After lately seeing Larry Nassar receive a nearly 200 year jail sentence, I was reminded of the other profoundly long jail sentences modern courts sometimes set for egregious crimes. In 1994, Charles Scott Robinson was sentenced to 30,000 years in jail after he was convicted of raping six children. This is the longest jail sentence ever given in America, though jail terms in the 500 to 1000 year range are not entirely uncommon. In 1989, a court in Thailand convicted Chamoy Thipyaso of corporate fraud and sentenced him to 141,078 years in jail.
At first blush, it is tempting to say that such sentences are simply evidence of court frustration that capital punishment is off the table. On the practical end, we all know now that parole is possible on a life sentence, and occasionally stories of someone being released from a life sentence circulate in the media.
Nonetheless, in contemplating a 30,000 year jail sentence, one must wonder whether the court is willing to be in earnest. For a moment, let us assume that Charles Scott Robinson could actually survive a 30,000 year jail sentence— that, if we petitioned God to sustain Charles’s life for that long, the Almighty would comply, intervene in the laws of physics and entropy, and keep Charles’s body and mind coherent and capable of suffering pain for that long. Would it be just to do so? And if so, would it be a miscarriage of justice to ask God to keep Charles alive for a million year jail term? Two million years?
Whether or not the court is in earnest when delivering a 30,000 year sentence, we can also ask whether such sentences are simply part of some fantasy. Is the 30 millennium jail sentence an expression of the court’s foiled wishes? In giving a man a 30,000 year sentence, is the court saying, “We are disappointed that you will only suffer for a mundane period of time. If we had our way, we would jail you for five times the length of all human history”? Or, as scientists regularly ramp up their estimations of the age of the cosmos, will we need longer and longer jail terms? When will we see the first billion year jail sentence?
While I think such jail sentences are a parody of justice, they are remarkable evidence of just how confusing evil actually is— just how ontologically and metaphysically backwards sin is. Evil is an absence, a nothingness, a cancer, an unsolvable metaphysical conundrum, given that God is at all times, in all places, filling all things. We are so flummoxed by evil, so perplexed, so baffled, so despairing in the face of evil, our attempts to encounter it head on often leave us flailing, raving.
Human justice anticipates divine justice, but not well. Man looks on the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart; man judges the actions of man, but God judges his essence. According to Boethius, God is all He has, which means that God cannot be separated from His justice. God’s justice is not an action He begins and ends, neither is His justice an object He picks up and sets down. God is God’s justice. The justice He offers man, like the mercy He offers man, is His very being. The terror of the wicked on the day of judgment is not what terrors await them from without, but what terrors lurk within which will no longer be held back, deferred, and deflected. God offers Himself to the wicked, and the pain of the wicked is simply the misshapen will which refuses God. Only God is good, and only the refusal of God is painful.