Search This Blog

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Retributive Justice, Hell, and the Atonement

In a prior post, I argued that the Bible teaches the retributive theory of justice. This concept of justice is foundational not only to the Penal Substitutionary Theory (PST) of the Atonement but also to the doctrine of hell. There has been a concerted effort of late by evangelicals to "water-down" (pun intended) the doctrine of hell. As the conservative evangelical Mark Dever states:
But today Christians are more consumer-savvy. They know how to market themselves by jettisoning the unpopular bits, like a new product or politician. [A. C.] Grayling continues
"Nowadays, by contrast, Christianity specializes in soft-focus mood-music; its threats of hell, its demand for poverty and chastity, its doctrine that only a few will be saved and the many damned, have been shed, replaced by strummed guitars and saccharine smiles"(Against All Gods (Oberon, 2007), 24).

Another very conservative Evangelical, Al Mohler, agrees:

Though hell had been a fixture of Christian theology since the New Testament, it became an odium theologium—a doctrine considered repugnant by the larger culture and now retained and defended only by those who saw themselves as self-consciously orthodox in theological commitment.

Mohler maintains that the doctrine of hell reformulated in order to remove its intellectual and moral offensiveness. Evangelicals have subjected the doctrine of hell to this strategy for many years now. Some deny that hell is everlasting, arguing for a form of annihilationism or conditional immortality. Others will deny hell as a state of actual torment. John Wenham simply states, “Unending torment speaks to me of sadism, not justice” (Facing Hell: An Autobiography [1998], 254). Some argue that God does not send anyone to hell, and that hell is simply the sum total of human decisions made during earthly lives. God is not really a judge who decides, but a referee who makes certain that rules are followed. Tulsa pastor Ed Gungor recently wrote that “people are not sent to hell, they go there” (What Bothers Me Most About Christianity [2009], 196). In other words, God just respects human freedom to the degree that he will reluctantly let humans determined to go to hell have their wish.

These "hell-reforming" Evangelicals are, according to Mohler, following the lead of C. S. Lewis. 70 years ago, Lewis wrote:
I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of Hell are locked on the inside. I do not mean that the ghosts may not wish to come out of Hell, in the vague fashion wherein an envious man 'wishes' to be happy: but they certainly do not will even the first preliminary stages of that self-abandonment through which alone the soul can reach any good. They enjoy forever the horrible freedom they have demanded, and are therefore self-enslaved: just as the blessed, forever submitting to obedience, become through all eternity more and more free (The Problem of Pain [1940], 130).

While this "new" portrait of hell is a little more palatable to modern man, the fact is that undermines the rationale of the atonement. The atonement, at least according to the penal substitution version, is required in order to satisfy the retributive justice of God. In the PST, God punishes His Son, so that sinners will not have to be punished. If hell is not an active punishment by God, then the rationale behind the PST is destroyed.

Greg Gilbert (Pastor of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky) makes this clear:

Why did Jesus have to die on the cross? It was because that was the only way God could righteously not send every one of us to hell. Jesus had to take what was due to us, and that means he had to endure the equivalent of hell as he hung on the cross. That doesn’t mean that Jesus actually went to hell. But it does mean that the nails and the thorns were only the beginning of Jesus’ suffering. The true height of his suffering came when God poured out his wrath on Jesus. When the darkness fell, that wasn’t just God covering the suffering of his Son, as some have said. That was the darkness of the curse, of God’s wrath. It was the darkness of hell, and in that moment Jesus was enduring its full fury—the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty.

In other words, according to Gilbert, God can only remain just if sin is punished (which is the retributive theory). He writes:

God is not a corrupt judge. He is an absolutely just and righteous one.
Over and over the Bible makes this point. When God reveals himself to Moses, he declares himself to be compassionate and loving, but he also says, “Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished.” The Psalms declare that “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne.” What an amazing statement! If God is to continue being God, he cannot simply set justice aside and sweep sin under the rug. He must deal with it—decisively and with exacting justice. When God finally judges, not one sin will receive more punishment than it deserves. And not one will receive less than it deserves, either.

So, those evangelicals who want to remake hell into merely a place of self-chosen exile, and eliminate God's active role in the  punishment, have, in some cases, unwittingly removed the basis for the PST of the atonement. It doesn't seem that one can consistently adhere to the PST and at the same time see hell as a place of self-chosen exile. Evangelicals who do so have, as Mohler puts it, transformed God from a judge who decides, to a referee who makes certain that rules are followed. Hell is no longer punishment deserved because of man's sin but merely the place man chooses to be. Free will becomes the single most important element in God's universe and God exists to ensure that each person's freedom is safe-guarded. While, as I said above, this may be more palatable to the sensibilities of modern man, it is a far cry from what the Bible itself teaches.


  1. I don't really believe in hell any more, but I certainly haven't seen any watering down of Hell from the pulpits of the churches I’ve been in.

    I do enjoy pointing out the complete lack of any such place in the Old Testament (especially the place of eternal fire and torment fundies like imagining). If God were really going to doom most of humanity to eternal torture, you'd think he'd have thought to mention it at least once during the four millennia leading up to Christ.

  2. Evangelicals won't budge on this "God doesn't send people to hell, they send themselves" stuff. But the Bible they claim to believe states explicitly that God casts the damned into a lake of fire and that we should "fear him who has the power to cast both body and soul into hell." The spin doctoring here is beyond the pale.

  3. @Hacksaw Duck

    Actually, the "they send themselves" claim is part of the "free will" defense for the problem of evil. Calvinists -- e.g., Al Mohler -- reject this type of defense and use texts such as the ones you cited as support. William Lane Craig uses the "free will" defense in his debates with atheists all the time. Unfortunately, none of his opponents appears to have been reading any Reformed theology. Otherwise, they would have made exactly your point and forced Craig to either drop the "free will" defense or get bogged down in questionable Biblical exegesis to rescue it.


    Another excellent post! Have you done any thought on how the other models of justice (redistribution, restoration, deterrence) underlying at least some OT texts relate to retribution?

  4. This is a good discussion re Hell and what is actually meant by the term. Especially the last paragraph.

  5. Ken
    Please go defend yourself from this Bill Craig worshiper who is trying to critique the post you made on common sense atheism.

    here it is

    I can't wait to read your reply on his blog

  6. Why don't you go do it yourself, Mr. Ken Pulliam worshipper?

  7. Anon

    Like we do not know you are Brenon or one of his buddies.

    Anyway, I don't go around using all of Ken's arguments claiming that they are mine like Brenon does with Bill Craig.

  8. @ex

    I get your point, but my point was that you were slagging on a guy who was critiquing Pulliam's post using Craig's arguments, thus why don't you just go over there yourself and critique the critique using Pulliam's arguments? Easier than waiting around for Ken to do it, no?

  9. "I don't really believe in hell any more, but I certainly haven't seen any watering down of Hell from the pulpits of the churches I’ve been in."

    Here in the Atlanta area, a prominent Baptist pastor named Bryant Wright used to run short radio spots on WGST which were entitled "Wright From My Heart". Back when those were running in the early-mid 90s, I was still a Christian (Southern Baptist) and it stuck with me how surprised I was the first of several times I'd heard him mention "hell" during his spot and then immediately define it as "eternal separation from God". Shortly after I heard him say it for the first time, the pastor at the church I was attending at the time, James Merritt of the First Baptist Church of Snellville, also defined it that way during one of his sermons, almost exactly word for word. Merritt, by the way, went on to become President of the Southern Baptist Convention, and subsequently founded what became a mega-church. The church in Snellville may very well have also met the definition, as it had well over 2,000 members at the time I was going and had to do 3 services each Sunday.

    So oddly, this was a conservative Southern Baptist church pastor (and so is Wright, if I recall) who defines "hell" as something other than a fiery eternal torment. I've heard the "eternal separation from God" definition also repeated by some other Christians, though I have no particular recollection of when and whom. Before this realization, my upbringing in Southern Baptist churches typically included a definition of hell that was a literal fiery eternal torment. I'm thinking the "eternal separation" view is becoming more popular.

    I think it may also be a standard doctrinal position of the Seventh Day Adventists as well. I was talking to a member of that organization who also defined it as the aforementioned Baptist pastors did, and he referred me to a doctrinal summary online that repeated the definition as being a part of that church's standard doctrine.

    I don't know the extent to which this view is held, how it breaks down by denomination, and whether within the Baptists at least it may be more among the leadership than the rank-and-file.

  10. Dear Chris,

    If you're really determined to dig into this gruesome topic, you might want to read Four View of Hell. I was a student at Westminster Theological Seminary in the 80s and it was common there and in the various church circles I ran in around Philadelphia (various types of Baptists and Mennonites, Presbyterian, etc.) to hear the NT pictures of "fire," etc. described as metaphors for "eternal separation from God," but without suggesting that this somehow minimized the sufferings of the damned. The language is metaphorical, but that's because the reality will be worse than human language can capture!

    Were they trying to "water down" the doctrine of hell? Maybe, but no more than anyone else. Appreciating the significance of a teaching like that of eternal punishment takes work. It is not natural for human beings to fixate on such a demoralizing view of the future. "Hell is for somebody else" pretty much sums up the situation.

  11. I wonder how exactly "separation" from an omnipresent being works, anyway.

    Isn't the Orthodox position something along the lines of Hell and Heaven being the same place, except you don't enjoy it if you're an evil person?

  12. What if the Bible teaches annihilationism?

  13. For the skeptics and atheists,

    Does it matter to you at all what the Bible actually says about life, death, and final judgment? The Bible says that the wicked shall "burn up" not be "tortured without end."

    This is no "watering down" but it does mean that the God of the Bible is not a cruel vindictive retributive being. If you don't love life you'll die again and stay dead. You will be just as dead regardless of how evil or wicked you may have been in your lifetime.

    It is one thing if you want to criticize "Christian churches" who teach "retributive justice" and "eternal conscious torment..."

    But instead the author said "The bible teaches..." and at this point I have the right to challenge him because he is wrong. To the author, you said you were taught at a Baptist seminary: they taught you wrong.

    I realize that many atheists may not like discussing the Bible, but once you start claiming "the Bible says" you're open to be cross-examined.

    If you disagree, please follow my link and email me so we can talk. You can remain atheist if you like, but I just want to set the record straight.

    For Paul D, the only way to be "eternally separated" from an omnipresent being is to cease to exist. That is the only way that cheesy "separation from God" phrase would have any biblical validity, but that's not what is typically meant by it.

  14. While certainly in the minority, many evangelicals believe that the Lake of Fire is reserved for the day of judgement (rather than at death) where those whose names are not in the Book of Life will be destroyed.

    This is by no means a new, novel idea. Indeed, if William Tyndale hadn't been martyred, the modern church may well have rejected the Roman Catholic dogma of eternal torment. Unfortunately, John Calvin and friends ensured that the orthodox dogma would prevail.

    I do not believe that the Bible supports the tradittional view of hell. Most haven't even bothered to study the use of the Hebrew and Greek words in scripture to know any better.

    Contrary to your view, Jesus did pay the price for our sin. The punishment for sin is death (not eternal torment) and Jesus paid that price on the cross. On the other hand, Jesus obviously didn't suffer unending torment which means that the orthodox view falls way short if that is the punishment for sin regardless of the spin attempted by some in the orthodox camp.

    If you are serious about finding out what the Bible really has to say on the subject, I'd recommend Edward Fudge's book: "The Fire That Consumes" available post free from The Book Depository in the UK.

    Andrew Thomson

  15. Andrew,

    I have read Fudge's book and I know that there are some evangelicals who hold to annihilation, for example John R. W. Stott and others. That's fine but the majority of conservative evangelicals disagree. These are the folks I am targeting on my blog. The fact that Christians who all read the same Bible cannot agree on what it says about hell is not surprising. There is disagreement on every major doctrine including how one is saved. See my post at CommonSenseAtheism. When you Christians agree on what the Bible says, then get back to me and we can discuss it.

  16. Jim,

    Thanks for mentioning this book: Four Views of Hell. All four of the writers are evangelicals and they all believe the Bible to be the Word of God and yet they cannot agree on what the Bible teaches on this critical issue.

  17. Dear Ken,

    Commenting on what you said to Andrew Thomson, you wrote "There is disagreement on every major doctrine including how one is saved.... when you Christians agree on what the Bible says, then get back to me and we can discuss it."

    It seems to me that even Atheists disagree on what the Bible says, and not only that, but Atheists also disagree on pretty much every area of theology and philosophy. Agnostics are even more scattered and confused. You claim to be both.

    You admitted that you are basing your beliefs on what others say. Yet you earlier claimed that "the Bible says..." Please make up your mind what you are using as your standard of evidence and just be honest about it.

    In the meantime, until you can get the world or Atheism and Agnosticism to agree on everything your response is unjustified and you have contradicted yourself.

    Thus, you have confused "the Bible says" with "some people say the Bible says..."

    But it sounds like you've personally answered my question: to you it doesn't really matter what the Bible says on any topic, as long as you can find a single instance of disagreement among so-called "bible scholars" you have an excuse.

    Just stop claiming "the Bible says...." and switch to "so-and-so says" or "so-and-so says the Bible says" and you'll at least be accurate.

    It's generally pointless to attempt to have a logical and rational discussion with anyone who willfully prefers hearsay when solid evidence is available.

    The reason many people will not agree on what the Bible teaches on a critical issue is because they prefer what they want to believe regardless of the written word. We are told that this will happen.

    2Peter 2:1-2
    (1) But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction.
    (2) And many shall follow their pernicious ways; by reason of whom the way of truth shall be evil spoken of.

    Even in this verse, notice that these false teachers among us are promised "swift destruction" and these are not the words of "eternal conscious torment."

    "swift" + "destruction" = "swift destruction"

    Do we really need to debate what these words mean? Do we need to hold a conference among the evangelical community? There shall be destruction, and it shall be swift. Let's use a dictionary if we must!

    Hearsay and commentary are not scripture, and Baptist seminary indoctrination is not scripture. If you want to debate what the Bible says I'll discuss it with you in private or public (whichever you'd prefer.)

    Personally, I think it's a good thing that you've rejected Baptist seminary. There may be more hope for you than "fundamentalists" that WANT to believe in "Eternal Conscious Torment." But if you choose to reject the Bible as a whole you should know what it is that you're rejecting.

    Take care,
    -Andrew Patrick (the other Andrew)

  18. Andrew Patrick:

    Atheism does not have a single book which it holds to be the sole source of truth as Christians do. You have one book and you can't agree on what it says. If it were truly written under the influence of an omnipotent and omniscient being, then it ought to be very clear. I am sure you think it is clear but so do those other Christians who disagree with you. You can't both be right.

    Whether the Bible teaches eternal torment or not, does not change the fact that it teaches retributive justice. Annihilation is just as compatible with retributive justice as is eternal torment. In many ways its more compatible because at least the punishment is not more severe than the crime.

    BTW, I did not go to a Baptist Seminary. Bob Jones University is non-denominational. But eternal torment is not just believed by most Baptists; it has been the majority view (overwhelmingly) of all Protestants since the Reformation. In the 19th century, liberal theologians began to deny it and sects such as Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventist's, and others denied it. It has only been in the last 40 years or less that some evangelicals have begun to deny it.

  19. Dear Ken,

    Your primary argument is that there are some who *claim* to be “bible believing” Christians who might disagree. This is a gigantic straw man argument. I thought this was about “what the bible said” and not what about human philosophy that uses “color of scripture.”

    And it is not a proof against an omnipotent Author if there were people who are willfully blind or knowingly misrepresent scripture.

    Isa 66:4-5
    (4) I also will choose their delusions, and will bring their fears upon them; because when I called, none did answer; when I spake, they did not hear: but they did evil before mine eyes, and chose that in which I delighted not.
    (5) Hear the word of the LORD, ye that tremble at his word; Your brethren that hated you, that cast you out for my name's sake, said, Let the LORD be glorified: but he shall appear to your joy, and they shall be ashamed.

    2Th 2:10-11
    (10) And with all deceivableness of unrighteousness in them that perish; because they received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved.
    (11) And for this cause God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie:

    * * *

    You've claimed that "eternal torment" has been the "majority view of all Protestants" since the Reformation. But if so, so what? The cry of the Protestant Reformation was “solas scriptures,”

    Regardless, this is not the creation of 19th century liberal theologians. Your forum limits me to 4096 characters so I have abbreviated this section.

    The original 16th-century Baptists did not believe in “immortal souls” and "eternal conscious torment" and this can be verified from reading the works of John Calvin who cursed and raved against "that nefarious herd of Anabaptists" who "slay souls without uttering a word." This is no "new doctrine" and it is not from liberal 19th century theologians.

    It might be correct to say that "Eternal Conscious Torment" was the doctrine of the Calvinist branch of the Reformation, but not of the Protestant Reformation of Martin Luther, William Tyndale, John Milton, the Anabaptists, and quite a few others. If you care about this more can be provided.

    * * *

    You have stated that if there are two people who read the same book and disagree, that they cannot both be right. The problem with your application is that you are assuming that both must be wrong.

    * * *

    If I must emphasize anything, I will answer your primary point: it is absolutely unfair and illogical to reject the Bible because of an observation that some people must be lying about it. THERE WILL BE HYPOCRITES.

    Rom 3:3-4
    (3) For what if some did not believe? shall their unbelief make the faith of God without effect?
    (4) God forbid: yea, let God be true, but every man a liar...

    If you truly think that the Bible is so flexible that it contradicts itself, then personally step forward and challenge me. Please prove to me that the Bible teaches "the immortal soul" or "eternal conscious torment" anywhere.

    If you win this challenge, then perhaps you've defended their "honor" but if I win the challenge, then we’ve proved that the "majority view" of "all Protestants" as a lie. I’m saying the Bible is clear.

    Since I did not base my claims upon human tradition, why point to examples of people who claim to be Christian that contradict themselves? I challenged you because you prefaced your statement with “the Bible says.”

    1) Please provide a concise definition of what you mean by “retributive justice” because it’s not a term my Bible uses, and word “retribution” does not mean “punishment.”
    2) If you want to defend all these “hellfire and brimstone eternal conscious torment of your immortal soul” preachers, then you need to show me where the Bible teaches this. Just use a standard King James Bible.

    * * *

    Thank you for responding. I appreciate that you are honest in your opinion.

    -Andrew Patrick (the other Andrew)

  20. I'd like to summarize in a nutshell:

    1) The Bible does not teach "retributive justice" as you've defined it, where equal harm must be applied for sins committed. The wages of sin is death, and death is the same for all.

    2) The imagery of this particular article should be used to attack so-called "Christian preachers" that falsely claim the Bible teaches "eternal conscious torment in hell."

    3) If you are not satisfied with attacking these preachers and want to attack the Bible or all of Christianity, you need to first prove that the Bible itself teaches "eternal conscious torment in hell" as the fate of the wicked.

    4) Claiming that the existence of liars, hypocrites, or simply even people who have been misled (without actually checking for themselves) as to what the Bible says is never a valid evidence against God or the Bible.

    Who is to say that some of these "hellfire preachers" are not actually atheists themselves? They are going to *CLAIM* to be "bible believing evangelicals" because it's good business.

    But by your logic the presence of the opportunists is a PROOF that there can be no omniscient God... after all, how could this Bible be misunderstood if there is a God? That WAS your logic.

    I'm just pointing out that so far your *stated* reasons for your atheism are illogical. You'd want better reasons than that from someone who was attempting to defend Christianity, wouldn't you?

    Take care,
    -Andrew Patrick (the other Andrew)

  21. Dear Ken,

    I was reading through some of your writing, and I found something you said on another blog that relates to this exact topic:

    "That is some very poor exegesis, Mr. MacArthur, there are least two problems with his conclusion. First, there is no doctrine of eternal torment anywhere in the OT, so of course, its not here. Second, if the stillborn infant goes to heaven on the basis of this verse then so do the wicked, because v. 17 says: There the wicked cease from troubling."

    * * *

    Thank you very much Ken. I find it interesting that you weren't claiming that the Old Testament was so vague that it could be read either way. You were willing to plainly say that this MacArthur guy was wrong and *contradicted by scripture.*

    Let's go a little further: the doctrine of "eternal torment" is not in the New Testament either. These books have the same Author and speak consistently.

    I cannot be expected to read your mind or to create your arguments for you (or MacArthur or anyone else for that matter) so if you have an argument that the New Testament teaches differently you need to put it forth.

    -Andrew Patrick

  22. The source or root of hell's torture lies in the evil that lies in the human soul, and of which the soul did not get rid of, loving it more than God's healing and salvation. The punishment is not external, like in human justice. It is internal and everlasting because death and destruction were vanquished through the resurrection. Evil is truly evil, and good is truly good, and the past cannot be undone: the bitterness of tardive, impotent, and unfruitful regrets after a life spent in evils is simply unbearable ("repent ye, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand" -- but no-one listens).