Christian Doctrines, Eschatology, Hell, theology

Eternal Conscious Torment, Degrees of Suffering, and Infinite Punishment

One argument for affirming Eternal Conscious Torment (hereafter ECT) is that it allegedly makes more sense of divine justice.* So, for example, the argument is that awful dictators like Stalin or Hitler being simply executed by God (such as in some views of Conditionalism) is unjust, but rather their punishment must be much more severe in order to satisfy justice. To rework ECT and allow for a more palatable sense of justice, the concept of degrees of punishment is sometimes introduced, such that those who did not commit great atrocities suffer less than those who did. Another argument for ECT is that because God is infinite and God is the wronged party when creatures sin, those finite creatures must suffer infinite punishment for justice to be served. Below, I’ll argue that these arguments related to ECT fail.

Degrees of Punishment

Intuitively, it seems unjust that someone who say, did not come to belief in Jesus Christ due to not hearing the Gospel proclaimed have the same level of punishment in eternity as someone like Stalin does or someone who intentionally misleads people about Christ. Thus, the argument goes, to preserve that sense of justice, there are degrees of punishment in hell. Instead of debating the merits of that argument, I’d like to highlight a significant problem for the ECT position on this view. Namely, ECT does not, in fact, allow for degrees of punishment on the basis of it being eternal.

Eternity is a long time. It is infinite. Defenders of ECT are adamant: this punishment goes on forever, without end. However, once one introduces the infinite into real life situations, such as eternal conscious torment, some difficulties appear. To explain, examples like Hilbert’s Hotel can help explain some of these situations. In Hilbert’s Hotel, there are infinite rooms which are all full with infinite people. But, alas, a guest would like to check in! No problem, Hilbert just moves every guest down one room, thus making room for another guest! It sounds paradoxical because it is. That’s not how things in the real world seem to work. Nothing truly seems infinite.

For defenders of ECT, hell is infinite. Let’s say we have two people in ECT’s view of hell. One, Jill, has a degree of punishment significantly smaller than that of Joseph Stalin. Let’s say that Jill’s suffering is only 1/1000 that of Stalin. Now, to determine how much suffering any individual suffers, one can multiply the amount of suffering by the amount of time they’re suffering that amount. But infinity multiplied in such a fashion remains infinity. In both Jill and Stalin’s case, that amount of time is infinite. Thus, their total suffering is equal, because the quantitative suffering they receive moment to moment ultimately multiplies to be an equal, infinite amount of suffering. The aggregate suffering which each endures is infinite. All of the unsaved, regardless of who they are or what actions they did in this life, ultimately suffer an equal amount: infinitely.

This means that the argument about degrees of punishment related to ECT fails, because all of the lost suffer the same ultimate fate: infinite suffering.

Different Infinites

It is true that there are different kinds of infinities in math. However, those differences aren’t relevant in this case for a few reasons. One reason is that no individual’s suffering is infinite at any given moment (this is important, as we will see in the next section). That is, we can quantify one’s temporal suffering, say, on a range of 1-1000. Because of that, the calculus of infinites doesn’t change here. Though there are different kinds of infinite, the degrees of punishment being discussed here are not–and cannot–be significant enough to impact that ultimate amount of aggregate suffering in a way that makes the infinites mathematically discernable.

The other problem is that mathematical proof can show that the different type of infinites don’t matter in the case of ECT. See the Appendix below.

Infinite Suffering and the Justice of an Infinite God

Another argument in favor of ECT is that, because one has wronged an infinite being, the punishment must be infinite. If I’m right about the above problem for ECT, ECT succeeds at providing infinite aggregate punishment, but only at cost of undermining any possibility of degrees of punishment. But the fact that it is only aggregately infinite yields another problem: no finite being actually suffers an infinite amount, which undermines another argument for ECT.

Humans are finite–this is a given and indeed is part of the proponent of ECT’s argument for needing an infinite punishment for wronging an infinite God. However, because humans are finite, they are incapable of suffering, at any given moment, an infinite amount. So, while their suffering will be an aggregate or ultimate infinity, given the infinite time of eternity, at no point in time can one say “Stalin has suffered infinitely.” The reason for this is that, at any given moment in eternity, the amount of suffering would still be finite, having not yet reached an infinite amount. For every given moment, t, there is another moment, t +1, that would yield more suffering.

What this means, then, is that no one in hell, at any given moment, has suffered or will have suffered infinitely (excepting the abstract ultimate or aggregate eternity). But if God’s justice can only be served by meting out infinite suffering to finite creatures, then God’s justice is never satisfied, for all such creatures doomed to infinite suffering must continue to suffer without ever reaching the actual infinite amount of suffering. Therefore, the argument in favor of ECT from God’s infinite justice fails.

Addendum: Infinite Life in Christ

Another outcome of my reasoning is that degrees of reward in heaven must ultimately be the same as well. Thus, any view which deems it necessary for there to be varying degrees of eternal bliss faces the same difficulties as ECT does, for all of the saved will experience infinite bliss. Therefore, views of eternal rewards which rely upon infinite rewards fail.

*Interestingly, the opposite is also often held by those who argue for positions apart from ECT.

Appendix: Mathematical Proof and Infinite Suffering

This mathematical proof was made by Jonathan Folkerts, a Physics Doctoral Student.

Links

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick is a Lutheran, feminist, Christ-follower. A Science Fiction snob, Bonhoeffer fan, Paleontology fanboy and RPG nerd.

Discussion

9 thoughts on “Eternal Conscious Torment, Degrees of Suffering, and Infinite Punishment

  1. JW,

    Very interesting. Have you read “The Fire that Consumes” and “Rethinking Hell?”
    ________________________________

    Posted by Parrish, Stephen | August 2, 2021, 7:58 AM
  2. “all of the saved will experience infinite bliss”

    The infinite sum of even the smallest amount of pleasure is infinite. However the raw mathematics ignore subjective experience. Almost everyone would say they would rather have a series, however long, of great meals rather than the same number of meals which are quite enjoyable but not outstanding. The idea that an infinite number of great meals is the same as an infinite number of good meals falls apart when subjective experience is taken into account.

    This perspective on ICT also ignores the mathematical concept of a limit. Suppose Stalin is allocated X amount of suffering for all his atrocities. He gets half of it in the first (subjective) million years. In the next time period he gets half of the remainder, and so on ad infinitum. His total suffering summed through all infinity will be X, not infinity.

    To God be all glory.

    Posted by Ralph Dave Westfall | August 2, 2021, 7:14 PM
    • Taking subjective experience into account actually makes this problem more acute because people tend to build up immunity both to discomfort as well as to pleasurable experiences, so an infinite number of great meals, subjectively, may begin to feel like some “okay” meals mixed in. I didn’t want to go too deep into this, but I specifically pointed out I was talking about ECT in aggregate. The suffering is infinite in the ultimate, total sense. And of course, the opposite problem occurs with the t/t+1 difficulty because essentially it concedes that at no point does Stalin (or anyone else) actually complete their punishment. Thus, justice is never actually served.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | August 3, 2021, 10:00 PM
  3. “people tend to build up immunity both to discomfort as well as to pleasurable experiences”

    Do you have some kind of research which demonstrates that happens with more intense experiences? If it was true, then wouldn’t people build up an immunity to eternal conscious torment? That would seriously weaken the argument against ECT.

    For simplicity I limited the example to just meals. There is a great number of things in which people take pleasure. I’m not at all worried about losing my taste for eternal bliss coming in an exceedingly abundant variety of forms.

    “at no point does Stalin … actually complete their punishment. Thus, justice is never actually served.”

    It looks like you are assuming that the punishment has to be 100% completed for justice to be served. Where does that idea come from? Isn’t this contrary to the position you referenced above? “Another argument for ECT is that because God is infinite and God is the wronged party when creatures sin, those finite creatures must suffer infinite punishment for justice to be served.”

    Let’s go back to math again. Zeno’s paradox never hits the limit, but for any and all practical purposes, the goal is achieved. So justice would be served in all except the most nitpicking sense.
    https://www.laurencegellert.com/2012/02/does-0-999%e2%80%a6-equal-1/

    Posted by Ralph Dave Westfall | August 4, 2021, 7:48 PM
  4. Been chewing on these themes for a while. Good thoughts here.

    Posted by Joshua Parker | August 4, 2021, 11:00 PM
  5. Thanks for sharing this. I tend towards apokatastasis (universalism) myself, so this is helpful regarding ECT.

    Posted by chrislilley9 | August 9, 2021, 7:46 PM
  6. Some further thoughts on this:

    If half of the punishment is inflicted in the first length of time, and half of the remainder in each succeeding length of time, the amount of suffering will decline rapidly. In the twentieth round, it will be 1/10^20 or around 0.0001% of the intensity of the first round. Perhaps that might be equivalent to the discomfort of a nasty stretch of traffic on the freeway or a mosquito bite. Perhaps life there then would be comparable to CS Lewis’s Great Divorce scenario?

    Also since this is an infinite series, the punishment debt will never be totally and completely paid off. That would justify the unregenerated sinner having to stay in Hell forever.

    Posted by Ralph Dave Westfall | August 30, 2021, 11:21 PM
    • I suppose your first scenario is possible, but I don’t know of any defender of ECT who holds such a position. Additionally, saying the suffering will decline rapidly doesn’t provide an answer to my challenges to standard ECT defenses. Namely, that for any two people in hell, no matter what their degree of suffering, their total suffering is the same; and that at no point in time is God’s justice ultimately satisfied. Indeed, you granted that in your closing paragraph. Essentially, each of your points concedes my arguments. God’s infinite justice is never fully satisfied -and- everyone receives the same aggregate amount of punishment.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | August 31, 2021, 8:34 AM

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 2,714 other followers

Archives

Like me on Facebook: Always Have a Reason
%d bloggers like this: