Hell and Retribution

The comments on my last post contained a lively exchange about hell. Here is a quote from my piece “Heaven and Hell” in Debating Christian Theism, edited by Moreland, Meister, and Sweis (Oxford: 2013), pp. 539-540. Here I am responding to The Catholic Encyclopedia’s defense of the traditional doctrine of an eternal punitive hell.

The Catholic Encyclopedia: “Nor can it be said: the wicked will be punished, but not by any positive infliction: for either death will be the end of their existence, or, forfeiting the rich reward of the good, they will enjoy some lesser degree of happiness.  These are arbitrary and vain subterfuges, unsupported by and sound reason; positive punishment is the natural recompense for sin.”

Response: This is the nub of the matter.  The whole doctrine of hell turns on the idea that justice is retribution, i.e., that it is right that evildoers be made to suffer purely because they deserve to suffer and not because the suffering serves some utilitarian purpose such as deterrence or reform.

Admittedly, it was viscerally satisfying to see the top Enron executives do the “perp walk” in handcuffs, knowing that their greed and lies had destroyed many lives and livelihoods.  Indeed, we need not deny that some degree of retribution might be justifiable.  One of our deepest ethical intuitions is that those who do good things deserve reward and those who do bad things deserve punishment.  Surely, it is good that Adolf Eichmann, responsible for facilitating Hitler’s program of genocide, was captured, tried, and punished, even if he never repented and even if his punishment deterred no other crimes.

On the other hand, consider that in some ways we rightly feel ourselves more enlightened than our forebears of a few centuries ago.  At one time, in the most “civilized” societies, criminals were roasted over slow fires, broken on the wheel, torn apart with red-hot pincers, drawn and quartered, disemboweled, crucified, impaled, flayed, starved, thrown to wild animals, etc.  Now, at least in liberal democracies, even the worst of criminals—say someone who kidnaps, tortures, rapes, and murders a small child—is spared such treatment.  Why?  If the doctrine of hell is right, and it is just that evildoers be subjected to atrocious torture for eternity, why should we have the least scruple about inflicting malefactors with far less severe pains?  Why not go back to flaying alive, boiling in oil, etc.?  I am sure that torturers have often justified their practice by noting that God does much worse.  Cruel dogmas make cruel people.

The fact of the matter is that we now regard some punishments as too horrendous to be inflicted upon criminals, however heinous their offense, or however despicable they are.  Enjoying seeing the Enron rascals do the “perp walk” is excusable; wanting to see them broken on the wheel (i.e., beaten to death with sledgehammers) is not—even if it is your 401K they destroyed.  Shouldn’t we expect God to have made at least as much moral progress since the Middle Ages as we think we have?  The doctrine of retribution in its pure form is the old lex talionis, the law of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.  The lex talionis no longer enjoys the respect it once did.  Even in Texas, where executions are about as common as 100 degree days in Dallas, we do not inflict on murderers the same treatment they inflict on their victims.  Ax murderers are not hacked to death but are executed by lethal injection, which is supposed to be painless.  Even in Texas we are learning to distinguish justice from payback.  Yet the traditional beliefs about hell retain the lex talionis in its full fury: “infinite malice” demands infinite retaliation.  The doctrine of hell makes Texans appear more morally advanced than the God they worship.