3.6 Problems with Divine Justice

divine justice

Christianity claims that God is just. Setting universalism (i.e. the theory that all are ultimately saved, that none go to hell) and annihilationism (i.e. the theory that those who do not go to heaven do not go to hell either, but rather are annihilated) aside, Christianity also claims that at the end of one’s life one either enjoys an eternity in heaven or suffers an eternity in hell. These claims, it is often argued, conflict. How can a just God treat human beings in this way?

The argument is most naturally cast as a problem relating to the proportionality of justice. Just rewards and just punishments are proportional to whatever it is that is being rewarded or punished. The just punishment for murder is greater than the just punishment for slander because murder is a greater crime that slander.

Whatever it is that determines whether one is rewarded in heaven or punished in hell—be it faith, works, or a combination of the two—is something that comes in degrees. One can have more faith or less faith, more good works or less good works.

In order for the rewards and punishments for faith or works to just, then, these rewards and punishments must admit of degrees. One with greater faith or greater works deserves better than one with lesser faith or lesser works, and a just system must recognise this; people must be rewarded or punished to greater and lesser degrees.

Heaven and hell, though, are both all or nothing affairs; they do not admit of degrees: if one is admitted to heaven, then one receives an infinitely great reward; if one is condemned to hell then one receives an infinitely great punishment. On the Christian system, then, there is nothing between an infinitely great reward and an infinitely great punishment. There is no sensitivity to degrees of virtue or of sin.

God’s policy of sending some to heaven and some to hell, then, seems to be inconsistent with his treating us justly. If the Christian view of the afterlife is correct, then God cannot be just.

Rutgers University - Hell and Vagueness - Article by Theodore Sider
(pdf format).

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