Fairness and Justice: A Holy God and an Eternal Hell

Who is responsible for sin?

I want to begin by going back to the conclusion of an earlier post regarding the doctrine of original sin, where I wrote,

“The doctrine of original sin serves as a recognition that we live in a state that is in rebellion to our rightful ruler, to the only one who has the power to sustain and moderate his creatures.

That sentence is critically important to keep in mind because it holds the answer to a number of questions, especially questions surrounding the problem of evil. It’s also relevant when it comes to other matters, especially regarding the the display of God’s glory in punishment of the wicked and reward of the righteous, such as we see raised in this piece by the blogger known as “Non-Alchemist” titled, “The Moral Dilemmas in Reformed Theology”.

I consider myself to be reformed in my theology, even though I recognize the fact that the biblical authors wouldn’t have a clue about what it was. I recognize the fact that it is a derived theology in that it seeks to look at Scripture as a whole and derive doctrine from it. The underlying belief is that Scripture alone, hence Sola Scriptura, is the only means by which one can answer questions. But I digress…

In the post, Non-Alchemist does a very good job of accurately representing certain underlying facts, such as the doctrines of hell as eternal conscious punishment, the fall, and God’s decrees as derived from the various Catechisms and Confessions of Reformed theology. However, the fact that he has to cite at least 4 proves one point that needs to be understood: the various confessions and catechisms are not necessarily exhaustive treatises, but inclusive summaries of what those communities articulated as primary beliefs. Suffice it to say that such tells what one believes, but does not go into particular details about why they are believed, aside from a list of proof texts.

But what brings this post about is what is said in his “analysis” of the so-called “dilemma”. The key question seems to be about “fairness”; namely, is it fair for God to condemn one person and to justify (ie save) another?

He gives us a thought experiment in attempting to apply the doctrine of original sin. He writes,

“Because the guilt of sin is imputed to us as well as a sinful nature, it is fair for God to send a child dying in infancy to hell. (Emphasis original)

As I stated in my post on original sin, one of the mistakes that people make is thinking that the doctrine means that Adam’s sin is attributed to us. Rather, the right way to understand it is that Adam’s sin introduced a corruption into humanity. Man’s state of innocence and approval found in the peace that existed in the garden was wiped away in Adam’s sin. Adam’s guilt and his subsequent condemnation was passed along to all who are “in Adam”: death. All of Adam’s son’s and daughters die eternally. All of God’s sons, those whom he adopts through Christ live eternally.

He asks,

“How is this fair?  Why is she there?

The question should be, why does anyone go to Hell? The obvious answer is, why for their sin of course.

It’s easy to call a habitual liar and thief or a murderer a “sinner” because we accept the fact that lying, stealing, and murdering are wrongs that deserve punishment. They are easy to spot and they are easy to condemn. We have no problem with them, but a child, a baby, how is it fair for God to summarily shun someone who hasn’t done anything?

And therein lies the problem: we think of sin as something that we do. We speak of sin as a verb, something that we do. This view is seriously shallow, and it’s detached from a biblical reality. Sin is something that we are born into, it’s a state of being.

It’s a statement that is true, but isn’t really explained: “We sin because we are sinners.” It is also true to say that, “We are sinners because of Adam’s sin.” Adam’s sin moved mankind from a right relationship with God to a destroyed relationship with God.

Any argument that ignores that fact that human beings are at war with God is immediately falsified. Moral evil is explained by the fact of man’s rebellion. Natural evil serves as a reminder that the world we inhabit is under a curse caused by man’s rebellion, and are referred to as “birth pangs” indicating the coming of something new.

But then, he changes horses midstream, as he starts off asking whether or not it is fair for an infant to get Hell, to questioning whether or not it is just.

“In my view the Calvinist system, especially when thought of as a cumulative whole, is brimming with moral and logical dilemmas.  In the midst of them, the justice of reprobating infants functions as exhibit A.

Now, if he had started by questioning God’s justice that would have been fine, but to bring it up at the very end of a very emotion-laden argument is simply dishonest. Let me explain.

We often use the terms “fair” and “just” interchangeably, often synonymously. But in biblical categories, they are not the same thing.

In biblical categories, fairness is shown in equality of application. There is to be no distinction in application of the law whether a person is rich or poor, male or female, native born or foreigner, is a common admonition found in the law. It is not fair for a native born rich man to pay a simple fine, but for the poor foreigners to be punished by flogging for the same offense is inherently unfair. It’s unfair for the poor man to get a pass on an infraction but the rich man to be punished excessively, but it is also unjust.

This takes us back to the previous point about the nature and extent of the Fall: man is a sinner because he is born into the state of rebellion. Every person born, every “son of Adam”, is born into that state. We are corrupted by that environment so that we, even as innocent children, cannot stand before a holy God.

If man remains in that state, God then treats everyone fairly. Because they are corrupted and unfit—whether or not that person has done anything—and is subject to the just response for that all-encompassing corruption: death and separation from God, eternally. God does no one injustice in delivering them over to his wrath, for even in that is mercy, because if there are gradations of rewards on one side, there are also gradations of punishments on the other. Because God is also fair in meting out his punishment. He will not punish anyone greater than the simple reprobate as harshly as the most vile offender.

The actual objection here is how is it fair—not that people go to Hell—but that God welcomes sinners of every stripe and condition into his presence.

Indeed, if it is true that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”, if it is true that “there is none who are righteous” and “there is none who seek after God”, how is it that God can call anyone justified? How is it that God can pardon the sin of some?

The answer is found in Christ. It is in his self-giving that mercy flows out to the undeserving, for Christ, the Righteous One “at the right time…died for the ungodly…For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son…saved by His life. (Romans 5:6-10, ESV).”

By taking the place of one rightly condemned, Christ justifies any one who comes to him in faith. The required penalty is paid. The account is settled: paid in full.