Does Sin Against An Infinite God Require Infinite Punishment?

At the end of his discussion of Gehenna, A. J. Pollock makes a statement that most Christians would read without giving a second thought. Here are the final paragraphs of that section:

At infinite cost to Himself, God has provided a way of escape, even through the death of the Lord Jesus Christ who bore all the wrath of God against sin and making full atonement for it.

The invitation to come to Christ is world-wide, emphatic and insistent. Would that all paid heed to it now, for:-

“There are no pardons in the tomb,

And brief is mercy’s day.”

There is then not the shadow of a doubt but that the Bible teaches the existence of a literal hell. We are told it is “prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41). Sad it is that man, in his folly refusing the mercy of God, must face upon the judgment seat Him who desires that all men should be saved. Thus will they seal their own doom in the companionship of the devil and the fallen angels.

HADES and Eternal Punishment
A J Pollock

p. 17

It is that first sentence that I am talking about. Does the Bible say that Christ paid an infinite price for us on the cross? The statement sounds good but is it hyperbole or is there biblical backing for it? Pastor Pollock hits this same theme pretty hard in some of the following sections and it is an important point. Once this idea is accepted then it is easily extended as follows: If Christ paid an infinite price for our salvation then those who reject the gift of salvation must also pay an infinite price. In the case of fallen humanity that “infinite price” is eternal conscious torment in the Lake of Fire.

That logic is fine if the premise is sound but is it sound? In my research on this topic I realized that a biblical case for “infinite cost” is not, and probably cannot, be made using scripture. Our Lord and Savior when he died on the cross paid the penalty for every sin that has ever been or ever will be committed by the human race. Even though the number of sins committed by the human race is large they are still finite in number and committed over a finite period of time. Of course the price He paid was a heavy one and I am eternally grateful for His sacrifice. The questions still remains: was that price infinite?

In my study of this topic I found that the argument for Christ paying an “infinite price” on the cross is a philosophical one and not theological. Rather than make a ham-handed attempt to explain the origin of this myself I am going to quote Edward William Fudge from “Two Views of Hell: A Biblical and Theological Dialog”:

The stones of medieval caste-consciousness. For six or seven centuries after Augustine, most Western theologians neither developed traditional teaching nor called it into question, but contented themselves with passing it on. Then came Anselm (d. 1117) and Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274) in the high Middle Ages. During this period “the soul’s immortality and its adventures after the separation of body and soul came to occupy the center of attention at the expense of the heroic picture of resurrection.” Both Anselm and Aquinas assume that the soul is immortal and interpret biblical teaching concerning hell on the basis of that assumption, although Aquinas reasons from Aristotelian rather than Platonic philosophy. The primary contribution of Anselm and Aquinas to traditionalism is the notion, based on feudalistic systems of justice, that finite man can pay for his sins against an infinite God only by suffering torment for an infinite period of time.

Anselm sets out his case for the traditionalist hell in his works Cur Deus Homo (bk. 1) and Proslogion (chaps. 8-11). Rather than examining scriptural language in light of scriptural usage, Anselm reasons within the framework of his feudal society. In Anselm’s world the same crime could carry any one of a number of punishments depending on the rank of the criminal and especially of the victim. A serf might be executed for committing a particular crime, while a person of nobility who committed the same crime might only be assessed a fine. The king, of course, could commit the same deed with impunity. A serf who insulted a fellow serf might go unpunished. Upon insulting a lord, a serf might be jailed. Any serf who insulted the king would likely be beheaded. Taking his cue from such “justice,” Anselm reasons that God is worthy of infinite honor and that sin against God therefore deserves infinite punishment. Because humans are finite, Anselm argues, they cannot suffer infinite punishment in a finite period of time. Therefore they must suffer conscious torment forever (infinitely) in hell.

Not only do all civilized nations today reject such feudalistic concepts of justice, Anselm’s model actually contradicts a fundamental principle of jurisprudence presented by God in the law of Moses. God demanded that the Jews provide the same justice for every person, regardless of the person’s rank or standing in society (Ex 23:3; Lev 19:15; Deut 1:17). This principle of a single standard applicable to all classes of people found clear expression in the law known as the lex talionis—an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth (Lev 24:19-22). It did not matter whose eye was at stake or whose tooth had been knocked out; the punishment was the same for all. Furthermore, Israel’s laws were intended to elicit praise for the justice of God himself (Deut 4:5-8). In this light it should be clear that the arbitrary and discriminatory practices of feudal society provide no reliable starting place for developing Christian theology.

Fudge, Edward William; Peterson, Robert A. (2009-08-20). Two Views of Hell: A Biblical & Theological Dialogue (Spectrum Multiview Book Series) (pp. 191-192). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.

What Edward William Fudge states in that last paragraph is true. The Mosaic Law, which lex talionis is part of, was meant to reveal the God of Israel to the world. If God acts in ways that are contrary to the Law He gave Israel then the Law reveals nothing of God.

[Click on this link to see the next installment in this series: Pollock on Universalism]

Explore posts in the same categories: Annihilationism

6 Comments on “Does Sin Against An Infinite God Require Infinite Punishment?”

  1. gricketson01 Says:

    thnx for your work,good stuff 🙂

  2. Dave Says:

    Anselm’s argument makes the traditional notion of infinite punishment look pretty bad, for me, since I reject feudalistic ethics.

    How do you deal with the fact that conditional immortality is mostly associated with heretical groups? By that question I mean to say, what is an objective reason why it is mostly embraced by them? I suppose a traditionalist would say it is because unbelievers don’t want to hear about hellfire for eternity, and the cults are trying to appeal to them. The flipside of that is that if traditionalists have expounded infinite punishment mainly for the reasons of (a) feudalistic ethics and (b) scaring unbelievers, then that isn’t a valid basis.

    • GlennGlenn Says:

      Hi Dave,

      It is true that conditional immortality is associated with heretical groups. The Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists are the ones that come to mind. As you know all doctrine needs to be tested against scripture to see if it holds up and that is what I am attempting to do.

      The term “heretic” is extremely pliable. What I have learned in my studies is that it actually refers to whether or not a person holds to a particular confession of faith. It may be common to say that someone who accepts the teaching of “Ellen White” is heretical while someone who holds to the teaching of the “Westminster Divines” is orthodox. Christianity is awash in competing confessions of faith that Christians tend to put before scripture.

      It has become clear to me that the doctrine of eternal conscious torment was permanently imbedded into church teaching by Augustine. That really set off warning bells for me. While I am sure that Augustine had some things right he is the fountainhead of much corrupt doctrine. Luther and Calvin loved Augustine which explains why much of Augustine’s teaching survives to this day in protestantism.

      There are two men in our lifetimes that have promoted the idea of conditional immortality: Edward William Fudge (Churches of Christ) and John Stott (conservative Anglican). I don’t know Stott’s work but Edward William Fudge appears to hold the Bible in high regard and argues from scripture. I think Fudge is amillenial which makes him weak in some areas but he makes a good case.

      I can tell you why I was reluctant to discuss this topic for months after I started reading up on it. I was afraid of “being put out of the temple” or, in other words, I was afraid of being accused of being a heretic. I decided to go ahead and start publishing these articles on the topic so when I am done I can contact another blogger I know and tell him I read all of A. J. Pollock’s booklet. If people get mad at me then so be it.

      I hope this answers your questions.


      • Dave Says:

        Yes, thank you. You did answer the question of why traditionalists would hold to eternal conscious torment. Augustine looms much larger than Anselm for Calvinists and Roman Catholics.

        I was being careful not to label you a heretic, since that would require the definition of a dogmatic theology. I have followed some “heresy hunter” ministries for several years now, and whereas they are entertaining, they tend to go off the rails a bit. The reason, I think, is because they assume evil intent in their targets. I think heretics rarely have evil intent, except insofar as their intent is literally to divide the church over what they consider very important issues. Division could be an evil, but it is not in itself evidence of evil intent.

        I find that I am mainly interested in theological or doctrinal divergence (AKA heresy) for academic reasons. I like to piece together the history, philosophy, and sociology of doctrine, and often it hinges on rhetorical moves. Calvinists are notorious for preaching about hellfire as a method to sort the elect from the lost; Arminians use it to bring everyone to repentance; and Roman Catholics use it to bring everyone into the church. I actually think the RC use is the most objectionable, because of how they lock people into the confession/last rites/purgatory system for maximal anxiety.

        I haven’t read enough JW or SDA literature to know how they use conditional immortality, although I have seen SDA people promoting Fudge as a non-SDA support in their outreach. That doesn’t make conditional immortality inherently “bad.”

      • Dave Says:

        I listened to Fudge’s summary of The Fire that Consumes (a lecture presented at Lanier Theological Seminary), as well as an interview on the podcast Rethinking Hell. He goes over your points and also comments about the SDA connection. He didn’t say as much, but it seems obvious that since the SDA developed their doctrine specifically in reaction to NT-oriented Reformed theology, they had to reject the Augustinian notion of hell.

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