Sophia, Vol.44, No. 2, October 2005. Copyright9 2005 AshgatePublishingLimited.
OMNIBENEVOLENCE A N D ETERNAL DAMNATION G I N A M . SULLY Department o f English, University o f Nevada, Las Vegas, Nevada gina m [email protected]
In "Omnibenevolence and Eternal Damnation ", 1 consider whether it is consistent to hold both that God is omnibenevolent and that he infinitely punishes human beings for the commission of finite transgressions. In exploring this problem, I discuss the utilitarian and retributive notions of punishment and justice, the possible mitigating effect offorewarning, and differing conceptions of the nature of the relationship of God to human beings, My conclusion is that it is inconsistant to hold both of these beliefs.
'Punishment' is usually understood to mean the deliberate infliction of pain or suffering on an individual by another or others as a consequence of some transgression committed by that individual.I The problem for philosophers is that, since deliberately inflicting suffering on a person is primafacie wrong, some justification needs to be found for acts of punishing. Without justification they must be viewed as morally reprehensible and ought not to be engaged in. The question to be addressed here is whether or not there is some possible justification for the infinite punishment of finite transgressions when that punishment is inflicted by an omnibenevolent being. Specifically, since those who are in hell 2 are being infinitely punished for some action or actions, and they cannot escape the eternal suffering to which they are damned, the question arises as to whether the infinite punishment of finite transgressions is compatible with the Judaeo-Christian God's omnibenevolence. Historically, two justifications have been offered for individual acts of punishing. The first is retributive, or the 'eye for an eye' principle) The second is utilitarian. In this paper, I will argue that neither view of punishment offers adequate support for the claim that God is omnibenevolent and yet punishes finite transgressions infinitely. I will also argue that if he were to do so it would be unjust on either view of punishment.
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Proponents of retributive justice do not question the morality of punishment itself; for them, punishment of wrongs is intrinsically right, demanded by justice. Discussion of retributive punishment focuses on individual acts of punishing, and retributive justification requires that the evil or suffering generated by the punishment be proportional to the evil or suffering generated by the transgression. 4 Retributivists do not claim that the suffering imposed must be exactly the same kind of suffering, only that it must be proportional. Retributive justice aims to impose a penalty on the wrongdoer that 'in some sense balances the harm inflicted by the offense.'5 In other words, just punishment on retributivist criteria requires that the suffering entailed by the punishment be proportional to the gravity of the offense, which must surely be judged according to the suffering it generates. Hence the 'an eye for an eye' metaphor. On retributivist criteria, then, if the magnitude of the suffering inflicted upon the transgressor by the punishment is proportional to the magnitude of the suffering generated by the transgression, the punishment is just. However, eternal damnation entails infinite suffering by definition. The magnitude of such suffering necessarily exceeds that of finite suffering. Therefore, infinite punishment for a finite transgression is unjust on the retributive criterion. One might object to this reasoning by proposing that a finite act might lead to infinite suffering on the part of the victim. For example, finite acts of murder that result in their victims' consignment to hell when they might have been redeemed had they lived longer are such cases. However, cases such as these merely involve a shift to the theodicean problem by raising the question of why an onmibenevolent, omnipotent creator created a world in which such things can occur. According to the traditional view, God's power is limited only by logical possibility. Since there is no logical contradiction in the notion of a world in which no one is murdered before he or she has a chance to redeem him or herself, there is no reason that God could not have created the universe such that no one is ever denied access to heaven or punished infinitely as the result of someone else's action of this sort. If there are such cases, they involve injustice toward the murder victim on both God's. and the murderer's parts. Another objection to the position that infinite punishment for finite transgressions is unjust on the retributive criterion might be raised: one might object that since God is a loving god, and since his love for us demands that we make the most we can of our potentials, he suffers when we transgress since our transgressions indicate that we are not making the most of our received potentials. He is an infinite being, this argument would go, and his
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suffering is infinite; therefore, retributive justice demands infinite suffering on the part of the transgressor. I do not think that this is correct, as obvious as it might seem at first glance. First, God is traditionally held to be immutable. 6 On the traditional Judaeo-Christian view, God cannot be changed by anything humans do, and thus we cannot properly be said to cause him to suffer. And, given God's impassibility, he cannot properly be said to experience an emotion that we would call 'suffering. '7 However, let us suppose, as do many nontraditional theists, that God participates in our suffering, s We must consider who bears the responsibility for that suffering in the first place. What does it mean to transgress against God? It is to sin. Tradition tells us that sinning is a specific sort of purposive behavior. 9 The sinner must know that the action is against God's laws and must deliberately choose that act anyway. While most Christians hold that sin necessarily involves action, others hold that the desire to sin is equally as sinful as acting upon the desire; in other words, they define sin as including acts (desire) without action (behavior grounded in the act). 1~ I shall address this position first. The most obvious sins of desire are the sins o f covetousness. 1~ For those who hold that the desire to sin is sinful, envying you your sneakers and thinking about taking them from you is itself sinful. But we cannot even hope to prevent states of mind until we are aware of them. Desires are not voluntary. One cannot avoid sins of covetousness until one is aware one has a desire, yet awareness of the desire is awareness of the self as desiring and hence involves sin. It is a catch-22. For example, say my neighbor has a gas grill. I may be unaware of the fact that I desire a gas grill before I see my neighbor's grill, but seeing my neighbor's grill arouses envy in me, and the thought flits through my mind that I'd like to have her grill. It is just a passing thought that leads me to do nothing more than to ask my neighbor where she got the grill so that I can go purchase one like it for myself. But in that fleeting thought I have already sinned, according to those who hold the position that desiring to sin is as sinful as acting on the desire to sin. Perhaps the commandment forbidding the coveting of my neighbor's spouse provides a clearer example. Suppose I am at a nightclub, where I have gone with no intention of doing anything other than dancing with my friends. During the course of the evening, I strike up a conversation with a person whom I find sexually desirable. I find out during the ensuing conversation that the person is married. If I remain sexually attracted to that person and experience a desire to have sexual relations with him or her, I sin as soon as I desire to have sex with a person I know to be married, according to this position. Even if I do not take any action that would lead to adultery, even if I do not let the other person know that I would like to have sex with him or
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her, my desire is sinful if it persists after I discover that the person is married. This raises the question o f who bears the responsibility for the desire in the first place. For, if the desire springs from an ineliminable natural disposition I have received from God, surely he bears a measure o f responsibility for such sins when they occur. Desire, especially sexual desire, seems to be an integral psychological component o f our nature as we receive it from God. Hence, if we are to be held solely responsible for sins o f this sort, it must be that God necessarily had to create us with this particular psychological makeup since his omnipotence is limited only by logical possibility. 12 But it is not logically necessary that humans should desire people who are not their own spouses. There are other animals that mate for life: for example, Canada geese. Nor is there anything contradictory in the conception o f a human who never sexually desires another person who is not rightfully so desired. On this model o f sin, awareness o f unlawful desire, that is, experiencing the desire itself is sinful. If we are not fully responsible for such desires, it is difficult to see how we can be justly held fully accountable for them. Surely the person or being with whom we share responsibility for the desire must bear a measure o f the responsibility for transgressions grounded in such desires. If our nature as received from God contributes to our sins o f desire, and if it is not logically necessary that God give us a nature that at the least strongly inclines us to sins o f desire, then he is partially responsible when we commit sins o f this sort, and the punishment he metes out to those o f us who transgress in this way ought to reflect that fact. Since God is impassible, he cannot participate in the suffering consequent upon punishment. So, he would only be able to punish one of the beings that share responsibility for such transgressions, which is unjust on the retributivist understanding of punishment. If our nature as received from God is the suj~cient cause o f these sorts o f sins, then ultimately God is wholly responsible for sins of this sort and ought not to punish us at all for them. Either way, on the retributivist understanding of punishment, it would be unjust o f God to punish us for transgressions that arise as a function o f the nature he bestowed upon us. God is omnipotent. He could have given us natures such that we would never sin in this way. He did not do so. To punish us for acting in ways to. which we are strongly inclined or that are inevitable given the nature he chose to bestow upon us is not to punish us for our actions; it is to punish us for his action. From the retributive perspective, it is unjust to punish one person for actions for which another is responsible. It is thus untenable to argue that since God's suffering is infinite, the sinner's suffering must also be infinite to provide retributive justification for punishment for this sort o f sin. In other words, when the motivation for a sinful action springs from unavoid-
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able dispositions we have received from God, we do not bear the full brunt responsibility for those sins, nor should we bear the full brunt of punishment for them. Certainly, it is disproportional and hence unjust that we should be punished infinitely for them. 13 What o f sin as traditionally understood? That is, what of sins freely chosen? Let us consider what it means for a person to choose. Willful choice involves deliberation. When one deliberates, one exercises one's reason. Keeping in mind that the capacity to reason is bestowed on us by God, let us look at an imaginary case. Suppose that a devout woman is in the position of having to choose whether or not to steal a loaf of bread whose loss will be unnoticed by the merchant from whom she steals it. That loaf of bread will feed her for a week, and she has no other access to another source of food. Until now, she has led an exemplary life, and there is no action or judgment for which she is responsible that causes her to be in the position o f having no other access to food. She has never engaged in any activities that would lead to the impairment of her ability to reason. If she does not steal the bread, she will certainly starve to death because o f a logically unnecessary physical requirement that is part of her nature as received from God. The woman is aware that stealing is sinful, prohibited by God's law, t4 and she believes that if she steals the bread, she might be eternally damned, although she has no way of knowing this for certain. She flawlessly exercises the capacity God has given her to make decisions and judgments - her ability to reason - and decides to steal the bread and surely live despite the risk of eternal damnation. Finally, after she steals the bread, she cannot properly be said to repent, because her inclination to repentance is overwhelmed by her relief at acquiring the sustenance that enables her to live. That is, on one level, she regrets having stolen the bread, but since she is, at bottom, glad to be alive, she is not truly sorry for having broken God's law and so cannot properly be said to repent. Leaving aside for the moment the fact that the hunger which motivates the theft of the bread is a result of a logically unnecessary physical requirement received from God, let's examine the relationship between reason and responsibility. Joel Thomas Tierno has identified the characteristics of what he calls 'paradigmatic cases of epistemic evil' in an as-yet unpublished manuscript. Tierno writes that in paradigmatic cases of epistemic evil: [T]he conditions that motivate the agents to pass judgment upon the subjects of their erroneous judgments are either largely or wholly beyond their conscious control or consequent upon their unimpeachable prior judgments and actions . . . . [T]he previous decisions and subsequent actions of the agents have not relevantly and foreseeably contributed to the functional deterioration of their received capacities . . . . [T]he
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agents make the best use of their received capacities that their situations permit. Their deliberative procedures are either flawless that is, free from demonstrable defect - or, if no unflawed methods of making the judgments are available, as good as any that are available . . . . [T]he judgrnents that the agents make are erroneous, that is, either false, defective in terms of the interests governing choice, or defective in terms of the purpose for the sake of which judgment occurs. . . . There is a significant difference, from the standpoint of the human beings that will be influenced by the agents'judgments, between the effects of their judging correctly and the effects of the agents erring. 15 In the case at hand, our thief does not have the practical option o f not making a decision, since not choosing'at all is the same as choosing to die, and her choice is grounded in ineliminable natural dispositions 16 as received from God. The fact that she must make this decision is not the result of some past action or judgment for which she is responsible. Her ability to reason has not been compromised by any o f her past actions. She has made the best possible use of her capacity to reason that her circumstances permit, and her deliberative procedure is the best available and free from procedural defect. Our thief may realize that she has not truly repented, in which case she will be tormented for the rest o f her life by the possibility that she will be eternally damned for her theft, suffering surely out o f proportion with that generated by the theft o f the bread. Through no f a u l t o f her own, she has no way o f knowing before making her decision that she will be unable to truly repent. The consequences o f her erroneous judgment are significant - she will be eternally punished for her erroneous judgment, even if she leads a blameless life afterward - since she never truly repents. ~7 Our thief lacks crucial information when she is deliberating about whether or not to steal the bread: She lacks both certain knowledge o f eternal damnation and prior knowledge o f her inability to repent. At bottom, if she bears any responsibility for her transgression, she shares it with God since he has placed her in epistemic circumstances in which crucial information is practically unavailable to her before she makes her decision.~8 From the retributivist perspective, it is unjust to punish only one person for an act for which another shares responsibility. To be just, God would have to share her punishment. But an impassive God cannot do that because he cannot experience suffering. It is not logically necessary that humans be forced to make decisions by circumstances outside our control, nor is it logically necessary that we be forced to make decisions in epistemically imperfect circumstances. In fact, it is not logically necessary that human beings ever err when exercising our capacity to reason to the best o f our ability. 19 This is not to claim that God should have or could have bestowed an infinite intellect on finite beings. It is to claim that God has the power to ensure that people never find themselves
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in situations where they are forced to make a choice in the absence of some relevant information. 2~ Nor does the claim that it is not logically necessary that humans ever err when flawlessly exercising our capacity to reason mean that I am demanding omniscience. I only want to be able to access all of the relevant information regarding whatever practical decisions I must make. I do not desire infinite understanding. I merely desire access to all I need to know in order to make fully informed practical decisions. In such circumstances, I might still err, but such errors in judgment would be fully my own responsibility, since they would then be the result of the use of a 'defective deliberative procedure '21 on my part. But I should not be held eternally accountable for errors in judgment when such errors occur despite the best possible exercise o f my received faculty or because I find myself in imperfect epistemic circumstances through no fault of my own. In the case at hand, our thief lacks access to relevant information about her future psychological states. There is no logical contradiction involved in the notion of human beings who understand themselves well enough to be able to predict accurately their own future psychological or spiritual reactions to choices or courses of action. This is not to ask for knowledge of the future. It is only to ask for knowledge of oneself. That information is surely crucial in making an error-free judgment as to what action is best to take if it is the case that the consequence of unrepented sin is eternal damnation as some Christian doctrine holds. 22 Punishing people for actions for which they are not responsible is unjust from the retributivist perspective. Ultimately, it is God's action (i.e., giving the thief an imperfect faculty and/or placing her in epistemically imperfect conditions) that leads her to sin, and it would be unjust of him to punish her for it.
Objections Some people will respond to my arguments by pointing out that God has provided us with sacred texts, commandments, and prophets to inform us what is expected of us and to warn us of the consequences of disobedience. It could be, and frequently is, argued that because o f this, it is our own fault when we choose not to live in accordance with God's expectations and are punished when we transgress. There are a number o f difficulties with this position. The most obvious are questions of rational choice. There are many holy texts available to us, all purporting to tell us what God wants and how he wants us to behave. Which text are we to follow when the many sacred texts available to us conflict? It, of course, begs the question
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to assert that we know that the Bible is the true word of God since the Bible says it is, so the Bible itself can provide no rational grounds for the assertion that we should follow its teachings or those of biblical exegetes. Obviously it also begs the question to cite the Bible as proof of the veracity of 'truths' it supposedly contains. And again, the best possible exercise of our received capacity to reason provides us with no way to surmount this difficulty. Since we do not have access to some of the relevant information, we cannot know with certainty what it is GOd wants and expects from us and ought not to be held solely responsible for judging incorrectly when we find ourselves in such imperfect epistemic circumstances. Suppose we are somehow able to rationally decide that the Bible is the true word of God. What are we to do when it offers contradictory advice? Surely an omnipotent deity would have been able to ensure that he 'inspired' only one such text and that it contained no contradictions. However, there is a stickier problem with relying on textual evidence in order to determine what we ought to do and how we ought to choose. As the modem study of linguistics has demonstrated, there are significant problems in the signifier/signified relationship that render the problem of deciding upon a single incontrovertible meaning of a sign, and by extension of a text, irresolvable, especially texts that rely as heavily on the use of figurative language to convey their messages as the holy texts of most religions, including Christianity, do. 23 Augustine, despite his early articulation of sign theory and the continued influence of his ideas on the study of the sign, was unable satisfactorily to resolve this problem. If we do not wish to appeal only to an audience of the already-faithful, we need to construct arguments based on reason that will carry force with a wide audience, including rational skeptics.
The second justification for punishment to be considered is utilitarian. 24 Utilitarian justification requires that the good generated by the punishment exceed the evil or suffering it generates. Discussions of what this good might be generally center around three issues: deterrence of others, prevention of future transgressions by the individual agent in question, and rehabilitation of the transgressor. Can infinite punishment serve any of these purposes? I think not. Since the punishment is initiated after the agent dies, other agents cannot be certain that it actually takes place. The punishment itself is not the deterrent. Fear of the punishment might be, although our experience with the
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efficacy of the death penalty as a deterrent, for example, renders this doubtful. It is also worth noting here that punishing one person to deter others from engaging in the same action treats the person being punished as a means to an end, which, if not clearly morally reprehensible, is at least highly suspect. It is clear that an omnipotent being could institute some other method of deterrence that does not involve using persons as means. Does infinite punishment prevent future transgressions by the individual agent in question? Again, since infinite punishment is not inflicted until after death, death is the sufficient cause of the end of such transgressing for those who do cease to transgress. 25 Nor can infinite punishment after death serve a rehabilitative function; since the punishment never ends, the agent has no chance to behave or choose differently once the period of punishment is o v e r . 26
It might be argued that the utility served by acts of punishing is to bring comfort to the person or being transgressed against. For a generated good to exceed infinite suffering, it would have to be a greater-than-infinite good, which is a logical impossibility. Even if the utility served is God's comfort, God is, according to Judaeo-Christian tradition, merely infinite. He can only be infinitely comforted. And, as noted earlier, on the traditional conception of God, God is impassible and hence experiences neither suffering nor comfort as we understand them. Therefore, infinite suffering for a finite transgression is unjust on this utilitarian criterion as well.
Omnibenevolencc and Injustice There is a long philosophical tradition of equating injustice with evil. Philosophers from Plato to Rawls have considered justice to be intrinsically good and injustice to be the corresponding evil. As we have seen, the infinite punishing of finite transgressions is unjust on both retributive and utilitarian evaluation, and it is therefore evil. God's omnibenevolence means that whenever God acts, he acts for good. GOd never passes up an opportunity to do good. As Tiemo notes, it must also mean that GOd has the ability to do evil although he never chooses to do so. 27 God only allows evil when it is either logically necessary or necessarily associated with some greater good. Since infinite punishment for finite transgressions is unjust and therefore evil, the only possible grounding for its reconciliation with God's omnibenevolence would be either logical necessity or necessary association with some greater good. Is the evil (i.e., injustice) inherent in infinitely punishing finite transgressions logically necessary? There is no logical contradiction involved in the
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concept of punishing finite transgressions finitely. In fact, humans mete out such punishment all the time. For example, a child stays out past its curfew, and its parents ground the child for a period of time. Even if they were to ground the child for the rest of its life, the punishment would be a finite one, although we would likely consider it unjust. Surely an omnipotent being can do anything that a finite being can do, including punishing finite transgressions finitely.
Objections The objection might be raised that this example is disanalogous; that humans are incapable of punishing infinitely since we are finite beings. It might be further argued that God, being infinite, must mete out infinite punishment. However, in Exodus 7-12:30, God metes out finite punishment to the Egyptians for the finite transgressions of the Pharaoh. According to the Bible then, God can and does mete out finite punishments for finite transgressions. Even if one does not accept the Bible as a factual account of God's interactions with people, it is possible to defend the view that God has the power to punish finitely despite the infinity of his being. God is omnipotent. Judaeo-Christian tradition teaches that God's omnipotence entails God's ability to do anything that does not involve a logical contradiction. There is no logical contradiction involved in the concept of an infinite being acting in the finite realm. In fact, according to Judaeo-Christian tradition, God is always acting in and on the finite realm in his capacity as the sustainer of the universe) s Hence, there is no logical contradiction involved in an infinite God punishing finitely. So, God's omnipotence does not preclude his having the ability to punish finitely despite the fact that he is an infinite being. Since God is omniscient, he knows that he can do this, and since God is omnibenevolent, he will do so unless to do so would involve the loss of a greater good. The problem here is, again, that since the suffering and associated injustice is infinite, any good that is greater would have to be greater than infinite. This is a logical impossibility. There can be no good which is greater than infinite, and it is therefore impossible that the infinite suffering can be necessarily associated with some greater good. On this utilitarian criterion, then, infinite punishment for finite transgressions is unjust and thus incompatible with God's omnibenevolence. Another objection that might be raised in response to my position is that since God provides the foundation for good, whatever God wills is good by definition, and if he wills to punish us eternally for finite transgressions, that is itself good by definition. This amounts to the claim that any way that God acts is good by definition. According to this claim, as soon as something is
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willed by God it is good. Since God is omnipotent, he only does what he wills, and if all he wills is good, then all God does is good. But, as we have seen, the claim that God is omibenevolent presupposes, by definition, that God has the ability to do evil and actively chooses not to do so. Thus the view that whatever God wills is by definition good and that he can therefore do no evil transforms omnibenevolence into a meaningless term, vacuous and devoid of content, since, as we have seen, omnibenevolence involves God being able to do evil and choosing not to do so. If all God can do is good, he is not omnibenevolent. If God cannot choose to do evil, he is not omnibenevolent. The voluntarist argument does not reconcile omnibenevolence with any action of God. All it does is to deplete the attribute omnibenevolence o f all content. A second possible objection to my position is that there can be no injustice in God's relationship with us; since we belong to him, he cannot mistreat us. Does this mean that our relationship to God is analogous to a slave/owner relationship? I do not think that this is what could be meant by those who hold this position. Even if it is, there is no logical contradiction in the concept of an owner mistreating property, so the case would be disanalogous. What needs to be shown is that God cannot mistreat us for the analogy to hold. But once again, if God is omnibenevolent, he must be able to do evil and choose not to do so. So, it must be possible for God to mistreat us, and he must actively choose not to do so. The argument that our relationship to God is analogous to the relationship between a loving parent and its offspring is also vulnerable to this objection. Once again, God must be able to mistreat us and choose not to do so, or he cannot be properly called omnibenevolent. His actions might be considered good, but they cannot be considered morally laudable if he cannot choose to do otherwise. Maybe the relationship between God and persons is analogous to that between an artist and his or her creation. After all, it is difficult to see how an artist could mistreat a creation. The difficulty with this analogy is that, given the limitations of human creativity, an artist's creation is unlike God's creation (persons) in that it is not sentient and cannot experience treatment as mistreatment since it cannot suffer. But let's suppose, for the sake of the argument, that persons could create sentient art. Would it follow that the artist could not mistreat it? Clearly not. This case is disanalogous as well. And again, this understanding suffers from the same problem - God's omnibenevolence presupposes his ability to choose to do evil and his willful decision not to do so. If God cannot mistreat us because we are his creation and however he chooses to treat is good or morally acceptable by definition, then God's actions toward us are not the fruit of genuine choice, and while they may be good, they cannot be considered morally laudable. It might be that what is meant is disanalogous to any relationship in the
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finite realm, since one of the participants in the relationship in question is infinite; in other words, it is part of God's nature that he cannot mistreat us. But God is supposed to be both omnibenevolent and omnipotent. His omnipotence means that his actions are limited only by logical possibility, and the idea that God can mistreat us is not logically incoherent - indeed, his omnibenevolence depends on the possibility that he can. We can only maintain the position that God cannot mistreat us by giving up either his omnibenevolence or his omnipotence. There is, however, another possible meaning for the claim that God cannot mistreat us. It might mean that whatever God chooses for us is good by definition, simply because he. chooses it. In the context of this discussion, this would mean that however God chooses to reward or punish us is not mistreatment by definition. This amounts to the same thing as holding that whatever God does is good by definition, and this argument suffers from the same weakness as that position. If God chooses to eternally punish a finite transgression, and that is good by definition simply because it is what God chooses, then God cannot do ill. As Tierno demonstrates, if God cannot choose to do ill, then his actions 'may be good in the sense of having desirable consequences, [but] can never be morally praiseworthy.'29 Finally, let us assume that the Bible is the true word of God, and the commandments it contains are the rules we must follow to avoid eternal damnation. Two questions arise regarding the foundation for the goodness of the rules and the goodness of following them: why are these the rules, and why should we follow them? If the rules are good because God has decided they are, and obedience is good because God wills it, then this argument suffers from the same weakness as the voluntarist position. For the same reasons, this argument transforms God's omnibenevolence into a vacuity. If God wishes us to follow the rules because they are good independent of his will, then the good exists independently of God, and the goodness of justice is a moral standard that exists independently of him as well. Omnibenevolence requires that God be able to choose evil and yet never do so. Omnibenevolence would then require that God be able to choose to behave unjustly in his interactions with other beings yet always choose to behave justly. We have seen that there is no logical contradiction involved in an infinite god punishing finite transgressions finitely. Nor can there be a greater good necessarily associated with infinite punishment, since the greater good would have to be a greater-than-infinite good.
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Conclusion If God is omnibenevolent, he must be able to choose evil and yet never choose it. Injustice is an evil. If God is omnibenevolent, he must always willfidly choose to treat us justly. If God is omnibenevolent, he must be able to choose to treat us unjustly yet never so choose. Infinite punishment for finite transgressions is unjust on both the retributivist and the utilitarian perspectives. On both the retributive and utilitarian levels, justice demands that finite transgressions be punished finitely, if and when they are punished. On the retributivist understanding o f punishment, it is unjust to punish one person for transgressions for which another is responsible or to punish only one person for a transgression for which another shares responsibility. It is impossible to reconcile justice with infinite punishment for finite transgressions when the transgressions in question arise largely or wholly through no correctible fault of the agent's own. As long as God places us in epistemically imperfect circumstances by not providing us with certain knowledge as to what transgressions will result in eternal damnation, as long as he denies us the ability to access all of the relevant information we need to effectively exercise the capacity to reason - the only capacity for making moral judgments he has bestowed on all agents - he at least shares in the responsibility for our erroneous judgments that result in sin when these lacks are factors. He cannot justly punish us alone for transgressions for which he shares responsibility or for which he is wholly responsible. Yet, on the traditional conception, God is impassible. He cannot suffer. Since punishment involves suffering by definition, he cannot share in the punishment of transgressions for which he shares responsibility. He must either punish only one of the beings that deserve it and thus treat that being unjustly, or he must forgo punishing such transgressions. On the utilitarian understanding of punishment, the infinite suffering entailed by infinite punishment cannot be outweighed by some greater-than-infinite good. It is thus impossible to reconcile infinite punishment for finite transgressions with the Judaeo-Christian conception of an omnibenevolent God.
Endnotes I wish to thank two anonymous readers for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this essay. I also wish to thank Joel Thomas Tiemo for allowing me access to his as-yet unpublished manuscript. 2. I define hell according to what Kvanvig calls the 'Punishment Model' and which he identifies as the traditional conception. That is, hell is a place to which those whose 'earthly lives and behavior warrant it' will be damned, from which there is no escape, and in which the inhabitants are eternally and consciously aware of their existence there. Kvanvig notes that, although there are non-traditional
GINA M. SULLY conceptions of hell, they ' a l l . . . still endorse the punishment model.' Kvanvig, Jonathan, 'Heaven and Hell' in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Winter, 2003 edition; Zalta, Edward N. ed.
3. Brodsky, Troyer, and Vance, eds. Readings in Social and Political Ethics (Buffalo: Prometheus Books. 1984), p.57. 4. Brodsky, Troyer, and Vance note that it is sometimes argued that assuming that punishment entails suffering begs the question on the retributive level. However, the sort of punishment at issue in this paper (i.e., eternal damnation) entails suffering by definition. 5. Cragg, Wesley, The Practice of Punishment: Towards a Theory of Restorative Justice (New York: Routledge. 1992), p. 15. 6. My thanks to an anonymous reader for pointing this out. 7. Wainwright, William J., Philosophy of Religion (Belmont CA: Wadsworth 1999), ch. 1. 8. Ibid. 9. 'From the mind stem evil designs - murder, adulterous conduct, fornication, stealing, false witness, blasphemy. These are the things that make a man impure.' Matthew 15:19-20; '[T]he will is the cause of sin.' Augustine. De Duabus Anima. x, 10,11. 10. '[J]ustice holds guilty those sinning by evil will alone.' Augustine. De Duabus Anima. x, 10,11. 'So long as voluntariness remains in the ignorant person, the intention of sin remains in him: so in this respect, his sin is not accidental.' Aquinas. Summa Theologica 2.1.75. Furthermore, some sects still hold that it is possible to sin without taking any action. Thus, in a November 1976 interview with Playboy magazine, President Jimmy Carter could say, 'I've committed adultery in my heart many times.' 11. 'You shall not covet your neighbor's house. You shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or his donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.' Ex. 20:17. 12. 'God is omnipotent. He can do all things. Can God, then, make a square circle . . . . Certainly not. God can do all things, but what you suggest are denials of things . . . . If God could do the unthinkable and create contradictions as things, he would not be all-perfect, for he would not be all-lrue.' Glenn, Paul G., Apologetics (St. Louis and London: B. Herder Book Co. 1932), pp. 73-74; 'Most theologians and theistic philosophers who hold that God is omnipotent, do not hold that he can create round s q u a r e s . . . [they] may hold that there are no nonlogical limits to what an omnipotent being can do, but they concede that not even an omnipotent being can bring about logically impossible states of affairs or cause necessarily false propositions to be true.' Plantinga, Alvin C., Gqd, Freedom, and Evil (Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans 1977), p. 17. 13. I am not saying that God ever does infinitely punish us for these sorts of sins. I only claim that those who do must be incorrect or else God unjustly punishes us according to a retributive understanding of punishment. 14. 'You shall not steal.' Ex. 20:15. 15. Tierno, Joel Thomas, Epistemic Evil: A Third Problem of Evil, unpublished Ms., 2005, ch. 6. 16. 1 am not here claiming that her choice is determined by an ineliminable natural disposition, only that she is very strongly inclined to do so as a result o f her
OMNIBENEVOLENCEAND ETERNAL DAMNATION
received nature. 17. '[T]hose demerits which are not blotted out by repentance remain in the debt of punishment due to them' Aquinas. Summa Theologica. 18. Tiemo, Descartes on God and Human Error (New Jersey: Humanities Press 1997), pp. 2-10, ch. 14; Epistemic Evil: A Third Problem of Evil, unpublished Ms. 19. 'God was not, then, faced with a choice between making innocent automata and making beings who, in acting freely, would sometimes go wrong: there was open to him the obviously better possibility of making beings who would act freely but always go right.' Mackie, J. L., Evil and Omnipotence in Mitchell (ed.), The Philosophy of Religion (Oxford: Oxford UP 1971), pp. 100-101; See also, Madden, E. H. And Hare, Peter, 'Rejection of Hick's Theodicy' in Stewart, David, Exploring the Philosophy of Religion (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall 1980), pp. 267-273, especially the discussion of the three fallacies used by Christian apologists. 20. 'An omibenevolent being would not consciously and willingly give one of his creations a faculty that, when it functions aright, leads directly to the production of something defective. An omniscient being never does anything unconsciously and an omnipotent being never does anything unwillingly' Tierno, Descartes on God and Human Error, p. 45. 21. Tiemo, Descartes on God and lluman Error; Epistemic Evil: A Third Problem of Evil, p. 63. 22. 'Only when they become dead to sin, will their sin be forgiven them. For, so long as they live in sin, it cannot be put away.' Jerome;.Letter 147. Aquinas. op. cit. 23. See de Man, Paul, 'Semiology and Rhetoric,' in The Norton Anthology of literary Criticism, Vincent B. Leitch et al., eds. (NewYork: W. W. Norton 2001), pp. 15141527; Johnson, Barbara, 'From Melville's Fist: The Execution o f Billy Budd,' in Leitch et. al., pp. 2319-2337; Derrida, Jacques, 'From Of Grammatology; in Leitch et. al., pp. 1822-1830. 24. Brodsky, Troyer and Vance, op. cit. 25. An anonymous reader suggests that some sinners may continue to sin in hell. If this is the case, of course, my argument would not apply to them. However, it would have to be the case that a//sinners continue to sin in hell to negate the force of this argument. 26. Although Peter Geach offers a conception of time in which infinite punishment in hell could last for a finite period, the notion of a limited infinite punishment seems incoherent to me. However, assuming it is not, it is not the traditional understanding of either hell or time, and it is irrelevant to this paper. 27. 'A distinction must be drawn between actions caused or determined by the goodness associated with them and actions done for the sake of the goodness associated with them. Only the latter can occasion moral praise. Goodness of the will, in the morally significant sense, is only evidenced by actions done for the sake of the goodness associated with them. What is done as a function of necessity can never be an appropriate object of moral praise. Ought implies can and cannot! Just as there is no sense in the condemnation of agents for not performing actions that cannot be performed, there is no sense in the approbation of agents for performing actions that cannot be avoided . . . . The same result would follow with respect to the actions of God if those actions were a function of necessity. That God's actions were good would not supply a rational basis for praising him.
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Just as doing something evil - a wrongful act for which the agent is blameworthy necessarily requires that the agent do it knowingly and willingly, that is, as a function of genuine and relevantly informed choice, the same is true of doing something morally good. This too must be a function of genuine and relevantly informed choice. Actions that are a function of logical, psychological, physiological, physical or any other form of necessity, although they may be good in the sense of having desirable consequences, can never be morally praiseworthy.' Tierno, 'Omnibenevolence, Omnipotence, and God's Ability to Do Evil,' Sophia, Vol. 36, No. 2, 1997. 28. 'According to this model, then, the divine is continuously involved in the processes of reality, but in a way that respects the integrity and appropriate autonomy of each entity.' Pailin, David A., Groundwork of Philosophy of Religion, 2nd edn. (London: Epworth Press 1989), pp. 125-126. 29. Tierno, 'Omnibenevolence, Omnipotence, and God's Ability to Do Evil', Sophia, Vol. 36, No. 2, 1997. -