Theological Memeology: Infinite Punishment for Finite Crimes
This meme raises an interesting point: Is a punishment of eternal duration for a crime of finite length just? Of course, as noted before, memes make their points by sarcasm and cheekiness. But it’s a great question. In fact, I chose this meme because it’s so helpful as a springboard to other related and deeper issues.
The challenge. First, let’s think about the challenge embedded in this meme. Eternal punishment for crimes of a finite length: Doesn’t that just strike you as wrong? It’s fairly transparent that the meme’s creator is claiming radically irresponsible sentencing on the part of the biblical God. If an infinite punishment for a finite crime strikes us—fractured and fallible mortals that we are— as overwhelming disproportionate, why can’t God see that? Or, better stated (and this is likely the true sentiment behind the charge of disproportionality), should we really take seriously the threats of a God created by an ancient war-mongering people? After all, so it is believed, their misshapen logic of punishment is so transparent to us enlightened modern people.
The implicit logic of our meme builds from the true insight that any claim that implies an absurdity is itself an absurdity. To put things a little more formally:
- X implies Y
- Y is false
- Therefore X is false
Now let’s plug in the premises.
- The Christian doctrine of eternal punishment implies an infinite punishment for finite crimes
- Infinite punishment for finite crimes is absurd
- Therefore, the Christian doctrine of eternal punishment is absurd
Probing a bit deeper. The meme itself (due to its brevity) does not specify whether eternal judgment is immoral or immoral-and-therefore-impossible. It’s likely that for most people who raise this kind of objection it’s the latter; this “absurd” logic renders the biblical warning of eternal judgment immoral and therefore can legitimately be ignored. Of course, that doesn’t follow logically. Even if Christians were to concede that the logic of “eternal punishment for finite crimes” were twisted and immoral (which we do not), that in itself doesn’t mean that God isn’t going to apply that standard come Judgment Day. Immoral things happen all the time and wishing they wouldn’t cannot change that sad fact. The meme’s creator (and those that share it’s objection) likely wouldn’t quite put things that way, but we need to help them see that this is where their assumptions take them.
The scales of judgment. In truth, we cannot address the fairness of the biblical logic of judgment from the position of a hostile worldview. And that’s because the biblical logic really makes sense only from within the larger structure and story it’s telling. To paraphrase John Piper, God is the only being for whom self-centeredness is not idolatry. To quote the Westminster Shorter Catechism, “God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.” God is worthy of our devotion, allegiance, and love. Why? Because he is the fullness for which we were created. Our ultimate joy is found in union with him and not in lesser (though good) things like family, friendships, careers, etc.
So what this mean for our meme? The punishment must fit the crime. The crime’s duration is irrelevant. It is the severity of the crime that establishes the severity of the punishment. We commit our sin during a finite time, but it is of infinite severity. John Piper put this so well:
What is sin? It is the glory of God not honored. The holiness of God not reverenced. The greatness of God not admired. The power of God not praised. The truth of God not sought. The wisdom of God not esteemed. The beauty of God not treasured. The goodness of God not savored. The faithfulness of God not trusted. The commandments of God not obeyed. The justice of God not respected. The wrath of God not feared. The grace of God not cherished. The presence of God not prized. The person of God not loved. That is sin.
As stated above, this duration of the crime committed makes no difference in evaluating the crime’s severity. As a counterexample: It could easily take less than a few minutes for an evil despot with nuclear capabilities to walk down the hall to his office and order a nuclear strike against innocent citizens of another nation. Here the time to accomplish his goal would be quite short, but the fallout (both literal and moral) would be enormous.
God’s judgment is just. The punishment does fit the crime. But we must trust his assessment of the crime and not our own. Naturally this perspective is strange and offensive to non-Christians. This change in perspective requires more than a little rearranging; it requires conversion—a new heart.