The Divine Comedy: XI. The Problem of Eternal Punishment

Dante_Inferno_Dore
“Satan” by Gustave Doré

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.

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29 thoughts on “The Divine Comedy: XI. The Problem of Eternal Punishment

  1. The rather interesting thing about Dante is that his “immortals” spend their time doing exactly what they were doing in their life, just exaggerated a bit. It’s not difficult accept that fact that if we do something habitually, we might potentially do that forever were we to live that long. So Dante can provide something for even those who don’t believe in eternity. His eternity could be seen as a literary device, like hyperbole or exaggeration, that shows us just how bad (or good) our behavior appears.

  2. 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.

    Firstly, I’d like to make sure I understand what you are saying. Are you saying that since we are the creation of God, He extends his “being” (or existence) into us, and since He cannot deny himself, He cannot destroy a part of Himself?

    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.

    Firstly, this comment brings these verses to mind:
    “The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. 6 The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. 7 So the Lord said, “I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created—and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground—for I regret that I have made them.” 8 But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord”

    It is not as though repent and regret are exactly the same thing, but they are terribly, terribly similar.

    Secondly, another question I have is how you seem to contrast eternal life with eternal punishment. Throughout the Bible, death is in contrast to life, rather than punishment. If heaven is eternal life (“and I give unto them eternal life, neither shall they perish, neither shall anyone pluck them out of my hand”), then does it not seem that eternal death is the result of the other choice? (“This is the second death”). To me, death is to no longer live, in any state whatsoever.

    Thirdly, if there is some sort of eternal punishment, then to me, that would mean that God would have to be the one sustaining the place, the method, and the people of the punishment. In other words, it seems to me, that God would somehow be sustaining the wicked, continuing to give the wicked life of some sort so that they can continue to be punished. This does not make a lot of sense to me. Did not He come to abolish evil?

    1. I would not say that we’re a part of God, for He has no parts, but our being is derived from and dependent on Him, and bears his Image. That is why we’re “very good” in His sight. To annihilate the good is also unjust.

      As for the passage about the Lord repenting of His creation, I think (and I’m sure you knew this) that it is a figure of speech used often in the Old Testament, i.e. describing God in anthropomorphic terms, as if He had hair, hands, nostrils and regrets like mere mortals. Moreover, the people of Noah’s time were not annihilated, but sent down to Sheol.

      Having being raised an atheist, annihilation was sort of my idea of death. But even from a materialist pov, death is not annihilation, strictly speaking, because of the conservation of matter and energy. Death is not non-existence. It is a separation, of soul from body (first death), and men and angels from God (second death).

      1. I would not say that we’re a part of God, for He has no parts, but our being is derived from and dependent on Him, and bears his Image. That is why we’re “very good” in His sight. To annihilate the good is also unjust.

        If evil is a departure from good, then at some point people choose not to be redeemed and hence become “not good” and/or evil. Evil no longer bears His image. It chooses to be apart from Him, just as Lucifer sought to be apart from Him. It is my understanding that evil must be (has been? has not yet been?) abolished. So it would not be unjust to annihilate something because it is no longer under the category of “good”.

        And again, it seems to me that if there is eternal torture, then some kind of life would have to sustain these people in hell in order for it to exist eternally? In turn that is some kind of maintenance of evil?

        As for the passage about the Lord repenting of His creation, I think (and I’m sure you knew this) that it is a figure of speech used often in the Old Testament, i.e. describing God in anthropomorphic terms, as if He had hair, hands, nostrils and regrets like mere mortals.

        Yes, he is often described in anthropomorphic terms, but I think this is partly because we are made in His image. We have feelings because He has feelings. The Bible often describes God as having feelings, and whether or not it is a literary device, I don’t think it means He doesn’t have feelings at all? I don’t think our experience of feelings is the same as His, of course. I guess I think of our experience of feelings as a kind of shadow of what He might experience. For example, when it says God loves, I think that is accompanied by some kind of feeling of love as well and is not “just” an act.

        Maybe it would help me understand better if I ask you: by dictionary definition, a figure of speech is an expression that conveys meaning. So when it says that He regrets, what does that mean to you?

        Moreover, the people of Noah’s time were not annihilated, but sent down to Sheol.

        Yes, I think there is a final judgement to await before annihilation happens (if it does). Sheol is the abode of the dead. It makes sense to me that they would go there. From what I understand, Sheol is a little different from hell as is currently in popular thought.

      2. I’ll use one of my favourite Biblical stories as an illustration, the Destruction of Sodom. It is written, “the men of Sodom were exceedingly wicked and sinful against the Lord”, or, as you put it, “it is no longer under the category of ‘good'”. BUT, Abraham took his life in his hands and bargained with the Lord, little by little, until the Lord promised to spare the entire city for ten good people — it turned out there were only 4, and the Lord saved them.

        One lesson I take from this story is that nothing in God’s creation is completely devoid of good. Just because the wicked abuse His gift of life doesn’t make His gift itself evil, and it is worth preserving.

        So when it says that He regrets, what does that mean to you?

        It means that things will change from the human perspective, but nothing happens apart from His foreknowledge and will. God was speaking as if He were looking at things through our eyes — it foreshadows the Incarnation.

  3. Death is not non-existence. It is a separation, of soul from body (first death), and men and angels from God (second death).

    I’m sorry. I still don’t understand. If death is separation from God, then how do they continue to “live” in hell?? God is the source of life. If they are separated from that how do they sustain themselves? Does not existence require some sort of “life”?

    One lesson I take from this story is that nothing in God’s creation is completely devoid of good.

    From this, you seem to be saying that nothing is purely evil, but everything has some good in it? Does this extend to Lucifer, who is also part of God’s creation? Does he have some good in him?

    1. God is the source of life. If they are separated from that how do they sustain themselves? Does not existence require some sort of “life”

      In the OT, Moses gives the Israelite a choice between life and death, i.e., between keeping God’s commandments and disobeying Him. In the NT, the disciples have a choice between walking according to the Spirit or according to the flesh. “Life”, in the Biblical context, means existing in obedience to and communion with God, whereas death is existing in willful disobedience and “separation” from Him. It is a separation in terms of heart and will, but not in terms of existence. (Separation implies that two things continue to exist, in a divided state, not that one of them ceases to exist.)

      The wicked, in so far as their existence are derived from and dependent on God, is good, but their wills, thoughts, desires and actions are evil. The same applies to Lucifer.

      1. I think there’s a difference. When it uses those terms life and death in reference to obedience or disobedience, I think it is a metaphor. Or rather, obedience points towards or moves someone towards life and vice versa with disobedience. But I think the Bible makes it clear that when it comes to the after life, “eternal life” is conferred on those who believe in Jesus, whether or not they obeyed. (“For by grace are you saved…”. The same for disobedience. Disobedience is a moving away from God, but it is not the definition of death. Death is the permanent end of something. Romans 6:23 seems to make the distinction clear: “The wages of sin is death”. The result of sin is death, but sin, or separation is not the definition of death.

        I keep thinking about a flower that has been plucked. It is removed from it’s source of life and may continue to exist after separation but eventually dies. The fact that it’s matter may be decomposed into the earth and “used” for something else does not change the fact that that is the permanent end of the flower. And I think the allegory with our souls can only go so far since there is a spiritual aspect that, as I said above, dies a spiritual death.

        The wicked, in so far as their existence are derived from and dependent on God, is good, but their wills, thoughts, desires and actions are evil. The same applies to Lucifer.

        At some point, you become what you worship. If Lucifer chooses evil, focusing his attention on evil and hence worshiping it, then he becomes evil. There is no good left. He has moved far away from that. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Bible uses “fallen” language to refer to him. What once was good has become not good. I think it’s interesting that Rev. 20:10 says that he will be tormented forever and ever. It is the only time in the Bible (that I know of) that it says something like that. When referring to the wicked, it says they will be destroyed.

      2. The fact that it’s matter may be decomposed into the earth and “used” for something else does not change the fact that that is the permanent end of the flower

        There again, nothing is annihilated. Matter continues to exist in a different form, separated from the form of flower, just as, at (first) death, the body continues to exist in a different form, separated from the soul/spirit, but will be resurrected on the last day.

        Metaphors always have their literal foundation. The life and death spoken of by Moses in the OT are states of existence, not annihilation. The second Death is not the same as sin or disobedience, but a culmination, so to speak, of sin, “the wages”.

        If receiving wages is the same as being annihilated, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. 🙂

        It says in Matt. 25:41 that the wicked will receive the same punishment as the devil and his angels. If there is no good left in the Devil, as you say, and yet the Devil continues to exist forever and punished, why not the wicked?

      3. Some additional note to clarify the meaning of “death” in the Scripture, that death is not an end of something, but a state of existence.

        And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins,

        But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved),
        Eph. 2:1,4-5

        Paul is saying that we were spiritually dead, but God made us alive in Christ. Peter also teaches that we’re “put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit” (1 Peter 3:18). This usage is quite consistent in the Scripture, that death refers to a state of existence apart from God, not an end or non-existence.

  4. There again, nothing is annihilated. Matter continues to exist in a different form, separated from the form of flower, just as, at (first) death, the body continues to exist in a different form, separated from the soul/spirit, but will be resurrected on the last day.

    Metaphors always have their literal foundation.

    They have a literal foundation but are not exactly the same at every point.
    The matter from the flower decomposes and eventually feeds other things that grow. So does the soul in hell do the same thing?

    Matthew 25:41 says they depart to the same place, not that their experience there is the same.

    1. The matter from the flower decomposes and eventually feeds other things that grow. So does the soul in hell do the same thing?

      The body goes through the same thing as the matter from the flower. The soul perseveres its form and even its memory, as Irenaeus also argues.

      Matthew 25:41 says they depart to the same place, not that their experience there is the same.

      If the devil continues to exist, even though there is nothing good left in it, why not the wicked? Also, if the wicked are annihilated, there is no point assigning them a “place”.

      1. The flower does not preserve its form. Why would the soul?

        If the devil continues to exist, even though there is nothing good left in it, why not the wicked? Also, if the wicked are annihilated, there is no point assigning them a “place”.

        Lucifer, the angels, demons seem to operate under different laws than humans do. And my comments are starting to overlap here from the Ireneaus thread, but annihilation does not mean that there will be no consciousness before annihilation. If there is a literal fire, there will be pain before the wicked are consumed but it will not be forever.

      2. The flower does not preserve its form. Why would the soul?

        The form of the flower is separated from the matter, but it doesn’t cease to exist, neither does the matter. I’m making this statement from a Platonic perspective. but both Plato and Aristotle would argue that nothing cease to exist.

        Platonism states that the soul is immortal and self-caused, and the difference between Christianity and Platonism, as the Church Fathers have demonstrated, is that the soul is created and sustained by God. In other words, the soul is not immortal per se, but eternal according to God’s will.

        Lucifer, the angels, demons seem to operate under different laws than humans do

        Even so, the continued existence of both men and angels are dependent on God. Why would one cease to exist and the other not?

  5. Platonism states that the soul is immortal and self-caused, and the difference between Christianity and Platonism, as the Church Fathers have demonstrated, is that the soul is created and sustained by God. In other words, the soul is not immortal per se, but eternal according to God’s will.

    Plato thought that, but was never able to prove it. We have a little more to go on in believing that God’s revelation to man is found in the Bible. And there, I cannot find any support that the soul is eternal unless it is given the eternal life promised by Jesus.

    Even so, the continued existence of both men and angels are dependent on God. Why would one cease to exist and the other not?

    That they operate under different laws seems plausible, if only from our previous discussion that angels don’t seem to be able to change their choices. But why one would cease to exist and not another would only lead me to speculate, and as you know from experience, I am not the most brilliant thinker. If I had to guess, I would say that angels knowledge of God and experience of God is different from ours (obviously) and this would somehow make the ramifications from their choices different.

    1. I think Plato proved the immortality of the soul in Phaedo, to the extent that anything can be proved regarding the soul without revelation. There are also many Scripture verses that show the soul continue to exist after departing this world.

      If annihilation fulfills mercy and justice, as you argued, then the angels should be annihilated too. There is no reason for the lack of mercy in their case. Nothing suggests that fallen angels experience different things from the wicked men, both of whom are assigned to the same everlasting fire.

  6. If annihilation fulfills mercy and justice, as you argued, then the angels should be annihilated too. There is no reason for the lack of mercy in their case. Nothing suggests that fallen angels experience different things from the wicked men, both of whom are assigned to the same everlasting fire.

    Dear Nemo,

    I think we are at an impasse. I have already explained that the only verse that talks about eternal torment is found in Rev. and it refers to Lucifer and the beast only. All other verses talking about the wicked say that they will die. Why this is probably the case, I don’t know. But I think this is what Scripture shows us.

    I agree that there are many Scripture verses that show the soul continues to exist after departing this world but that they refer to either a) the abode of the dead, or Sheol, where they await the final judgement or b) the existence of the souls that are redeemed and in a state of paradise.

    Phaedo was by far my favorite dialogue, but I don’t think that he was successful in his endeavor to prove the immortality of the soul. Which argument was particularly convincing to you?

    1. The Scriptures verses that show the souls continue to exist after (physical) death give us reason to believe that death is not an end, but a separation (of soul and body). If we’re consistent in our interpretation, then the Second Death is not an end either, but a separation.

      The verses that say the wicked will die in no way prove that they shall cease to exist, unless you base your interpretation on the assumption that death is an end, which would be begging the question.

      Phaedo was by far my favorite dialogue, but I don’t think that he was successful in his endeavor to prove the immortality of the soul. Which argument was particularly convincing to you?

      We can carry on that discussion under my post on Phaedo, if you’re really interested. I’ve made arguments in the GR group read thread, and prefer not to repeat myself.

  7. Some additional note to clarify the meaning of “death” in the Scripture, that death is not an end of something, but a state of existence.

    And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins,

    But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved),
    Eph. 2:1,4-5
    Paul is saying that we were spiritually dead, but God made us alive in Christ. Peter also teaches that we’re “put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit” (1 Peter 3:18). This usage is quite consistent in the Scripture, that death refers to a state of existence apart from God, not an end or non-existence.

    Just saw this. I think this is a stretch. It is not referring to the state of the soul after death but is a metaphor. However, if you have any other verses in mind that prove the existence of the soul for eternity in torment, then I will be happy to look at them.

    Also, one more thought on this statement, “If annihilation fulfills mercy and justice, as you argued, then the angels should be annihilated too. There is no reason for the lack of mercy in their case.” Can the fulfillment of God’s mercy and judgement be limited to one way only? It seems to me that since angels are different beings from us that it is no stretch that fulfillment of mercy and judgement work differently.

    1. It is not referring to the state of the soul after death but is a metaphor.

      My point in quoting the passage is that the word “death” or “dead” in Scripture does not refer to an end, but a state of existence of the soul. It is a spiritual reality, not a metaphor. An end of something, is a boundary, and does not resemble a state, neither does non-existence resemble a state of existence. To define death as an end of something is not consistent with the Scriptural usage, here (and elsewhere).

      There are passages that speak more directly of the continued existence of soul after death. For example, Isaiah 14:9-11 speaks of the dead kings in Hell, the story of the Rich and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31, the reference in Revelation 6:9-10 to souls of the martyrs crying out to the Lord, and the reference to Moses and Elijah in the Transfiguration scene in the Gospels. There are others, but these should suffice to make the point.

      Can the fulfillment of God’s mercy and judgement be limited to one way only?

      Your initial point about mercy, if I understand you correctly, is that annihilation shortens the punishment, and therefore fulfills God’s mercy. If that is true, then the angels should also be annihilated; if you say that there is more than one way of fulfilling God’s mercy, then the eternal punishment of the wicked can be one of them.

      1. The Scriptures verses that show the souls continue to exist after (physical) death give us reason to believe that death is not an end, but a separation (of soul and body). If we’re consistent in our interpretation, then the Second Death is not an end either, but a separation.

        Death is opposed to life. Death is the end of life. The first death, or physical death, is just that: the end of the physical life. The second death is end of the spiritual life. The Scriptures you provide do not say that the soul will be in eternal torment.

        Is. 14-refers to Sheol. As I have said before, Sheol is the abode of the dead, not hell.

        Luke 16 is a parable. Parables are used to teach. What was Jesus’s point with the parable? I don’t believe it was that hell exists and that souls will be tormented forever.

        Rev. 6 I’m not sure which part of this chapter you think supports eternal torment?

      2. Death is opposed to life. Death is the end of life.

        From a philosophical pov, being opposed to something is not the same as being the end of that something. White is the opposite of black, but white is not the end of black. The beginning is the opposite of the end, and birth is opposed to death; from a Biblical pov, death is opposed to life, not to birth, they are both states of existence. Since both the soul and body continue exist after death, death is not the end of anything.

        If we can’t agree on this basic point, then let’s agree to disagree. It will be a waste of time to go around and around about this.

  8. Ps-I understand that you think death is a separation, but I continue to disagree with you about that. It is not a lack of understanding on the point, it is a lack of agreement. I am not sure how much further we can go on it.

  9. Nowhere does the Scripture mention annihilation, i.e., non-existence. The “dozens” verses you refer to mention destruction, but unless you are basing your interpretation on the assumption that destruction is non-existence, which is begging the question, those verses in no way favour your position.

    This is from GR. I understand not wanting to continue the discussion there so I am posting this here. I do believe destruction is non-existence. From Webster’s:

    :to cause (something) to end or no longer exist: to cause the destruction of (something) : to damage (something) so badly that it cannot be repaired

    1: to ruin the structure, organic existence, or condition of…

    2: to put out of existence : kill

    1. I believe when the Scripture speaks of destruction, it is speaking in the sense of “ruining the structure”, “to damage (something) so badly that it cannot be repaired”.

      As a side note, I was watching debates about atrocities in the OT. Critics argue that God commanded genocide, but apologists pointed out that while the scriptures seem to suggest total annihilation of local inhabitants, in the same passage/book the Scriptures also mentions the local inhabits continue to live. So again, destruction is not “non-existence”.

  10. The beginning is the opposite of the end, and birth is opposed to death; from a Biblical pov, death is opposed to life, not to birth, they are both states of existence.

    Interesting to note: Jesus taught in John 3 that eternal life was a “new birth”.

    I believe when the Scripture speaks of destruction, it is speaking in the sense of “ruining the structure”, “to damage (something) so badly that it cannot be repaired”.

    Deal. You believe the one definition, and I’ll believe the other. :p

    If we can’t agree on this basic point, then let’s agree to disagree.

    Yes, let’s.

    1. Interesting to note: Jesus taught in John 3 that eternal life was a “new birth”

      Not quite. We’re “born again” into eternal life, but birth is not eternal life. Consistently in the Scripture, being born and dying are transitions between different states of existence, not non-existence.

      And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.
      John 17:3

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