Monday, October 05, 2009

Retribution, Hell, and Roman Polanski: A Response to Hays

This has nothing to do with Calvinism, just so you know.

The concept of retribution is that the evildoer should be deprived of happiness to in proportion to the wrongfulness or harmfulness of the act. The proportionality objection to hell would not be that a certain amount of time passing is going to take the guilt away, but rather that no action is infinitely bad or infinitely harmful, and so the proporitionality requirement can be met in a finite length of time, and the eternity of hell isn't necessary.




It doesn't imply that guilt diminises with time, it just says that after a certain amount of happiness is deprived from the wrongdoer, the punishment can end, because the crime has been paid for. So the reasoning in the Polanski case doesn't apply here.



There are two standard responses to it. One if that in the case of sin, the offended party is God, and therefore sin, (unlike crime) can and always does deserve an infinite punishment. That seemed more plausible back when people were thought of as standing on different levels of the Great Chain of Being, and a crime against a nobleman was thought more heinous than a crime against a commoner, for that reason only.



The other response is to say that the damned are unrepentant sinners who continuously reoffend. I think that is surely the more plausible response, but this has little to do with the reasoning in the Polanski case.



What is more, there is a statute of limitations for many crimes, but no statute for the most heinous crimes. But hell, presumably, is for sinners of every type, and Protestants at least reject the idea that some sins are "venial" and do not threaten a person's salvation.



So I don't think that this is the right way to meet the proportionality objection to the doctrine of everlasting punishment.

12 comments:

Mike Darus said...

You also have the lack of righteousness problem. The entry fee for heaven seems to be more than a lack of sin. There is a requirement for positive righteousness. Justification is more than forgivenes; it also involves the imputation of Christ's righeousness. If people are in Hell for lack of righteousness, time does not get them what they need.

Victor Reppert said...

But wouldn't this only explain the failure to go to heaven, as opposed to punishment in hell. One isn't punished for lacking righteousness, one is punished for sin.

Dominic Bnonn Tennant said...

The concept of retribution is that the evildoer should be deprived of happiness to in proportion to the wrongfulness or harmfulness of the act.

Is it? Is that how the Bible defines retributive justice?

One if that in the case of sin, the offended party is God, and therefore sin, (unlike crime) can and always does deserve an infinite punishment. That seemed more plausible back when people were thought of as standing on different levels of the Great Chain of Being, and a crime against a nobleman was thought more heinous than a crime against a commoner, for that reason only.

Of course, in a caste society, a crime against a nobleman is not merely thought to be more heinous than one against a commoner—it actually is more heinous. The implicit assumption of your smug "that seemed more plausible" line is that we're all too enlightened now to think that we stand on a "Great Chain of Being", where God is actually on a higher level than we are, and thus better than us. Well, speak for yourself, okay?

What is more, there is a statute of limitations for many crimes, but no statute for the most heinous crimes. But hell, presumably, is for sinners of every type, and Protestants at least reject the idea that some sins are "venial" and do not threaten a person's salvation.

And because it's true of Western society, it must be true of hell? Do you see a statute of limitations in Scripture? Even besides this unscriptural standard, though, it goes without saying that a statute of limitations is not an implicit suggestion that wrongdoing becomes less worthy of punishment with the passage of time. Rather, it's a pragmatic recognition that after a certain point, the practical difficulty of prosecuting many wrongdoings becomes disproportionate to the actual damage said wrongdoing caused.

Victor Reppert said...

Does the Bible define terms? Or does it use terms that are already part of human language? Does God have to say "OK, here's what I am talking about when I am talking about justice." Or does Scripture just use the word on the assumption that, since it's in the language, people know what it means?

Victor Reppert said...

What I was trying to do was argue that since the proportionality objection doesn't involve any of the reasoning that would undergird the statute of limitations, using reasoning that says "What Polanski did was so awful that we should prosecute him even though he did it 40 years ago" doesn't translate to anything that you can use to defend the doctrine of hell. Not only that, but in human justice you have a class of actions that seem to permit a statute of limitations, and you wouldn't want to translate that thinking into your defense of hell. Otherwise, only the most heinous criminals would go there.

Hell as retribution might be defensible, and the proportionality objection might indeed fail. What I was arguing was that Grayling's reasoning concerning the Polanski case doesn't help the defender of hell at all.

Victor Reppert said...

Are there any Biblical passages from which it can be inferred that the infiniteness of the being sinneed against provides grounds for an infinity of punishment?

Victor Reppert said...

VR: The concept of retribution is that the evildoer should be deprived of happiness to in proportion to the wrongfulness or harmfulness of the act.

DBT: Is it? Is that how the Bible defines retributive justice?

VR: It is how retributive justice is defined as a theory of jurisprudence. If you are using retributive theories of criminal punishment as a model for your defense of everlasting punishment, this is how those theories have to be defined.

Robert said...

Hello Victor,

“Does the Bible define terms?”

Not usually.

“ Or does it use terms that are already part of human language?”

Already part of human language and in ordinary usage among a particular group of people.

“Does God have to say "OK, here's what I am talking about when I am talking about justice."”

No, he uses the term “justice” and people understand what he means as he is using language according to ordinary usage of that particular audience. That is why we had to learn Hebrew and Greek in seminary, so we could hopefully have greater access to ordinary usage of people from earlier times. :-)

“Or does Scripture just use the word on the assumption that, since it's in the language, people know what it means?”

This is an important point because it means that when the bible authors use terms such as “love”, “world”, “justice”, “choose”, “choice”, “freely”, etc. etc., God is talking about these things in the same ways and with the same meanings that the people being addressed ordinarily used them. The bible is meant to be understood by many people not just an elite group of highly educated people who alone can decipher its intended meanings.

And this of course is one of my major reasons for rejecting theological systems that redefine ordinary terms, redefine and/or eliminate ordinary meanings and replace them with meanings not intended by the authors (again a **perfect** illustration being what theological determinists/calvinists do with John 3:16 where we are told by them that “world” does not refer to all the people living in the world at that time, and “love” of this “world” does not really mean love of this world, but love of a preselected group of persons that comprise a very small portion of that “world”).

Robert

Robert said...

"Are there any Biblical passages from which it can be inferred that the infiniteness of the being sinneed against provides grounds for an infinity of punishment?"

No, there is no bible verse that says that. It is a common attempt by some to explain why the punishment in hell is eternal. If you sin against a being of infinite worth, namely God, your punishment must then be infinite. But we don't need this kind of argument to establish the eternality of hell. If we take the words that refer to hell in their ordinary meanings, these bible passages provide sufficient clarity to establish that hell is of eternal duration for those consigned there.

I like to remind people that Bertrand Russell who was certainly no Christian read and sufficiently understood what the New Testament presents about hell to say that he believed that Jesus could not have been a moral person because Jesus clearly taught on the reality and duration of hell (see especially Matt. 25 where both the sheep and the goats receive eternal destinies, where eternal must have the same ordinary and well understood by the audience of that time meaning. They understood exactly what Jesus was saying, as did Russell. And yet others come along and argue againt the ordinary meaning of these words used by Jesus attempting to evade the clear and intended meaning, because they don't like it and don't want to believe it. We may not like it, or fully understand it, but we have to start with the intended meaning of the terms used and they were used with the ordinary usages in mind.

Robert

mattghg said...

Are there any Biblical passages from which it can be inferred that the infiniteness of the being sinneed against provides grounds for an infinity of punishment?

Not that I've heard. Someone asked Lee McMunn this after his talk on the subject at a conference I was at, and neither he nor any of the other panelists was able to answer.

Rick Lannoye said...

Great discussion, and I'd like to add a point on Hell.

But first, I hear very little said about the fact the Polanski accepted a plea deal, and served some time in jail for what he did. But after he agreed to plead guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for his confession (which, by the way, paved the way for the civil judgment he got, a rather decent sum of $$$ he had to pay to the victim), and thus, spared the victim from having to go through a public trial, the judge renigged on the deal and sought to allow for felony rape charges after the fact. While we might, in retrospect, feel that Polanski should have never been offered a deal in the first place, right or wrong, the integrity of our judicial system rests on our courts being consistent.

Now, as to Hell, I've actually written an entire book on this topic--"Hell? No! Why You Can Be Certain There's No Such Place As Hell," (for anyone interested, you can get a free Ecopy of my book at my website: www.ricklannoye.com), but if I may, let me share a couple of the many points I make in it.
One of the arguments one hears frequently from Evangelicals to justify the idea that God is some sort of Cosmic Nazi is that he can't help it because his just and holy nature forces him to punish all sin.
Even if this were so, and if by "justice" we mean "an eye for an eye," then the worst God could do is make people suffer the same amount that they caused others, meaning there could exist a Purgatory...but not an eternal Hell. No one, not even the most evil human ever, committed an INFINITE amount of harm.
Also, if God had any love at all, his goodness would have prevented him from creating humanity in the first place, foreseeing the outcome of so much suffering!
But let's be real. Jesus' message was clearly against the idea of revenge, making people suffer for what they did. His view was that getting "justice" only led to a constant cycle of one vendetta after another. Instead, his message was to forgive others, because that's what God does for anyone who owns up to their mistakes.

Victor Reppert said...

VR: The concept of retribution is that the evildoer should be deprived of happiness to in proportion to the wrongfulness or harmfulness of the act.

DBT: Is it? Is that how the Bible defines retributive justice?

VR: Let me change my answer to yes.

Here's Gen 4:23-24: And Lamech said unto his wives: Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; ye wives of Lamech, hearken unto my speech; for I have slain a man for wounding me, and a young man for bruising me;
If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy and sevenfold.

By Exodus we get to an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and that puts an upper limit on what can be avenged upon another person. You can't do what Lamech did.