It seems like an eternity spent in Hell is an unfair punishment for sins committed in 70 or 80 years in this life. The punishment doesn't seem to fit the crime.How should a Christian respond to this? I would respond by pointing out several misunderstandings inherent in this claim that make it fundamentally flawed. (And that's just what I'll do, beginning with this post and running through the next couple...)
First (and this is a relatively minor point), the claim may involve a category fallacy. That is, it seems to treat of eternity as involving the same sort of time as we experience in this universe (only lots more of it). This is, of course, understandable, since as creatures currently confined to this half dimension of time, we have great difficulty imagining other temporal realities. But time--along with matter, energy, and space--is a created part of this universe. And Christian belief (and the biblical portrayal) is that God is transcendent--outside of, unconfined by--the dimensions of this universe. This understanding is powerfully supported by modern cosmology and astrophysics. (Christians have variously understood God either as timeless or time-full, having multiple dimensions of time at His disposal.) Additionally, Christian belief entails Heaven and Hell likewise existing outside the dimensionality of this universe.
So the temporal reality of Heaven and Hell may be completely unlike the time experienced in this life.
Second--and more practically--in our own judicial systems we do not tend to base the time associated with punishment upon the time associated with the crime.
I may go to my job as a cashier at the candy shop, and every other day for two entire years steal $1.00 worth of candy. At the end of that time (a long period of deliberate lawbreaking), I would be guilty only of a misdemeanor, and the punishment would include absolutely no jail time. By contrast, I could conceive of and carry out a heinous double murder in the space of ten minutes; if convicted of these crimes, I might face two consecutive life terms in prison, or worse.
So the claim seems to hinge upon a correlation between the temporality of crime and punishment, a correlation that doesn't even hold in our own imperfect judicial systems.
Third, a factor that does matter in our own systems is the person or authority against whom the crime is committed. If I betray a confidence entrusted to me by my wife, it may have ramifications for my marriage and our relationship; but I will not be convicted of any crime, nor will I serve any prison time. If, however, I betray a confidence entrusted to me by my federal government, the charge is treason and the punishment has historically been execution.
In the case before us--the issue of Hell--the authority against whom the crime is committed is the highest Authority possible, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe, the transcendent Lawgiver (the Source of the absolute moral code), and the Creator of the one sinning against Him. That same Authority is not only the one against whom the crime is committed but--as the supreme Authority--the only one who can offer (and has so offered) clemency.
Let's say I am lying on the soccer field. An opponent offers me a hand up, and I reject it. This is no big deal; maybe I believe he fouled me in the first place, there are plenty of other players who could help me up, and frankly, I can get up under my own power. But in the case at issue (in the claim we're addressing), I have fallen without hope; I am completely unable to save myself, and there is no one else who can help me... except the very Authority against whom I've sinned and who in His great mercy has offered me a single way of salvation. If I reject His gracious offer of a hand up, the consequences of that rejection are understandably severe.
In the next post, I'll identify additional ways in which this claim--that the eternality of Hell is unfair--is fundamentally flawed.