Tuesday, 22 January 2008

Does temporal punishment attenuate eternal punishment?

This is a question I have pondered but have never read about elsewhere. I tend to think that hell will have degrees of punishment. Just as believers will be rewarded for their devotion to Christ, and that reward will vary, I think it is possible that the wicked man's punishment may be dependant on his sin. All sin is not equal and it is reasonable to think that punishment will match the crime. Of course God will take into consideration our heart, and an adulterous Christian may be more sinful than an adulterous infidel.

Jesus refers to men being hit with few or many lashes.
And the Lord said, “Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom his master will set over his household, to give them their portion of food at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will set him over all his possessions. But if that servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed in coming,’ and begins to beat the male and female servants, and to eat and drink and get drunk, the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know, and will cut him in pieces and put him with the unfaithful. And that servant who knew his master's will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating. Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more. (Luke 12)
Jesus also mentions men can be more severely punished.
And in his teaching he said, "Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces and have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation." (Mark 12)
The proposal I wish to suggest (at least for consideration) is that punishment on earth for wickedness means that punishment in eternity will be less.

I am suggesting that a murderer who is caught and imprisoned or sentenced to death receives a less nasty Hades (or possibly subsequent hell) than the man who is not caught or who is excused by a corrupt justice system (though in the later example the unjust judge may wear some of the guilt). This assumes all other things being equal such as the state of the murderer's heart and the lack of repentance before death.

There is no direct biblical evidence for this proposal, and I do hold it or consider it tentatively, but it seems consistent with Scripture.

I am suggesting this is the case because they have already received some of their punishment.

If I am incorrect it is still possible that a man is changed by the temporal punishment such that his heart is less opposed to God. Due to the lessening of his hatred of God his eternal punishment may be less severe, not because he has received his punishment in part.

If I am correct about this it has implications in biblical exegesis and God's expectations of government.

In terms of biblical understanding, temporal judgment will be seen as having an aspect of mercy. Those whom God judged in Sodom and those whom the Israelites destroyed in Canaan were already wicked. They had decided on a destiny without God. Their eternal dwelling place is unpleasant, yet possibly less than it may have been had God not acted decisively in the situation. Leviticus hints at this when God explains the disaster he will send if they disobey him. Progressive punishments thru to exile are promised if they persist in disobeying him. But even if progressive judgments finally result in exile, God says, on the condition of repentance,
Yet for all that, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not spurn them, neither will I abhor them so as to destroy them utterly and break my covenant with them, for I am the Lord their God. But I will for their sake remember the covenant with their forefathers, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations, that I might be their God: I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 26)
Even in judgment there is the desire of God that we repent, and his actions, while just, are tempered with mercy and desire for us to return to him. Perhaps even final temporal judgments are actioned so that eternal ones will be less severe.

In terms of government, this brings an even greater responsibility to those who rule us. Failure to punish the wicked not only makes life more unpleasant for the righteous, it means that eternity may be worse for those than it could have been. Of course God's punishment will be just and appropriate, it is just that with poor government the wicked man is able to clock up that much more wickedness and not have any of it dealt with this side of death. Letting the evil man away with his actions may not be a kindness of a despot to his unjust cronies, rather a greater evil delayed. Interesting that Satan can lead a man to curse his friends while that man thinks he is blessing them.

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