"Do you think finite sins deserve eternal punishment? How can that be fair?"
It's a common question we may hear when we're seeking to understand or discuss the nature of God's wrath as it's described in the Bible. And on the surface, it presents a difficult problem. After all, if you commit sin for a period of, say, eighty years, does it seem fair to be sentenced to an eternity of punishment? When stated this way, we might feel there is some sort of disparity. It's hard to image a just God making this sort of mistake. In fact, it might seem to get worse when we think of each sin individually...maybe the sin lasted a year, or a day, or just a few minutes. How could it merit punishment forever?
And yet, that's what the Bible does teach about the nature of God's wrath on those who die in their sins. It's a tragic, horrifying truth to try to contemplate, but it is the case.
So, what gives? Is God unfair?
Two things help when trying to think this through. First, it helps to ask questions about how we determine what a "fair" punishment is in the first place. Second, it helps to think about the assumptions we might be making about the "eternal" or "temporary" nature of both humans and their sins.
So, when we ask, "Do finite sins deserve infinite punishment?"--we should realize that we first need to answer the question of how someone would assign punishment to a crime at all. Even on a purely human level, do we assign length of punishment to a crime based on how long it took to commit the crime? The answer is generally no. If a murder took 5 minutes to commit, the time factor does not weigh in to the length of punishment. Imagine the trial of someone who spent 5 years masterminding a plot to steal $100,000, and someone who killed several people in 10 minutes of rage. Which one would receive a more severe punishment?
So we see that the length of time it takes to commit a crime, or a sin, is not really something that is taken into account when we think of punishment.
How should we weigh evil acts, then? The answer typically has to do with a mix of the amount of evil committed (money stolen, property damaged, lives disrupted or taken, pain caused), the amount of deliberateness behind the evil (time spent planning, amount of intent to do harm), and some other factors, like the future danger to a society the individual presents. The crucial idea to see here is that even our court systems understand that human acts have consequences beyond the actual committing of the crime. The evil caused does not stop when the criminal stops committing the evil.
So we have a compounding effect of evil to take into account when we assess punishment to criminals. If someone hurt several people badly enough to disable them, we have on our hands effects of evil which will last for the rest of their lives. Would it be unfair to add together the remaining years of each injured person's life to come up with a "fair" number of years the criminal should be punished? (We should see that we will quickly run out of years left for the criminal, so that he or she wouldn't even be able to serve the "full" sentence, thinking this way.)
And it gets worse. How would we calculate the "fair" amount of punishment for someone like Adolph Hitler? The amount of evil he committed would need to be assessed over the scale of every life he affected, his amount of malice and conscious intent, and how lasting the effects of his sin were. It boggles the mind. Could he receive a sentence that was "fair" which he could serve in his lifetime?
Secondly, when we ask the question, ""Do finite sins deserve infinite punishment?"--we should notice the underlying assumptions about humans, and our relationship to eternity, that we may need to reexamine. Specifically, we need to contemplate three issues of our own interaction with eternity:
1. The eternal nature of humans.
2. The eternal significance of the things humans do.
3. The eternal authority humans are under.
Let's look at each one individually.
1. The eternal nature of humans: We're finite in terms of size, but in terms of time, are we finite, or eternal? The answer the Bible gives is that we are eternal. Humans, by nature, are made in the image of the eternal God, which means that once we come into existence, we never pass out of existence. To exist forever is in the very fabric of what it means to be human. In other words, and this is very helpful to say when we discuss these kinds of things, we are eternal beings.
So when a human commits a sin, it is a sin committed by an eternal being. A new question emerges: Can an eternal being commit a finite sin?
2. The eternal significance of the things human do: Do our acts have temporary, or eternal significance? This returns to an idea discussed above--how long do the effects of our sin last? Now, I may break someone's arm, and it may heal in six weeks. We could say the effects of my sin lasted six weeks. In one sense that's true. But in another sense it's not true at all. How long do the memories of that sin last? How long does the animosity between me and the injured person last? And to get more to the point: once I've broken the arm, can I ever undo that action? Is there a way I can make it so I didn't do it at all? This is why the idea of "significance" is so helpful. I may commit an act whose effects go away after some time, but I can never change the universe so that the act didn't happen. The fact that I broke the arm is an eternal fact. There will never be a time when I did not break that arm.
Further, think about things we do whose effects don't go away. What if I hurt someone and it cost them their arm? They will live for the rest of their life maimed by what I did. And since we each only live one life, they will never get to live a full life with both arms. In other words, what I did effects them eternally. There will never be a reality in which they lived a full life with two arms.
Let's keep going. If I murder someone, think of the eternal results of what I've done. For all eternity, the length of their earthly life will have been shortened, by me. They will never get to relive an earthly life which lasts its full course.
These may seem like extreme cases, but once you realize the connection between the fact that we only have one life to live, and that we can not change the past once we've lived it, you realize that literally everything we do has eternal significance. Once I say, think, or do something, it, and all its effects, can never be undone. they are just there, forever. I think we've answered the next pertinent question: Can an eternal being commit any act that is not eternal in significance?
3. The eternal authority humans are under: Against whom do we sin, when we sin? This is probably the most common way of connecting eternity to our sins. We don't simply sin against each other--we sin against an infinite, eternal God, who gave us existence and has absolute right to rule over us. Not only that, but He's shown Himself to be infinitely, eternally loving as well, so when we sin, we sin again someone with both infinite authority and infinite love. We offend infinite majesty. Here's another question: Can an eternal being commit a finite sin against infinite love and authority?
I think adding the rest of what we've seen to this helps even further: Here we are, eternal creatures, given the gift of true existence with eternal significance, so that all we are and all we do has meaning forever. We're under the infinitely loving authority of our creator as well, and given the ability to act out, in truly significant ways, our desires and intentions. Everything we do, then, has eternity all over it. There's nothing about us that doesn't matter, forever.
And when we sin, we sin eternally. We're eternal beings committing eternally significant sins against an eternal authority.
When seen in this light, I'm not sure how we could see anything other than eternal consequences as appropriate. Eternal punishment speaks to the high calling and intention of God for Man, and the amazing level of significance he has gifted to us. To whom much is given, much is required.
And doesn't this bring one more thing into glorious light? The grace of God in Jesus Christ is the kind of grace that comes to us--these eternally guilty beings--and actually has the power to change what we never could. Yes, there will never be a time when I did not sin, but by the death and resurrection of Christ I can be given the status of One who never did. When I am united to Him by faith, I find my past covered and atoned for, and what's left is for me to live out an eternally significant life of righteousness. This is staggering. If anything, contemplating the reality of what Hell teaches us should make us be more in awe of what Jesus truly accomplished. What a massive, unimaginable salvation is offered to us. God is that good.