Many people have struggled with the idea of eternal punishment in Hell. “Punishment should fit the crime, but what crime could man possibly commit in this temporal life to deserve eternal punishment?”
I’m not qualified to address that question fully from a theological perspective. Truth be told, I don’t quite understand it myself. Hopefully whoever reads this might shed some light on the issue or contribute to the discussion. All I can say at the moment is that, from a philosophical perspective, eternal punishment is not as unreasonable as it sounds.
Sir Peter Ustinov once said, “Unfortunately, the balance of nature decrees that a super-abundance of dreams is paid for by a growing potential for nightmares.” It might be argued that immortality is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, it brings to light the hope of eternal life and happiness, on the other hand, it also makes eternal punishment a possibility. Eternal happiness and eternal punishment are two sides of the same coin, and the choices we make or don’t make in this temporal life are indeed eternally significant, as Kierkegaard put it.
We Platonists (to borrow the words of Plotinus) believe that happiness is the well-being of the soul in the present, and the duration is irrelevant. A man is not happy in the future, which does not yet exist, not in the past, which no longer exists. Understood in this way, eternal happiness is not being happy for an infinitely long time, but being happy without any changes associated with the elapse of time. Conversely, unless a sinner repents of his sins, for to repent is to change, he will remain in his wretched state for eternity, just as if a sick person is not willing to consult a physician or accept treatment, he will remain in the state of sickness.
What or Where is Hell?
Some have objected to the notion of a geographical/physical hell, arguing that hell is a state of mind not a place, and therefore it cannot be limited to one physical location.
Me miserable! which way shall I fly
Infinite wrath and infinite despair?
Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell;
–John Milton Paradise Lost
If Hell is where we are, it cannot be limitless, because there are limits to where we can be. Since our existence has been confined to the face of earth, it’s not unreasonable for Dante to assign part of earth as Hell.
There is a certain geography associated with every state of the mind. There are valleys of depression, and mountains of noble aspirations, etc. Dante’s geographical Hell/Purgatory may be understood as a visual representation of our moral and spiritual being.
Annihilation is Contrary to the Divine Nature
Some have suggested annihilation as a “humane” alternative to eternal punishment. I think that is a misconception.
Firstly, it is written, “God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM’”. God alone is Being, and there is none beside Him. Annihilation is bringing what has being to nothing, it is contrary to being, and is therefore contrary to the divine nature. God cannot deny Himself, so He cannot and does not annihilate living beings, all of whom receive their being from Him.
Secondly, “God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable”. Life and being is a gift of God, and therefore it cannot be revoked. Neither does God annihilate the works of His hands, once He has performed them, as though He repented of his mistake. Therefore, once a human being has been created, he cannot and must not be annihilated.
Thirdly, even if annihilation were permissible, it would approximate eternal punishment in duration, and far exceed it in severity, of pain. Consider this: To be annihilated is to be brought to nothing. As in mathematics, any number divided by zero is infinity, so the difference between being and non-being is infinity. The pain of losing one’s being might be infinitely more intense and protracted than any loss human beings have ever experienced, compared with which eternal punishment would be paradise.