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Is Eternity in Hell an Unfair Punishment?

If sin is finite, how can it possibly be just for someone to go to hell for all eternity? Isn’t it unfair to give an eternal punishment for a crime that took a finite time to commit? As Karlo notes, there’s more to consider here.

Caller: How can hell ever be a just punishment? Because, you know, hell is eternal, according to our faith, and so how can a limited time on this earth be equal to eternity?

Karlo: Well, Fadi, you know, you were on the right track. Because if the question is: “Is it just for God to send someone who rejects him to eternal punishment in hell,”—based upon a finite temporal sin, right, a sin that lasted only a finite time, but yet it’s going to have an infinite, everlasting duration of punishment—the answer to that question is “Yes, it is just,” because time is not the issue, but the gravity of the offense is what the punishment is measured to.

So it’s not about measuring the punishment proportionate to the time it took to commit the crime, or the sin, right? But the measure of the punishment is proportioned to the gravity of the offense, or the measure of the fault, as to the degree of the severity of the fault. And St. Thomas Aquinas articulates this beautifully, Fadi, in the supplement to the Summa Theologiae, question 99 article 1.

And so the more grievously a person sins, the more grievously is he punished; and the gravity of the sin is measured by the degree or the dignity of the person whom you offend. And since God is infinite in dignity, then it’s just and fair for the person to merit an infinite duration of punishment, right? So it’s perfectly just for God to send somebody to hell who’s decided to no longer be with him for an eternity in order to experience an everlasting punishment.

But that’s a different question than why God created people in the first place knowing that they would reject him. And that is a mysterious question, but I think, Fadi, you know, one thought that comes to mind is that existence is a good. This is one of the answers that some of the Scholastics would give. And that is to say that in as much as God wills to create something in the first place, that is a great good that manifests his goodness.

So think about creation. Everything that God creates manifests God’s goodness and His being in some way. And for something to even exist is a great manifestation of God’s goodness. And for something to exist with a free will, and to exercise freedom and choice in determining their ultimate life’s course is a great good that manifests the divine goodness in a way that having a creature without freedom wouldn’t. And so some of the Scholastics would say “That is a great good for which God can create, because it is a manifestation of His goodness.”

But of course, involved with that that particular manifestation of the divine goodness— namely, having freedom and the possibility to sin—of course comes with that, like I said, the possibility to sin. So the possibility to sin is something that is an accident, or it comes with—you know, in theology we would say it’s “concomitant,” right, it’s alongside, or comes with, God willing this particular manifestation of His divine goodness. And that particular manifestation of His divine goodness—namely, having a free rational creature that’s created without the beatific vision being able to cooperate with divine providence to determine whether or not he or she achieves his or her ultimate end—that’s a manifestation of divine goodness that’s higher than not having that.

And so I think that’s one way in which we could possibly respond to that question as to why God would create somebody knowing that the person is going to sin anyway. Having existence, having the ability to exercise the choice, experiencing the love of God in as much as you exist, right, is a good and worth having the possibility for somebody to choose to reject God.

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