There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ's moral character, and that is that he believed in hell. I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment.
Bertrand Russell, atheist 1
Hell is God's great compliment to the reality of human freedom and the dignity of human choice.
G. K. Chesterton, Christian 2
Judge Cortland A. Mathers was in a quandary. Standing before him was a defendant who was guilty of playing a minor role in a drug case. She was a thirty-oneyear-old impoverished mother with a young family. She was remorseful over her crime. In the judge's opinion, she deserved a second chance. Justice would be served by giving her probation.
But there was a problem: if Mathers found her guilty of the charge against her, he would have no choice under Massachusetts law but to sentence her to six years in the penitentiary. He knew that prison would scar her forever.
More than likely, it would destroy her fragile family and leave her embittered, angry, unemployed, and destined for more trouble.
This is a system called "mandatory sentencing," which removes the discretion of judges in disposing of certain kinds of cases. The positive side is that judges are prevented from being too lenient. But the negative consequence is that in some instances the automatic sentence can be too harsh-like in this case, where the defendant stood to serve more time behind bars than most armed robbers.
Mathers was never known to shrink back from sentencing criminals to long prison terms if the circumstances warranted it. But in this case, he considered the mandatory sentence-with no possibility of early release-to be an "absolute miscarriage of justice."
And so Mathers made his choice: "Disobey the law in order to be just." He declared her guilty of a lesser offense that did not carry a pre-set prison term and sentenced her to five years of probation with required counseling.
"If a judge is not capable of doing that, then he shouldn't be on the bench," Mathers told the Boston Globe in its investigation of mandatory sentencing. "A judge either is an automaton, rubberstamping these sentences, or is driven by a sense of justice."3
I was thinking about that case as my plane was descending toward Los Angeles International Airport on a sultry September morning. How ironic, I mused, that a law designed to enforce justice threatened to thwart it instead. I could understand the sense of fairness that prompted Mathers to sidestep one-size-fits-all sentencing and instead to impose a punishment that would more appropriately fit the crime.
For a long time as a spiritual seeker, I found my sense of justice outraged by the Christian teaching about hell, which I considered far more unjust than a mandatory prison term would have been in the case before Mathers. The doctrine seemed like cosmic overkill to me, an automatic and unappealable sentence to an eternity of torture and torment. It's mandatory sentencing taken to the extreme: everyone gets the same consequences, regardless of their circumstances. Step out of line with God-even a little bit, even inadvertently-and you're slapped with an endless prison sentence in a place that makes Leavenworth look like Disneyland.
Where's the justice in that? Where's the proportionality between crime and punishment? What kind of a God enjoys seeing his creatures writhe forever-without hope, beyond redemption-in a torture chamber every bit as ghastly and barbaric as a Nazi concentration camp? Wasn't atheist B. C. Johnson right when he charged that "the idea of hell is morally absurd?"4
Those are tough and emotionally charged questions. I needed answers from a tough-minded authority, someone who wouldn't flinch from honest challenges. I glanced out the plane's window as suburban Los Angeles passed beneath, shimmering in the bright sunlight. I was anxious for my one-on-one encounter with a well-respected philosopher who has wrestled extensively with this troubling doctrine of eternal damnation.
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