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#55 Do the Damned in Hell Accrue Further Punishment?

May 05, 2008

I have a concern with something I read from your article database. I find your explanation about sinning in the afterlife and what you believe that entails something of an oddity given the gulf between death and life and based upon the finality of judgment expressed in the Judeo-Christian heritage.

In your article “How Can Christ be the only way to God?” you mention that those who have been damned to hell continue to sin. This seems to fail on three levels:

1. Sin appears to be an earthly predisposition not one that follows into eternity. The Greek “harmatia” implies “missing the mark.” So as Christians, if we believe the “mark” is God or is righteous perfection, isn’t that something that is achieved or absolutely not achieved in the afterlife? It would seem that if we leave open the possibility that a person continues “missing the mark” then we must also assume that the antithesis of this is that the saved somehow keep “gaining the mark” whether this be God or righteous perfection. Now while I’m aware that we will continue in our knowledge of God throughout eternity (as Paul mentions), I don’t see this as being the opposite of those who are damned. For their knowledge of God doesn’t fail or diminish either it seems.

2. The idea of continuing to sin in eternity seems inadequate by way of analogy. Once a criminal is judged and sentenced for his crimes, he goes to prison. Let’s say he gets life with no parole. Now, even while he may do deeds in prison that are abominable, say he kills another man in a fight, because he’s lost all hope, can we really say it has any bearing on the judgment that has already been passed? There are some cases where that person might get another 100 years slapped on, but we all know this is only a formality. He’s not leaving his prison. There is no real hope of him achieving release.

3. The idea of continuing in sin is not wholly endorsed in scripture. The real inadequacy I find in this example is the possibility it leaves open. Namely, if sin is what a person is judged upon in eternity, their rejection of Christ being the sum total of the individual sins, the possibility that a person (and not everyone damned) can go on sinning in hell implies the possibility that a person can also have a change of heart. And I think we see evidence of this in the example of Lazarus speaking to Abraham. Not everyone in hell, given this example in scripture, seems to go on sinning. Some seem genuinely disturbed by their earthly decisions and want out. And when Lazarus speaks to Abraham, Abraham doesn’t rebuke him for not accepting God’s revelation in nature or through the law. He merely tells him there is a gulf between them. So saying that it’s still a heart condition in Lazarus who is merely just trying to avoid the pains of hell is an inference that doesn’t bare out in the dialogue.

So on the basis of these three objections, I’m wondering how adequate the idea of an eternal place of torment is?

In His Grace,


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Dr. craig’s response


Thanks for your thoughtful question, Trey! It’s important that we first set the context for my proposal. I’m attempting to deal with the objection, urged not only by unbelievers but also by annihilationists, to the doctrine of hell, that hell is incompatible with the justice of God because the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. Even sins like murder and cruelty, it is alleged, don’t merit everlasting punishment, for these sins are of finite significance, whereas everlasting punishment is infinite in severity.

Now my response to this objection is two-fold, having the form “Even if . . . , but in fact . . . .” That is to say, I first argue ex concessionis, conceding the assumption made by the objector that no sin which human beings commit deserves an infinite punishment and trying to show that even on that assumption, the objection does not go through. Then I argue that we don’t need to make the assumption presupposed by the objector and propose a quite different solution to the problem, which I, in fact, find preferable. So you mustn’t take the first part of my response out of context, as though I did not offer the second part of the response.

Concerning, then, the first part of my response, what struck me as I thought about this problem is that it doesn’t follow that because every sin which we commit deserves only a finite punishment, therefore no one merits infinite punishment. For if one commits an infinite number of sins, the sum total of sins would, indeed, merit infinite punishment. Of course, no one commits an infinite number of sins in his earthly life. But it occurred to me that in the afterlife one could commit at least potentially infinitely many sins, if one just keeps on sinning forever. And when one thinks of the damned in hell, it is not at all implausible to think that they do, indeed, continue to sin. Rather than repent, they grow only more implacable in their hatred and rejection of God.

I find it striking that when in the book of Revelation the bowls of God’s wrath are poured out in judgment upon mankind, those judged are not repentant but curse God all the more: “men were scorched by the fierce heat, and they cursed the name of God who had power over these plagues, and they did not repent and give Him glory. . . . men gnawed their tongues in anguish and cursed the God of heaven for their pain and sores, and did not repent of their deeds. . . . and great hailstones, heavy as a hundredweight, dropped on men from heaven, till men cursed God for the plague of hail, so fearful was that plague” (Rev. 16. 8-11, 21). Whether in this life or the next, to hate and reject God is to sin, for we are morally obligated to worship and love God. Sin cannot go unpunished, since God is perfectly just, and so these sins in the afterlife must also be punished. Hence, because sinning goes on forever, so does the punishment. So even if we concede that every sin deserves only a finite punishment, hell is unceasingly self-perpetuating.

Let’s consider, then, your objections. First, can or does sinning continue on in the afterlife? Well, why not? Men are morally obligated to worship God, and to fail to do so is, as you put it, to fall short of the mark. The damned surely fail to fulfill their moral obligations toward God. You say, “But then we must also assume that the saved somehow keep ‘gaining the mark,’ whether this be God or righteous perfection.” Well, certainly we must say that the blessed no longer sin and in that sense continue to hit the mark, though we needn’t think that they attain moral perfection, a property which plausibly belongs to God alone. Far from failing or diminishing, I should think that the blessed’s knowledge of God would grow without limit. So I don’t see any problem here. (See also Question Archive #47 on the state of the blessed.)

Your second objection is based on an analogy to someone sentenced to prison. Now I don’t know much about criminal jurisprudence, but I really doubt that if someone in prison murders another prisoner (or a guard!) that he gets away scot-free in the eyes of the law. Surely he will be prosecuted and held responsible for such a crime—at least, I hope so! You say that if he’s already received a severe sentence, then an additional 100 years is a mere formality. Ah, but you’re forgetting that we’re granting the assumption made by the objector that our sins deserve only a limited punishment. A proper analogy would be someone who has to serve only a brief sentence but who continually keeps committing petty crimes in jail, thereby accruing more and more terms. It would make a huge difference if he continues to commit crimes in prison, thereby prolonging his sentence. (By the way, analogies are a poor form of argumentation because they cannot prove anything; they serve only to illustrate. So I’d advise you to shun such arguments in apologetics.)

You final objection is based on Jesus’ parable of Lazarus and the rich man. Certainly the rich man in Hades exhibits a repentant heart. The problem here, Trey, is that it is a mistake to press parables to extract Christian doctrine. This is a well-known principle of hermeneutics (literary interpretation). The parables are generally meant to illustrate one central point, in this case that if people won’t listen to Moses and the prophets neither will they be moved by miraculous signs, and it’s bad exegesis to take doctrine from the circumstantial details of parables. The rich man in the parable is almost a cartoon figure, and it would be a serious mistake to use his situation as a basis for a theology of the damned in hell.

Nonetheless, I completely concur with you that we should not think of a person’s rejection of Christ as being the sum total of his individual sins. I, too, am uncomfortable with the idea that the damned could escape hell by repenting and serving out their time (that smacks of purgatory). That’s why I went on to offer the second, better solution: that the rejection of Christ as Lord and Savior, being a rejection of God Himself, is a sin of infinite gravity and proportion and therefore plausibly does merit infinite punishment. So seen, people are sent to hell, not so much for murder and theft and adultery, but for their rejection of God. Moreover, if God has middle knowledge, then we can say that He allows the damned to pass from this earthly life only once He knows that their rejection of Him is irrevocable. The damned are thus responsible for their own fate and cannot impugn God’s justice.

- William Lane Craig