Les Miserables, hell, and the legitimate purpose of punishment

June 26, 2005 at 11:25 pm Leave a comment

Ok, time to switch gears a bit and delve into something serious.

About a month ago, I read Les Miserables. The synopis:

The novel tells the tale of a convict in pre-revolutionary France by the name of Jean Valjean. This unhappy character spends nineteen years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread, and for making several subsequent attempts to escape.

Jean eventually succeeds in escaping, but his experience leaves him hardened and embittered. He is transformed, however, when he encounters the bishop of Digne, who shows him unmerited and mercy. As a result, Jean promises the bishop that he will become an honest man.

Jean then enters the town of Montreuil-sur-mer, where he begins a new life. The reformed ex-convict eventually becomes the kind, generous and just mayor of the town.

Despite his transformation, however, Jean is forced to conceal his identity, and he spends the rest of life trying to evade those who would expose his past and return him to the galleys.

What really intrigued me about this novel was the conception of justice embraced by the French society in which Jean lived. It’s a rather harsh picture: Once a convict, always a convict. Regardless of whether or not you repent, you’re branded for life.

Not only that, you also deserve lifelong punishment. Even though Jean lived for years as an upstanding citizen after his escape from prison, society still viewed him as a criminal worthy of retribution. It didn’t matter that he was a completely different man.

The general sentiment of society regarding punishment is best illuminated in the thoughts of Marius Pontmercy (the lover of Jean Valjean’s adopted daughter), immediately after he learns of Jean’s history:

“Marius, upon penal questions, although a democrat, still adhered to the inexorable system, and he had, in regard to those whom the law smites, all the ideas of the law….<i>He
had not revolted from the word vengeance</i>. He thought it natural that certain infractions of the written law should be followed by eternal penalties, and he accepted social damnation as growing out of civilization.”

In other words, the punishment of Jean Valjean had nothing to do with repentance or reform; it had wholly to do with retribution. If you commit a crime, you pay. For life. Period.

Now, about hell.

Somehow, these same ideas about justice and punishment have crept into Christian theology as well. The law is the law, we think; if you transgress it, you justly deserve to pay. No ands, ifs, or buts.

It is true that the whole of Christian theology is built around the concept of grace. However, that doesn’t seem to negate the severe sense of justice that seems to be prevalent among Christian thinkers.

There are several areas where this attitude bothers me, but one is particularly unnerving. That’s the doctrine of hell.

The fires of hell burn eternally, at least according to most Christians–and for what purpose?

Because unrepentant sinners must pay eternally for the sins they have committed.

It’s true that this doctrine is not exactly analagous to the story of Jean Valjean, because Jean Valjean repented and the sinners supposedly in hell did not. I’ll grant that.

Nevertheless, the situation is the same, in that, in both instances, punishment is disconnected from the purpose of bringing the errant individual to repentance.

In Jean Valjean’s case, he was punished even after he repented; in the case of sinners in hell, they are supposedly tormented eternally even after the option to repent has been permanently removed.

Which leads to the question: If repentance is no longer the goal, is there any just and appropriate motive for punishment?

Once someone’s fate has already been permanently decided, is there any valid reason for eternally tormenting that conscious human being?

A friend of mine claimed, in response to those questions, that if there is no eternally burning hell, then there’s no real consequence for sin. If sinners are merely annhilated when it’s all over, he questioned, what’s so bad about rejecting God?

Leaving aside that last question for the moment, this reasoning seems to me an aggregious distortion of the proper purpose of punishment. (Not to mention that it’s a fairly brutal reflection on the character of God.)

As I see it, the sole legitimate purpose of punishment is eradication of sin, NOT retribution for sin.

In other words, if punishment is designed neither to motivate repentance nor to eradicate the sinner, it is merely senseless and sadistic violence.

This is the main reason why I reject the doctrine of hell, or any other form punishment that does not have repentance (the eradication of sin) as its express goal.

If a man has been reformed, as in the case of Jean Valjean, punishment is senseless. In the same way, if a man no longer has the option to repent, punishment is equally senseless.

God forbid that we teach a doctrine of punishment such that we would torment people eternally, without the possibility of redemption, just for the purpose of “making them pay.”


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Little yawn problem Great awakening

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profile.jpgI am working on my M.A. in Religion at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Besides having a big interest in theology, history, ethics, and the deep stuff of life, I am also very fond of Mediterranean food, snow, and the color red.

Email me: jamie.kiley@gmail.com

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