Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Infinite Sin, Infinite God

I often hear said that any sin, no matter how minor from our point of view, merits eternal torment, because like all sins it is an infinite sin against an infinite God. (Call this doctrine "SMITE", for "Sin Merits Infinite TormEnt".) A perspicuous statement of this doctrine is found in Jonathan Edwards.

[S]in is heinous enough to deserve eternal punishment, and such a punishment is no more than proportionable to the evil or demerit of sin. If evil of sin be infinite, as the punishment is, then it is manifest that the punishment is no more than proportionable to the sin punished, and is no more than sin deserves. And if the obligation to love, honour, and obey God be infinite, then sin which is the violation of this obligation, is a violation of infinite obligation, and so is an infinite evil. Once more, sin being an infinite evil, deserves an infinite punishment, an infinite punishment is no more than it deserves: therefore such punishment is just; which was the thing to be proved. (Jonathan Edwards, "The Eternity of Hell Torments" in The Works of Jonathan Edwards (vol. 2, Edinburgh, Banner of Truth, 1974) 83.)

In sum, the view is this. All sin is a violation of our obligation to God. Moreover, all our obligations to God are infinite. Thus violation of any of those obligations is an infinite evil. But an infinite evil deserves an infinite penalty. Thus all sin deserves an infinite penalty.

Let us ask if this view is defensible.

Let us turn first to the notion of an infinite penalty. How are we to understand 'infinite penalty' in this context? Is is a penalty exacted for infinite time; in this context, the kind of infinity meant is eternity. But note that it is a penalty that has not been paid for all past time. Rather it's a penalty that a sinner will begin to pay at some time in the future. But if this is so, the penalty paid will always be finite. After a day, the sinner will have paid only a bit. After a thousand years, much will have been paid. But no matter how far we go into the future, only a finite amount of the infinite penalty will have been paid. We must conclude that it's a logical impossibility to pay the infinite penalty. But if it's impossible to pay the penalty, it seems absurd to say of God that He exacts it from us. Surely we should not say of God that He attempts to bring about a thing that simply cannot occur. The circle cannot be squared. Thus God will not attempt to square it. We cannot pay the infinite penalty. Thus God will not attempt to extract it from us.

What now of the claim that all sin is a violation of our obligation to God? (Edwards does not make this claim explicit, but he does seem to presuppose it.) I do not say that it is false. Instead I say only that I do not understand it. If I fail to discipline my children, I violate the obligation I have to them. But how do I also thereby violate an obligation I have to God? Have I wronged God? Perhaps I wrong God as I wrong a parent if I were his child's teacher and yet failed to teach that child. But this is speculation.

Last let us examine the claim that all our obligations to God are infinite. Take Edwards' example of love. In what sense is my obligation to love God infinite? Two answers seem possible. (i) Perhaps it is an obligation to evince an infinite love of God. However, I do not think that I'm capable of such a thing. I am a finite being, and all that I feel and do is of necessity finite. Thus it's impossible for me to evince an infinite love. (ii) Is the obligation to evince infinite love of God an obligation to evince a perfect love of God? I find it plausible to say that I ought to love God perfectly. But as said before, I cannot love God infinitely, for I can do nothing infinitely. Thus to love God perfectly is not to love Him infinitely.

Indeed what I've said of love can be said of all our obligations to God. They are not infinite obligations. Rather they are obligations to do a thing perfectly. (I suspect that Edwards has confused 'infinite' and 'perfect'. In the case of God, all that He is and does is of course both infinite and perfect. But in our case, though perfection is possible, infinity is not. The perfection appropriate to us qua finite beings is finite; the perfection appropriate to God qua infinite being is infinite.) But once we've said this, we find that we must reject SMITE. Our sins, since not infinite, do not merit eternal torment.

If I were more cynical that I am, I would say that Edwards invented a fallacious little argument for a conclusion he already believed. (If I were more cynical than I am, I'd say he often does this.)

35 comments:

Jim said...

But no matter how far we go into the future, only a finite amount of the infinite penalty will have been paid. We must conclude that it's a logical impossibility to pay the infinite penalty.

Or, perhaps the payment scheme is simultaneously retroactive.

Or, perhaps it's logically necessary that any action that "touches" God (in other words, satisfies God's demands) has to somehow "enter" the realm of the timeless.

In theism, all things are possible.

C Grace said...

Franklin,

Unfortunately, there is a tendency toward anti-intellectualism at the heart of Protestant theology. Theology and philosophy parted ways at the Reformation and Protestant doctrine has suffered accordingly.

Catholic doctrine has a much more philosophically robust view of this whole issue. Are you familiar with it? I can look up some quotes if you are interested.

Franklin Mason said...

Jim,

Except of course for those things that are impossible.

I'm not sure what you mean when you say that the payment scheme might be simultaneously retroactive.

Franklin Mason said...

C Grage,

Hello again! As you see, I've started the blog up again. I have some hope to turn this all into a book on the conceptual foundations of Evangelicalism, and so I do plan to keep at it.

My impression is that Protestant theology hit a low mark in the U.S. in the 19th and 20th centuries. But it seems as of late to have picked up a bit. There seem more serious attempts to take on critics than were in evidence in the past (though to be sure there's still much stick-your-head-in-the-sand-and-ignore-modernity still in it).

Didn't Augustine say something about sin much like what was said by Edwards? I'm gonna try and track it down. Even if he did, I do agree with what you say about Catholic theology. It is more philosophically robust. If I were to convert, I most certainly would become Catholic. (I just need to find a way to do it with a clear conscience. Catholicism seems to make little room for dissenters.)

C Grace said...

Augustine's view (and the Traditional view in general) of sin is that our obligation to God consists in a perfect love for Him for all time. Everything we have is from Him and our obligation is to give back to Him in perfect willing love everything that He has gives us. Therefore when the first man sinned he encured a debt that he could never repay because he already owed God everything.

As far as infinte/eternal torment. Basically, hell is simply separation from God. Since we were made such that all our spiritual good comes from Him. (ever present, its not something He gives and then we have - He is always giving) When we are infinitely separated from Him, we suffer an infinite lack of good.

I have a couple of posts on my blog, one on heaven and one on hell if you are interested. They are a couple posts down from the top.

C Grace said...

Glad you are back up and runnning. Sounds like an interesting book. I'll stay tuned.

I have completely outgrown typical Protestant theology, but I don't plan on becoming Catholic, I feel comfortable where I am. Things are changing in the PC. The emphasis is shifting away from arguing about doctrine to loving each other and the world as God loves. The leaders of the Emergent Church are the most prominent examples of this, but it is spreading quietly even among the more traditional churches. I belong to one of these. It is just that these Christians are busy doing what they ought rather than getting invovled in useless arguing so you don't hear much about them.

The Emergent leaders are taking the best from Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant tradition and making something new. If you ever decide to convert you might check them out. Just search for Emergent Christian on Google. The names I can think of off the top of my head are Brian McLaren, and Scott McNight over at Jesuscreed.org. They don't really have a theology or institutional stucture. It's a different sort of approach to Christianity.

It seems to me that part of the problem with Evangelical theology is what happens in schools. You teach to the lowest common denominator. Since Catholic doctrine is studied almost exclusively by educated priests, it never got dumbed down, but the Protestant church has the idea that everyone should study the Bible so the doctrines got simplified in order to make them more accessable to your average person. (Not everyone can be a philosopher :))

Jim said...

If, following Dembski, events that are causes must not necessarily precede their effects in time, then perhaps events in time can "stretch" backward to retroactively cover the past. (I won't pretend that the objection is coherent.)

Franklin Mason said...

C Grace,

Thanks for the info on the Emergent church. I'll poke around and find out what I can.

As for the source of the theological shortfalls of Evangelicalism: from my point of view, it isn't so much that it's been dumbed down. Rather it seems to me that its very foundations, no matter how rigorously articulated, are rotten. For instance, I simply have not been able to find a way to interpret the doctrine of substitutionary atonement that doesn't make it theologically and morally absurd.

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Michael Ejercito said...

God, by virtue of his absolute power and absolute sovereignty, decreed that the penalty for sin is eternal torment in the lake of fire.

That is justification enough.

Franklin Mason said...

Michael,

So I take it then that God could decree just anything at all.

Mina Soliman said...

May I offer a suggestion?

In my Church, we do not believe in anything called an "infinite" sin. Therefore, anything that you do is finite, since we are finite human beings. Sin is what you do, not something against God. It's what you do that hurts yourself.

Sure, there are things in the Bible that show God's "displeasure," but nothing has "offended" God, since God does not change one way or another. If anything, you can sin all day, God will not change. But because God is loving and not a vain God, He takes displeasure at what you do and also DOES SOMETHING about it.

It's kinda like an alcoholic. If you overindulge in alcohol, you didn't hurt anyone around you, but your best friend will be disheartened and displeased at your condition that you created for yourself (key word: CREATED). Therefore, sin is a condition that man CREATED for himself that finds displeasure with God.

What does God do? He LOVES the world so much that He sends His only Begotten Son in an Incarnate form.

Now, is there a debt? Yes, there is, but the debt should be considered something that takes away a curse that God has commanded, but not something that pays back God, since there's nothing lacking in God. Therefore, Christ was incarnate not only to lift the curse, but also to be united with us, to fix us and to sanctify us, or make us holy, or "saints".

Therefore, the concept of "Infinite Sin" is completely wrong. First of all, if you're saying you're paying a "debt" to God's "Infinite Wrath," then what is the point of "Infinite Sin." One can say that if you sin, you will incur God's Wrath, which is infinite, because God is infinite, but you have done nothing infinite, since you are finite. In that case, it's possible to say that the debt pays that "Infinite Wrath" in a figurative sense, since it changes death from a curse to a blessing (everything we do is now what God in the flesh did, and not what God punished).

But if one is to insist that sin is infinite because the offense is infinite, then that's like saying I caused just enough damage to God, equal damage. If I punched a friend, I hurt him. But if I punched God, did I also hurt Him? But then isn't God immutable? In that case, Infinite Sin seems just as strong as the Infinite God, and you have something that God had to fight on His own terms. God therefore is not stronger than sin, He is equal to sin, and therefore, Sin becomes a God on its own terms, possibly an evil God, leading to Gnostic dualism!

But if the debt is paid to Infinite Sin, then are you saying that God's Wrath is the Infinite Sin itself? You're either paying a debt to God or a debt to Infinite Sin.

Therefore, logically, adding the word "infinite" as something that describes sin messes the whole thing up. Sin is finite, never was infinite, and never was even believed to be infinite in ancient Christianity. Not even St. Augustine believed in the doctrine of "infinite sin."

God bless.

Franklin Mason said...

Mina,

Thanks so much for the comment. I very much like the ideas that sin is not an offense against God but is rather an act whereby we bring harm to ourselves. God's purpose, then, in the Incarnation is not to give us the means to make good on a sin-debt but rather to give us the means to put right the harm we've done to our natures. Seems like sound theology to me.

SteveK said...

First off, we are sinners (original sin nature) therefore we sin. It is not the other way around: we are not sinners because we sin.

I heard a reasoned response to the infinite penalty complaint. Tell me what you think.

Your punishment after physical death actually is finite, but since you remain in original sin you keep sinning into eternity, which then requires additional finite punishment, which then allows your sin nature to condemn you further. And so on, and so forth.

The only way to get out of the vicious cycle is to repent.

Franklin Mason said...

I do find that when I look back over old posts, I'm sometimes sloppy. You're right; we're born with the taint of original sin and become sinners - beings who have acted sinfully - only later.

I very much like your suggestion. It has a consequence that I endorse - that repentance and the consequent forgiveness of sin are possible even after death. I know that this is rejected my most Christians, but it seems to be the only reasonable view.

SteveK said...

I know that this is rejected my most Christians, but it seems to be the only reasonable view.

I hear what you are saying and I've struggled with this topic for a long time.

I said: "The only way to get out of the vicious cycle is to repent."

I envision there are ways this can be done that don't require purgatory. In other words a way that requires one, and only one, fair judgement (compatible with a loving God).

I could be wrong though so I don't reject the idea of purgatory either. Consider me undecided and willing to let God do his job while I do mine.

Franklin Mason said...

As I understand it, the Catholic idea of purgatory is of a place where one does penance for sins. But even when it begins, those there are heaven-bound, else they would be in hell. In purgatory, one's fate is already sealed by the character of the life one lived on Earth; there's nothing that one can do after death to change that ultimate fate.

As you might guess, I don't like it. I may well be wrong, but I don't see at present how I can be. So many in this life have had such little opportunity to hear and conform to the message of the Gospel. Wouldn't a merciful God give them the opportunity?

SteveK said...

One way I envision God doing this is giving everyone, upon their death, a clear understanding of who God is and what is required of them - assuming they don't have that understanding already. If they already have that understanding then we go right to the judgement proceedings.

Most people on this side of eternity have a flawed/incorrect understanding of who God is and what exactly is required of them (to repent, worship, etc). By making this crystal clear to everyone, God levels the playing field for Hindus, Muslims, Jews and even fundamentalist Christians who got God totally wrong - many through no fault of their own. Now everyone is culpable.

Someone may complain that this isn't what scripture says, but it does actually. It says those who reject Christ will perish, but what if you rejected a false concept of Christ and Christianity? Did you really reject Christ? No, you rejected a 'cartoon version' of the true and living God.

The bottom line is this: you get one chance to accept/reject Christ (the real one) on his terms. This is what the bible seems to teach.

If this life is indicative of the next, there will still be plenty of people willing to thumb their nose at "the man" (God) in exchange for their warped belief that they have a better way. Forever they will weep and gnash their teeth (just as the do today), all the while thinking that they made the right decision.

SteveK said...

One more thing to add to my last comment...

If you choose to put off religion and say "I will deal with it later" then you risk transforming yourself into the kind of person that will deny the true and living God. You may do this without even knowing it. How?

In this life you either become more attracted to Christ or more repulsed by him so putting off the decision is still a decision to let chance, circumstance, emotion, whatever to decide for you. You are like a boat without a rudder, blown this way and that way, but never staying put.

It's best to not let these things determine who you will become. It's best to put your mind toward seeking God honestly and allowing God, through a humble heart, to transform you into the person he wants you to become.

Franklin Mason said...

Steve,

Why only one opportunity? Many of us have many opportunities in this life, and do not take advantage of the first. Wouldn't a good and graceful God give us as many opportunities as it takes?

I also doubt that God will ever simply "flood" us with a vision of who He is if we have not already done the hard labor to reach that vision. The world seems to be a place where it is necessary to struggle towards that vision. To be simply given the vision of God in an as-yet imperfect state seems a cheat. Perhaps the vision of God is simply to be equated to with spiritual perfection, and the road to that perfect is, I think, long and arduous.

Now, it may well be the case that some make a decision to turn their backs on God that reflects a final hardening of their hearts. Perhaps this is what is meant in the passage where we are told that to speak against the Spirit is the one unforgivable sin. These people will be damned - or perhaps simply obliterated. But I think that very very few of us, either in this life or the life to come, have made such a final decision.

SteveK said...

Why only one opportunity? Many of us have many opportunities in this life, and do not take advantage of the first. Wouldn't a good and graceful God give us as many opportunities as it takes?

I don't have anything against God giving us more than one opportunity after death. I'm just trying to reconcile a loving/fair/just God to the belief that you are judged immediately after physical death.

Struggling to get right with God, whether in this life or the next, is a process of multiple opportunities so nobody is getting short changed. I think something about our relationship with/understanding of God must change after death or we'll forever be struggling in vain just like we are today.

Regardless of how many opportunities are given, it seems to me that eventually each person must have a perfect understanding of the situation in order for them to be culpable.

My head hurts - I gotta stop thinking about this.

jdavidb said...

So many in this life have had such little opportunity to hear and conform to the message of the Gospel. Wouldn't a merciful God give them the opportunity?

Frank, I am not a Catholic, but it is my understanding that Catholic teaching on this matter is that God extends grace to those who would repent and conform to the Gospel message but for whatever reason lacked opportunity -- for example, not hearing the message. So such persons could, theoretically according to current Catholic teaching, eventually reach heaven.

Franklin Mason said...

jdavidb,

May I call you "David"?

You're right about the Catholic view. But I would add that it seems to me that no one gets a free ticket into heaven, if by this we mean the full vision of God. That is something that I think would come only after much time and spiritual maturation. There is an easy route to salvation - God's grace. There is not easy route to sanctification.

mick3391 said...

Good food for though, however you are missing the point, you are just a little confused. First, you must understand justice, a SENSE of justice. If we see Hitler get the death penalty, we have no problem with it, this is our sense of justice, as fallen, sinful humans. God however see's one sin as infinite, it's infinite in the sense that it's committed against an infinite God, that's the point, the severity of our punishment is in direct proportion to who the crime is committed against, and if it be God, as all sin is, it is infinite. Further, Infinite punishment does not refer to time, it refers to severity, do you see the one to one ratio here? It could be phrased this way, "One sin against God deserves infinite punishment forever". Even though it is HORRIFYING, it is biblical, trust me.

mick3391 said...

Good food for though, however you are missing the point, you are just a little confused. First, you must understand justice, a SENSE of justice. If we see Hitler get the death penalty, we have no problem with it, this is our sense of justice, as fallen, sinful humans. God however see's one sin as infinite, it's infinite in the sense that it's committed against an infinite God, that's the point, the severity of our punishment is in direct proportion to who the crime is committed against, and if it be God, as all sin is, it is infinite. Further, Infinite punishment does not refer to time, it refers to severity, do you see the one to one ratio here? It could be phrased this way, "One sin against God deserves infinite punishment forever". Even though it is HORRIFYING, it is biblical, trust me.

mick3391 said...

Good food for though, however you are missing the point, you are just a little confused. First, you must understand justice, a SENSE of justice. If we see Hitler get the death penalty, we have no problem with it, this is our sense of justice, as fallen, sinful humans. God however see's one sin as infinite, it's infinite in the sense that it's committed against an infinite God, that's the point, the severity of our punishment is in direct proportion to who the crime is committed against, and if it be God, as all sin is, it is infinite. Further, Infinite punishment does not refer to time, it refers to severity, do you see the one to one ratio here? It could be phrased this way, "One sin against God deserves infinite punishment forever". Even though it is HORRIFYING, it is biblical, trust me.

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