Monday, December 26, 2005

Just Playing God

Wow, I can hardly believe it has been two and a half weeks since I last wrote. One reason for the delay has been the general business of the season, but another reason has been the need to ponder my response to Ernie's most recent contribution to our dialog. After one quick clarification on his summary of my last post, I will try to address his suggested possible alternative afterlife scenarios.

First, the clarification: After quoting my response to one of his previous questions, Ernie said:

I apologize, my question was perhaps misleading. My point was rather, "if God created the universe, but there were no afterlife, would you consider life itself evidence of God's injustice?"

My answer to this question is "No." It might be evidence of God's unfairness, but we have already discarded fairness from this particular line of argument, or at least, I have. Potentially, I could be convinced otherwise, but I would not at present consider that this life in the absence of an afterlife to be evidence of God's injustice. (It should go without saying, but I will say it anyway, that I have been speaking of God as if he exists only for the sake of argument, as it gets tiring making that qualification all of the time.)

In order to probe my understanding of justice, Ernie has suggested a number of possible afterlife scenarios and wonders which ones I would consider just. First, let me point out a minor incongruity in Ernie's formulation, which happens also to relate to an important asymmetry in my view of afterlife consequences. Ernie wonders "what (if any) punitive behavior by God would/could be consistent with [my] understanding of justice." But the general stress of his alternative scenarios is not on punishment (hell) but on reward (heaven). For me this is an important distinction to be made. As far as justice goes, at least insofar as it relates to my argument, the important aspect is that God cannot impose consequences worse than some limit without transgressing into injustice.

I am not particularly concerned in this argument if God chooses to provide better than what somebody deserves. In fact, a main thrust of Christian theology is that nobody deserves heaven and anybody who reaches heaven is getting better than what they deserve. I think there are people who would argue against God's justice on those grounds. While I am sympathetic to those arguments, I do not find them as compelling as the argument for God's injustice on the basis of eternal damnation.

Given this asymmetry, I am not sure that responding to each of Ernie's scenarios as stated will helpful. Still, I will try to explain further how my understanding of justice applies to several possibilities.

One possibility is that there is no afterlife (but we are still positing the existence of God). Would what we observe about life then imply that God is unjust? My short answer: I do not know. The longer version: It depends on how much choice we really have, and it may also depend on whether or not God intervenes and in what situations. Certainly there are some who claim that if God can act to prevent evil but does not, then he cannot be called "good", but that may not necessarily make him unjust. On the other hand, this scenario is not at all the one promoted by Christianity. I understand that a more definitive answer might be helpful for understanding where I am coming from, but I do not have a definitive answer.

Another possibility, which includes at least the classical Christian position as I understand it, is that one's beliefs or actions in this life completely determine whether you end up in heaven or hell for eternity. As should be clear by now, I think that eternal punishment for anything done or believed by temporal, finite and imperfect man, and especially with imperfect information, is unjust. Again, note the asymmetry: eternal punishment is unjust while eternal reward under these circumstances might be merely unfair.

A third option is that there is nothing particularly special about the transition from this life to the afterlife, that life just continues in a different venue, possibly with very different capabilities and information. God imposes punishments as necessary to keep the scales of justice balanced, but these punishments are temporary, in proportion to the evil done either in this life or the next.

Fourth, perhaps the afterlife is not eternal. We continue to exist after death for as long as necessary for the scales of justice to be balanced, being punished if our lives were "net evil", or rewarded if they were "net good". Once balanced, we cease to exist.

I rather suspect that philosophers have been over this kind of ground before (and that ground is probably a muddy mess), and I am certainly not an expert in ethics. Nobody will (or should!) expect anything particularly novel or insightful here. I am just trying to address Ernie's wondering, and I hope that Ernie will be responding soon with some more details about how he sees these issues.

One final note to Ernie or anyone else who wants to link to these posts: I started giving HTML id's to each paragraph, so you should be able to link to a particular paragraph if that would be helpful. You will have to look at the page source to find the values.

No comments: