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Doesn’t Hell Make God an Unjust Tyrant?

For many people, the Catholic doctrine of hell serves as an obstacle to belief in God. They think an all-good God wouldn’t allow someone he loves to experience everlasting torment. And they think the permanent nature of hell’s punishment is incompatible with a just God.

A recent caller on Catholic Answers Live asked, “Given that we have a finite life with limited information to make our decisions, how is an infinite punishment not infinitely disproportionate? Shouldn’t the punishment be proportional to the transgression?”

St. Thomas Aquinas put this question in the form of an objection:

It would seem that an eternal punishment is not inflicted on sinners by divine justice. For the punishment should not exceed the fault: “According to the measure of the sin shall the measure also of the stripes be” (Deut. 25:2). Now fault is temporal. Therefore the punishment should not be eternal (Summa Theologiae, suppl. III:99:1).

So, does the eternity of hell make God an unjust, vengeful tyrant? Here are some reasons why the answer is no.

A different law of gravity

First, the objection falsely assumes that a punishment has to be equal or proportionate to a fault as to the amount of duration. If the duration of punishment had to correspond to the duration of an offense, then it would be unjust to give a murderer a prison sentence any longer than the time it took for the murderer to kill his victim.

But that’s absurd. As the Jesuit philosopher Bernard Boedder writes, “[T]ime cannot be the standard by which punishment is to be determined” (Natural Theology, 340; Kindle edition).

The measure of the punishment due for sin is the gravity of the fault. According to Aquinas, “[T]he measure of punishment corresponds to the measure of fault, as regards the degree of severity, so that the more grievously a person sins the more grievously is he punished” (ST, suppl.III:99:1; emphasis added). In other words, it is the internal wickedness of an offense that is the measure of expiation for it.

The highest high of moral disorders

The free and willful rejection of God—what the Catholic Church calls a “mortal sin” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1855) or, as the apostle John calls it, “a sin unto death” (1 John 5:16; Douay Rheims)—reasonably calls for permanent exclusion from the presence of God.

As Aquinas points out in the supplement to the third part of theSumma Theologiae, the gravity of an offense is determined according to the dignity of the person sinned against. For example, punishment for striking the president of the United States is going to be greater than punishment for striking a fellow citizen in bar brawl.

Since God is ipsum esse subsistens (subsistent being itself), he is infinite in dignity and majesty. Therefore, his right to obedience from his reasonable creatures is absolute and infinite. There is no right that can be stricter and every other right is based on it.

A willful violation of this right, which is what a mortal sin is, is the most severe offense a human being can commit. Boedder explains it this way: “A willful violation . . . of this right implies a malice which opposes itself to the foundation of all orders” (NT, 340).

Since the rejection of God’s absolute right to our obedience, worship, and love is a moral disorder of the highest degree, it deserves a penalty of the highest degree. Everlasting punishment seems to fit the bill.

Alternatives that don’t register on the justice monitor

A second reason why the unending punishment of hell is just is because the alternatives are unreasonable. If permanent punishment is not the answer, then there can only be two other options: temporary punishment or annihilation—the act by which God stops willing someone into existence. But neither one of these alternatives coheres with the nature of mortal sin in relation to God.

Consider temporary punishment. Perhaps the soul receives an intense dose of punishment and then enters heaven upon being relieved of it. This would be an injustice. For example, let’s say I find out that my twelve-year-old son ditched school and went to a party with his older teen friends and got drunk and smoked a few jays (this is merely hypothetical, mind you).

I punish him by saying, “Son, you’ve been a bad boy, and as a result you’re going to stay in your room for ten minutes. But when that time is up, pack your bags because we’ve got tickets to spend the weekend at Legoland.” (He loves Legos). How does this register on your justice monitor? My guess is that it doesn’t rate very high—especially if my son refuses to apologize for his misconduct. The duration of the punishment is much too small relative to the reward he is given.

Similarly, a temporary stint in hell—no matter how long the term—is much too small of a punishment relative to the everlasting happiness of heaven. It would be unjust for God to give heaven as a reward to a person that committed the most grievous offense of all, the permanent rejection of God’s absolute right to obedience, worship, and love.

Annihilation is also an unreasonable alternative. How could a person experience the punishment justice demands for permanently rejecting God if he were annihilated? The gravity of violating God’s absolute right would be reduced to nothingness if there were no punishment for it. Justice would not be served.

Furthermore, it would violate God’s wisdom to annihilate the soul. Why would he create a soul with an immortal nature only to thwart it? Moreover, Aquinas argues that because God’s power is manifest in preserving things in existence, to take a soul out of being would hinder that manifestation (Summa, I:104:4).

The reasonableness of a permanent commitment

A third reason the unending nature of hell is justified is that it’s befitting to reason that an individual make a permanent choice for or against God at death. And if a permanent choice against God, then a permanent punishment.

We know from divine Revelation that there is no repentance after death: “[I]t is appointed for men to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Heb. 9:27). The time of preparation for man’s last end comes to an end at the moment of death.

This is reasonable within the logic of love. Love demands a permanent commitment to the beloved. For example, would it be true love if a man says to his bride on the altar, “I’ll commit to you for only ten years, and then after that, we can go our separate ways?” Of course not! We value loving relationships that involve a choice to commit one way or the other—a commitment unto death.

Similarly, the loving relationship that God has created us for demands that we at some point in time make a definitive choice to love him or not. According to divine Revelation, that moment is death (Heb. 9:27).

The permanency of our choice at death can also be argued for in light of the nature of choice by an incorporeal being. Such a topic, however, goes beyond the scope of this article. For a great explanation of Aquinas’s thought on this topic, see Edward Feser’s online article “How to Go to Hell.”

If a person makes his choice against God at the moment of death, then his choice to not love God remains forever—the perversity of the will is forever determined. Therefore, the punishment for such perversion is eternal as well.

This is why the Catechism defines hell as the “definitive self-exclusion from God” (1033; emphasis added). This is also the reason why the Church teaches that if a person dies in a state of mortal sin, hell will be his lot (see CCC 1033, 1035).

The sinner who rejects God at the moment of death gets his just deserts—namely, separation from God. This unending separation is the “eternal punishment” (CCC 1472), because the individual will forever lack the fulfillment and satisfaction that only God can give a creature of a rational and spiritual nature (CCC 1035).

The flip side is reasonable

Finally, we can see the reasonableness of the unending punishment of hell by seeing the reasonableness of the reverse side of the issue—the unending reward of heaven. Aquinas writes:

As reward is to merit, so is punishment to guilt. Now, according to divine justice, an eternal reward is due to temporal merit: “Every one who seeth the Son and believeth in Him hath [Vulg.: ‘that everyone . . . may have’] life everlasting.” Therefore according to divine justice, an everlasting punishment is due to temporal guilt (Summa, Suppl. III:99:1).

Just as it is not contrary to God’s justice to give a permanent and everlasting reward for a temporal act of charity, so to it’s not contrary to God’s justice to give a permanent and everlasting punishment for a temporal act of evil.

Conclusion

Hell is not a pleasant place to think about. It’s something that we’re all repulsed by—especially those who use it to object to God’s justice. But there is no reason why such repulsion should lead us to reject God. It should lead us to reject hell; not to deny its existence but to do what we can to stay out of it.

By Karlo Broussard













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4 comments

  1. Patrick Gannon Reply

    And here we go again, trying to defend an abhorrently evil belief of the Catholic Church. The bible speaks of proportionate justice, such as an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a child shall not be responsible for the sins of his father. (It also contradicts that last one). There is no way that an eternal punishment for sins committed here in a matter of a few short decades can ever, in any way, be considered proportionate justice by fair, just standards. It’s an abomination to even suggest such an evil god, even if he is imaginary, but that is what the RCC has done.
    .
    Karlo suggests that questioning the proportionate justice of Yahweh is similar to punishing a person for as long as it took to kill someone. Does he think we are all flaming idiots to propose such lunacy? Of course nobody thinks that is proportionate justice; but that crime, or any other, no matter how heinous, does not deserve eternal punishment. Such a concept is simply evil and any god who would impose such a sentence is the very epitome of evil. Indeed the gravity of the crime matters. Failing to believe the right thing does not carry any gravity to speak of, yet we are to be punished for billions and trillions of eternal years, for the crime of not believing things for which there is no objective evidence. What could be more viciously cruel than that? Answer – sending the aborted, miscarried and stillborn to Hell for failing to get baptized before dying.
    .
    Here we have a god who creates mankind as something less than himself, but he expects mankind to live up to his rules and expectations or he will punish that man for all eternity. Again – what could be more evil than this? We can worship this god out of fear – but there is no justification for calling such a vicious monster “good.”
    .
    Karlo gives us another ludicrous example comparing the punishment for a 12 year old, with eternal torment. He claims that it would not be fair for a person to be given entry into heaven for committing a mortal sin – but what of those who committed no sins at all; they happened to die before being baptized? How can eternal punishment be justified for failing to believe things for which there is no evidence? Hitler, if he sought forgiveness on his deathbed, would eventually end up in heaven, while the millions of Jews he killed who failed to believe the right thing about Jesus would face eternal torment. How is that fair and just? We don’t even know that Jesus was a real historical person. There is a lot of evidence in the NT itself that supports a mythical, rather than historical Jesus.
    .
    He claims that annihilation is unjustified, but this was what most Jews expected at the end of time. Sheol, the first of the four Hells (the RCC translated four different words to the pagan word Hell – none of which mean Hell as we understand it), was a place of permanent unconsciousness. Many Jews thought that was it – when you were dead, you were dead. Some thought that at the end of time we would be wakened and judged. Those found wanting would be destroyed. It was not till the “good news” of Jesus that we were faced with eternal torment starting at our moment of death. Our situation most assuredly did not improve, unless we were willing to believe fanciful, unsupportable things about this Jesus character, and even that might not be enough if we didn’t follow the rules and regulations of the RCC, including those about which Jesus said nothing – like gay marriage or abortion, or contraception.
    .
    He suggests that our failure to believe the right things or do and say the right things as dictated by disordered, celibate virgins dressed up in robes, deserves eternal torment, and that we don’t deserve any opportunity to see any real evidence for the existence of the Catholic god. This is not just. It’s viciously cruel and outrageously evil. I would rather burn in moral superiority to such an evil god, than worship him.
    .
    Fortunately, this is all nonsense. Sheol, the first Hell was not a place of punishment. Gehenna, the second Hell, mentioned 11 times by Jesus, was the Jerusalem town dump. It’s closed. Jesus was clearly speaking allegorically, but the Church had to turn him into a monster like his daddy, so they made Hell real. Hades is the third Hell, and those of us who studied mythology know that Hades was the brother of the pagan gods Zeus and Poseidon. Yes, there’s paganism, right there in the NT. Finally we have Tartarus, which is the bottom level of Hades, and reserved, some say, for Satan and his demons. The Church invented Hell in order to manipulate and control people through fear. It gives you shame, guilt and fear and then tells you that it is the only one that can remove what it placed on you in the first place. The Catholic Church is not a force for good in the world. It worships the most evil god imaginable.
    .

    1. Anthony Reply

      Patrick, I read your argument and think you may be lacking one very important thing. Insight. Trust that this is not meant as an insult

      You are using canal mind to interpret mystical and esoteric things which don’t match up.

      From one learned Man to the Other, I tell you hell do exist. If you have had the time to research about the Greek mythology then you should also have time to pray for insight into them.

      When the Angels rebelled fell from grace, they abandoned their God-hood and they deceived man to do the same, which we did and hence we fell too. Hence the Savation plan put up by God to save us and bring us back up to the original path which lead to God.

      Tell me if there is no hell, where did God keep Satan and the other Fallen?

      Give it any name you want but it will still mean Hell.

      But a soul in hell can not ask for forgiveness hence can not save itself that’s why Jesus spent three days there to preach to them and save them. Souls in hell can be saved only if it is requested from a holy soul or pure soul and a good heart.

      So when we say pray for the souls in hell, it wasn’t a joke as you may see it. If Jesus was able to do that then it’s possible. But not from those in hell b’cos they can not be sincere as they have no God in them anymore.

      If you want the highly philosophical answer, then please try to learn more about the higher worlds beyond this physical or material world.
      Starting from the physical through the vital, desire and the ethereal world all the way to the world of God. Then you will see where in there hell resides.

      You see without God-insight and God-wisdom, our canal mind with all its intelligence is useless.

      There are teachings for every class of people, catechism is for children who still need the milk of the Mother Church. But once you grow up, you have to start to eat meat and chew bones. The Church can not and will not give bones to everyone so if you think you are ready to face it and start chewing bones. then you have to seek the higher path yourself because from there even the Church can not help you.

      So I hope I made it clear enough for you. But I must say teachings meant for students on the higher path can not be given in public, and not the Church or the Pope can break that Cosmic rule.

      MAY GOD LEAD YOU TO THE PATH TO SELF MASTRY.

  2. Anthony Reply

    Patrick, I read your argument and think you may be lacking one very important thing. Insight. Trust that this is not meant as an insult

    You are using canal mind to interpret mystical and esoteric things which don’t match up.

    From one learned Man to the Other, I tell you hell do exist. If you have had the time to research about the Greek mythology then you should also have time to pray for insight into them.

    When the Angels rebelled fell from grace, they abandoned their God-hood and they deceived man to do the same, which we did and hence we fell too. Hence the Savation plan put up by God to save us and bring us back up to the original path which lead to God.

    Tell me if there is no hell, where did God keep Satan and the other Fallen?

    Give it any name you want but it will still mean Hell.

    But a soul in hell can not ask for forgiveness hence can not save itself that’s why Jesus spent three days there to preach to them and save them. Souls in hell can be saved only if it is requested from a holy soul or pure soul and a good heart.

    So when we say pray for the souls in hell, it wasn’t a joke as you may see it. If Jesus was able to do that then it’s possible. But not from those in hell b’cos they can not be sincere as they have no God in them anymore.

    If you want the highly philosophical answer, then please try to learn more about the higher worlds beyond this physical or material world.
    Starting from the physical through the vital, desire and the ethereal world all the way to the world of God. Then you will see where in there hell resides.

    You see without God-insight and God-wisdom, our canal mind with all its intelligence is useless.

    There are teachings for every class of people, catechism is for children who still need the milk of the Mother Church. But once you grow up, you have to start to eat meat and chew bones. The Church can not and will not give bones to everyone so if you think you are ready to face it and start chewing bones. then you have to seek the higher path yourself because from there even the Church can not help you.

    So I hope I made it clear enough for you. But I must say teachings meant for students on the higher path can not be given in public, and not the Church or the Pope can break that Cosmic rule.

    MAY GOD LEAD YOU TO THE PATH TO SELF MASTRY.

  3. Anthony Ackah Reply

    Patrick, I read your argument and think you may be lacking one very important thing. Insight. Trust that this is not meant as an insult

    You are using canal mind to interpret mystical and esoteric things which don’t match up.

    From one learned Man to the Other, I tell you hell do exist. If you have had the time to research about the Greek mythology then you should also have time to pray for insight into them.

    When the Angels rebelled fell from grace, they abandoned their God-hood and they deceived man to do the same, which we did and hence we fell too. Hence the Savation plan put up by God to save us and bring us back up to the original path which lead to God.

    Tell me if there is no hell, where did God keep Satan and the other Fallen?

    Give it any name you want but it will still mean Hell.

    But a soul in hell can not ask for forgiveness hence can not save itself that’s why Jesus spent three days there to preach to them and save them. Souls in hell can be saved only if it is requested from a holy soul or pure soul and a good heart.

    So when we say pray for the souls in hell, it wasn’t a joke as you may see it. If Jesus was able to do that then it’s possible. But not from those in hell b’cos they can not be sincere as they have no God in them anymore.

    If you want the highly philosophical answer, then please try to learn more about the higher worlds beyond this physical or material world.
    Starting from the physical through the vital, desire and the ethereal world all the way to the world of God. Then you will see where in there hell resides.

    You see without God-insight and God-wisdom, our canal mind with all its intelligence is useless.

    There are teachings for every class of people, catechism is for children who still need the milk of the Mother Church. But once you grow up, you have to start to eat meat and chew bones. The Church can not and will not give bones to everyone so if you think you are ready to face it and start chewing bones. then you have to seek the higher path yourself because from there even the Church can not help you.

    So I hope I made it clear enough for you. But I must say teachings meant for students on the higher path can not be given in public, and not the Church or the Pope can break that Cosmic rule.

    MAY GOD LEAD YOU TO THE PATH TO SELF MASTRY.

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