Rejecting God Is No Finite Sin: A Response To Richard Swinburne

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“What would a good God do with such a totally corrupt being as we have described? This corrupt being has sinned against his creator, and made no atonement for his sins, nor helped others to atone for theirs. He has destroyed his God-given capacity for moral awareness and choice and left himself as an arena of competing desires. He certainly deserves punishment, and God has a right to punish him (and the more his guilt is subjective, the greater the punishment deserved). And it is perhaps good that God should exercise that right if, in order to provide men with a disincentive to sin, he has vowed previously that he will punish sinners…But God, being good, would not punish a sinner with a punishment beyond what he deserved; and I suggest that, despite majority Christian tradition, literally everlasting pain would be a punishment beyond the deserts of any human who has sinned for a finite time on earth. To punish a man with such punishment would be horribly vindictive, and a good God would not be that” (Richard G. Swinburne, “The Future of the Totally Corrupt,” from Rethinking Hell: Readings In Evangelical Conditionalism, page 237). Bold font mine.

I remember reading Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion some years ago while at seminary, with Dawkins asking a question in his book about how it is that people deserved to be eternally punished for a finite sin. I thought that with finishing Dawkins’s book for the second or third time, the question would stay in his book and outside Christian discussion.

Boy was I wrong.

Reading Richard Swinburne’s chapter in Rethinking Hell has brought it back. In his chapter in the book, Swinburne argues the same thing. As a man who believes in the immortality of the soul and conditional immortality (though how he believes in them both is a clashing thought), Swinburne argues that, as the typical statement goes, “the punishment must fit the crime.”

For someone to suffer for a crime, the punishment or penalty must be commensurate with the crime committed. If someone is sentenced to jail for 50 years for stealing a loaf of bread or a smartphone, we’d say the punishment/penalty is outrageous, outlandish, and unjustified. If someone suffered one day in prison for murdering another person, we’d say the penalty or punishment was too light a sentence and we’d think the judge needs some psychiatric evaluation.

So I agree with Swinburne in that I believe the punishment must fit the crime. But where Swinburne and I differ concerns the right of the Sovereign God of the universe to punish wicked, guilty sinners. Where we disagree is on the sin of rejecting God in time. I’ll lay out Swinburne’s view, then I’ll respond in kind below.

Richard Swinburne’s Argument

Swinburne: the sin of rejecting God is finite because it’s in time

Swinburne says in the quote above that humans are in time and thus, commit sin in time. When it comes to God, humans are no different: sure, they may reject God, but they do so “in time” and space. Their rejection is thus, finite. Per Swinburne:

“…literally everlasting pain would be a punishment beyond the deserts of any human who has sinned for a finite time on earth.”

Swinburne is saying in so many words that the sin of rejecting God was committed 1) on earth, which is in time, temporal, and 2) the amount of time sinned in is finite — that is, it is of a fixed amount. The person sins against God by rejecting God for, say, 50 years, but it’s in time. It’s a fixed amount of time in which a finite (temporal) sin was committed. Therefore, in the thought of Richard Swinburne, man must suffer only a limited, temporal, temporary time because his sin is temporary.

Now, with statements such as Swinburne’s above, it’s obvious that he doesn’t attach any “eternality” to man’s rejection of his God. That is, he sees the rejection of the divine as solely a temporal, finite issue that mandates a finite consequence.

Here’s how I see it.

The Nature of the Crime: Rejection of God is Eternal

Swinburne says that rejecting God in time is a temporal, finite act. And yet, it isn’t. The reason? What determines the fate of a criminal in a criminal act is not “where” the crime was committed, or “how long” the crime lasted, but the nature of the crime itself.

Take the case of a murderer: it doesn’t matter if he or she killed the person in a sports bar, back of a church, back alley, at the person’s home in their bedroom, or at a lake, a murder is a murder is a murder. It’s heinous, no matter the gruesome details. And when a murderer stands in court and is found guilty of the crime, he or she is given the same sentence as every other criminal: life in prison (often without the possibility of parole) or the death penalty. The personal details of the murder don’t make a difference unless the prosecutor intends to draw a line between “premeditated” and “unpremeditated” murder. Outside of intent, details make little difference to the end sentence.

When Swinburne says, then, that committing the act “on earth” means that one shouldn’t suffer in eternity, he’s pleading geography as a reason to lessen the sentence. And yet, even in our own legal system, geography has no bearing on the sentence.

What about the duration of the crime? Let’s say that someone only took 10 minutes to kill the victim. Whether it took 10 minutes or 10 years, what matters is the murder, not how long it took to execute it. What matters in court is the taking of innocent life, the taking of the life of another human being. And when you take the life of a human being, no matter how long or short the act, the sentence is the same sentence every other murderer receives.

Swinburne wants to say that the spiritual “criminal” here, the person who rebels against his or her God, should have a temporal punishment because of the duration of the crime, but, if even our legal system has any insight, it shows that the duration of the crime and the geography of the crime means little when it comes to the end sentence. If the crime is deliberate, and, in the case of the spiritual “criminal,” it is (he or she knows God but won’t acknowledge Him as God, see Romans 1), then the individual should still receive eternal punishment in Hell because the issue at hand is the nature of the crime.

On Rejecting God

The spiritual criminal’s “crime” is rejecting God. Rejecting God is not the same as rejecting a spouse. We think of human divorce as a bad thing (and tragic it is), but it’s even worse to commit “The Great Divorce,” to use the title of C.S. Lewis’s work on the subject (what many know as apostasy). Rebelling against God brings greater consequences than rebelling against man. It’s because the nature of divine rejection is eternal, while the nature of human rejection is mortal, earthly, finite.

There is an old argument that says that rejecting God brings eternal punishment because God is Eternal, and the punishment pertains to the nature of the one being offended. This is true. It’s an argument that has stood the test of time, an argument that I cannot and will not refute. But I believe that Swinburne is wrong for two other reasons, which I’ll address below.

Two Reasons Why Rejecting God Brings Eternal Punishment

Reason #1: The Consequence of Rejecting God Takes Place In Eternity

One commits the act in time of rejecting God, but the consequence takes place in eternity. If the punishment were finite, the act would be finite and the consequences that followed would be finite. For example, if you violate local traffic laws by speeding, a finite act, then you are given a finite consequence — you get a ticket and pay a fine, the fine being a specified, fixed amount (not “infinity dollars,” for example). Once the act has been done and the consequence experienced, the individual does not suffer the act again: that is, you’re not pulled over for that traffic violation from six years ago when you’ve paid the debt six years ago. The act and consequence are over and done with. That is finite act and finite consequence in action.

In contrast, when one rejects God, he or she is doing something of eternal importance because the consequence of such an action takes place in eternity. Asaph tells us in Psalm 73 that the wicked who reject God often have it better in this life than the righteous: they increase in riches (Psalm 73:12), they don’t suffer as many pangs as the righteous do, they don’t endure trouble as others do, and so on. Asaph saw that the wicked often have it better in this life than the righteous do. And yet, despite their care-free life here, they do suffer in the hereafter. God does set them up for destruction, because all the riches and goods of this life are as close to Heaven as the wicked will ever get.

And because wicked unbelievers suffer in the hereafter, the punishment is far greater (and far worse) for them, than if they suffered in time and space. For, if they suffered here, they would suffer a finite, temporary consequence; since the consequence is in eternity, they suffer an eternal one.

Reason #2: Rejecting God Is A Matter of Gambling With One’s Immortal Soul

As I write in my concluding chapter in my upcoming book, The Terror Of The Lord: Critiquing Conditional Immortality, Answering Annihilationism’s Apologists, titled “The Wicked Man’s Gamble,” I state what Jesus does concerning the soul: that is, that it profits a man nothing if he gains the whole world but loses his own soul. When someone rejects God, he or she is thus gambling with his or her immortal soul. And the soul is eternal, meaning that it cannot/will not die and lives on forever.

On earth, many things we do as humans are finite and affect the body. If we eat too many cookies or scoops of ice cream, our bodies gain weight. And yet, eating too much doesn’t affect our soul. Our soul doesn’t gain weight or transform into something callous because we eat too many scoops of ice cream or grab too many cookies. These issues are mortal and affect the body. Of course, God desires that we do not overeat (He calls it a deadly sin, the sin of gluttony), but this sin does not cost a person his or her soul. God is not casting you out of His sight in the end because you ate too many cookies. I’m not trying to joke, just trying to state specifics.

Overeating is a sin, a deadly one (meaning that it can steal our mortal lives), but it is mortal in nature. It affects the body, not the soul. When it comes to rejecting God, however, man is rejecting the Eternal God who made mankind in His image after His likeness. When man rejects his Maker, he’s rejecting the imago dei, the image of God that he bears as a result of resembling his or her God. And the imago dei indicates that man has an eternal component, for God tells mankind not to kill each other precisely because he bears the image of his Maker (Genesis 9:6).

Man rejects the eternal component of himself, his soul, when he rejects his God. And, as a result of rejecting his eternal component and rejecting his eternal God, man’s consequence occurs in eternity. To reject your God is to reject yourself because you are made in the image of the God that you’ve rejected. Thus, to reject God is to commit “spiritual suicide.” It is to commit a crime not only against God but yourself. When you reject God, you sin not only against God but against your own soul. Swinburne holds to the immortality of the soul (see Rethinking Hell, page 234), which Jesus Himself held to when He stated that man can give nothing, not even the world, in exchange for his life (see Matthew 16:26; Mark 8:36).

To reject God, then, is tripartite in nature: not only do you 1) sin against God, but 2) you sin against yourself and 3) the consequence plays out in eternity and has an eternal duration.

In other words, there’s nothing “finite” about rejecting God — unless you want geography to play a role in the judgment of the “crime,” that is.