Friday, November 05, 2010

Would a truly just God levy an eternal punishment for a temporal sin?

As a followup to my post on whether God double predestines souls by logic or will (since I kind of rambled on and then just tapered off--but it was long enough already), and how hard it is to understand the orthodox explanations of the issues concomitant with a just and omniscient God when you assume the orthodox explanations are unreasonable, I wanted to address something that deserves more attention than I gave it.

I had said;

I'm not saying it isn't reasonable to ask why temporary actions have eternal consequences. It's just that all actions have consequences that ripple forward in time forever, on into eternity, and we only imagine that temporary consequences for our actions are the only result.

People who fixate on these alleged injustices always ask "Why should I go to hell forever if I can only commit finite sins?" One might be able to make some hay by arguing that sin has such an eternal component because it is sin against an eternal being, but it leaves an equally important question unasked:

Why should I go to heaven forever if I can only commit finite good?

If we're talking about earning a ticket to hell, we have to consider what it would mean to earn a ticket to heaven.

A woman was once concerned that her son, a student in engineering, was not on a path to make much of a contribution to the world. She prayed about it and received the message "A doctor saves one life. Your son will save many." The impression she got was of something like a critical defect being prevented or detected in a bridge.

One thing I find interesting is that this sort of thing is rather run of the mill for a decent engineer--literally, the woman's son would just be doing his proverbial job. Can I say "literal" and "proverbial" together this way? Anyway, it's a reminder that when we die, our personal judgment will include an accounting of all things in our life, not just the profound highs and lows, and the final judgment will include an accounting of all the effects our life has had, from the down on his luck man inspired by your simple act of kindness to turn his life around, to the children who never came into the world because an offhand callous remark soured a man's mood and he ended up snubbing in turn the woman who was going to be his wife.

I'm not saying we should go about scrupling our complicity in remote acts whose outcomes we don't have the time or ability to imagine, let alone plan for. I'm just saying we shouldn't be blase about what the stakes really are, or casual about the state of our souls. "I'm no worse than most people, and even maybe a bit better than average, and God's not going to raise the bar to keep most people out, is he?" is just the attitude of complacency we should avoid.

One the one hand, it can be comforting to know you're going to have an "It's a Wonderful Life" event where you learn the true value of all the good you had done and all the positive influence you had. On the other hand, how many missed opportunities and bad choices that seemed trivial, that weren't even thought about at the time, will we also have to answer for? How much will we be saying "I'm sorry, Lord, I had no idea," and how often will we wish we could say it but know that, indeed, we did have some idea, after all?

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Would a truly just and fair God send people to hell?

A discussion some time ago at ISCA BBS covered this question in its non-Catholically shallow manner that really makes me wonder why I keep coming back. The few regular posters seem to be comprised of a handful of liberal Protestants, one or two postmodern pagans, and an evangelical. I don't have a problem with discussing things from perspectives I don't personally share, although I'm not as interested in distinctly Protestant and secular opinions as a lot of other people are. To each his own.

It's just tiring to see people going round and round, occasionally making dissatisfied references to Aquinas, but giving his arguments little more than a cursory look--grasping the immediate arguments but not their foundations or the implications they already "just know are so"--and then returning to "Why? Why? 'God is above mortal ken and the moral reckoning of men' is unsatisfying, so there must be a different answer that makes me feel better about an omnipotent God who only pretends to be omnibenevolent."

Perhaps not, for they either run in circles forever or come to pat conclusions that don't fit Scripture well, like hell either is or will be completely empty, or hell is actually annihilation, or some temporal metaphor or illusion. Perhaps, though, it's a mystery, and we should take it in turns trying to understand mysteries like a good citizen of Western civilization and accepting them as is so that we might drink more deeply of them, ponder them with our hearts rather than our minds.

I'm not saying it isn't reasonable to ask why temporary actions have eternal consequences. It's just that all actions have consequences that ripple forward in time forever, on into eternity, and we only imagine that temporary consequences for our actions are the only result.

There were some arguing that since God had foreknowledge that some souls He created would choose eternal separation, then God was effectively creating them for hell. This argument is common, and facile; omniscience in one being does not preclude free will in others, and all other considerations aside, if this argument is impenetrable and impossible to consider, let alone accept, then you need to reconsider what you think the Christian notion of free will is and what it's worth. A merciful God might seem immoral to Odinolaters, as well, but the Norseman must consider the missionary's ethos on Christ's grounds as well as on Odin's. If he looks at heaven and says "But that can't be right, for the glory of the afterlife is reserved for those who die in battle," then he never leaves his own assumptions to make a fair appraisal.

Some made it out to be a cruel game, like a geneticist who creates lab animals that depend on a certain drug to thrive and survive, and then the geneticist hides the drug with a bunch of other drugs and makes them guess. Of course, God wants us to survive, and all the other drugs were concocted by other lab animals trying to replicate or replace the real medicine, and He doesn't leave you to writhe on the floor like a suffocating fish the first time you mistake poison for medicine.

I don't think the drug and lab analogy is good, although it reflects perhaps a narrow aspect of what's going on. A more apt one may be a couple that has a child on a long ocean voyage; the child's needs are met by the parents and the supplies on the boat, but the child is free to fend for himself in the ocean if he chooses to jump over the rail. It doesn't seem like much of a choice, but if he holds out long enough with the people who really do have his best interests at heart, they will reach a land where anything he could want is available and he's not confined to three heaving, 55-foot decks; should he choose the ocean instead, he will never make it. Could the couple have gotten an amphibious pet instead? Possibly, but they wanted someone who was designed to make and receive the most from the greater good of eventual landfall, rather than something that spent its days dodging jellyfish and sharks. Sure, it might enjoy swimming, but it would be swimming alone, which is a lesser good than walking and running and playing with others from the boat.