God & Punishment

Governor Rick Perry of Texas speaking at the R...

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A while back I saw Rick Perry receive thunderous applause for the number of executions in the state of Texas. More recently I saw his video in which he claims that he is not ashamed to admit he is  a Christian. Thanks to Rick, I started thinking about God and punishment.

On many conceptions of God, God punishes and rewards people for their deeds and misdeeds when they reach the afterlife. This afterlife might be in Heaven or Hell. It might also be a post first life Resurrection in the flesh followed by judgement and reward or punishment. In any case, those who believe in God generally also believe in a system of divine rewards and punishments that are granted or inflicted post death.

Interestingly, people who believe in such a divine system generally also accept a system of punishment here on earth. Some, like Perry, strongly support capital punishment here on earth while also professing to be of the Christian faith (and thus believing in divine punishment).

The stock justifications for punishment (like executions) include retribution, reparation, and deterrence. In the case of retribution, the idea is that a misdeed warrants a comparable punishment as a just response. In the case of reparation, the idea is that the wrongdoer should be compelled to  provide compensation for the damage done by his/her misdeeds. Deterrence, obviously enough, aims at motivating the wrongdoer to not do wrong again and to motivate others not to do wrong.

When it comes to punishment, it seems reasonable to accept certain moral limits. At the very least, the severity and quantity of punishment would need to be justified. At the very least, the punishment should be on par with the crime in terms if its severity and quantity (otherwise it merely creates more wrong). Punishment without adequate moral justification would seem to be morally unacceptable and would seem to be wrongdoing under the name of punishment rather than justice.

Getting back to God, suppose that God exists and does inflict divine punishments for misdeeds. If this is the case, then it would seem to be unreasonable, perhaps even immoral, for human courts to inflict punishment for crimes that God also punishes.

First, if God punishes people for their misdeeds, then there is no need to seek retribution for crimes here on earth. After all, if someone believes in divine justice, they would also need to believe that mortal retribution is unnecessary-after all, whether we punish the wrongdoer or not, just retribution shall occur after the wrongdoer dies. If we do punish a wrongdoer, then God would presumably need to subtract out our punishment from the punishment he inflicts-otherwise He would be overdoing it. As such, mortal retribution is simply a waste of time-unless, of course, it takes some of the load of an allegedly omnipotent being.

Second, if God rewards good deeds and punishes misdeeds, then there would seem to be no need for reparations here on earth. After all, if someone steals my laptop, then God will see to it that s/he gets what s/he deserves and so will I. That is, all the books will be balanced after death. As such, if someone believes in divine justice, then there seems to be little sense in worrying about reparation here on earth. After all, if we will just be here for a very little while then what will my laptop matter in the scope of eternity? Not a bit, I assure you.

Third, if God inflicts divine punishments and hands out divine rewards, it would seem absurd to try to deter people with mortal punishments. If someone believes that murderers are not deterred by the threat of Hell (or the hope of Heaven), then they surely would not think that the mere threat of bodily death would have deterrent value. To use an analogy, if I knew that a friend of mine would shoot anyone who tried to hurt me, it would be odd of me to tell someone who threatened to harm me that I would poke them with a toothpick. After all, if the threat of being shot would not deter them, the threat of a poke with a toothpick surely would not work.

It might be argued that we need to punish people here because not everyone believes in God. To use an analogy, if I told people that I am protected by  a sniper armed with a .50 caliber rifle, they might still make a go at me if they did not believe in the sniper. As such, I would want to show them my pistol to deter them. Likewise, to deter non-believers we would want to have jails and lethal injections to scare them away from misdeeds. After all, while some people might not believe in God, everyone believes in prison.

Of course, the fact that we rely on prisons and other punishments for deterrence does seem to indicate that we regard God’s divine justice as having very little deterrence value-unless, of course, it is claimed that criminals are atheists or agnostics.

There is also the usually concern that God does not seem particularly concerned with deterring misdeeds. After all, while religious texts present various threats of divine punishment, there is no evidence that God actually punishes the wicked and this certainly cuts into the deterrence value of His punishments. To use an analogy, imagine if I told my students that cheating in my class would be punished by the Chair of Student Punishments for Philosophy Classes and the punishment would take place after graduation. Imagine that a student turned in a plagiarized paper and cheated like mad on the tests, yet I did nothing and simply entered in grades as if everything was fine and nothing happened.  Imagine that the students never see the alleged chair and the only evidence they have for her existence is the fact that she is listed on my syllabus and a little sign I put up on an empty office. As might be imagined, the students would not deterred from cheating.

If there really was a Chair of Student Punishment for Philosophy Classes, she would make an appearance in the class and administer punishments as soon as she was aware of the violations. The same would seem to be true of God. Crudely put, if He does exist and metes out justice, then we would not need to punish (at least in the case of the misdeeds that concern Him). If we do need to punish, then it would seem that either He does not exist or He does not dispense divine justice.

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  1. I sometimes despair over some fundamentalist religious attitudes of punishment: recognizing OT traditions/Mosaic laws; but totally missing the NT fulfillment of the law in terms of forgiveness, mercy and non-violence.

    Some folks will always preach a populist right wing and fundamental/judgmental view of Christianity that is unrecognizable in terms of the actual reported life and way of Christ, who: refused to support capital punishment/stoning; forgave his torturers/killers; whose mission was targeted at the marginalized and despised members of society, and preached a consistent message of love and non-violence. What you observe often is ruthless people using religion to achieve their personal selfish goals and power-plays. If religion was not conveniently there, the other populist/fascist/stalinist ideologies would serve in its place, as history has shown us in the 20th century.

    As G K Chesterton observed “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.”

    As for punishment in our life in the here and now, we choose the pain for ourselves by rejecting healthy and tried/tested classical (often thought boring and old fashioned) virtues – vices, in these terms, are uncontrolled “idolatry” of what if taken in moderation and good sense would be natural joys. We can choose a healthier life, and it would be along those evergreen classical (post-post-modern) lines – and it need not be joyless/puritanical!

    In terms of after-life “punishment”, well it’s hard to be sure of what this might really mean. Since it’s mostly something to be taken on faith. But if you have faith in a God of justice, forgiveness and mercy then it should be expected to be ultimately just, merciful and forgiving. I think C S Lewis may have been right in the quote from his book “The Great Divorce”, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell . No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened.'”

    Indeed some apologists argue that Hell exists because of free will (that is a key feature of a God of Love that refuses to compel reciprocation), and that hell is a choice rather than an imposed punishment. Jonathan L. Kvanvig writes: “[C.S.] Lewis believes that the doors of hell are locked from the inside rather than from the outside. Thus, according to Lewis, if escape from hell never happens, it is not because God is not willing that it should happen. Instead, residence in hell is eternal because that is just what persons in hell have chosen for themselves.

    It would be unjust to oblige an Atheist, however good and moral a life that he lived, to be in the eternal presence of the God he has committed to disbelieve in during life. Perhaps a just and merciful alternative awaits such a person, whilst a judgmental and immoral Theist might find himself last and not first as he expected. I can only speculate on what is a imperfect view on these things that we have, personally it require any systematic theology of a God of Love, Mercy and Justice to consistently reflect those values.

  2. Beliefs and Religions - Page 9 - pingback on December 31, 2011 at 9:04 am
  3. Let me rewrite that last para…

    It would be unjust to oblige an Atheist, however good and moral a life that he lived, to be in the eternal presence of the God he has committed to disbelieve in during life. Perhaps a just and merciful alternative awaits such a person, whilst a judgmental and immoral Theist might find himself last and not first as he expected. I can only speculate on what is an imperfect view on these things that we have on this side of the veil of tears. Personally I require any candidate for reasonable faith/systematic theology of a God of Love, Mercy and Justice to consistently reflect those values – here and now as well as there and then.

  4. Martin,

    True-in many ways sins bring their own punishment with them as virtues bring their own reward.

    Your comments got me thinking that perhaps it is not that God punishes or rewards as such, but that people create their own punishment or reward by their actions and perhaps this shapes the afterlife (if there is one). Of course, it would seem a bit unfair to have eternity rest on what we do in such a short span, so my sense of justice insists (perhaps foolishly) that the afterlife be not fixed, but subject to change. That is, we can change heaven to hell or vice versa.

    While I am not much of a person of faith, I do prefer to think of God as being best exemplified as being the God of love. Like many folks, I find it hard to reconcile this view with the reality of the world. But perhaps the God of the philosophers (all good, all knowing, all powerful) is a strawgod.

  5. As far as God and atheists, I rather like the view put forth by Lewis. In the Last Battle, Aslan says that all good deeds done in the name of Tash belong to him. All wicked deeds done in the name of Aslan belong to Tash. Lewis also writes, in the Screwtape Letters about Screwtape complaining that God saved the souls of people even when they died in a bad cause “on the monstrously sophistical grounds that they were serving the best cause they knew.”

    God, I would be inclined to think, would be quite big enough to forgive a good person for not believing in Him. Or, perhaps, when someone does good for the sake of goodness, that is more truly believing in God than a person who attends Church every Sunday and professes a belief in God, yet has a heart empty of love yet full of wickedness and acts in wicked ways and loveless ways towards his/her fellows.

  6. You’re assuming that under the Christian conception of morality, human morals are supposed to have anything to do with moral concepts.

    Its divine command theory.

    Look, this is a little hard to explain. Maybe you should go read Alexander Pruss for a bit on why its morally for the best when people rape and murder 5 year old girls, because it gives their parents the ability to forgive them. Note the distinctions he makes.

    The rapist/murderer was in the moral wrong to rape and murder a 5 year old, because God told him not to.

    He did it anyway though, and thereby IMPROVED THE UNIVERSE. From this we can derive that improving the universe isn’t the goal of human moral behavior under this conception of Christianity. In fact, had he not raped and murdered a 5 year old, the universe would be worse off (or, arguably, in complete moral parity).

    Its a duty and obligation based system of morality. You have a duty and an obligation to do certain things. Those things may not actually have anything to do with concepts like value or retribution or anything at all that we typically associate with morality except the concept of obligation.

    So… in short, under Christianity humans don’t punish other humans because it achieves goals of morality like retribution or deterrence or really anything at all. We do it because God told us to do so, and for no other reason more.

  7. Punishment is not in general the same thing as deterrence. One important difference is that deterrence occurs before the offense, punishment afterwards. Deterrence can include such as education, counseling.

    I think the usual theological point (among believers in Hell) is that damnation is the consequence of sin. Hellfire is certainly used to threaten small children, but I don’t see evidence in the Bible that God thinks of Hell as a deterrent, but more like just what happens when He gets angry. Not necessarily rational.

  8. Is there not a sense in which god is effectively punishing the consequence of sin, that is the effect of some decision on the element that relates to god – the soul.

    If this was taken to be the reason then an action that may be temporal is punished eternally because the effect on the soul is (stated) to be permanent. That is, one can’t back track, unless by some sacrifice – Jesus, which acts a bit like bleach.

    The point is that you still have the action or decision having a temporal or non spiritual damaged whose effects may or may not be quelled (I suppose forgiveness is essentially a commitment to the non propagation of evil, someone does evil to you, you do act as a buffer and prevent evil from spreading)

    I mean making a distinction between the two things provides an opening for the support of the death penalty – perceived justice allowing a victims family from propagating evils that come from frustration from having no temporal justice, prevention of future evils from the same person.

    The major issue instead becomes about depriving someone of a natural life span so that they can be given god ordained time to make amends for the damage does to his soul.

    Although I would suspect the notion of temporal crimes being permanent in their own right ( to varying degrees obviously as you can hand back a stolen hand back and quell any hard feelings rather easier than raping someone and compromising their very sense of themselves) would act as a natural seeming, if not entirely reasoned, corrective to that.

    That is, the person committed a permanent crime of such magnitude that no temporal corrective is possible, no point in keeping them bastard around, throw him out the door and let someone else deal with him/her

  9. There is so much we don’t know in this world, in this universe, so I guess is difficult to confidently & absoluetly say,there is no God; that there is no pusnishment here on earth; that there is no pusnishment after death; And if I may add, there couldn’t be parallel universes, where wrongdoers may simultaneously be in hell and and gooddoers in haven.

    The theories behind the sciences; physics, chemistry etc are proven time again to be wrong the more we learn and experiment – so new theories and meaning is found every now & then in science. This is not so in religion, because we don’t do enough experiments to prove or dis-prove the theologian statements/theories.

    When you examine some of the evidence we have, it would appear, that Karma, haven & hell exist here on earth and maybe after death. Is just that, I do not believe, we have categorically tried to gather detailed empirical and structured evidence to prove it. We have not, for example taking groups of people, over generations to track and study how God, pusnishment, haven & hell affect them and the families – be they religious, atheiest, agnostics and the likes- properly defined and experimented on. I’d love to know what results that will yell.

    We could then maybe work out whether people, have been punished enough, here on earth. And if not – whether in another universe (and we may never know)come back and be further punished – with say by virtue of a genetic defect, that may impair their optimal functioning & therefore suffer more hell – and vice versa – we may never know in our life time – but we may know in the other life time – who knows.

    Maybe, we should and align that with our

  10. I’m not a religious person myself but I do recall one metaphorical speculation about the nature of Heaven and Hell that I liked. The two look exactly the same. Long tables filled with sumptuous food. But in each scenario our arms are tied to overly long forks. In Hell the ever-hungry endeavour fruitlessly to get the food at the end of their forks into their own mouths. Whilst in Heaven the diners reach across and feed the other as they see that he is hungry.

    Some may see some point to this fable, others presumably not.

    Happy new year in any case.

  11. Yeah, its true that the God himself do not punish but he has created such a beautiful system that sin itself punishes. Nature is the biggest example of the application of modern artificial intelligence.

  12. Dennis Sceviour

    Welcome to the Chinese Year of the Dragon. There will be flamboyance and big ideas, but arrogance and intolerance.

  13. I wrote a paper this year for my MA in Philosophy, looking at the different justifications of punishment in light of the reason constraint: http://andreasmoser.wordpress.com/2011/09/21/punishment-reason-constraint/
    I was surprised how quickly the theories of punishment fall apart. Deterrence is the only one that I could accept because it respects offenders as economically thinking agents who make decisions based on weighing their options.

  14. Seriously Speaking

    I wish that he would punish the Evil People instead of the Good Innocent Ones like us.

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