Eternal Conscious Torment

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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.


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