Surprised by Hell: Thinking About Justice

The Mosaic idea of civil justice, that is, justice as administered by the government, was that the punishment should fit the crime

(Lev 24:19-21) If anyone injures his neighbor, whatever he has done must be done to him: 20 fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. As he has injured the other, so he is to be injured. 21 Whoever kills an animal must make restitution, but whoever kills a man must be put to death.

The rabbis never interpreted this passage as requiring a literal tooth or literal eye. Rather, they concluded that Moses meant that the punishment should match the crime. If you kill a man’s sheep, you owe him another sheep — or the monetary value of a sheep.

In this respect, Moses was millennia ahead of most governments. But the principle is, after all, only fair.

However, the traditional view of hell hardly fits this principle. A very, very good man who happens to have never heard of Jesus suffers an everlasting torment. It seems disproportionate, doesn’t it?

The classic response is that it only seems disproportionate because we don’t see how horribly evil sin is to a holy and righteous God — and there is truth in this argument. But nonetheless, it’s hard to see how a child who dies at age 12 without having found Jesus deserves perpetual torment. Certainly, I’d have no sympathy for whatever God dishes out for Hitler or Pol Pot or Stalin, but not everyone destined for damnation is that evil. Many are actually pretty decent folk. How does a few years or even a few months of sin by a child merit infinite torment?

Think of the First Century Jews who lived righteously under the Law of Moses but never had Jesus preached to them. They were sinners. They had no saving faith. But good people who serve God wrongly out of ignorance hardly deserve infinite, perpetual agony!

As we’ve struggled with the disproportionality of hell, we’ve invented doctrines to soften the blow. Some teach that no one is damned unless he heard the gospel and rejected it, but this is nowhere to be found in scripture. Others teach a doctrine of a second chance — which is, again, just not biblical. Some teach that all are saved: universalism. And the Catholics teach Purgatory. None of these doctrines are scriptural, and all have been invented — and won many adherents — because they soften the doctrine of hell.

You see, hell, as we’ve traditionally taught it, is just very hard to accept. And, as a result, we often have trouble even thinking about hell. We’ve even become very reluctant to talk about hell, haven’t we?  I mean, how many readers have heard a sermon on hell lately?

And this interferes with our ability to be evangelistic, as we’ll consider in the next post.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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One Response to Surprised by Hell: Thinking About Justice

  1. Alan says:

    In most contexts, punishment is designed to be corrective. The intent is that the punished person would learn a lesson and not repeat the offense in the future. In that context, justice is paramount. The punishment should fit the crime.

    But that cannot be said about hell. There is no future, and therefore no corrective intent. Instead there is the destruction (quarantine?) of everything evil, for the benefit of everyone else. So the torment of hell may be the unavoidable consequence of that process. It's not a question of justice (since God has the right to destroy what he created).

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