Volume 47 - Issue 2

Hell for a Single Sin: A Response to Robert Golding’s Asymptotic Theory of Those in Hell

By Paul Dirks


This article is a response to Robert Golding’s recent essay, “Making Sense of Hell,” in which he contends for the logic of eternal punishment on the basis of a progressive and asymptotic conception of sin and sinners in hell. I will argue that this innovation is unnecessary and that both the Scriptures and the “infinite-obligation” proof by Anselm of Canterbury demonstrate that hell is just and necessary for even a single sin.

It was refreshing to read Robert Golding’s recent article in Themelios on eternal punishment.1 In a sea of compromise around this topic, his commitment to the doctrine of hell is commendable, and he has surely accomplished his goal of strengthening the resolve of pastors to preach on eternal damnation. In particular, his explanation of sin as privation leading to the loss of the goodness or the full humanness of the reprobate in hell is crucial to answering one of the greatest objections to the biblical doctrine of eternal punishment—that the torment of those we love will mar our everlasting felicity. As Golding points out, what we love in unbelievers now is of God and will no longer be expressed in the lake of fire.2 The saints will not pine eternally over the loss of their loved ones but will look in horror upon what they have become, and have chosen to be, without God.

In spite of the article’s many strengths, this response offers a friendly critique to one of its central aspects—the asymptotic nature of sin and sinners in hell.3 Using Jonathan Edward’s views on the eternal and progressive increase of the saints towards God in heaven, Golding argues for a correlative move away from God—a never-ending increase of sinfulness of the reprobate in hell. Moreover, the article posits that this eternal regression from God explains the merit of eternal punishment, answering possible objections regarding divine justice towards sins that are finite in duration and/or proportion.

I will respond to this theory in two ways. Firstly, it will be demonstrated that the final judgment is presented in Scripture as a monumental interposition in the lives of the wicked. I will make use of the views of Henri Blocher to argue that this fact undermines Golding’s construal of a continual, progressive, or asymptotic state of sinning by the reprobate and I will suggest a synthesis of Blocher’s and Golding’s thoughts on sin in hell. Secondly, it will be shown that Golding’s theory is unnecessary to defend the eternal punishment of the wicked, and that the logic of both Scripture and reason demand eternal retribution in hell as punishment for even a single sin. Three scriptural passages will be briefly considered in addition to Anselm’s proof in Cur Deus Homo. In conclusion, it will be argued that this more traditional “hell for a single sin” view not only magnifies the grievousness and debt of sin, it also more greatly magnifies the work and atonement of our Lord Jesus.

1. The Interposition of the Judgment

Golding’s article relies strongly upon an asymptotic theory of human relations to God.4 The terminology taken from mathematics, “asymptotic” is aptly descriptive of Jonathan Edward’s view of the saints’ infinite progress in likeness to God in heaven, without ever arriving at being God or possessing the fullness of his characteristics.5 The author draws from Edwards to posit a parallel movement of the reprobate in hell: “I present the hell as a place of infinite duration for people who are progressively moving further and further from their true existence as subsistence in God, which can be viewed as asymptotic in the same way that the saints progressively move closer and closer to God in eternal communion with him in heaven.”6

Golding matches this eternal regression with the privation theory of sin—that sin is inherently a lack of the goodness of God. Although he admits that the reprobate retain the goodness of being, the total depravity of the wicked on this side of hell becomes utter depravity in the eternal fire, as God’s common grace is removed.7 Referencing Calvin, he states,

the goodness we perceive in other people is nothing other than subsistence in God that should lead us to him. I argue that those subsistences are all but removed from the damned and therefore the glorified saints have no reason to look to the damned with affection, for their felicity is completely to be found in goodness, which is completely in God. The damned are vessels made for dishonorable use (Rom 9:21). Before judgement, they were worthy of affection because they were potentially redeemable and they contained some of God’s goodness. After judgement, they are no longer redeemable, and any goodness they once contained will then be gone.8

I agree with the author on this point and the apologetic it presents against those who deny the eternal torment of the wicked. What is unclear, however, is why this removal of God’s goodness supports an infinite process or progression.9 The Scriptures are silent about such a process and instead place its emphasis upon one momentous and singular event at the climax of human history—the final judgment.

The final judgment is presented in the New Testament as a drastic and decisive event which ends this current age. Although eternity streams out from it evermore, it bears the hallmarks of both telos and terminus as each person receives the fruit of the deeds of their lives. In this ultimate judgment there are elements of reversal (Luke 16:25) and revelation (1 Cor 4:5), but more particularly for our purposes, review. Our Lord Jesus states in Matthew 16:27, “For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done.” The recompense on the day of judgment is specifically said to be for things which have already taken place. The apostle Paul adds in 2 Corinthians 5:10 that man’s due is received for things done “in the body, whether good or evil,” clarifying that this time of probation is linked to the duration of our flesh prior to the resurrection. As Tertullian argues, it is this life currently lived in the body which is the basis of judgment after the resurrection.

Now, since the entire man consists of the union of the two natures, he must therefore appear in both, as it is right that he should be judged in his entirety; nor, of course, did he pass through life except in his entire state. As therefore he lived, so also must he be judged, because he has to be judged concerning the way in which he lived. For life is the cause of judgment, and it must undergo investigation in as many natures as it possessed when it discharged its vital functions.10

The scriptural emphasis upon a future judgment for this life suggests that the continual state of sin and sinning in the wicked prior to the judgment will not continue uninterrupted throughout eternity. Furthermore, the scriptural teaching on final judgment undermines the need for a progressively sinful state to establish the justice of eternal damnation. When Christ, then, states in Revelation 22:11, “Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy,” we ought to interpret this as signifying a progressive state up until the judgment, but not continuing in precisely the same way afterwards. For the Lord goes on to urge, “Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay each one for what he has done,” (Rev 22:12) punctuating the interposition of the final judgment in the progressive states of both the righteous and the wicked as the past is brought up before the Judge who not only was, but is, and is to come (Rev 1:8).

A second theme intersecting with the interposition of the judgment is God’s current patience not only with sinners but also with sin. God is currently restraining his wrath against sinners due to his willingness that none perish but that all would come to repentance (2 Pet 3:9). At the judgment, however, God’s patience will be at an end, and the sword long looming over the wicked will finally descend in distributive justice. As already noted, this decisive act is marked by a discontinuity between the current age and what is to come eternally for the unrepentant sinner. Just as Asaph found illumination in the temple after lamenting the seeming blessedness of the unrighteous (Ps 73:17), so too as the entire world becomes God’s temple, will the saints find that the probing clarity of the Lamb-Sun will bring to light the condemnation of the wicked (Rev 21:22–27).

But what of the final judgment’s effect upon sin itself? Henri Blocher explores this question in his essay “Everlasting Punishment and the Problem of Evil.”11 He asks, “Would it be normal for God to allow for sin to go on for ever since he allows it now? That logic appears to bypass entirely the Biblical theme of divine patience. Is not the point that God tolerates at present what he will no longer when his patience comes to an end?”12 He later states, “What is amazing, in Biblical vision, what is abnormal, incredible, is not that God should suppress sin–rather, that he should not do so immediately! How can it be that the Lord, in whom all men live, and move, and have their being, of whom and unto whom are all things, endures, for so long vessels of wrath?”13

Blocher’s exclamation concerning the current presence of evils ought to cause sober reflection on the implications of a continual, progressive, and eternal increase of sin in hell. What will it look like for the reprobate in hell to “continue to egregiously sin against God and his children in increasingly evil ways”?14 Are we to conceive of hell as a sordid cesspool of the most vile and heinous sins imaginable? Golding suggests that we should, but the language he uses is considerably lighter than the language the Scriptures use even of current sin.15 Are we to take the debauched and depraved actions of Canaan, Sodom, and Tyre and amplify them hundredfold in order to begin to describe what we will find in the pit of Gehenna? The horrors of this world are often too much for the human heart—consider the trauma of soldiers who have witnessed violent atrocities on the battlefield or those who review abhorrent video content to catch child pornographers. For all the objections a person may have to the eternal punishment of the wicked, most men would recoil in greater horror at the infinite increase in the magnitude and number of such sins. If it is therefore the desire to logically justify the eternal torment of the wicked which underpins Golding’s theory, whatever the concerns may be with the traditional doctrine of hell, they are not ameliorated by appealing to an eternal increase in sin.16

In his essay, Blocher also raises the fact of Christ’s return as a triumph over sin and sinners.17 In the letter to Colossians, the apostle Paul states that “all things” will be reconciled to Christ by the blood of his cross, procuring a “peace” (Col 1:20). Philippians 2:8–11 likewise states, “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Both the righteous and the wicked will confess Christ as Lord, bow before Him in submission, and glorify God. It is worth noting that these actions are nothing less than what defines salvation this side of the judgment. When sinners confess Christ, bow the knee to Christ, and glorify God through Him prior to the judgment they are saved. However, when the wicked confess, bow, and glorify God through Christ at the judgment they are not saved—they are delivered up to the eternal prison for punishment. Once more we are faced with a significant discontinuity between this life and the next.

Knitting these threads together, Blocher concludes that the reprobate in hell will no longer sin at all.18 This claim however, evinces a misunderstanding of sin and pushes the biblical data too far. As Golding argues, sin is fundamentally privation. The privation theory of sin, first suggested by Origen19 and later developed by Athanasius and Augustine,20 was an intrinsic part of the early church’s answer to the problem of evil. God is entirely good and creates only what is good, and so any evil is not a creation of God but a lack of that original goodness. In Against the Heathens, Athanasius argues,

Now certain of the Greeks, having erred from the right way, and not having known Christ, have ascribed to evil a substantive and independent existence. In this they make a double mistake: either in denying the Creator to be maker of all things, if evil had an independent subsistence and being of its own; or again, if they mean that He is maker of all things, they will of necessity admit Him to be maker of evil also. For evil, according to them, is included among existing things.21

Bavinck agrees, clarifying the positive act of sin, “Neither, for that matter, is sin a substance, but consists in lawlessness (ἀνομια); it is an actualized privation.”22 Blocher’s statement that there will be no sin in hell seems to therefore fundamentally argue for the goodness of those in hell. There is no neutral relation to the Lord; “Whoever is not with me is against me” (Matt 12:30). Even if hell will not be full of murder or mayhem, will Judas love Christ or Esau trust God’s promises in its fiery pit? It would be an impossibility due to their hardened character (Heb 12:17).

In spite of the error in Blocher’s final conclusion, his views help elucidate the arresting nature of the judgment. It would be incongruous that after a momentous interposition in the sinning of the wicked they should afterwards start up again and continue in an unabated increase eternally, leaving the judgment as a mere momentary footnote in redemptive history. I propose therefore a synthesis of Blocher’s view that there is no sin in hell and Golding’s view of ever-increasing and maximal sin in hell. Given the nature of sin as privation, there will be a continuation of sin in hell after the judgment, but not an eternal increase. More speculatively, it seems likely to me that the sins of the reprobate in hell will be directed against God alone, their evil effects towards the rest of the universe muted in their private prisons, as God laughs and holds the wicked in derision in their vain blasphemies and hatred towards Him (Ps 2:4).

2. The Measure of a Single Sin

Not only is the eternal increase of sin in hell inconsistent with the biblical emphasis upon the final judgment, but it is also unnecessary as a logical ground for eternal punishment, which the Scriptures represent as the due requital for even a single sin. Golding employs his asymptotic theory apologetically to answer the concern that “since humans only transgress in limited ways on earth, it seems warranted to claim that they should only sustain limited punishment in hell.”23 Although he notes that there may be truth to the traditional response that sin is a crime “against an unlimited Person and thus deserves unlimited retribution,” Golding suggests that the abstract quality of this argument has little intuitive force.24 His asymptotic theory steps into this void. The claim is that the eternally increasing nature of the reprobate’s sin in hell provides this force. The presentation of the “poor Old Buddhist grandmother” is therefore a straw-man caricature, for every reprobate will progress to the villainy and malevolence of a Hitler or Manson.25

As already acknowledged, all of God’s common-grace goodness will be removed from those cast into hell resulting in a being no longer pitiable or worthy of the love of the saints. Nevertheless, contrary to Golding, a progressive state of sin is not necessary to demonstrate the justice of eternal punishment. We will consider a trio of scriptural passages which suggest this fact, and then examine Anselm’s proof in Cur Deus Homo which provides a ratcheting and accurate measurement of the penalty of a single sin due to our infinite obligation to God. Rightly understood, these provide a rational, if not intuitive, argument for the traditional doctrine of hell.26

2.1. A Single Piece of Fruit

The account of the fall in Genesis 3 argues strongly for eternal condemnation on account of a single sin. God created Adam and Eve and placed them in a garden of delights wherein there was but one thing they were forbidden—to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:16–17). Two related aspects of this command are salient: its lightness and its extraneity. Firstly, it was a light law, almost trivial in the bare fact of it.27 It would have been no great difficulty to avoid this one fruit with so many other tree-fruits available to the first couple (not to mention other pleasures). As Stephen Charnock states, God “had allowed [Adam] a multitude of other fruits in the garden, and given him liberty enough to satisfy his curiosity in all except this only. Could there be anything more obliging to man, to let God have his reserve of that one tree?”28 Secondly, this law, albeit consistent with God’s will and character, was extraneous to the law as expressed in the Ten Commandments and the natural law written upon Adam’s conscience. Turretin categorizes it as a “special” or “positive” law. 29 Apart from the specific and verbal revelation of God’s will in the matter of this particular fruit, there was no stipulation to not eat from this or any other tree.

In spite of these minimizing aspects of the first law, the results of the fall were catastrophic.30 The death promised by God comprehended not only physical death to the body, but eternal separation and divine punishment. And these effects accrued not only to Adam, but to all his offspring after him—“one trespass led to condemnation for all men” (Rom 5:18)—damning the whole race. Indeed, the entire creation was subjected to ruin, and currently waits with groaning until the beginning of eternity and the restoration of all things in the last Adam (Rom 8:20–22). Upon the scales of divine justice, the weight of this one piece of forbidden fruit was immeasurable and eternal.

2.2. Capital Punishment Would Be Preferred

Luke 17:1–2 provides a second proof for the justice of eternal punishment for a single sin. Jesus tells his disciples, “Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin.” In Christ’s warning there is a three-part comparison of evils: the evil of physical death by being cast into the water with a great weight, the evil of causing a child to sin, and the inferred evil of a fate worse than the described physical death.31 This last ambiguity is given greater specificity in the parallel passage of Matthew 18:7–9 in which this worse fate is being thrown into “the hell of fire.” Taking both passages together, Christ’s conclusion is that the evil of causing a child to sin cannot be fairly compared to, or restituted by, the evil of capital punishment. It can only be fittingly punished by the evil of eternal damnation.

Two aspects of Christ’s warning punctuate the severity of even a single, small sin. The first is that the offender does not sin himself, he “merely” causes another to be tempted and thereby sin. Secondly, the one who sins (with its inferred resulting punishment) is the “least” human being—a child.32 An appeal could be made here to the ultimate and ontological equality of all human beings, but the interests of the Lord at this point lie in a different direction. Economically and functionally speaking, children are the least valuable human beings and so this minimizing aspect of the temptation/sin greatly emphasizes its heinousness that it should be punished in such a way that makes a physical death pale in comparison.

2.3. Against You Only Have I Sinned

Our third passage is taken from David’s life, who is characterized in the Scriptures as a man after God’s own heart (1 Sam 13:14). This positive portrayal is marred by several episodes in his life, most notably his capital crimes against Bathsheba and Uriah, which I believe can be fairly characterized as rape and murder. Given the severity of these sins, David’s cry to God in Psalm 51:4, “against you, you only, have I sinned,” is staggering. On the face of it, it is a statement that is both irrational and preposterous.33 Not only did he sin against Uriah and Bathsheba, he transgressed against them grievously. His statement can be explained however, by way of a comparative exaggeration, a rhetorical device used sometimes by Christ himself (Luke 14:26). As great as David’s sins were against Uriah and Bathsheba, they fade into non-existence in comparison to their wrong against God.

While this third proof is perhaps less explicit than the first two, it is just as weighty. Measurement is not provided here by comparing “small” sins to their effects, whether directly as in the Fall, or indirectly as in Christ’s warning in Luke 17, but by comparing the effects of “large” sins onto two groups/persons. The conclusion is as staggering as the original statement—the effects or results of the sin against God must be infinitely greater than the effects or results in the world of man.

This trio of passages demonstrate that the original (small) act of disobedience brought eternal ruin to the entire race, that sins against even the most insignificant individuals carry eternal retributive consequences, and that the greatest sins against man are comparatively inconsequential compared to their offense against God and that the punishment of those sins must therefore be equally infinitely distinguished.

3. Infinite Obligation in Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo

Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo contains one of the greatest proofs for the justice of an infinite punishment for a single sin. Sadly, its genius has been largely unrecognized by modern critics.34 Annihilationists Clark Pinnock and Edward Fudge are among those who have argued that Anselm reasoned from his feudal context in which penalties for crimes varied based on the perceived honor of the offended party.35 Gavin Ortlund, however, rightly states that Anselm’s atonement theology is “richer and more nuanced than popularly portrayed, contains lasting insights that are not reducible to Anselm’s feudal social context, and is untouched by the frequent charges of endorsing violence and being narrowly juridical.”36 The Archbishop of Canterbury does not argue based merely on an undefined construal of God’s honor, but on the infinite obligation creatures have to God, a fact that helps to elucidate the logic of eternal punishment. Although a rational defense of hell may be possible without this honor-obligation connection, the best theologians of hell, including Jonathan Edwards and L. B. Hartman, have argued similarly.37

In chapter 11 of Cur Deus Homo, Anselm defines sin as not paying the debt of obligation we have to God concerning his will. Any satisfaction for sin must therefore “pay back” the full debt in order to balance the divine scales of justice.38 Prior to the marrow of his proof, Anselm explains that making satisfaction would involve paying back something not already owed to God and that recompense requires more than the value of the loss itself.39 These are both basic elements of law and justice, and yet both requirements are impossibilities for creatures concerning their debts to God.

It is in chapter 21, however, that the devastating proof comes as Anselm not only states, but measures the debt and punishment of sin by means of a ratcheting series of comparisons between obligations. If justice is about balancing the scales, we can imagine Anselm placing a series of more weighty things in one of the pans to see whether or not they can bring the other pan of our obligation to God into equipoise. First, he states to his dialogue partner, Boso: “Suppose you were to find yourself in the presence of God and someone were to give you the command: ‘Look in that direction.’ And suppose that, on the contrary, God were to say: ‘I am absolutely unwilling for you to look.’ Ask yourself in your heart what there is, among all existing things, for the sake of which you ought to take that look in violation of God’s will.”40 Here the Archbishop deliberately uses a very small sin in his first measurement, perhaps referencing the Fall, and Boso gives his answer: “I find nothing for the sake of which I ought to do this.”41 Place anything, or the command of anyone, on the other side of the scale, and even the smallest duty to God will tip the scales in his favor.

Anselm then adds to the hypothetical scale: “what if it were necessary either for the whole world and whatever is other than God to perish and be reduced to nothing or for you to do so small a thing which is contrary to the will of God?”42 In other words, are all things put together enough to outweigh the smallest obligation we have to God?43 To Anselm’s challenge Boso answers, “I must admit that even for the sake of preserving the whole of creation, it is not the case that I ought to do something which is contrary to the will of God.”44 Having measured human obligation to God against any thing or person, and against all things put together, he then invokes infinity: “What if there were more than one world, full of creatures, just as this world is?”45 The answer? “If there were an infinitely multiple number of worlds and they too were exhibited to me, I would still give the same answer.”46 Anselm then arrives at his incisive conclusion: “You can do nothing more rightly. But if it were to happen that contrary to the will of God you were to take that look, consider as well what you would be able to render as payment for this sin.”47

By a ratcheting measurement of man’s obligation to God in even the slightest matter, Anselm demonstrates the infinite debt of our sin. The only just punishment is therefore also infinite—eternal. Hartman summarizes, “in the nature of things, the violation of law incurs a guilt equal to the measure of its obligation. This is also self-evident. The guilt of action consists in its being the violation of our obligation; therefore the guilt and the obligation must be mutual measurements of each other.”48 An eternal hell is just punishment for even a single sin due to man’s infinite obligation to God in all things relative to his will. Although I have argued for the continuation of a particular kind of sin in hell, the question of whether or not the wicked continue to sin in hell, let alone increasingly and eternally, is immaterial to whether or not eternal punishment is warranted.

4. An Infinite God Upon the Cross

The infinite weight of a single sin also has significant implications for worship. The Lord Jesus stated of the love of the sinful woman at Simon’s house, “Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little” (Luke 7:47–48). The realization of the immeasurable debt of even our least transgressions, commends to us the atoning work of Christ all the more. Inadvertently, Golding’s theory may suppress the worship of our Lord’s mercy and grace towards his church as deservingly damnable sinners, apart from his intervention. Thomas Brooks states,

Christ’s outward and inward miseries, sorrows, and sufferings are not to be paralleled, and therefore Christians have the more cause to lose themselves in the contemplation of his matchless love. Oh, bless Christ! oh, kiss Christ! oh, embrace Christ! oh, welcome Christ! oh, cleave to Christ! oh, follow Christ! oh, walk with Christ! oh, long for Christ! who for your sakes hath undergone insupportable wrath and most hellish torments.49

At the cross Christ offered a ransom price beyond what any man could offer—“You were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Pet 1:18–19). While it was Christ’s humanity by which he died to offer payment, it was his divinity that supplied the infinite weight to balance the cosmic scales. Martin Luther writes, “We Christians should know that if God is not in the scale to give it weight, we, on our side, sink to the ground. I mean it this way: if it cannot be said that God died for us, but only a man, we are lost; but if God’s death and a dead God lie in the balance, his side goes down and ours goes up like a light and empty scale.”50

Golding agrees that this is the case, but then he adds to it his asymptotic theory in order to make the case for eternal punishment even more intuitive.51 In adding, however, I fear he has subtracted. Unintentionally, his view subtly suppresses the heinousness of our sins, the deservedness of eternal wrath, and the surpassingly great work of Christ. The preacher can and ought to preach the torment of an eternal hell on account of sin—any sin—even a single, small sin. More than perhaps any other thing, this will cause the worshiper’s questions concerning eternal punishment to be dispelled in the contemplation of the cost to Christ at the cross and his love for them in his ransom.

[1] Robert Golding, “Making Sense of Hell,” Themelios 46 (2021): 145–62.

[2] Golding, “Making Sense of Hell,” 154–55.

[3] “An asymptotic curve is one that continually approaches a straight line without touching at any point, which is employed to describe our ascent into greater and greater communion with the infinite God in Christ.” Golding, “Making Sense of Hell,” 146 n. 7.

[4] “Just as a person cannot go infinitely backwards or forwards because each step would be a step to nowhere since at the end of the journey infinity would stand far away, it seems logical to say that we can never reach the climax of a move away from or towards God’s infinite perfection.” Golding, “Making Sense of Hell,” 147.

[5] Jonathan Edwards, “Heaven Is a World of Love,” in Ethical Writings, ed. Paul Ramsey and John E. Smith, The Works of Jonathan Edwards 8 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 366–96.

[6] Golding, “Making Sense of Hell,” 146.

[7] Golding, “Making Sense of Hell,” 152–53.

[8] Golding, “Making Sense of Hell,” 155.

[9] Golding equivocates on whether this loss of goodness occurs immediately after the judgment or eventually, presumably in his asymptotic process. Golding, “Making Sense of Hell,” 152.

[10] Tertullian, On the Resurrection of the Flesh 14 (ANF 3:555).

[11] Henri Blocher, “Everlasting Punishment and the Problem of Evil,” in Universalism and the Doctrine of Hell, ed. Nigel Cameron (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1992), 283–312.

[12] Blocher, “Everlasting Punishment and the Problem of Evil,” 299.

[13] Blocher, “Everlasting Punishment and the Problem of Evil,” 305 (italics original).

[14] Golding, “Making Sense of Hell,” 156.

[15] Golding, “Making Sense of Hell,” 156.

[16] This argument could conceivably be turned into Golding’s favor—surely a good God would be just to punish those contributing to such a pit of filth and degradation? My point is that it raises concerns equally as problematic—why would a good God allow infinitely increasing murder, rape, and violence?

[17] Blocher, “Everlasting Punishment and the Problem of Evil,” 303.

[18] Blocher, “Everlasting Punishment and the Problem of Evil,” 307.

[19] “The apostle indeed appears to use the expression ‘those things that are not’ not for things that exist nowhere but for things that are wicked, considering ‘those things that are not’ to be things that are bad. For he says, ‘God called those things that are not as those that are.’ … ‘Not being’ and ‘nothing’ are synonyms, and for this reason those ‘who are not’ are ‘nothing,’ and all evil is ‘nothing,’ since it too is ‘not being.’ And evil, which is called ‘nothing,’ has been made without the Word, not being included in ‘all things.’” Cited from Joel C. Elowsky, ed., John 1–10, ACCSNT 4A (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 22.

[20] “Sin, indeed, was not made by Him; and it is plain that sin is nothing, and men become nothing when they sin.” Augustine, Tractates on John 1.13 (NPNF2 7:13)

[21] Athanasius, Against the Heathen 6.1 (NPNF2 4:6)

[22] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 4:92.

[23] Golding, “Making Sense of Hell,” 156.

[24] Golding, “Making Sense of Hell,” 156.

[25] Golding, “Making Sense of Hell,” 157.

[26] Given the darkening of the hearts of unbelievers brought about by sin, “intuitive” answers to scriptural problems may not be possible without the Spirit (1 Cor 2:14).

[27] This doesn’t negate the conclusion, from at least the time of Tertullian, that all sins were comprehended in the first. Tertullian, An Answer to the Jews 2.

[28] Stephen Charnock, “A Discourse upon the Holiness of God,” in The Complete Works of Stephen Charnock, ed. James Nichol (Edinburgh: James Nisbet, 1864), 2:202.

[29] Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, ed. James T. Dennison Jr. and George Musgrave Giger (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1997), 1:579.

[30] Not only in spite of these aspects, but also because of them, for the evil of this first sin is seen in Adam preferring the fruit to doing God’s will.

[31] In the first and third examples I use “evil” in a technical, not a moral sense. See Aquinas, On Evil, ed. Brian Davies, trans. Richard Regan (Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press, 2003), 74–79 (Q1, Art. 4).

[32] The parallel passage in Matthew 18:5–6 is more explicit that the “little ones” are indeed children. However, it is possible that Jesus used this and similar expressions as a figure of speech for believers in some instances, an approach which may have been appropriated by John (Mark 10:24; 1 John 2:1).

[33] See D. A. Carson, “Sin’s Contemporary Significance,” in Fallen: A Theology of Sin, ed. Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 24.

[34] Other critics who would fall into this category include Thomas Talbott, Marilyn McCord Adams, and Charles Kvanvig. For a more thoughtful critical view of Anselm’s theory, see Charles Seymour, A Theodicy of Hell (Dordrecht: KluwerAcademic, 2000), 73.

[35] In addition to the error of this position, critics also haven’t recognized that the historical record is not one-sided when it comes to punishment and honor concerning the classes. While there are plenty of example of peasants being punished quicker or more severely than a prince for the same crime, there are other instances in which those from a higher class had to pay greater fines or face greater punishment for criminal offences than the commoner. See Trevor Dean, Crime in Medieval Europe (Harlow: Pearson Education, 2001), 131–33; William Ian Miller, Eye For An Eye (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 110–11.

[36] Gavin Ortlund, “On the Throwing of Rocks: An Objection to Hasty and Un-Careful Criticisms of Anselm’s Doctrine of the Atonement,” Saint Anselm Journal 8.2 (2013): 1–17.

[37] Jonathan Edwards, “The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners,” in Hell and Future Punishment: Select Sermons of Jonathan Edwards (Apollo, PA: Ichthus Publications, 2014); L. B. Hartman, Divine Penology, ed. Paul Dirks (New Westminster, BC: Decretum, 2021), 166.

[38] “No one who pays this debt sins; and everyone who does not pay it does sin. This is the justice-of-will, or uprightness-of-will, which makes men just, or upright, in heart (i.e., in will). This is the sole and complete honor which we owe to God and which God demands from us…. Whoever does not pay to God this honor due Him dishonors Him and removes from Him what belongs to Him; and this removal, or this dishonoring, constitutes a sin.” Anselm, Cur Deus Homo, trans. Jasper Hopkins and Herbert Richardson (Minneapolis: Arthur J. Banning Press, 2000), 3.11. All subsequent quotations are from this translation.

[39] Anselm, Cur Deus Homo 3.11.

[40] Anselm, Cur Deus Homo 3.21.

[41] Anselm, Cur Deus Homo 3.21.

[42] Anselm, Cur Deus Homo 3.21.

[43] With this question, one is reminded of God’s command to Abraham that he sacrifice his only son Isaac (Gen 22:2). To Abraham, Isaac was not merely the greatest thing—he was everything. He was the miracle son through whom all the promises of God would come to pass, even the blessing of the entire world.

[44] Anselm, Cur Deus Homo 3.21.

[45] Anselm, Cur Deus Homo 3.21.

[46] Anselm, Cur Deus Homo 3.21.

[47] Anselm, Cur Deus Homo 3.21.

[48] Hartman, Divine Penology, 165.

[49] Thomas Brooks, “The Golden Key to Open Hidden Treasures,” in The Complete Works of Thomas Brooks, ed. Alexander Balloch Grosart (London: James Nisbet, 1867), 5:141.

[50] Martin Luther, Church and Ministry III, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, Luther’s Works 41 (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1999), 103–4.

[51] Golding, “Making Sense of Hell,” 156.

Paul Dirks

Paul Dirks is Lead Pastor of New West Community Church near Vancouver, British Columbia, and the author of Is There Anything Good About Hell? (Decretum, 2021).

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