? He’s god, for crying out loud. Is that supposed to make it seem harder to do, for a man who is fully god? I think not.
Truly the entire theology breaks down. It is terribly inconsistent with the concept of a just god, a forgiving god, a righteous god, and especially a loving god.
What it boils down to is that in Christian theology God has drawn an arbitrary line around Jesus Christ. He has, by his own choice, said, “This very temporary sacrifice is enough for me.” Furthermore, even though it’s demonstrable that Jesus’s sacrifice paid for all of the sins of the world, whether they accept Jesus or not, that even though God has the power to forgive all sins (as anyone who accepts Jesus can of their own volition have their sins forgiven, without having to pass any other test) He has instead set up an arbitrary line to take some to heaven and torture the rest for eternity for not choosing a savior on little to no evidence, with their already paid-for sin as an excuse.
There is nothing righteous, nothing just, nothing loving in that at all.