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Many branches of Christianity believe that people who have done something wrong in this life will, in the afterlife, suffer an infinite punishment that is called hell. Hell is usually depicted as some kind of fire that burns souls, but souls being immortal, it lasts for eternity.

Now, people who don't believe in hell often use the argument "What finite crime deserves an infinite punishment? Even Hitler didn't cause an infinite amount of suffering, so it is unjust to punish him with an infinite amount of suffering.". How do people who believe in hell respond to that argument?

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    The one sinned against (God almighty) is eternal and without limitation. And He is the Judge of all the earth (and its dwellers, and their immortal souls) since he created all and he possesses all. I think the answer is so clear and obvious and well-documented that your research of the question should have demonstrated it. (Even if you had but searched the archives, of over 16,000 questions, of this particular site.) I can state this comment as an answer, if you wish.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Apr 21 at 13:04
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    Sin is a disposition which produces individual acts and not the acts themselves. This is why the law is weak through the flesh. Commented Apr 22 at 0:06
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    Well the problem is in the question title: the assumption that the sin being punished in hell is finite is incorrect. Such sin is committed, as others have said, against an infinite God. Thus, an infinite debt is incurred.
    – jaredad7
    Commented Apr 22 at 20:50
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    Another assumption in the question is that sinning stops at the end of this life. That is false. Hell will be full of sinners who continue to sin. God will give sinners what they ask for: unhindered sinning (rejection of God). The punishment continues and the crimes continue.
    – aswine
    Commented Apr 23 at 18:14
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    You don't need an infinite God or to continue sinning. Nope, just an immortal soul that can't forget that thing you did. Hell is a lot of time to think about what you've done. Commented Apr 23 at 18:51

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The glory (meaning excellent goodness) of the person offended increases the crime. If for example you were to sleep with my wife and I ask you, ‘How dare you do that!’ and you say ‘I only did it once in a while!’, well nothing much would happen to you other than that I would probably divorce my wife and maybe, if I fell into temptation, seek revenge. Maybe a broken arm or something.

Now consider instead that you do that to a King in old England. Well I doubt you would go without the death penalty.

Now consider you have offended someone infinite in glory and power, deserving of your full obedience forever without one slight sin. This makes your ‘small’ sin infinite, in that it offended an infinite being with infinite glory.

Sin must be punished eternally, otherwise it would be illogical.

Of course a different analogy could have been used such as the difference of killing a bee, or a plant, versus killing a man. The distinction based on the different glory of the two and therefore the different punishment that is due.

Now that we have established the infinite punishment that the smallest sin deserves, let’s not forget the even greater infinite love of God to punish them in his own Son!

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    Monarch would only kill you because he could. Not because it is just or right. Similarly we judge assaults against our kind as worse crimes because of our own interests. This probably reads way more "might makes right" than you envisioned.
    – OganM
    Commented Apr 23 at 20:47
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    @OganM - do you believe killing a human child is equal in crime to killing a baby cockroach ? You missing the point about glory. The King might be evil (unlike God) and might is not right. It is the glory of his office that makes the difference. Spitting into the face of the queen is different than spitting in the face of your employee only due to the office of the person for all people are equal before God. It’s all about glory. Nobody can really argue that an ant equals a human in glory or that man equals Christ in glory. This is the argument. Its not about dictatorship.
    – Mike
    Commented Apr 23 at 22:39
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    more examples really don't help because they all fail to differentiate "glory" from authority and power. and besides.. are you claiming those with "glory" must punish accordingly? that would make a god who shows mercy less glorious, and if not, having the option to show mercy and not choosing to do so cannot be defined as "merciful" if you'd want to add that in when describing a god
    – OganM
    Commented Apr 23 at 23:46
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    @Mike you say the king is evil for punishing someone for a large crime, but God is not evil for punishing (eternally) for a small crime? Just because God is "glorious"? At the same time you say the small man cannot punish harshly, because he is not glorious? So... by that reasoning I can not fathom how you conclude God is not evil? In your analogy he is a cruel dictator, worse than the king who punishes out of vengeance, because God punishes (infinitely) purely out of pride.
    – Opifex
    Commented Apr 24 at 7:01
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    The God you describe doesn't sound like love. Because he wants to punish us for eternity, for every single thing we do (you say you sin every second). You ask how it could be better than that? I would ask "How can it be worse than that?" You described a God that is purely composed of hate and punishment. I also don't agree with the "we" part. If you think you deserve eternal punishment, that's fine. I can't judge your actions because I don't know you. You might be a murderer, I don't know. But I sure as hell don't believe that I myself deserve eternal punishment.
    – Opifex
    Commented Apr 25 at 7:59
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Eleonore Stump addressed this very question in these 2 short interview-videos

by saying that opponents to the reality of hell mischaracterize the nature of hell by mischaracterizing God:

  • as though He is an "incompetent accountant" that punishes temporal sin (committed during the 100-year or so human existence) with eternal punishment
  • as though Judgment day is a line up of hapless people waiting at the traffic court of the worst judge there is, hoping that He will stamp their "get out of jail" ticket
  • as though He is not concerned with the role of human choice to BE "hell-producer" where it doesn't matter where he/she is placed because his/her heart doesn't want unite his/her will with God's will, which at the core is filled with compassion and desire to fill human hearts with His love. Divine love (i.e. the Holy Spirit, cf 1 John 4:8) has to be freely received, and even an omnipotent God doesn't get what he wants all the time because He cannot unilaterally force His love on humans who are not willing to receive it.
  • as though salvation doesn't fix this big problem within human nature that unsaved person is divided in his/her heart (containing inconsistencies of knowing but not willing the good, incapable to will the greater good, etc.), and that this IS the very problem that God (through Jesus) is offering to cure those willing to receive the cure. Eleonore likens this damaged will to a child who is offered to receive a somewhat painful shot of a vaccine for a life threatening virus lurking within the fallen human nature (see her other video How Does Salvation Work? where at the time the raging virus was HIV, not Covid).

It is correct though, that traditional Christian theology (including Aquinas) holds that once a human being has all the information needed to make a decision (either 'for God' or 'against God' in terms of wholeheartedly being united with God's love), information that of course includes the deep knowledge of who God IS (i.e. Love personified), his/her decision becomes fixed since no new information can change his/her mind.

Amelioration of the picture of sadistic punishment by God for eternity includes:

  1. Saying that the picture is not the doctrine; i.e. the imagery is a picture of the agony of a human heart that remains conflicted, not able to love and enjoy God forever, and that God STILL has compassion for those in hell who reject His love.

    In his book The Great Divorce C.S. Lewis offered an illustration of God's compassion for those in hell, that:

    • There is a two way bus between Hell and Heaven, but most in Hell don't want to visit Heaven. So the door to Hell is locked from the inside. But for those who are willing to move to Heaven, that place will be seen as Purgatory (which in Catholic theology is properly seen as the antechamber to Heaven for those already saved).
    • Hell is quarantined by God to have such a small and shadowy existence by their inhabitants refusing to be filled with love and then be granted glorified body that is much more solid.
  2. That every human being who has not had the opportunity within his/her lifetime to get "all the facts" about God (including the gospel) will be ministered to by Jesus himself (with a personal visit), whether in the last moment of their lives, or in a post-mortem evangelization (citing 1 Peter 3:19-20), thus vindicating God's initiative, cf 1 Tim 2:4-6, that says God

    wants everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, a testimony at the proper time.

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People who “go to hell” aren’t being necessarily subjected to punishment. They are being denied reward.

Some of the complication of the question concerns the lake of fire, which is part of an apocalyptic vision, and likely symbolic in nature like the rest of the same work.

Hell, or Hades, in its simplest form, is a place for the dead that is separate from God.

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Humans are like cows in a barn. Sin entering the world through the Fall is like the candle that was kicked over, setting the barn on fire. Sins we commit are like adding fuel to the fire. There are two critical points here: a) the peril is of our own making, and b) we can do nothing to save ourselves from it.

Christ is like a cowhand; He doesn't just open the doors to let us escape, he is grabbing our halters and trying to urge us to leave. However, just as real cows might run back into a burning barn because they feel "safe", so too do humans resist the efforts of God to lead them to Salvation.

Salvation is a free gift; not only is it there for the taking, God urges us in various ways to accept it. Those that are not Saved are those that have rejected this gift; their fate is entirely their own fault. Those who are not Saved are those who chose the darkness, who prefer it over being in God's presence. Surely this is Just, for all God is doing is permitting those who wish it to be apart from Him.

It's also important to keep in mind that there is disagreement on the fate of those who are not Saved. Scripture seems clear that Satan will be subject to eternal punishment, but many passages speak of the "destruction" of souls. Some argue that the original language speaks of a process that is something of the opposite of exultation, while others argue for an interpretation that implies cessation of existence. In "The Great Divorce", Lewis suggests not even "punishment" as such (aside from that which is self inflicted), but rather a gradual fading into nothingness, in which a soul may or may not continue to exist for eternity, but would cease to care if it does.

Also, while there are passages in Scripture that suggest specific suffering, these are often associated with specific sins. Therefore, it's unclear whether all who are not Saved are subject to such, or only specific individuals who did things that are particularly objectionable. On the other hand, Scripture also suggests in multiple places that it is one's inclinations that are more important than one's actions. In this respect, "infinite punishment" makes more sense, because the inclination has not changed.

What we can say for certain is that those who are not Saved will be without God, and that this is their own choice. Whether such will endure for eternity or be subject to additional punishment is less clear, particularly when we try to make universal statements to such effect.

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The simple response is to show that the question does not apply to people who believe in the righteousness of God's judgments against unrepentant sinners.

God speaks of sin against himself. Humans speak of crimes against humanity.

This leads into exposing the notion that human ideas of 'crime' equate with sin in God's view. The need is for sinners to understand - from God's point of view - why humans are guilty of infinite sin. Until that is faced up to, the question itself prevents understanding of answers given.

For example, note how the Bible speaks of two criminals being crucified alongside Jesus (Luke 23:32). They had committed crimes against the Roman Empire which issued the tortuous crucifixion death-penalty. That judgment was based on the Empire knowing that if such criminals were not put to death, they would continue to commit more crimes against the Empire, with a view to overturning it. Compare Jesus. Pilate publicly declared that he found nothing in Jesus deserving of death (Luke 23:14-15). None of Jesus' detractors could prove he had sinned (John 8:46) so they had to come up with false charges to get him crucified, claiming he had committed a crime against the Roman Empire (which was only interested in crimes, not sin - the human perspective.)

But given who they had put to death (the Son of God), they had all sinned against God, and so does everyone who rejects Christ as the crucified and resurrected Son of God who died to save sinners from the wrath of God. This is on a par with sinning against the Holy Spirit, for which there is no forgiveness, Jesus warned (Mark 3:39). All three are sinned against, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, when their three-fold, divine, witness is denied by sinful humans. Yet they would try to dismiss that as mere 'finite crimes'?

Now, the "infinite punishment" bit of the sentence. Today, people think criminals should not be punished, but 'rehabilitated'. This lies at back of what is wrong with the question posed. They could go along with a temporary punishment that led to the rehabilitation of the person, but people who believe in today's "Social Justice" agenda are utterly offended at the way God will deal with those who could never be "rehabilitated" in a trillion years. And he knows who those ones are, yet still holds out forgiveness and restoration based on believing what his Son did to bear the punishment they deserve in their stead. God does not tinker around with "rehabilitation". He restores utterly. He makes new creatures in Christ; they are given the mind of Christ; they are given a new heart that beats for the righteousness of God and the establishment of his Kingdom, with Christ as their King.

Ah, but the cry back then was, "We will not have this man rule over us!" and it remains the same today, effectively coming from all who will not call 'sin' sin. Jesus came to take away the sin of the world (John 1:29) but those who love sin prefer to walk in their darkness. They do not want the light of Christ to show up their deeds of darkness. Therefore their portion will be "the blackness of darkness for ever" (Jude vs.12). Note that this speaks of men.

A biblical principle is that we reap what we sow (Galatians 6:7). Never will that truth be more keenly realized than after the final judgment has been declared against those who refused to believe the testimony (witness) of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in effect, calling God an unjust liar - as did the serpent in the garden of Eden. Note where the posted question originates from.

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The finite crime is not the reason. It is a sin (a missed aim of intent). The reason one would "go to Hell" is if the person doesn't change to see the wrongs (the missed aim of their intentions) and continue down that path. This is Pride and Fear and a lack of faith.

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  • Welcome to Christianity.SE! and thank you for your contribution. When you get a chance, please take the tour to understand how the site works and how it is different than others. I would also recommend reading the Help Center's sections on asking and answering questions.
    – agarza
    Commented Apr 22 at 13:58
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Keep sinning in Hell

A soul that goes to Hell still has a sin nature. As such while in Hell a soul is still sinning and accruing time in Hell faster than they could atone through suffering. Thus the sentence for all intents and purposes is infinite. An analogy would be like if someone serving a 10 year prison sentence commits two crimes while in jail and each crime adds 10 more years added to their sentence. Then they keep committing more crimes in jail during those extra 20 years.

Sin like debt generates interest

One other alternative explanation is that sin much like debt accrues interest. While in Hell the amount of suffering does not pay down the principal and might not even cover all of the interest. Since the principal is never worked down the sinner is doomed to be in Hell forever trying to work off a debt they can never repay.

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    Welcome to Christianity.SE and thank you for your contribution. When you get a chance, please take the tour to understand how the site works and how it is different than others. I would also recommend reading the Help Center's sections on asking and answering questions.
    – agarza
    Commented Apr 23 at 2:56
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Because hell was originally designed for the devil and his angels and not for man

Mathew 25:41

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.

When the creator was designing hell, He was bearing in mind that those who will be condemned to that place are eternal beings ie Satan and his angels so the fire needed to be made eternal. The fire can't be quenched, it needs to burn forever but the wicked are also raised eternal before they are judged to it. So men who get condemned wear the same eternity the devil and his angels already have.

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    ...but why is that just? Your argument seems to be that it would be inconvenient for God to arrange a presumably-more-equitable punishment. That doesn't really answer the Question.
    – Matthew
    Commented Apr 25 at 17:09
  • @Mathew ,the fire of hell was made for the devil and his angels who have been alive since their creation. Men get condemned here too but they wear this state in the resurrection so no one will complain against God as to why and that is why it is written this day when God tells you to do something do not harden your heart Commented Apr 26 at 5:11
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What finite crime deserves an infinite punishment?

The doubt and objection presented in this question comes from the lack of knowledge of who God is, therefore, we can find the answer mainly in four attributes of God: His Majesty, His Holiness, His Justice and His Eternity.

Every crime needs a penalty proportional to the offence committed. The Majesty of God, demands that the sin committed against Him be punished with the supreme penalty, everlasting punishment of body and soul. Because his dignity surpasses us as Jesus teaches in the Lord's Prayer "Our Father which art in heaven" (Matt. 6:9)

O LORD our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth! who hast set thy glory above the heavens. [Psalm 8:1]

Because of His Holiness, God hates all evil. For Him, sin is an abomination, a cause of repugnance. Not only the sin, but also the sinner, as Psalm 11:5 says "but the wicked and him that loveth violence his soul hateth" Our sins lead us to a separation from God and if we have not repented, if while we are alive our sin has not been paid for, this separation will be eternal because he will not be able to have communion with the unrepentant sinner. Because the Lord so hates evil that he cannot dwell or have communion with the morally impure.

For thou art not a God that hath pleasure in wickedness: neither shall evil dwell with thee. The foolish shall not stand in thy sight: thou hatest all workers of iniquity. [Sal 5:4-5]

Now, we finally find the justice of God, who like all God is also eternal.So how could we satisfy the infinite and eternal justice of God? We have already established that our disobedience, our offense to God, deserves punishment, and for that the wrath of God is upon us. So who of all his creatures will be able to satisfy the infinite wrath of God? No finite creature could ever do it. For this reason it is necessary that the punishment of demons and men be for eternity. As a just judge of all the earth, although He gives the sentence, He takes no pleasure in the punishment of the ungodly, takes no delight in the death of the wicked (Eze. 18:23; 33:11).

In his mercy and love, God has prepared a path of salvation for everyone, our Lord and our God. The dignity of Jesus Christ, the one who received the punishment for us, it is much greater than that of all created things. Only through his infinite dignity can he propitiate the wrath of God and atone for our sins. Then the resurrection becomes proof of full payment for our sins: “delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification” (Rom 4:25).

None of them can by any means redeem his brother, nor give to God a ransom for him: (For the redemption of their soul is precious, and it ceaseth for ever:) But God will redeem my soul from the power of the grave [Psalm 49:7-8, 15a]

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