Crime, Punishment, Hell, and Utilitarianism: Some Lawyerly Reflections on Love Wins

When people begin talking about hell and limited versus universal salvation, one of the first problems that they encounter is one of vocabulary. More specifically, a lot of folks become confused because there isn’t a robust lexicon that describes the different nuances of beliefs about hell.

Case in point: After Rob Bell published his promotional video for Love Wins, many began to assume he was a universalist because of a statement, made in the video, which questioned whether Gandhi was in hell. Universalism, in their mind, meant any system which asserts that non-Christians will not end up in hell. Universalists do believe that, of course, but there are a number of other belief systems that similarly hold to such a teaching. Bell has spent a lot of time denying that characterization, and trying to explain what he really thinks (a point I’ll get to in a minute) because most of us don’t have a vocabulary that can account for more than two beliefs about hell. Either you are a universalist or you believe an an “eternal conscious torment” type of hell. There is no language for an in-between view that questions either the “eternal,” or the “conscious,” or the “torment” part.

For some time, I have been convinced that the terminology that is utilized by scholars who reflect on the criminal law could be useful in this discussion. Why? Because for centuries, now, there has been an ongoing academic dialog about the appropriate motivations for imposing punishment on those who have committed offenses against the State, and that dialog has a robust vocabulary. That vocabulary seems almost ideally suited for similar discussions about divine punishment.

So…what purposes might the State have in punishing someone for a crime? There are 3-4 major streams of thought. They are as follows:

  • Retribution. Retributivists believe that moral misconduct deserves punishment. Such punishment serves no purpose other than to bring harm to someone because they have done a wrong. Retributivists do not care if it stops anyone else from committing a crime, nor do they care if a person is made a better citizen as a result of the experience. The sole purpose of criminal punishment is vengeance. The criminal did something that was wrong, and they “have it coming to them.”
  • Deterrence. Those who believe in deterrence believe that punishment is inflicted to “make an example” of someone, so that others will not commit similar crimes. Their purpose is to benefit society as a whole, not to “get even” with someone.
  • Rehabilitation. Rehabilitationists believe that the punishment is for the good of the individual. Under this theory, punishment should be designed to help the criminal to become a better citizen, so that he can be restored to the community.
  • Denunciation. Those who ascribe to denunciation view criminal punishment as an act, on behalf of the community, which denunciates certain conduct. To the denunciationist, retribution and rehabilitation are both valid reasons to punish.

Deterrence and rehabilitation are utilitarian beliefs.  That is, they holld that punishment is merely an end to a good. Unlike retributionism, they do not hold that, because someone as done something wrong, they “have it coming to them.”

Why does God punish? I think the same terminology fairly well fits the theological spectrum as well. In my mind…

  • Retributivists believe that people who do bad things deserve to be punished for no other reason than that they did something bad.
  • Deterrentalists believe that God “threatens” us with hell to get us to stop doing bad things. (I suspect that some theological liberals are deterrentialists – that is – they think that hell is a divine threat to get our attention, so that we will treat the marginalized with respect; it’s God’s way of saying “Stop acting up right now, or I’ll turn this universe around and we’ll go right back into the primordial chaos!”).
  • Rehabilitationists believe that hell exists to reform us so that we can enter into God’s world as responsible eikons (people made in the image of God).
  • Denunciationists might believe that hell is both a threat/deterrent and a “just desert.”

In the end, however, most of the debate comes down to a debate between retributivism and rehabilitationism. Retributivists believe in a God who is rightly vengeful in His holiness. Rehabilitationists believe in a God who will never abandon efforts to reform a person, no matter how evil they are or how long they resist such efforts. Those who believe that God’s rehabilitation can and must ultimately result in the salvation of every soul are also universalists.

[“Rehabilitationism” as I am using it here is sometimes described in theological circles as “restitutionism.” In my lawyerly mind, that isn’t a good word, because “restitution” is a process by which a criminal literally repays someone for something that they have taken or stolen.]

So there you have the tension: does God punish for punishment’s sake? Or does God punish for our own good? When Rob Bell says “I am not a universalist, because I believe that God gives people choice,” he is saying that he is a rehabilitationist.

Like Bell (and C.S. Lewis, and many anglicans), I am also a rehabilitationalist…but my reasons for subscribing to this view are going to have to wait for another post.

  • Aritchie

    A simple mind like mine might see Hell as a logical conclusion to one who’s life has been one filled with choices alienating God. We know that God turns his back on sin therefore we cannot be in His presence. An eternal life without God sounds unbearable to me. “Hell as God’s punishment”? Or Hell as a choice one makes while living his everyday life here on earth?

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