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Archive for September, 2010

The Problem of (Divine) Evil

I recently read an article by philosopher David Lewis about the problem of evil that is arguably as creative and insightful as his work in metaphysics and epistemology. The title of the article is Divine Evil and it was published in the book Philosophers Without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life (much preferred to the recent flurry of atheist literature). Here I wish to spell out the arguments that Lewis sets forth in that article, mixing my own comments in throughout.

Evil and Punishment

Traditionally, the problem of evil has focused on moral and natural evil that God fails to prevent. An omnipotent, omniscient, all-benevolent, being could and would prevent creatures from (1) inflicting harm on each other and from (2) non-human harm that results from diseases and natural disasters. But since these evils do exist and are not prevented, God–understood as an omnipotent, omniscient, all-benevolent being–cannot or probably does not exist. This is the traditional argument that has received much attention throughout intellectual history. According to Lewis, there is an aspect of the problem of evil that has been neglected by theologians and philosophers of religion:  the problem of divine evil. This problem relates to the traditional problem of evil in that its focus is on the existence of evil. But instead of questioning why God fails to prevent evil, the problem of divine evil focuses on God himself as an active and direct perpetrator of evil.

For Lewis, God perpetrates evil when he willingly and knowingly condemns people to Hell for eternity, submitting them to an infinite amount of pain and suffering. Because the punishment of Hell is eternal, God inflicts more pain and suffering on one individual than the sum total of pain and suffering induced by the most heinous crimes in the history of humankind. Of course, God doesn’t send just one person to Hell but–according to the scriptures–most people. For Lewis, God appears not as a loving father but as a divine dictator whose evil far surpasses that of the likes of Hitler and Stalin. But perhaps there is a way to save God from this gross comparison. The question is whether or not there is a way to justify eternal damnation.

For starters, it will not suffice to talk about corrective behavioral measures and the hope of change. While human penal systems may occasionally justify their actions by reference to arguments about the success of behavioral reform, the eternal nature of Hell makes this point irrelevant. From what we can gather from scriptural evidence and from traditional church doctrines, Hell (as opposed to something like Purgatory) is not meant as a means for moral cleansing i.e. as a way for us to improve our moral character before being accepted into the presence of God. And since Hell is eternal, it cannot be. Hell allows for no second chances. And thus no consequentialist or forward-looking theory of punishment will help the theist here.

Perhaps Hell can be justified on the grounds that God requires some form of retribution: humans should be punished for their wrongdoing just because wrongdoers morally deserve to be punished regardless of future consequences. But consider again how we go about deliberating about our own penal systems. To the extent that we take seriously retributive theories of punishment, we generally seem to think that justice requires that the punishment be directly proportional to the crime. But what moral crime could merit eternal pain and suffering? The answer is that there is no such crime because only a finite amount of wrongdoing is possible in any given human life and thus, according to a just distribution of punishment, only a finite amount of punishment is permissible. Thus, Hell also fails to be justified on a backward-looking or retributive theory of punishment.

What about free will?

The doctrine of free will has been the theodicy of choice for theists since theodicies were first sought after. Why does God fail to prevent evil? Because moral evil results from our capacity to choose freely. And God thought that a world with free will and the possibility for evil was preferable to a world with neither. Although it is difficult to see how this response could satisfy the existence of natural evil, let us leave that aside. Could the free will response work here in the case of divine evil: perhaps God gives all of us an opportunity to meet the requirements for salvation (whatever they are), ultimately leaving it up to us to choose whether or not we want to accept or reject his offer?

This response is problematic on several levels. First, some theological traditions clearly reject any role that we might play in our own salvation. According to these traditions, God only offers salvation to a select few. Or, to put it differently, he offers it to all, but only opens the hearts and minds of some to accept. Second, it is quite evident that not all of us do in fact get an opportunity to meet the requirements for salvation. Many Christian traditions hold that the belief in or the acceptance of Christ as your savior and Lord are the requirements for salvation. But this means that millions of past and present individuals–due to environmental factors beyond their control–never had and never will have a genuine opportunity to hear, let alone accept, the Gospel. Without this opportunity, free will makes no difference.

Lewis also questions the free will response on the grounds that it presumes that incompatibilist freedom–the sort of freedom that can only exist if determinism is false–is of supreme value. In other words, it presumes that it would have been worse if God set up the causal conditions of the universe in such a way so that all of his creatures would eventually accept his gift. But why think this: why think that incompatibilist freedom is of such value that it is worth the eternal and extraordinary torment of a great many souls? Lewis states,

Imagine two worlds. In one of these, actions are produced by psychological states, themselves caused by prior psychological conditions and by the pressures of the environment, those conditions and environments in turn being caused by earlier circumstances, all in accordance with the conditions philosophers introduce to allow for compatibilist freedom. In the second world, just the same actions are performed, but in accordance with your favorite incompatibilist account. Why should we think of the second world as a great advance on the first? In what, precisely, does its superiority reside? If you are inclined to think, as I do, that there is no superiority to be found…you will think that God could have settled for a world with compatibilist freedom and that he could have set things up so as to keep his creatures out of trouble.

Even if we think that incompatibilist freedom is of supreme value, there still remains a question about why God could not have set up things differently. For example, he could have left incompatibilist freedom intact while going to greater lengths to reveal himself (along with those elusive conditions for salvation). “Assuming we have to make a choice, why must it be made through a glass darkly? Once again, God seems negligent, at best.”

Universal Salvation: limiting and eliminating punishment

Because of the problems relating to eternal damnation, some theists have opted for a different understanding of Hell. Perhaps Hell is not eternal but temporary. Perhaps God induces finite, rather than infinite, pain and suffering, ceasing the torment once the person has converted (seen the error of his ways).

Lewis finds the prospect of limited punishment mysterious for various reasons. First, there is the simple point of saying that God could have saved himself the trouble of limited punishment by setting up the causal conditions of the universe so that resisters didn’t go astray in the first place. Of course, this argument will only be convincing to those who are willing to sacrifice incompatibilist freedom, but again, how valuable is incompatibilist freedom?

Second, why would an omnipotent being have to convert someone through torture rather than, as Lewis suggests, displays of magnificence? Or why not through a rational dialogue? Perhaps such methods will not be guaranteed to convert, but then neither is torture or the threat thereof.

Finally, doesn’t it show a defect in God’s character if he has to stoop to the level of a political or religious dictator by forcing assent via the threat of pain? And how genuine would a conversion under duress even be? Rather than excusing God for perpetrating evil, the idea of limited punishment only serves to show that he does.

The only plausible way then for the theist to save God from perpetrating evil is to adopt some form of universal salvation in which everyone is saved, not because they eventually repent, but because God himself is not “disposed to punish any of his creatures.” But is this a viable option for Christians? Lewis does not think it is.

Christianity, according to both key scriptural passages and tradition, rests upon a redemption of some kind: Christ came down to earth in order to die for the purpose of redeeming us from something. Usually this “something” has been thought to be eternal punishment. But if universalism is true, there is no such thing as that. And if the modified universalism just espoused is true, there is no such thing as limited punishment either. So what exactly did Christ save us from?

Perhaps the answer is this: all of us would have been punished (eternally or temporally) if not for the sacrifice of Christ. But because Christ sacrificed himself, he saved all of us from punishment. In other words, Christ made universalism true. And because God is not disposed to punish his creatures, he willingly sent Christ to die.

But this doesn’t make any sense: if God, in all his goodness, is not disposed to punish his creatures, then there would seemingly be no need for Christ to save them from such a fatal end in the first place. According to the universalist, Christ’s death means that everyone–from the saintliest to the most devilish, from Gandhi to Hitler–is instantly saved. But saved from what? The goodness of God? For Lewis, the universalist does not have a ready response to this, at least not without jettisoning much of scripture and tradition.

Dust In The Wind

On September 1st, my friend and sister-in-law passed away from cancer at the age of 28. I don’t have many of my own sentiments to report. It is saddening and surreal at the same time. My sister and I both agreed that this is probably the worst thing that has happened to our family. That is both a blessing and a curse, or to put it in my own terms, good fortune and bad. Bad for the obvious reasons, but good because it probably means that my family has been able to avoid the struggles that many others have faced. I had never been to a funeral until a week ago: not for any uncle, aunt, cousin, brother, sister, parent, or even grandparent. I didn’t expect that to last very long, but I certainly never expected that streak to end with someone so young.

Here is my tribute to Lindsey. Ideally I would choose just one song but I couldn’t help myself. The first song was written by Paul McCartney and John Lennon and was recently ranked the fifth greatest Beatles song of all time by Rolling Stones Magazine. The second song was written by Dave Matthews for his sister. Here’s to you girl.