I'm afraid I might be a heretic.
A friend of mine posted this. One of his points is that hell is an infinite amount of punishment for finite crimes, and it seems to him that a good God would not do that.
I replied that hell isn't punishment, it's the natural consequence of choosing to be without God. Existence without God, and without any of the things God has made except for yourself, would be miserable ... and that's what I think hell is like.
In fact (I reasoned) I don't think I believe in "retributive justice" at all. Retributive justice is the idea that all wrongdoing deserves punishment, apart from natural side-effects (I'm going to call those consequences, for the sake of clarity) or punishments intended to teach (I'll call those discipline). But punishment just because every evil deed has an equivalent punishment, just like the laws of physics, regardless of whether it does any good? I don't believe in that. It makes no sense.
And yet, if you do believe in it, it explains all kinds of things. If "evil for evil" is an unchanging law of the universe, that even God has to follow, then the redemption is explained easily. God couldn't forgive our sins with a wave of his hand, somebody had to be punished, and Jesus took care of that. (This is not by any means the only way to explain the redemption, in case you are made uncomfortable by this description, as I am.) And it explains the entire sin-cured-through-sacrifice model of the Old Testament -- though, honestly, I think that it's a pretty shallow way to understand that symbol. Sin is not a thing that can be destroyed by killing goats -- God is rather explicit about that even in the Old Testament. Couldn't you argue that sin is the destroying of your relationship with God, and you restore it through sacrifice by once again acknowledging God as the ruler of your life? The sacrifice itself is just a symbol of God's importance to you, that you care enough to give something up for him.
Well, so far as that goes, I'm not a heretic. I think.
My argument is just this: retributive justice doesn't exist in the real world, and when people attempt to apply it, it does not help. That it doesn't exist is obvious: some sins aren't punished at all (and the world doesn't implode), and most of the suffering that happens to us isn't a result of sin at all. And as for when people attempt to apply it .... isn't revenge bad?
one person sins, that causes a horrible unbalance .... but any attempt
to rectify the imbalance by visiting a "punishment" on the sinner just
makes things worse. That's why forcing the Germans to pay reparations
for WWI helped cause WWII. That's why every bomb exploded by Hamas
leads to an attack by Israel, and every attack by the Israelis just ends
up bringing on more bombs by Hamas. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth
ends, in real life, with everyone being eyeless and toothless. And
that's imagining that humans even could work out some kind of calculus
for one kind of retribution each crime deserves -- a life for a life,
perhaps, but what is the proper punishment for rape? for mass murder?
Even assuming we could figure that out, when have we EVER seen that
retribution heals sin, even in the slightest? Surely if this were
really the way the world works, we'd be able to see some examples in the
visible realm? (Retributive justice is an argument for the death penalty, but I am strongly opposed to the death penalty, so .... no help there.)
Jesus said, "You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But
I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone
strikes you on [your] right cheek, turn the other one to him as well" (Mt 5:38-9). If Jesus recommends this sort of behavior, why the heck wouldn't it be universally good? Why couldn't God do the same thing -- when we sinned, forgive us? (And, in fact, from where I stand, that's exactly what he did.) If retributive justice were an immutable law of the universe, why would he then recommend we not follow it?
And the reality is, in real life, Jesus' recommendation works. When someone is angry with you and treats you badly, if you retaliate, they escalate. If you respond with forgiveness and kindness, their anger often dissolves. When my kids misbehave and I punish them, they get angry and misbehave more. When I listen with understanding and try to explain how to do better, they so often surprise me by behaving better.
So much for why I don't believe in retributive justice. But that's where things get hairy. If I am firmly convinced that retributive justice is wrong and that a good God wouldn't practice it, and it turns out the Church tells me it's right and a good God has practiced it, well, I'm a heretic.
Today I got into a facebook debate on this topic (on purpose, I was hoping for a good explanation) and unfortunately I'm being proven wrong. With respect to my interlocutor (because it really is a very thorough answer), here's what started to get me worried:
may seem gratuitous to you that God should add punishment beyond what
is entailed in the loss of the beatific vision to the souls in Hell, but
that opinion is difficult to reconcile to both the theological
tradition and the Magisterium's teaching on Hell and Purgatory though the ages.
is hard to reconcile the position that the pain of Hell is nothing but
the pain of loss. E.g., Innocent III specifically distinguishes the
punishments of original and actual sin on this basis, "The punishment of
original sin is deprivation of the vision of God, but the punishment of
actual sin is the torments of Hell." I don't have time right now to
determine what degree of theological certitude that attaches to the
thesis that there is a positive punishment beyond the loss of the
beatific vision inflicted on the damned, but it is at least deeply
engrained in theology, and even magisterial teaching, and it certainly
seems to be included in the Scriptural depictions of Hell. Hence it
seems at least rash to deny it.
the entire theology of indulgences presupposes that beyond simple
preparation of the soul itself for the beatific vision, there is a debt
of punishment due to sins (even after they are forgiven). His Holiness
cannot snap his fingers and purify a soul of its selfishness or its
attachment to sin, but he can snap his fingers and by fiat apply the
superabundant merits of Christ, which were left to the Church, to pay
the debts of particular individuals for their sins. That's what an
indulgence is. That's why a condition of an indulgence is that you
already be free of any attachment to sin; The Church can't declare you
free from an attachment to sin (only one [thing] purgatory does for the soul)
but she can free you from your debt (the other thing that purgatory does
for the soul) . If you deny that there is retributive justice, you deny
that there is a debt of satisfaction due for sin, and if you deny that,
then you take away the justification for indulgences, and so are
committed to denying that the Church has the power to grant
Ruh-roh. I don't know if it is dogma that God steps in to add extra punishment onto the torments of hell in the name of "fairness" or justice (I hope not), but the indulgence thing was declared by Trent, complete with anathemas and all. The Church does teach that it has the right to grant indulgences. Indulgences make no sense from my point of view of purgatory -- that it's simply a time when you are taught to love God more and freed from all the things that are keeping you from him. Because God (or anyone) can't just snap their fingers and make that happen; it's a process that you have to go through on your own time. In fact it seems nonsensical to me that there should even be a purgatory if God has the ability to just whisk us out of it. Why would a good God do that?
Okay, so the right thing to do is probably just to admit I'm wrong and start believing that the universe is ruled by this unfathomable law of tit for tat, a certain amount of suffering for every sin. That God himself can't forgive us without visiting the suffering on somebody, like his own son, or ourselves after our death.
The trouble is, I absolutely can't believe that. I can't believe that God would create me with a strong sense of good and evil, and then do things that put him on the "evil" side of the equation. I can't believe that punishment (as opposed to consequences or discipline) can ever be a good thing. I can't believe that forgiveness is the exception and not the rule.
And that spells trouble.
If anyone can figure out how to save (what's left of) my faith in the Church at this point, please, please speak up.