The Possibility of Punishment after Death

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Dante and Virgil in Hell

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Joseph Mengele lives a comfortable life in Argentina, even though he tortured Jews in the most hideous ways in his medical “experiments.” He dies quickly in a swimming accident. Controversial jury decisions put people back on the streets who may be murdering psychopaths. A spiteful person full of hatred tells lies that ruin the reputation of a good person, who leaves town and dies a pauper. The spiteful person gets rich and is admired by others in his community. The good suffer, the evil prosper, and so often there is no justice. How can the scales of justice be tipped in favor of justice in a world that fails so much to be just?

The Christian doctrine of punishment after death offers one answer. This is not to deny that other religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, have a doctrine of suffering for sins after death in a bad reincarnated state based on their aggregated good or bad karma–but this is not the Christian doctrine of punishment. I also deny the gruesome literal pictures of hell pushed on people in conservative Protestant and in some Roman Catholic Churches and schools in the past. The notion of a person suffering in a literal fire for eternity does count against the goodness of God. But C. S. Lewis‘ notion that hell is people who choose against God and refuse to come to God because they desire to do their own will rather than God’s. God just lets them be and withdraws His presence. An evil person in hell could theoretically leave at any time, but some people are so desperately wicked that they will tell God to leave them alone rather than live under God’s terms in heaven. But such a life inevitably leads to misery and a personality that gets more fragmented over time. Eventually only shards of a person remain. Living apart from God is the worst punishment of all–and given a twisted enough will this can last forever. Thus, the Christian Church has affirmed the possibility of eternal punishment as well as the possibility that hell may be empty with only Purgatory existing. I hope the latter view is correct; but the former view makes more sense of human freedom and makes more sense of psychopathy and sociopathy. Some individuals are permanently twisted–and if they are such good manipulators, with the help of a manipulative lawyer, that they “beat the system” on earth, they will not be able to beat the justice of God. In the end their existence will be miserable–they will have no one else to manipulate or hurt and will live only with their immense egos eating away at their souls. Finally their egos will eat their identity, never wholly destroying it, but making a person as near to nothingness as possible. Perhaps there will be a kernel of goodness (beyond the metaphysical good of existing) that leads all these individuals to repent and turn away from the self to God. Perhaps John Hick is correct in his universalism. If a bad person is temporarily punished to the point of seeing the error of his ways and repenting, that is a good thing. We don’t know, and hope beyond hope that the worst people will repent while finding comfort that they will receive justice after this life is over, justice that they can only avoid by repentance, faith, and love so that they are open to the grace of God. I trust that God knows better than any of us what is in a person’s heart, and He will ensure that the injustices of this life are remedied in the Eschaton.

Hostility to the Hereafter and the Movie “Hereafter”

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Clint Eastwood at the 2008 Cannes Film Festiva...

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I have seen the Clint Eastwood-directed movie Hereafter and have been surprised by the extremes in reviews. Roger Ebert gives the movie four stars and an “A” rating. On the other side of the spectrum is Peter Ranier of The Christian Science Moniter who accuses the movie of “quackery” and gives it a C- rating. Other ratings ranged anywhere from a numerical rating ranging from a low of 56 to a high of 100. A similar phenomenon was seen with the initial release of Stanley Kubrick‘s The Shining, which is almost universally recognized today as an innovative classic of the horror genre.

Hereafter is the story of a dissatisfied medium, George Lonegan (played by Matt Damon), a French journalist, Marie Lelay (played by Cecile de France) who has a near-death experience in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, and an English schoolboy, Marcus (played by both Frankie and George McLaren), whose brother Jason (also played by both Frankie and George McLaren), who come together at the London Book Fair in circumstances that seem almost providential, but which could also be attributed to chance. A similar ambiguity is found in the movie Grand Canyon. Hereafter explores the issue of whether we survive death through the characters, and the screenwriter, Peter Morgan, whose previous credits include The Queen and Frost-Nixon, clearly has done his homework. As Roger Ebert notes, the movie does not say that an afterlife is proven by George McLaren’s genuine abilities; as parapsychologists know, veridical evidence from honest mediums can be due to telepathy from living persons or from clairvoyance. The ambiguity of the NDE is also noted, as well as Marie’s being absolutely convinced that her experience is real (what William James calls “noetic quality). The emotions the movie evokes are genuine, and though the movie veers perilously close to sentimentality, it does not cross that line. It is one of the best movies I have seen.

What accounts for some of the hostility toward Hereafter. I cannot read reviewers’ minds, but I would speculate that some reviewers are so hostile to any notion of survival of death that they are offended by a movie that is open to the possibility. Some of the evidence for survival is indeed suspect, but the movie recognizes this and shows Marcus visiting a number of fake mediums. But there are people in the world who would not be convinced of survival of death even if their mothers returned from the dead and hugged them. Survival of death is not possible in their world view. Thus, even though Hereafter can be interpreted as open to the possibility of life after death without affirming it, that possibility is too much to admit for the radical secularist.

On the other side of the issue would be individuals who want the movie to be less ambiguous on life after death–to affirm an afterlife without reservation. Morgan, who personally opposes an afterlife, and Eastwood wisely avoid reaching such conclusions. In real life they go beyond the evidence, but I think the ambiguity makes a better story–the audience begins the movie with wonder and ends the movie with wonder. This is a movie I definitely plan to purchase when it comes out on DVD.