10. To return to the dogma of eternal punishment, the principal argument invoked in its favor is the following:
It is admitted, among humankind, that the heinousness of an offence is proportioned to the quality of the offended party. An offence committed against a sovereign, being considered as more heinous than it would be if committed against a private person, is therefore punished more severely. God is greater than any earthly sovereign; since God is infinite, an offence against God is infinite also, and must consequently incur an infinite (that is to say, an eternal) punishment.
Refutation. The refutation of any argument is a reasoning that must have a definite starting- point, a basis on which it rests, in a word, a clear and stable premise. We take, as our premise the necessary attributes of God, that is to say, the attributes without which God could not be God.
God is unique, eternal, immutable, immaterial, all-powerful, sovereignly just and good, infinite in all God’ s perfections.
It is impossible to conceive of God otherwise than as possessing the infinity of God’s perfections; were God otherwise, God would not be God, for there might be some other Being possessing the quality, which God lacked. In order for God to be above all other beings, God must necessarily be such that no other being can surpass or even equal God in any respect. Consequently God must be infinite in all God’s attributes.
The attributes of God, being infinite, are not susceptible of increase or of diminution; otherwise, they would not be infinite, and God would not be perfect. If the smallest particle were taken from any of God’s attributes, God would no longer be God, for there might be some other being more perfect than God.
The infinity of a quality excludes the possibility of the existence of any quality that is contrary to it, and which would be capable of annulling or of lessening it. A being that is infinitely good cannot possess the smallest particle of wickedness, any more than a being that was infinitely bad could possess the smallest particle of goodness; just as no object could be absolutely black if it had the slightest tint of white, or absolutely white, if it had the smallest speck of black.
This basis and starting point being laid down, we oppose, to the proposition brought forward above, the following arguments:
11. It is only an infinite being that can do anything infinite. Humankind, being limited in its virtues, in its knowledge, in its power, in its aptitudes, in its terrestrial existence, can produce only that which is limited.
If humankind could be infinite in what it does amiss, it could also be infinite in what it does aright, and, in that case, it would be equal to God. But, if humankind were infinite in what it does aright, it would do nothing wrong, for absolute goodness is the exclusion of all evil.
On the other hand, even if it were possible to admit that a temporary offence against the Divinity could be infinite, God, if God sought revenge by the infliction of an infinite punishment, would be infinitely vindictive; if God were infinitely vindictive, God could not be infinitely good and merciful, for the former attribute is the negation of the others. If God were not infinitely good, God would not be perfect; and, if God were not perfect, God would not be God.
If God were inexorable towards the repentant sinner, God would not be merciful; if God were not merciful, God would not be infinitely good.
Why would God impose on humankind the law of forgiveness, if God did not also forgive? If such were the case, it would follow that men and women who forgave their enemies and returned good for evil would be better than God, who remains deaf to the repentance of the weak creatures that have sinned against God, and who refuses to grant to those creatures, throughout eternity, the slightest mitigation of the torments which their weakness and their inexperience have brought upon them!
God, who is everywhere and sees everything, must see the tortures of the damned. If God remained insensitive to their groans throughout eternity, God would be eternally devoid of pity; if God were devoid of pity, God would not be infinitely good.
12. To this argument it is replied that the sinner who repents before dying experiences the pity of God, and that, consequently, the very greatest sinner may find favor in God’s sight.
This is admitted on all hands, and it is but reasonable to assume that God forgives only those who repent and that God remains inflexible towards the unrepentant; but, if God is full of pity for the souls who repent before quitting their fleshly bodies, why should God cease to be so for those who repent after death? Why should repentance be efficacious only during an earthly lifetime, which is but an instant, and inefficacious throughout eternity, which has no end? If the goodness and mercy of God are circumscribed within a fixed time, they are not infinite, and, if such is the case, God is not infinitely good.
13. God is supremely just. The most perfect justice is neither that which is utterly inexorable, nor that which leaves wrongdoing uncorrected; it is that which keeps the most exact account of good and evil, which rewards the one and chastises the other with the most perfect equity, and which never makes the slightest mistake.
If, for a temporary fault – which is, always, a result of the imperfection of human nature, and, often, of the surroundings in which the wrongdoer has been placed – the soul were to be castigated eternally, without hope of forgiveness or of any diminution of suffering, there would be no proportion between the fault and its chastisement, and, consequently, no justice in the chastisements of the future.
If those who have committed evil retrace their steps, repent, and demand of God to be allowed to make reparation for their evil deeds, this change of mind constitutes a return to virtue, to rectitude of feeling. But if the castigation of the other life were irrevocable, such a return to virtuous sentiments would remain sterile; and as, in that case, God would take no account of their desire for amendment, God would not be just. Among human beings, convicts who repent and amend obtain a commutation of their punishment, or, sometimes, even a full pardon; so that there would be more equity in human jurisprudence than in the penal code of the Divinity!
If the sentence passed on the sinner were irrevocable, repentance would be useless, and the sinner, being shut out forever from virtue, would be forcibly doomed to remain in evil; so that God would not only condemn the sinner to suffer forever, but would also compel such a one to remain forever in wickedness. But, in that case, God would be neither just nor good; in other words, God would not be God.
14. Being infinite in all things, God must know all things, past, present, and future; and God must therefore know, at the very moment when God creates a soul, whether or not that soul will go widely enough astray to incur eternal damnation. If God does not know, God’s knowledge is not infinite, in which case God is not God; if God knows, and voluntarily creates a being that God foresees to be doomed, from its beginning, to the endurance of eternal misery, God is not good.
If God can be touched by the repentance of the soul that has incurred the penalty of its wrongdoing, and can extend pity to that soul and take it out of Hell, there is no such thing as eternal damnation, and the doctrine which inculcates that idea must be admitted to be of human invention.
15. The doctrine of eternal damnation, therefore, leads inevitably to the negation or the lessening of some of the attributes of God; it is irreconcilable with the infinity and perfection of those attributes, and we are, consequently, forced to the following conclusion:
If God is perfect, there can be no such thing as eternal punishment; if eternal punishment exists, God is not perfect.
16. The advocates of eternal punishment bring forward the following argument:
“The rewards accorded to the good, being eternal, must have their counterpart in an eternity of punishment. Justice demands that the degree of punishment should be proportioned to a similar degree of reward.”
Refutation. — Does God create a soul with a view to rendering it happy or to rendering it unhappy? Evidently, the happiness of the creature must be the aim of its creation, as, were it otherwise, God would not be good. The soul attains to happiness as the consequence of its own worthiness; that worthiness once acquired, its fruition can never be lost by the soul, for such a loss would imply degeneracy on its part, and the soul that has become intrinsically good, being incapable of evil, cannot degenerate. The eternity of happiness of the purified soul is therefore implied in its immortality.
But, before attaining to perfection, the soul has to wage a long struggle, to fight many a battle with its evil passions. God having created the soul, not perfect – but susceptible of becoming such, in order that it may possess the merits of its labors – the soul may err. Its lapses from the right road are the consequence of its natural weakness. If, for a single error, the soul is to be punished eternally, it might fairly be asked why God did not create it strong to begin with? The chastisement that the soul brings upon itself, by its wrongdoing, gives it notice that it has done wrong, and should have for effect to bring it back to the path of duty. If its punishment were irremissible, any desire on its part to do better would be superfluous; and, in that case, the Providential aim of creation would be unattainable, since, although there would be some beings predestined to happiness, there would be other beings predestined to misery. But if we admit that a guilty soul can repent, we must also admit that it can become good; if it can become good, it may aspire to happiness: would God be just if God denied to it the means of rehabilitation?
Good being the final aim of creation, happiness, which is the result and reward of goodness, must, in the nature of things, be eternal; but chastisement, which is only a means for leading the soul to goodness and to happiness, must be only temporary. The most elementary notion of justice, even among humankind, suffices to show us that it would be unjust to inflict perpetual punishment on one who had the desire and the determination to amend.
17. Another argument in favor of eternal punishment is the following:
“The fear of eternal punishment is a curb; if that fear were done away with, human beings would give free course to all their evil tendencies.”
Refutation — This reasoning would be justified if the non-eternal sins implied the elimination of any penal sanction. If the happy or unhappy situation in a future life were a rigorous consequence of Divine Justice, and the future situation of a good individual and a perverse one were equal, there would be no justice even though it was not eternal; the punishment would, nonetheless, be a torment. Moreover, the prospect of future punishment and this reality will necessarily be believed in, and consequently dreaded, in proportion to the reasonableness of the aspect under which it is presented. The threat of a penalty, in the reality of which human beings do not believe, has no restraining effect on their action; and the threat of eternal punishment is of this nature.
The doctrine of eternal punishment, as previously remarked, was natural and useful in the past; at the present day, it is not only inefficacious to restrain humanity from wrongdoing, but it causes them to disbelieve. Before holding up that doctrine before the eyes of men and women as a necessity, its advocates should demonstrate its reality, and they should also, as the most conclusive argument in its favor, show that it exercises a moralizing effect on those who hold it and who endeavor to uphold it. If it is powerless to restrain from wrongdoing those who say that they believe in it, what action can it exert over those who do not believe in it?