Sending Michael Vick to hell
[T]he state-inflicted violence that is the penal system ... needs justification, and so, in order to rationalize punishment, we have to tell ourselves that the person is a bad person. Which of course, in a way, he is -- people who drown dogs or beat women or rob banks are bad people. But only so much so. The problem is that whereas criminal penalties are generally temporally limited (e.g., a jail sentence of two years), moral judgments have no such borders. Having concluded that someone is a bad person is the warrant that justifies the incarceration, but it does not fade away upon their release. We find, post-release, that our thirst for retribution hasn't been quenched. After all, there is a bad guy out there, living his life freely, successful, even happy. There is a disjuncture between the formalized, limited, moral judgment of incarceration, and the broader narrative of wrongfulness that sustains our ability to render that judgment under law -- a narrative that enjoys no such bounds or constraints, a narrative that, may, fundamentally, be incompatible with any sentence for felons other than life without parole.
I think this captures something important about the way modern US culture conceptualizes wrongdoing. Our focus is not on wrongful acts as events that ought to be eliminated. Instead, our interest is in diagnosing whether individuals are bad people or good people. Wrongful acts are merely diagnostic of bad-person-ness. On the other hand, a firm belief in someone's good-person-ness can be used to excuse or deny someone's wrongful acts. And we are quite willing to create situations in which wrongful acts are more likely in the hopes that this will let bad people reveal themselves as such. Ours is a society built in some respects on the fundamental attribution error.
But this way of thinking goes beyond criminal justice into theology, and I think it helps to explain some otherwise puzzling features of conventional Christianity. I've often heard atheists suggest that Christianity does not make sense (or at least that the Christian god is not as good as advertised) because the doctrine of hell proposes infinite punishment for finite sins. That is, any sin a human can commit is limited in its bad effects. Yet according to conventional Christianity, even the tiniest sin would -- in the absence of Jesus' forgiveness -- condemn us to an eternity of punishment in hell. This is a powerful argument if we conceive of wrongful acts (sins) as bad events that should either be deterred or met with proportionate retribution. But what if instead we look at sins as diagnostic of the badness of the sinner as a person? Stealing $20 may not deserve an eternity of punishment, but being a bad person -- the kind of person who would steal $20 -- is an unchangeable quality which you will still have at the end of any finite term of punishment. (The intensity of punishment may be able to vary with the nature of your badness -- see Dante's progressively worse circles of hell -- but eternal badness still requires eternal punishment.)
If hell's eternity is premised upon the badness of the damned person's character rather than the scope of their sins' effects, this tells us something about the nature of Jesus' forgiveness. There is much emphasis in conventional Christianity on the idea that being "saved" is a soul-changing experience. This is not forgiveness in the mundane sense in which an individual wrongful act is dismissed. Rather, it is a wiping clean of the person's basic character. You are made no longer a bad person, and thus not deserving of an eternity in hell. Indeed, as a good person you now deserve an eternity in heaven. This helps to make sense of another common atheist complaint. According to conventional Christianity, if on his deathbed Hitler had sincerely repented and accepted Jesus into his heart, he would have gone straight to heaven. This seems illogical from a perspective that focuses on wrongful acts, since from that perspective Hitler still had at least 11 million seriously wrongful acts to account for. How can repentance just wipe that all away? But on the bad person model, Hitler wasn't headed to hell for killing 11 million people, he was headed to hell for being the kind of person who would kill 11 million people. Post-repentance, he would no longer be that kind of person, and this he no longer deserves hell.
I still think the "infinite punishment for finite sins" and "deathbed repentance" arguments raise important problems with conventional Christian theology. But that's because I don't subscribe to the "bad person" model of sin.