Imagine Borris claims to love puppies, visits the local pet store, and fills his house with puppies. Borris also hates barking, and so he makes a simple rule that any puppy who barks will be thrown into the basement to die. The rule is very clear. The puppies were punished at the pet store whenever they barked, so they know better than to bark in the house. Yet, to Borris’ surprise, not a single puppy chooses to obey the rule, and one-by-one, Borris is forced to toss them into the basement to die.
What is wrong with this scenario? You might claim that the puppies’ disposition to bark is far too strong to resist. How would we know this? We would determine this based on the percentage of the puppies who successfully refrained from barking, right? If no puppy was successful in refraining from barking, we could conclude that the impulse to bark was so unavoidable that the puppies could not be punished for barking.
The Bible claims not a single human has successfully refrained from sinning. What can we conclude from this? We have already concluded that tossing barking puppies into the basement to die due to their unrequested and unavoidable impulse to bark is grossly unjust. Can we not also conclude that eternally damning humans for yielding to an unrequested and unavailable impulse to sin is not anything an actual just God of the universe would consider?
Most cultures don’t punish animals that kill when it is their nature to kill. And that nature is determined by the percentage of individuals within that type of animal who do not exhibit the impulse to kill. When we do find humans punishing a species of animal for performing an act consistent with their nature (especially a nature they did not request nor can avoid to a degree that not a single member of the species refrains from that action), we immediately recognize the injustice.
Yet millions of humans who believe they were born with a nature they neither requested nor can avoid are deemed by God culpable for following that nature. Can you claim the scorpion can resist stinging its handler if no normal scorpion ever has? Can you claim humans have the free will not to sin when you also claim not a single human has ever refrained from sinning? If eternal damnation was reserved for the few who committed acts which few humans have committed such as murder, the Bible might make more sense. However, the Bible makes it quite clear that a single lie is sufficient for eternal damnation. And this eternal damnation for the lie is not simply a matter of God claiming his hands are tied since the rules did not involve his input. An actual God can alter his own rules. The Bible makes it clear God is so wrathful over a single lie that he deems the liar worthy of eternal damnation.
How likely is it that an actual God of the universe would be so emotionally incontinent over a single sin of a human with a unrequested and unavoidable sin nature that his rage would result in eternally damning them?
What would be a just way to determine what infraction deserves what punishment? We can extract general principles from criminal legislation around the world.
Objective of the Court: Presumably, the purpose of punishing an action is to 1) prevent continued harm to others, and 2) to rehabilitate the offender. For those in a loving relationship with the offender, 3) the restoration of their relationship with the offender is also a goal. Note that eternal damnation accomplishes none of these three objectives. Imagine the young girl whose only sin in her short life was to hate the father who beat her to death. The Bible makes clear her hate of her father is worthy of eternal damnation. Yet her eternal damnation is not necessary to prevent her from harming others. There are a hundred different ways for an actual God to keep her from harming others. And, if the Bible is to be believed, eternal damnation is irreversible. There is no future venue in which this father-hating girl can demonstrate her rehabilitation. And if the purpose of the life of this girl was truly to have a loving relationship with God, an irreversible eternal damnation is a poor way to accomplish this purpose.
Map out the world’s criminal justice systems, and rank them in order of how just they seem to you in light of these objectives. Now add the Bible’s notion of eternal damnation for a single offense to that list, and re-rank the list. How does the biblical God rank? Do you think we should let the biblical God off the hook by invoking mysteriousness or inscrutability? Or do you think it is our responsibility to honestly assess the coherence the the alleged behaviors of such a God prior to believing such a God is the legitimate God of the universe? (See #01.)
Now contrast the way the Biblical God is said to punish offenders he claims to love with the way parents punish the children they truly love. Is there any common-sense reason why any actual God of the universe would not treat us as do our loving parents when we offend him?
(Note that at this point in a discussion of whether God is just in his punishment, many Christian leaders attempt to focus on the wonderful gift of redemption. This is equivalent to a rapist reminding the judge of all the women in his life he did not rape, and truly cared for. You can’t bury unjust and unloving acts under a mountain of just and loving acts.)
Awareness of the offender: When human courts are attempting to assign a punishment to an offense, they take into account the degree to which the offender knew their actions were an offense within the relevant system of justice. The young girl whose only offense was to hate the father beating her to death might have understood her father considered her hate offensive to him, but that is irrelevant if she is to be considered guilty of offending the God of the universe by hating her father. If she has offended this God with the hate of her father, she must know that hating her father was offensive to the God judging her. Do you think every young girl in the world killed by a father understands that the Christian God finds her hatred of her father offensive? An exploration of non-Christian cultures will provide a clear answer to this question.
Courts only unjustly punish the driver who drives past a rural stop sign completely obscured by overgrowth. If there is a moral law, its author, and that author’s authority must be apparent to everyone who is judged under that law. Is this what we actually see in the world?
Volition of the offender: The individual judged in violation of a law must have the ability to resist violating that law. We don’t kill puppies that inevitably bark. We don’t even torture scorpions for inevitably stinging their handler. Why would any just God of the universe eternally damn the individual who inevitably follows an unrequested and unavoidable inclination to lie, for example?
We have all read accounts of individuals who, due to mental illness, tumors or brain damage, have no volition over their actions. Just courts do not find these individuals worthy of punishment for offenses committed when the mental disposition of the offender diminished their volition to a significant degree. You have probably seen the sweetest Christian ladies devolve into horrible humans once they develop Alzheimer’s. Few of us think God will hold them accountable for their actions. Yet, we all start life with a particular disposition to commit certain actions such as lying. The degree of that disposition can be measured by the percentage of humans who eventually commit such actions over their lifetimes. What percentage of humans end up lying over the course of a normal life? This provides us with a measure of how we justly respond to common lying in the courts and as loving parents.
What shall we say of an allegedly loving God who will eternally damn a child for a single offense, then call it “punishment”? At what point can we simply say such a God is not eligible as an actual loving God of the universe?