Tag: Retribution

Engaging Orr-Ewing: How Could a Holy/Loving God Send People to Hell?

Amy Orr-Ewing
Amy Orr-Ewing

Amy Orr-Ewing, in her article How Could a Holy/Loving God Send People to Hell?, begins by pointing out that many people are shocked that anyone still believes in hell. Despite that, she says there are serious questions we need to consider:

Is it part of the profile of a loving God to punish people? How could that be fair?

To answer these questions, Orr-Ewing rightly notes that:

Most people want to live in a society where administrators operate the legal system justly and fairly. When we are victims of a crime, we long for justice. Our loved ones want justice on our behalf if they care for us.

Similarly, when our loved ones are victims of crime, we cry out for justice for them and Orr-Ewing shares an example from her own life. Reflecting on this, she makes a profound statement:

Love and justice are inseparable. To ignore evil or injustice would not be loving, so a loving God must also be a just God.

Yes, but doesn’t this also imply that a just God must also be a loving God—that His justice includes the ultimate good of the ones being judged?

“The problem of evil is the problem of love.” If love is to exist, we must freely give and receive it, or else it is not love. If this freedom is possible, withholding love is also possible. Selfishness, violence, and injustice are the result of the abuse of love’s freedom.

I think this is a strong argument.

Why must God’s judgment involve retribution and punishment in hell? Is this not outmoded and vindictive?

I think some theologians and preachers sadly do express a retributive punishment that is vindictive. However, I think retributive punishment can be non-vindictive when the punishment is done for the ultimate good of both the victim and perpetrator—namely their reconciliation.

Retribution is an important factor because, in a real sense, it connects the punishment with the sin. It means that punishment is not arbitrary or random, but rational and consequential.

I’d also add, that retribution should be purposeful—aiming to achieve something worthwhile.

If one of my boys hits his brother over the head and then bites his leg, he knows I will remove him from the room for time out. He endures this separation for a minute or so because he has acted aggressively. Even as a toddler he understands that his actions lead to punishment.

While this example shows that wrongdoing rightly has consequences, it’s already more developed than a simplistic “eye for eye” retribution. I suspect that Orr-Ewing would also encourage (or even insist upon) an apology from the offending toddler. Because her goal is not just to punish the toddler but to heal the relationship between the siblings.

Wrongdoing must be recognized as such both by the perpetrator and the world around us. This is the function of punishment.

I think punishment can be involved in achieving genuine comprehension (see Engaging Shumack: justice and the death penalty).

Hell is the ultimate punishment. It is the destination of those who refuse to recognize their own sin for what it is. Their assertion of the self over others and God, defies divine justice. Hell is the ultimate consequence of egotism.

I think Hell is an inevitable—very sobering—consequence and punishment for the egotism Orr-Ewing describes. At the same time, I don’t think it’s “ultimate” because God doesn’t allow the evil of egotism to continue unaddressed forever. Instead God hides everyone (including Himself) from the egotistic person (“Outer Darkness”), which shatters their delusion of superiority and independence.

The idea of eternal suffering as a result of temporal sinning seems disproportionate if people do not fully appreciate the seriousness of sin. But a biblical view of sin positions it as serious. The worth of people, created as we are in the divine image and given the capacity and opportunity to make moral choices, shows how serious it is to abuse this human dignity by sinning. This applies to one’s own life, to others, and ultimately, to defying the Maker himself. We underscore further the seriousness of sin in the Christian worldview when we reflect on the cost Jesus paid to deal with it.

I think sin is so serious that Jesus died for everyone so that sin won’t eternally infect His creation, particularly all His immeasurably valuable and irreplaceable image bearers!

Orr-Ewing’s appeal to free will being the cause of evil, including people egotistically refusing God, suggests she would agree with C. S. Lewis’ statement, that “The doors of hell are locked on the inside” (The Problem of Pain, 130). However, his “Checkmate” chapter (below) reveals there is much more to the story.

Title titled
C. S. Lewis, Surprised By Joy, 247

He describes his own conversion, which demonstrates that even when people make free moves, God will always checkmate them in the end.

I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England … a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape. The words compelle intrare, compel them to come in, have been so abused by wicked men that we shudder at them; but, properly understood [my emphasis], they plumb the depth of the Divine mercy. … His compulsion is our liberation.

C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 228–29

Looking back he realised that because he chose God it was free choice—an overwhelmingly superior choice. Had he rejected God, it would’ve have been because he was enslaved to a sick, sinful delusion.

… before God closed in on me, I was in fact offered what now appears a moment of wholly free choice. I say, ‘I chose,’ yet it did not really seem possible to do the opposite. … You could argue that I was not a free agent, but I am more inclined to think that this came nearer to being a perfectly free act than most that I have ever done. Necessity may not be the opposite of freedom…

C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 224

Imagine a firefighter at the top of a ladder imploring someone to escape the flames. Surely if the person “chose” not to come, they’d be considered insane—not pejoratively but literally unable to make a rational free choice? Because of this, the firefighter may need to drag them to safety so that they can come to their senses. Likewise, our loving Father doesn’t abandon us to our own misguided “choices” but instead shatters our delusions, frees us from our enslaving sin, and heals our minds. In doing so, God comes inside, lifts us up so together we can unlock the door. (I highly recommend reading the article Free-will Theodicies of Hell, where Thomas Talbott fleshes this out).

Jesus is a king because his business is to bear witness to the truth. What truth? All truth; all verity of relation throughout the universe—first of all, that his father is good, perfectly good; and that the crown and joy of life is to desire and do the will of the eternal source of will, and of all life. He deals thus the death-blow to the power of hell. For the one principle of Hell is “I am my own…

George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons—Kingship (emphasis mine)

Lastly, consider the context of Lewis’ MacDonald quote at the start of his “Checkmate” chapter. Before MacDonald wrote, “… the one principle of Hell is ‘I am my own'”, he explained that Jesus reveals all truth universally, including the truth that the glorious goal (“the crown”) of all life is to choose (“desire and do”) the will of God, thus defeating hell—all the deluded, sinful, egotistic pride.

Engaging Shumack: justice and the death penalty

I recently read Richard Shumack’s Fifty Years Without the Death Penalty, Australia Should be Grateful. It’s a well written article, which explores the important relationship between justice and punishment—a topic I’ve been fascinated with for a long time.

Shumack starts by explaining that he isn’t against punishment:

Anyone who has been seriously wronged knows that the deep intuitive longing for justice usually includes the offender “paying for it” in some sense.

I think he’s right that most people rightly long for justice, although it raises questions:

  • What exactly is justice?
  • How do we know when justice has been achieved?
  • How do we untangle the desire for retribution from the desire for revenge?
  • Should we leave retribution to God?

I’m glad he unpacks this further:

Rehabilitation is a noble goal for our justice system, but not in a way that ignores proper retribution.

What do I mean by proper retribution? I’m still not sure in practice. A simple “eye for an eye” is unworkable (how can the offences of a mass murderer carry a proportional punishment?), and fails to allow for clemency. Still, very serious crimes do seem to warrant very serious punishment.

Along those lines, I do think that a reasonable case can be made for the death penalty as a just punishment.

I think rehabilitation is part of God’s plan and so is indeed noble. Unlike God, we can’t see an offender’s heart, and so our rehabilitation sometimes disappoints because it isn’t complete. Rehabilitation and retribution are sometimes seen as mutually exclusive concepts but, as Shumack implies, I think they can overlap. Although getting retribution right in practice is difficult—possibly something only God can do.

Taking a step back, what if the aim of punishment was to help the perpetrator fully comprehend the physical and psychological damage done (e.g. the anxiety resulting from having trust violated)—to deeply understand their actions from the victim’s perspective? Ideally this authentic empathy would be achieved through educative rehabilitation but it seems that sometimes it’s only possible through personal experience… and I think this is where a particular type of retribution may play a role.

Consider someone who is caught vandalising and the types of retribution they could be given:

  1. Jail time or a fine.
  2. Someone vandalises something of equal value that belongs to the offender.
  3. The offender is required to see how the victims are impacted, and then helps to repair it.

I’d suggest that type 3. is the best as it most clearly demonstrates to the offender the damage done, and is the most natural consequence—most closely linked to the offense. However, if the offender still doesn’t fully comprehend, type 2. might be required or at least threatened (there’s room for clemency/mercy as the goal is comprehension, rather than simply trying to “balance the books”). Type 1. is the most disconnected from the offense and should therefore be the last resort.

Possible Path to Ideal Justice

But what about the case of the mass murderer that Shumack mentioned? Sometimes when the offender experiences gracious love from someone or undeserved forgiveness from the victims (e.g. Jesus, Mandela and Eric Lomax), it brings about genuine comprehension, repentance, and transformation of the offender (e.g. a resolute conviction to never kill again, and instead devote their life to helping victims and helping others to not become murderers). Sometimes educating the offender—say, showing them the awful hurt done to the victims—is enough to turn them around.

But what if all these responses have failed? Is there any type of retribution that would spur the offender to change? Perhaps—the attempts by our justice systems have had mixed results to say the least. Would executing an offender give them a fuller understanding of what it felt like for their victims? If it did, is it worth it when it denies the possibility of reconciliation, and possibly the victim’s healing, in this life?

It also seems possible that [the death penalty] could produce some good, even for the offender – by forcing them to face up to the wrong they’ve done, and so opening up redemptive possibilities. This is especially true if you hold that this life is not all there is. The dramatic transformation of Andrew Chan as he faced death in a Balinese prison is a case in point.

I think sometimes good can come from the death penalty, particularly if you believe justice and redemption are matters that go beyond this life. Although, as Shumack points out, any potential good still seems outweighed by other factors. First, the apparent inability of earthly justice systems to avoid executing innocents. Second, if someone on death penalty isn’t pardoned when they’ve had a dramatic transformation (e.g. Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran) the good being done by them is seemingly cut short. Having said that, their influence may continue—like a martyr’s—as Another Day in Paradise demonstrates.

Primarily, however, I am glad [Australia doesn’t have the death penalty] because, in a world of brokenness and violence, I want to be a person who hopes for better, and the death penalty radically diminishes hope …

For Dostoevsky, the death penalty was devastating because it eliminates all hope for continued physical life on earth. This is true, of course, but to me, it seems even more hopeless than that. In the condemned criminal’s situation, I would want to cling not just to life itself, but to the possibility of transformation, redemption, even reconciliation.

I want to be a person who hopes for the better too. While the death penalty diminishes hope of life, transformation, redemption, and reconciliation now, it doesn’t have to diminish the hope that all these will occur in the age to come. Christie Buckingham describes Sukumaran’s amazing hope—even at his execution—that “the better” was in the age to come (reminds me of Paul in Philippians 1:20-24).

Shumack reflects on the last person executed in Australia, Ronald Ryan:

… We cannot know the truth about Ryan’s conscience and whether it [the death sentence] had pricked this repeat offender towards redemption. My hope is that it had – but if not, his hanging certainly eliminated any chance it would.

I hope Ryan’s conscience was pricked during this life but even if it wasn’t, I suspect it probably has been by now as I don’t believe his hanging eliminated repentance and redemption in the age to come.

Often, of course, this sort of hope is against reasonable hope. It would be naive not to recognise the reality that some individuals simply will not be reformed – perhaps cannot be reformed. Still, I hope because I have seen miraculous turnarounds.

I think some individuals refuse to turnaround in this life but I don’t believe (partly because of miraculous turnarounds we’ve already witnessed) anyone is eternally beyond God’s ability to reform.

I have a friend who is a true sociopath. He was jailed for a nearly successful attempt to murder his father with a hammer while studying chemistry to engineer the explosive destruction of thousands. Beyond hope – most others’ and his own – he reluctantly recognised his spiritual poverty through being rudely confronted by the extraordinary love of a cell-mate who responded to his persistent malevolence, not with justice, but with patient humour and grace. This encounter, transcending the will of the justice system, set him on the pathway to deep rehabilitation.

Wow! This type of deep rehabilitation, brought about by love and grace, is what I’m hoping—by God’s grace—will ultimately occur for each and every person.

There’s an important clue in my friend’s story. Hoping for the redemption of the offender, hoping in justice or the justice system, is not enough. In the words of Nelson Mandela (who ought to know), “in the end, reconciliation is a spiritual process, which requires more than just a legal framework. It has to happen in the hearts and minds of people.”

I heartily agree with that Mandela quote!

It may be in its favour that the death penalty satisfies justice, but if so, that is all it does. What goes against the death penalty is that it cuts off abruptly the possibilities for a wrongdoer to discover the sort of redemption that transcends justice.

I don’t think redemption and justice are at odds but that redemption is an essential step towards ultimate justice—that God’s justice/shalom is so much more than retribution (although retribution might need to occur before redemption sometimes, as I tried to articulate above). Because of this, I don’t think the death penalty alone ever satisfies justice—at most it might be a step towards it.

I am glad, then, to celebrate my half-century with the demise of the death penalty. Not because it is necessarily morally wrong, but because it shows that I live in a society that embraces hope, however remote, and the possibility of a second chance.

Amen brother! We all need second chances!