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Is the concept of Eternal Punishment reconcilable with the fact of God's never-ending kindness and mercy?

Also, what about the concept that some talk about regarding the punishments of the afterlife being much worse than the worst things man can imagine on this world? People mention it like "Hey life's great, I believe the mafias' greatest methods of torture are child's play compared to God's. And my next door OTD teenage neighbor is destined to receive such punishment, possibly for an infinite number of millennia! Yeah! Life's great!" I mean, HAVE PEOPLE GONE MAD??!! If people believe this why aren't people committing suicide out of mere trauma by the millions!? If not on their own behalf (Who can really say their righteous though?) then on behalf of their other fellow humans'? I can't comprehend such selfishness if it isn't pure blindness. People's hearts break when they see even an evil person get cancer. So where is the terror I expect to see expressed by people and surely in the seforim from our holy teachers that deal with such topics? Did they not comprehend the lessons they were themselves teaching? And if they did, did it not occur to them to address the apparent contradiction between this and God's supposed love for us!?

Here's a summary:

  1. Aside from the question of indescribably torturous punishment in itself, how is eternal punishment (infinite) reconcilable with a never-ending mercy of God?

  2. Next, is the same question as before just from the aspect of the intensity of the punishment alone. Of course, combining the two questions creates a third and even stronger question.

  3. Why the lack of awareness and discussion of these two questions among common-folk and Torah Scholars alike?

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  • I added a paragraph break for you. What I am asking is clear. There will always be those who downvote a valid question simply because it makes them uncomfortable. Doing so however, is not in the spirit of true Torah learning. Commented Feb 15, 2023 at 7:59
  • If I understand correctly your question is; How is eternal punishment - kind and just, as we describe G-d to be? Commented Feb 15, 2023 at 8:03
  • I apologize if I took you wrongly, this question is just is a big cause of stress for me. I now updated the question for more clarity. Commented Feb 15, 2023 at 8:07
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    To punish the temporary and finite crimes of a finite life with eternal fire, would relinquish every principle of justice, and act like an arbitrary and malevolent tyrant. All the sins that ever have been committed do not deserve this unlimited severity of punishment. It is to represent God as cruel and vindictive and even less then merciful.
    – Turk Hill
    Commented Feb 16, 2023 at 23:04
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    The Mesillas Yesharim says that our role in this world is to build our relationship with G-d, so that we can enjoy Olam Haba. The Rambam (H. Teshuva) says that Gehinnom represents a failure to accomplish that. Every human being at the end of his or her life has built a certain level of ability to be close to G-d. If it's less, ח"ו, that is what is called "punishment". - The story can be much more complex, but I think that should be the baseline of our approach.
    – MichoelR
    Commented Feb 17, 2023 at 8:52

4 Answers 4

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To answer your title question, you are 100% correct. Eternal punishment would definitely contradict not only Hashem's mercy and justice, but also His goodness. See this answer for more details on how Gehinom is not destined to last forever. See this shiur and this article on how there is no such thing as eternal punishment, and every Jew will eventually make it to the World to Come. The question is how hot and long a shower will they need to get the dirt off?

The lack of awareness in Torah scholars does not exist. They have taught us in many places, including gemara Keritot, Nefesh HaChaim, Tanya etc that Hashem doesn't punish in that sense. The sin itself is the punishment.

If suddenly every last secret thought and deed a person has ever committed is suddenly available for all to see, many people would die from genuine, gut-wrenching shame*. It is also taught that another "fire" that burns the soul is the fire of regret. In the World of Truth, one cannot hide from the knowledge of the reality and gravity of one's sins, nor hide from the faces of the ones one sinned against, nor avoid the realisation of the true potential one had that is now lost.

All the more so our soul feels this pain, free from the constraints and numbness of the body, would feel this shame far more acutely than we can possibly imagine. This is what Chazal are getting at with their teachings and the only reason they bring it up and don't play it down is in order that we should internalise it and as a result, try to improve our bashfulness in general so we won't sin now. Our bashfulness is always on the decline each generation due to the yeridat hadorot.

The sages also go to great length to demonstrate Hashem's mercy in that despite this shame we will all experience - which if one dwells upon it for even a moment realises is something that in theory should have no remedy once the "time for earning" has expired - has somehow, miraculously, established means that even the worst shame for the worst sins somehow has a remedy, in this life or the next. In most cases, this happens in just a year! It can be worse, but is never eternal. The above linked shiur goes, rigorously, through all main statements in Chazal on this topic and shows how they are all merciful and imply that every Jew will eventually be cleansed.

The aforementioned numbness, by the way, is likely the reason many people are flippant about this issue. Many people hear these things and it leaves little impression. Therefore they are capable of ignoring it, as well as sometimes sneering about it vis-à-vis people they consider sinful. Don't pay it any mind, judge favourably and retain Ahavat Yisrael not only for the sinners they sneer on, but them as well. We are a low, ignorant and very numb generation, Hashem doesn't blame us for that, nor does He need a defender. He wants us to defend each other at all costs, even before Him, and certainly never be each others' accuser. This is the essence of Ahavat Yisrael.

* People have likened this nowadays to suddenly all our emails and browser history being exposed for all to see! The world would be filled with shame...

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  • How do earthly suffering and various tikkunim alleviate gehinnom in this model?
    – shmosel
    Commented Feb 17, 2023 at 8:44
  • @shmosel a made up example that is perhaps one answer. Shimon is negligent and accidentally causes huge long term damage to Reuven, without even realising. Shimon, in response, is decreed an equal amount of suffering in his life. Before 120, he has a lot of questions for Hashem. After 120, Shimon goes to Bet Din and he suddenly understands the magnitude and sorrow of what he did. Before he descends into gehinom of shame and regret, Hashem explains to him that Reuven's complaint for justice has been answered. Shimon suffered just as much and Reuven and Shimon are golden for eternity :)
    – Rabbi Kaii
    Commented Feb 17, 2023 at 9:45
  • @shmosel as I am not a kabbalist, I cannot say how tikkunim work. I'd imagine that through various good deeds that one puts effort into, one is able to compensate for the damage one did to people like Reuven by bringing in light, and joy and consolation to the Shechina? This will also bring blessing to the whole world and alleviate a lot of suffering. Midda k'negged midda. It's hard to say, these are hidden matters, but we have to trust the chachamim
    – Rabbi Kaii
    Commented Feb 17, 2023 at 9:46
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G-d created a system of justice. Both judgement and mercy are part of that system. They both stem from the fact that a person's actions have a real effect on the world, increasing good or bad both in themselves and the world. Someone who creates a tremendous amount of bad will cause themselves suffering through their actions, which is more fair than having that suffering devolve onto others who did not sin. This is how the Nefesh Hachayim deals with your question.

As the Nefesh Hachayim explains:

And so too the punishment of Gehinnom, its explanation is the same: that the sin itself is his punishment, and as is written (Mishlei 5:22): “His sins will trap him and in the ropes of his sins will he be held,” and (Yirmiyahu 2:19): “Your own wickedness will afflict you,” as will be explained, that when a person performs one of God’s commandments that shouldn’t be done, the defect and the destruction is recorded (heaven forefend) immediately above, at its root...
And this is what our sages (OBM) said (Eiruvin 19:1): “The evil deepen Gehinnom for themselves,” conveying that they themselves deepen Gehinnom for themselves, and expand it and ignite it with their sins, and as is written (Yeshayahu 50:11): “Behold all you who kindle a fire... be gone in the flames of your fire and among the sparks that you kindled—from my hand shall this be for you... .” Therefore when the Notables of the Great Assembly seized the evil inclination, then Gehinnom was thereby quenched, as it is written in Zohar (T’rooma 109b, top): “as the evil ones warm themselves by the fire of the evil inclination... in every warming and warming... this is the degree to which the fire burns in Gehinnom, when once the evil inclination was absent from the world..., and all during that period the fire of Gehinnom was extinguished and didn’t burn at all. When the evil inclination returned to its place and the evil in the world began to warm themselves from it, the fire of Gehinnom began to burn, for Gehinnom doesn’t burn except fueled by the power of the evil one’s evil inclination.”
This is what the text said (Iyyov 34:11): “for a man shall be paid for his actions”—that the action itself, whether it be good or evil (heaven forefend) it [emphatic] itself is his compensation, as we explained (and refer to Zohar Korakh 177a). And this is what is said in Mishna Avot (4:2): “The reward of [fulfilling] a commandment is another commandment, and the reward of a transgression is another transgression,” and this is what is written (Kohelet 12:14): “For every action, God-Elohi”m will bring to judgment,” to say it is the action itself that endures and is recorded as it is, as was explained above.
Therefore our sages (OBM) said (Bava Kamma 50a): “All who say that the Holy One (blessed be He) makes concessions, his life will be conceded”. And so it is in the Yerushalmi (the fifth chapter of Sh’kalim), and in Bereshit Rabba (chapter 67), and in Tahn-khooma (parshat Teesah), and the Shokhar Tov (T’hillim). And on the face of it this seems surprising, for a kind person acts according to the characteristic of leniency.
However, it is as we wrote above, that this is not a method of punishment or revenge (heaven forefend), only that (Mishlei 13:21): “Evil pursues sinners,” that the sin itself is the punishment. For from the moment of creation, He (blessed be His name) fixed the order of how the worlds behave, that they should be dependent on what a person’s actions arouse, whether good or evil (heaven forefend), that all of his actions and situations create their own effects, each one in its source and root.

And he necessarily receives judgment via the powers of impurity that he empowered with his actions, according to the degree and severity of the defect. And by this, of itself, will be rectified the defect in the worlds and his soul-Neffesh.

As to the intensity of the punishment, that is because the soul is much more sensitive than the physical body. The same punishment carried out in this world to the body would affect the soul much more strongly. It's not that the punishments involve more cruelty or inventiveness.

I can't speak for the common-folk but these topics are definitely dealt with in Torah literature.

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  • I really appreciate this answer, and although it doesn't really answer my question, it should serve as a great springboard to further discuss the topic. I will get back to this tomorrow (I still didn't go to sleep here in New Jersey! :o) Commented Feb 15, 2023 at 10:23
  • I believe it does answer your question.
    – N.T.
    Commented Feb 16, 2023 at 7:10
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I'll set aside the question of eternal punishment because, if it exists at all, it's an extreme measure for extreme evil.

On the topic of punishment in general, the Mezritcher Maggid in Ohr Hatorah explains that it's not really punishment so much as a painful healing process. He compares it to a child who walked around barefoot, despite his father's warnings, and got a thorn lodged in his foot. Although it wasn't terribly painful, the father knew it could get infected, so he cut the skin and forcibly extracted the thorn, ignoring the child's cries in the knowledge that the painful procedure was to his ultimate benefit.

The next time the child wants to walk barefoot, the father reminds him of the pain that awaits him if he has to extract another thorn. Of course, the father sees the thorn as the true danger and the extraction as a necessary remedy. But the child, with his limited intellect, only appreciates the immediate pain of the extraction, so the father uses that to set him on the right path.

Similarly, Hashem knows that suffering cleanses us of sin and is in fact a mercy to our soul. He warns us of the pain in the hopes we'll stay on the right path, but His true fear (as it were) is the damage we do to ourselves by sinning in the first place. This is hinted to in the words ליראה את ד' אלהיך, "you should fear what Hashem fears," that is, fear the sin, not the punishment.

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  • Good point about mentioning extreme measures for extreme evil. This "the sin punishes" answer I think applies to 99% of cases. Turk's point here judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/133245/… is still applicable, but certainly we can imagine that there are some very difficult things waiting for the very very wicked in light of the sources and in light of the concept of justice.
    – Rabbi Kaii
    Commented Feb 17, 2023 at 10:05
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Aside from the question of indescribably torturous punishment in itself, how is eternal punishment (infinite) reconcilable with a never-ending mercy of God? how does the intensity differ? Avoiding redunancy I will combine the two and explain both with a closing summary which also addresses intensity and why there seems to be a "lack of awareness and discussion of these two questions among common-folk and Torah Scholars alike".

In order to answer the punishment part, it is necessary to define pleasure which in the opposite of pain/punishment. We have physical paramaters to equate punishment with fire/sin/torture but we have no visual physical paramaters to measure the "pleasure"/reward one will receive in Olam Habo. There is a good explanation of that here: "Why is there no description of Olam Haba in the Torah?" Also Rav Noah Weinberg, Z"tl explained pleasure in this world in 5 levels - read about the highest plane Pleasure Aish Rabbi N Weinberg Z'tl

  • First Level which explains the joy of connecting directly with the unity of H" once you are able to understand unity in the "First level of Pleasure" - it is not physical at all. Pain is understood physically which is temporary; Pleasure is most accurately understood spiritually which is eternal. Mercy is understood via gratitude which expands so exponentially that it trancends above physical pain to such a level that even "judgement" which would seem to incite fear, will ultimately give the greates joy to those who understand the unity of all things.

The reasoning many people avoid this or lack understanding is because this world is almost exclusively witnessed and/or injested in a physical manner. Pleasure in olam haba supercedes that understanding. That is why H" says to Moshe no one can see Me and live Shemos 33:20. We could therefore infer that the pleasure of wisdom a neshama experiences in the proximity of H" is so overwhelmingly great (beyond physical understading) that return to the physical plane would become so unbearable that "living" through that would contraindicate H"'s "mercy" and be impossible (life is in the simplist terms, a blind separation of the neshama from H"'s light or wisdom/shehina. Our temporary separation is only to allow for the opportunity to experience free will as an individual (only as long as we are "separate")

The following precepts pretty much everyone can relate to in the overall experience of what changes in olam habo Time ceases to be a factor - Hashem is above time Y-H-W-H Space is no longer relevant - Hashem IS the"place" HaMakom In Olam Habo our unity with Hashem eliminates what we perceive here as physical sensations read Rambam's thirteen principles for neshomos there - physical pain ceases to exist; so all "pain" is soley factored as a loss which can no longer be repaired which equates to "shame" and the "fire" which results. Fire is a the closest thing we can think of but shame is so much worse on the spiritual realm but can be overcome because it is purifying - not murderous - in Olam Habo. It is equated as max=12 mo which would be exceedingly merciful because the burn is like a cauterizing treatment which would be repairative and "life" saving. We on Earth can't possibly understand that sufficiently because we ONLY understand time-based physical suffering with elements of temporary spiritual pain - which fluxuates based on the use of our free will (on loan) which is constantly limited due to physical restraints. Since time is not relevant in Olam HaBa, how can we possibly teach that here? "Extinguish" in Gehinnom means forever, where as 12 months = limited. If H" understands that the neshama's pain will not be sufficient to "repair" the neshama H" simply extinquishes the suffering soul immediately which is the most "infinate" loss but simulataneously merciful comparitively. There is NO greater pain than the "dismissal" so to speak of H" in the spiritual world.

A neshama who is capable connecting to H" will experience complete validation or honor - the highest pleasure a person can experience on earth. The process happens through "tshuva" which ultimately translates to reconnecting or "return". Obviously we are limited by our physicality/life itself so unless someone has had a "near death" or "pardes" experience, living people have no cognitive way to learn/teach this concept until we leave the spiritual dimension - which is quite risky - see this discussed Talmud on "Pardes" linked here: Babylonian Talmud Sefaria link Tosefta_Chagigah.2.2

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