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.

The Earthquake in Japan and Theodicy

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Japan Earthquake LIVE News

The earthquake and resultant tsunamis that hit Japan marked, according to Japan’s prime minister, the greatest crisis for Japan since World War II. Besides the massive loss of life, thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of people are homeless. Many are grieving the loss of their loved ones; others wait with trepidation for any news. It is easy to forget, so far away in America, that this tragedy is not an abstraction. Real flesh and blood people died, and real flesh and blood people are suffering. During such times of tragedy, some people may lose their faith in God or in the particular tenants of their religion. The thousands of people killed were not bad people; the vast majority were good people struggling to get by in life like everyone else in the world. Many children are among the killed and bereaved. Where is God in such a time? Why did God allow an earthquake so massive to occur, one that destroyed so many people’s lives?

No one knows–not this side of eternity. We can give our guesses–“this gives people a chance to come together and show their love and concern for others”–but couldn’t there have been a less destructive way to do this!? Another answer may be that “the laws of nature must operate in stable ways. With a system of plate tectonics, when one plate slides under another, sometimes the plate snaps back, causing earthquakes.” But the positive changes in evolution that result in part from the motion of continents occur over millions of years. What about the people in Japan now? And if natural laws must remain stable, why can’t God make a world with different natural laws in which earthquakes do not occur or are not as severe? One plausible answer is that the number of possible universes compatible with intelligent life with significant freedom is very small–perhaps even this universe only–due to the specificity of natural laws that are so finely tuned that a minuscule change in the laws of nature would result in no life at all or at least no intelligent life.

Ultimately such answers will not satisfy a grieving parent who has lost a child or someone who has lost a spouse. In the predominate mixture of Shinto and Buddhism in Japan, invoking karma at such a time is just as unsatisfying as the answers I just presented from a Judeo-Christian perspective. The practical response of Christians is to support the relief effort in any way they can and to pray for the victims and their families. Ultimately the greatest gift Christian belief offers in such times is hope–strength to hope for a recovery from this great disaster, and the hope of eternal life for those killed. This world is full of tragedy–diseases, earthquakes, deadly weather, accidents, and dangerous radiation. The only way such tragedy can be redeemed is through a restoration of all things that transcends our present space-time order. In the meantime, we pray that the death figures will not go much higher, that those alive can be rescued, and that those who live can, at least in part, recover from their losses. May God be with the Japanese people during this time of trial.

Suboptimal Design, Evolution, and Anger at God

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Head and Neck Overview (from http://training.s...

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C. S. Lewis once said that modern man places “God in the dock.” That is, moderns, instead of humbly submitting to God as the “clay to the potter,” they put God on trial and call Him to account for the evil and suffering in the world. Although Job, the Church Fathers, Augustine, and the other Medievals dealt with the problem of evil and suffering, it was modernity that developed full-fledged theodicies, broad-based explanations of why God created a world in which He permits evil and suffering.

A woman was driving down I-95 near where I live and was in an accident. She was rescued from her burning car. Only a few weeks later she choked to death on a piece of bologna in her home while her small children were asleep. This is one of those stories almost too painful to hear (like the scene in Saving Private Ryan when the soldier holds up his helmet that had been shot through and said something to the effect, “Hey look here! How lucky can that be” before a bullet hits him square between the eyes and kills him).

I have struggled with religious doubt all my life. I have also struggled with anger at God for the suffering of the world, especially (though not exclusively) the suffering of children. When I thought about the woman choking to death I thought of the suboptimal engineering of evolution. We walk upright and have developed the ability to talk, but that makes it anatomically more likely that we will choke to death. A human engineer would be fired for putting the food pipe and the windpipe where food can easily go down the wrong way. The epiglottis does not have a fail safe. I confess that my feelings were fury at God that He would use such as sorry a..ed process such as evolution to produce a suboptimal product that even a human engineer could design more efficiently. Other instances of suboptimal design can be mentioned: our mouth being too small for all our teeth, or our backs suffering pain because originally backs were meant for walking on all fours. There are young people who die suddenly and unexpectedly of a “primary electrical event” in the heart, some defect so small that our autopsy techniques and microscopic studies cannot yet identify it.

I do not know that there is an answer to the mystery of inefficient design this side of heaven. Some people might explain it in terms of a primeval Fall, but it is difficult to place that story in an evolutionary framework (although C. S. Lewis has tried). Given the sometimes violent behavior of our close relatives, the chimpanzees, toward one another, it seems that humans were always “fallen.” If that is the case, isn’t human suffering, pain, and death a part of the suffering, pain, and death that occurs in “nature, red in tooth and claw,” to use Lord Tennyson‘s words?

The Eastern Orthodox Church has the approach that makes the most sense to me–that the ultimate answer to evil and suffering is eschatological, beyond this life. Ivan Karamazov could not live with that answer in the novel The Brothers Karamazov, but like Ivan’s brother Alyosha,  I do not see that there is a choice if one wants to hold onto sanity. If God is evil or does not exist, then the world is absurd. I, at least, cannot live my life believing that. So my anger fades and I trust that God understands and will forgive this “miserable sinner.”