“Why do you write to me, ‘God should punish the English’? I have no close connection to either one or the other. I see only with deep regret that God punishes so many of His children for their numerous stupidities, for which only He Himself can be held responsible; in my opinion, only His nonexistence could excuse Him.” [Albert Einstein – letter to a Swiss colleague, January 2, 1915]
“Is it fair that the nice old lady across the street who simply didn’t believe in Jesus goes to Hell for eternity?”
Atheists aren’t necessarily murderers, thieves, or any of those morally and socially wrong things. They’re ordinary people who simply choose not to believe in any deity. Why is it that they should suffer in eternity when maybe, as they often say, they didn’t find any convincing evidence for the existence of a god. So we have two questions: 1) Why does the legalism of such technicalities represent an error?, and 2) How can these penalties be justified even for minor offenses?
Why is man punished for simply disbelieving in an invisible God?
We can quickly answer: it is not the intellectual aspect of a man that condemns or saves him, but his good or bad works (Matt. 7:21-23; 11:25). The atheist isn’t condemned because he didn’t find good enough evidence for or against God’s existence. Someone who has plenty of evidence and intellectually accepts whatever religious doctrine is there, but is unrighteous isn’t helping his case. The demons know of God’s existence (James 2:19), but they’re immoral. If miracle workers who turned unrighteous aren’t spared (Matt. 7:21-23) then it’s not what you say so much as what you do that matters. Doctrine itself is never the key for salvation (James 2:14-26), but only reflects what one has on the inside (Psalm 14:1 – “fool” = immoral man). Doctrine isn’t a complete indicator of faith: that’s the conscience (Romans 2:12-16).
Why are small, finite, “human” errors punished so harshly (Hell)?
Let’s say a man has literally one personal wrongdoing in his entire life: he stole a pen from his job. How is it fair that he goes to an eternity of torture if he doesn’t repent?
A Coptic friend of mine once gave a very clear analogy. Imagine you’re a kindergarten teacher. You wrongfully punish one of your students. How do you make up for your mistake? You apologize, maybe give him some candy, and you’ll probably be forgiven. Now let’s say you disrespect a co-worker. The penalty might be higher: suspension, maybe even termination. Now keep going with this train of thought: if you offend God, what could you possibly do to make up for even the smallest of mistake? One can already see that not only is Hell justice, but it’s pure mercy that any of us even have a moment of quiet, despite everything we’ve done (Matt. 5:45). We’re simply looking at a self-centered point of view when we accuse of injustice in this case.
But isn’t it the highest form of the perversion of justice for the same crime against one man to be less of a crime against another. Is murdering a rich man a bigger crime/murder than taking a poor man’s life away? But this objection ignores a big difference. We’re not talking about judgment based on person, but based on quality and relationship. This is why it’s a bigger crime to assault a police officer, than it is a regular civilian. The crime is infinite against God not simply because “it’s God” but because God is holy and sinless. That is what the idea and definition of “God” naturally associates in our mind, but it is a justified association, not simply bias. An example of favoritism of some sort would be the following. In the Clint Eastwood 1992 Western, Unforgiven, Richard Harris’ character, English Bob, remarks on the recent assassination of James Garfield by saying, “I can assure you…the sight of royalty would cause you to dismiss all thoughts of bloodshed and you would stand… how shall I put it? In awe. Now, a president… well I mean…why not shoot a president.” One minor but certainly important point to make is the question of why anyone has to be punished for offenses that God can presumably “get over.” What I personally think is that these represent the true intentions of those who would do far worse given different circumstances. For example, if someone is willing to frame you for murder, you can be sure he’d have no problem doing it for theft. But if all we see is the second crime, as limited creatures, we can be forgiven for thinking this person’s not completely horrible. This is why in the Parable of the Dishonest Manager, Jesus says:
“One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful in that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own?” (Luke 16:10-12, ESV)
“He who can be trusted with little can be trusted with much” may sound counter-intuitive. If I trust you with $1, there’s absolutely no guarantee I can trust you with $100 – the opposite actually. But the risk of being caught over a dollar is far smaller than for a bigger amount. Think of stealing office supplies like pencils and staples vs the computer. This is Jesus’ point and this was a Roman proverb of the day too.
So when we add the fact that the wicked believe they’ll get away with their sins (2 Thess. 2:10-12), we can understand why the hellbound are even made, aside from the suffering of all (for their sins and for God’s purpose, like Jesus’ death and example).
Yet, isn’t it the case that no one asked to be created and this ‘all or nothing’ [Heaven/Hell] situation with these impossible standards [sinlessness] was imposed upon us without any consent? But aren’t there laws to follow that were never asked for, without disputing man has inalienable rights? It’s the exact same situation, except without the legal loopholes and outdated or imperfect laws.
As far as impossible standards, this is a more subtle situation. We are human and subject to temptation. None of us are tempted beyond what we can handle (1 Cor. 10:13). Would we make the same mistakes without temptation? Clearly not all of them. What about some of them? This was the case with Satan and the other demons (2 Peter 2:4). They weren’t tempted in any ways of the flesh, and their choice was purely one out of contempt of something above them. Why did they do it? It’s not a question of “Why?” but “Did they want to?” True intent can be hidden by motivation – “his theft was motivated by poverty” – “He did not steal the car because he saw a police car nearby.” Actual commitment of an action is not necessary for sin (Matt. 5:28). The opposite is also true: having been spared due to circumstances (to even be inclined to sin) does not mean one is exempt; this is why temptation exists and why God tests people. In this way, our genuine nature, “Whether we would choose evil or good (John 12:46; John 3:19)” is revealed. This is why full knowledge isn’t always disclosed to us (Matt. 13:34-35; 1 Cor. 13:8-12; cf. when God tells Samuel to give an impartial truth [1 Samuel 16:1-3]). Therefore, the standard is not impossible at all because it is out of our abilities, but because it’s a factual “it’s never gonna happen” scenario.
This last answer, however, brings up more questions. First of all, if the elect would be the “good angels” vs the damned being like Satan and his friends (if we were all made angels, instead of humans [cf. Mark 12:25]), why did God make any of the saved into human beings? True, most of the world lives in unrighteousness (Matt. 7:13-14). But why are any of the righteous put on it with its occasional misery? What’s the point of even making anyone human and not just send the wicked to Hell, and the good to Heaven from the very start?
Let us suppose that some of these “good angels” would sin but then would wish to repent, unlike the demons (for whatever reason and through whichever way, just like the unrighteous). In this case, God can easily make us, deserving, with less prestige by giving us mortal bodies, since the elect are the Prodigal Sons and not the elder brother who never fell away (elect angels) – Luke 15:25-32. Perhaps this will result in more sins (compare James 5:20), as opposed to if the elect (and damned perhaps) would’ve been angels that were granted repentance like in Islamic theology minus the physical world, but the existence of varying amounts and degrees of sin in and of itself is not an issue; it being committed is wrong, and from this God is exempt, but not the (unrepentant) sinner. God can articulate the expression of a sin and its meaning, much like sarcasm mimics the genuine words of the object of derision without impugning guilt upon itself. Besides, these sins as we showed don’t need to technically be committed and would exist anyway, just not physically expressed. And how God chooses to express Himself, by making a physical world, is irrelevant – a rabbi was asked by a Gentile, “Why did God make the Sun to rise in the East and set in the West,” and the rabbi answered, “If it rose in the West and set in the East, you’d ask me the same thing.”
Nevertheless, this last point brings up a fundamental question. Let us say that we have the elect and the damned into two separate piles. If we ask, “Why do the damned go to Hell for eternity?”, the typical but erroneous answer that comes to mind is, “Had they lived for eternity, they would have sinned for eternity.” So one doesn’t need to actually carry out his sins to have them as we saw – God would know this. This is, after all, the reason why God allows us to reach the point at which we can commit sins and doesn’t kill us off as babies (how merciful?) – related to the absurdity of suggesting the Christian should want to die to go to Heaven (yet see Philippians 1:23-24). In my opinion, this also explains why God made people He knows would go to Hell and why He doesn’t make us all have no free will (contrary to Alvin Plantinga’s Free Will Defense, which follows Augustine) – He knows it’s not really “us.” To make a free will that God makes sure doesn’t sin would be “us” and not “us” at the same time would switch the violation of justice to a mere impossibility given that God wants one to account faithfully to one’s own actions in the true sense of the word, and not by circumstance or a foreign origin.
Two things can be easily explained. A prisoner wants only one thing – his freedom. He envies people who aren’t behind bars. With our freedom, we see the things we’re missing and in turn we might look to others who have them. The point isn’t that we don’t appreciate things, but that the prisoner is focusing on his most important problem, while missing the fact that freedom without meaning is a much worse prison than the one he’s in. This point is made in some movies with happy endings like The Graduate (1967), whose ending seems to show the happy, reunited couple at a loss as to what they’ve actually accomplished and what they’re going to do next. This shows, first, that our bias guides us in ways that we can sometimes barely even notice, let alone believe. Second, that “would be” scenarios are neither to be rejected because they condemn something that never happened, nor are a tyrannical perversion of justice where, for one, a man has no choice but to fall under the sword of fate; they are a valid way of gauging someone without foreign influences one way or another. This could be a way of looking at the fact that God is omniscient, yet we all have a choice.
A more straightforward way of illustrating this is by the following simple scenario: imagine everything with Free Will – angels, demons, humans – had the omnipotence and omniscience of God; what would they do? Would they be fair or not? Loving or cruel? This is the basic question which is answered by God with hellfire or Heaven, as there can be no in-between in such a fundamental matter as our example shows (cf. Matt. 12:30 – “With us or against us”).
But aren’t we all sinners? Would the elect magically stop sinning at all (as is required by this hypothesis), after a certain point in their would-be infinite life? Certainly not.
How do we then explain the fact that repentance has any value if we would all have an infinite amount of sins (as well as “non-sins”)? The question can be better illustrated by the following example. Suppose you turned a light on and off, then on again and off. If you do this for eternity, is the light at the “end” on or off? Neither or both? I think the answer was “neither,” because technically there is no end really. Possibly a way of thinking about this is as follows: you have an interest two subjects in school. However, while in the middle of one of them, you frequently think of the other, and vice versa. Do you like both of them (since you think of both), or neither (since you think of the other quite a bit while in one of them)? This is possibly related to the Trinity and things God “can’t” do.
However, we know that there are different orders of infinity. That means there is something “bigger” than infinity! For example, even though there are an infinite number of natural numbers (1, 2, 3, 4…), as well as an infinite number of odd and even numbers, whose amount isn’t lesser or greater than their parent set of “natural numbers,” the amount of irrational numbers is actually larger than the amount of rational numbers, even though both are infinite! Cantor proved this with his Diagonal Proof in the 19th century, and it’s very well explained in this Youtube video by Vsauce (2:07-6:03). We don’t need to, but if we removed causality, we could probably simplify this dilemma. At any rate, since God is the absolute cardinality (as Cantor referred to Him), He would be beyond this situation, and would know who would stay repentant till the “end,” which for us is exemplified by a finite, rather short compared to turtles and elephants, lifespan.