Saturday, June 30, 2012

Does Eternal Punishment Fit the Crime?

In the discussion in our Life Group meeting earlier in the week, the question arose: how could crimes committed in a finite period of time justly merit an eternal punishment?

The best explanation that I have come across is from the pen of Jonathan Edwards.  He wrote (it's long and nearly 300 years old, but make the effort to think this through):

A crime is more or less heinous, according as we are under greater or less obligations to the contrary. This is self-evident; because it is herein that the criminalness or faultiness of any thing consists, that it is contrary to what we are obliged or bound to, or what ought to be in us. So the faultiness of one being hating another, is in proportion to his obligation to love him. The crime of one being despising and casting contempt on another, is proportionably more or less heinous, as he was under greater or less obligations to honour him. The fault of disobeying another, is greater or less, as any one is under greater or less obligations to obey him. And therefore if there be any being that we are under infinite obligations to love, and honour, and obey, the contrary towards him must be infinitely faulty.

Our obligation to love, honour, and obey any being, is in proportion to his loveliness, honourableness, and authority; for that is the very meaning of the words. When we say any one is very lovely, it is the same as to say, that he is one very much to be loved. Or if we say such a one is more honourable than another, the meaning of the words is, that he is one that we are more obliged to honour. If we say any one has great authority over us, it is the same as to say, that he has great right to our subjection and obedience.

But God is a being infinitely lovely, because he hath infinite excellency and beauty. To have infinite excellency and beauty, is the same thing as to have infinite loveliness. He is a being of infinite greatness, majesty, and glory; and therefore he is infinitely honourable. He is infinitely exalted above the greatest potentates of the earth, and highest angels in heaven; and therefore he is infinitely more honourable than they. His authority over us is infinite; and the ground of his right to our obedience is infinitely strong; for he is infinitely worthy to be obeyed himself, and we have an absolute, universal, and infinite dependence upon him.

So that sin against God, being a violation of infinite obligations, must be a crime infinitely heinous, and so deserving of infinite punishment.- Nothing is more agreeable to the common sense of mankind, than that sins committed against any one, must be proportionably heinous to the dignity of the being offended and abused; as it is also agreeable to the word of God, I Samuel 2:25. "If one man sin against another, the judge shall judge him;" (i.e. shall judge him, and inflict a finite punishment, such as finite judges can inflict;) "but if a man sin against the Lord, who shall entreat for him?" This was the aggravation of sin that made Joseph afraid of it. Genesis 39:9. "How shall I commit this great wickedness, and sin against God?" This was the aggravation of David's sin, in comparison of which he esteemed all others as nothing, because they were infinitely exceeded by it. Psalm 51:4. "Against thee, thee only have I sinned."-The eternity of the punishment of ungodly men renders it infinite: and it renders it no more than infinite; and therefore renders no more than proportionable to the heinousness of what they are guilty of.

This man's utter God-centeredness is such a blessing.  For the highly ambitious, here is whole essay from which this quote is taken: The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners.


  1. This is something everyone struggles with. Grasping the concept of Sin (caps intentional), and thus responsibilty for judgement - is difficult, especially when applied to a seemingly innocent object, such as a young child, or even - in a more abstract sense - creation, such as a when family pet that gets sick and dies. All that said, what do you think about verses like Romans 4:15? How does knowledge of sin (and the redemption story over Sin) play a role in one's responsiblity for personal sin? In other words, is judgement issued by God Heaven only/Hell only for everyone - regardless of knowledge of God's redeptive plan? Just asking questions, not presuming. I know Christ is ultimately over all (Romans 9) and our job is to preach the good news. Its a very real (and fair) struggle for us all.

  2. I think the closest we get to an answer on this from Jesus is recorded in Luke 12:47-48. There Jesus seems to indicate that there will be a more severe judgment for those who have more knowledge of God's will. What that actually looks like and how differences in judgment will play out is beyond my understanding, but at least there is some hint there of what you are getting at.

    On the other hand, Romans 1 does communicate that all are responsible and without excuse before our Maker.

  3. Thanks Larry. Did some reading of Romans and found more and more emphasis on the theme of grace. I think that hanging my hat there is a better place to hang it than the "what about" concerns. God is gracious and just. His attributes are sufficent and comforting. However, I still have the hints in my mind of Christ being a stumbling block.. but scripture says "he gives more grace." "..I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who has mercy. (Rom 9:15-16) and Rom 11:6 "but if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace"