One of the biggest stumbling blocks for ex-Christians is the idea of infinite punishment for finite crimes. The notion that a single lie, a lustful thought, or a covetous desire is enough to doom a soul to an eternity of torment seems at odds with a loving and merciful God. Christian apologists have an answer, which I usually see phrased as analogous to earthly royalty:
- Offenses become greater with the honor due the offended, e.g. stealing a penny from the king incurs a much greater penalty than stealing a penny from a commoner.
- God is due infinite honor, therefore offenses against God incur an infinite penalty.
This seems to make some intuitive sense, but the problem is that the same analogy can be used to support the exact opposite point. Doesn’t a king’s greater power and status also bring with it a greater ability to brush off minor offenses? If a peasant steals a penny from a king who has millions and millions of pennies in his coffers, and the king issues the death penalty for the offense, wouldn’t the king be considered a tyrant? Or, more appropriate to the Christian God, if a peasant lusts after a woman, or tells a white lie to his neighbor, or covets another man’s fancy hat, must he pay the ultimate price?
If you want to use the royalty analogy and claim God has infinitely greater honor than an earthly king, one should also be able to say that God also has an infinitely greater capacity to forgive. The Bible itself even gives examples of rulers who deliberately set aside their disciplinary powers and instead offered clemency. Did Joseph use his authority over Egypt to exact revenge on his brothers, who sold him into slavery, or did he extend an olive branch? Upon becoming king, did David exterminate the line of Saul, who made multiple attempts on his life, or did he seek out Saul’s grandson and grant him Saul’s lands?
What lesson are we to glean from these stories? In Sunday school, these stories were used to demonstrate that there is no transgression too great to be forgiven. But isn’t this the opposite of how God acts? The Bible’s own models of magnanimous rulers make God look like a divine dictator by comparison.