Sunday, July 6, 2008

Heaven and Justifications of Evil

Theodicies are, by and large, based on the view that because of a variety of constraints on logical possibility, omnipotence, omniscience, freewill, soul building, etc., this world is the world that God must make to accomplish his ends. People argue that God allows or inflicts evil in order to build moral virtue, to permit the exercise of freewill, or to punish. In some form or another, many of these justifications of the presence of evil presume that this is in fact the best of all possible worlds from God’s perspective. The reason that God permits the evils that he does is that to remove or prevent them would be to make things worse, on the whole, than they would be.

Heaven, as it is typically portrayed, is a better place than here. We are reunited with God, God does away with sin, all suffering is eliminated, God’s love is fully manifested to us, knowledge is complete, and so on. The particular details of the ways in which heaven is better than here are not important for my argument.

The paradox for the believer, as it should now be clear, is that they cannot both insist that God is constrained to allow evils in this world AND that he has the power to establish a better existence for us in heaven. If he can do it there, then he can do it here. And if he doesn’t do it here, then he’s not doing a good and loving thing that he should.

If heaven is a better existence than our current existence, then it is within God’s power to create a better existence for us than our current one. But God has not created a better existence for us than this one, so something is amiss in these two articles of believer doctrine.

The believer is caught between a rock and a hard place here. She either has to give up the notion of heaven, or give up the claim that the evils suffered in this world are tolerated by God because they are necessary for God to achieve his overall goals.

Neither of these options is going to be appealing. To give up either one is, more or less, to give up belief. Some justification for God’s tolerating evil is necessary for the believer if they are going to salvage the notion that God is an omni-being from the problem of evil. Heaven is what it is all about for most believers. The promise of a better life, reunification with God, and eternal bliss is a cornerstone of Christian metaphysics and doctrine. Without heaven, it’s not recognizably Christian.

Critics of this argument may miss the point. They will insist that suffering is beyond our puny powers to understand, or that it is deserved because of our depravity, or it is the result of our own exercises of power. We can provisionally accept any or all of these attempts to resolve the problem of evil. The gist of them all is that for one reason or another the suffering that ensues in this existence is the best way for things to happen, even though it doesn’t look like it. They are all attempts to reduce or eliminate the appearance that suffering is incompatible with God’s existence. None of these explanations will succeed unless we also accept the implicit premise that this world is, in fact, the best way that God could have set things up. If God could have set up a world where we could achieve moral virtue or exercise freewill without so much suffering, then he’s back on the hook for the problem of evil. Now the point of the argument is that if this existence is the best way that things can go from God’s perspective, then where is there room for heaven to be a better place? Any explanation of evil in terms of constraints that God operates under are going to apply ceteris paribus to heaven.

If God can grant us freedom without moral evil in heaven, then he can create it here. If God can endow us with moral virtue in heaven without genocides and tsunamis, then he can do it here. If God can reveal himself and his existence to us in heaven, then he can do it here. If God can create unsurpassable joy and love in heaven, then he can do it here. The believer can’t argue for restraints on God’s capabilities to explain away evil and then conveniently dismiss all of those same constraints in their characterization of heaven.

The goal of this argument is not that the problem of evil shows there is no God, or that there is no heaven, although those are both correct. The point here is to see that there is a profound and deep conflict in two of the most important pillars of the believer’s story about the world. If heaven is a better existence than this one, and it is within God’s power to bring that existence about, then all attempts to render God’s existence compatible with suffering are wrecked. These two views, held by billions of believers, are irreconcilable:

1) Heaven is a better place than this one.

2) The existence of suffering is consistent with God's being all powerful, all knowing, and all good.


Anonymous said...

If he can do it there, then he can do it here.

I suppose one could attempt a defense by saying that creating this world as it is, evil and all, is somehow necessary for God to create heaven as such a great place. I certainly wouldn't find such a defense convincing, and I do wonder who sets all these bizarre rules that God is constrained to follow.

Matt McCormick said...

Thanks Reginald. Yeah, I wouldn't find such a defense convincing either. The gymnastics that people go through in their justifications for God stretch credibility.

I'm going to use the link you posted recently with Craig's summaries of arguments for God. Thanks for the link.


Eric Sotnak said...

Here is what I think is the best reply for the theist to make. Heaven is not a better world than this one. Rather, heaven is part of this world. It is a reward for those who have lived in obedience to God’s will. Suppose one accepts a retributivist principle that holds freely performed actions deserve reward or punishment depending on whether they are good or bad. Now consider two worlds: a heavenless world and a beheavaned world. In a beheavened world, those who do good will receive reward while in the heavenless world they won’t (or so goes the argument). If a world that satisfies the retributivist principle is preferable to one that doesn’t, we have at least the outlines of a defense of God’s creating a beheavened world.

Some problems:

A retributivist moral perspective seems to require a libertarian conception of free will. But it is by no means clear that libertarian free will is ultimately coherent. It is also not clear that God would prefer a world in which creatures have libertarian free will to a world in which creatures have “only” compatibilist free will.

A retributivist morality usually also includes a proportionality principle as a corollary, on which punishments and rewards are proportional to the actions that are rewarded/punished. It doesn’t seem that the beheavened world satisfies the proportionality principle. (And if the world in question also includes a hell for punishing wrongdoing, the problem is only compounded).

Matt McCormick said...

Thanks Eric. You may be right: this may be the best response the believer has. I find the whole thing too bizarre and childish to take very seriously, although I should. I guess what the stuff I have been writing and the comments have made me think about now is this: how exactly does God bring it about that heaven is a better place? You said that God may set it up like a reward, but what does that mean, I wonder. If it involves his making us better people, or making us not prone to sin, or eliminating suffering, then the believer has this big problem of evil issue I"ve been raising. If it's a better place simply in virtue of its containing only the good, deserving people, while the unrepentant sinners all burn in hell, I just don't know what to say to the believers. That's just sick, and utterly inhumane. How could anyone actually thing that such an arrangement would actually be just, loving, fair, and compassionate? Retribution is one thing, but condemning someone to an eternity of unbearable torment is a sick, sociopathic fantasy that only someone truly evil could dream up. Even the Old Testament just said an eye for an eye. It didn't say, an eternity of everlasting and profound pain for a trivial thought crime. Even the most severe form of retributionist theories of punishment must have some principle of proportionality.


Matt McCormick said...
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Eric Sotnak said...

I spent some time talking about the free-will in heaven problem in my Problem of Evil seminar last fall. Some theists have argued that although people in heaen have the free will to sin, they assuredly never will because they have morally perfect characters (like Jesus). But the biggest problem with this is that it opens the door right back up to J.L Mackie's problem: Why, then, couldn't God create a world of free creatures who always do right? The usual response to Mackie on this point is that there is something impossible about Mackie's demand: That free creatures by definition cannot be guaranteed always to go right. But if creatures in heaven are free and yet always go right, then there can't be anything impossible about this after all.

David B. Ellis said...
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David B. Ellis said...

As an exercise I once attempted to see if I could come up with a better theodicy than the ridiculous ones I keep encountering in discussions with theists.

So far, the best I've been able to do is the following hypothesis:

In the beginning, God created all the souls that will ever be. He gave each a choice. Stay in heaven from the start and be an angel or be born onto earth where one may be subject to terrible suffering---but gain elusive insights unavailable to those who choose the other path.

I don't think its successful but I think making it the person's own choice at least makes it a bit better than most I've encountered.

Your thoughts?

Acolyte4236 said...

The solution to the dilemma is that libertarian freedom does not entail the ability to choose between options of opposite moral value. So, then it will be possible to affirm that those in heaven have libertarian freedom, but all and only good objects of choice to choose between. The reason why they cannot be created in this perfect state is that virtue is achieved for agents that are contingent in order to be consistent with incompatibilist/libertarian conditions on freedom and moral responsibility-they have to be the sources of their own actions and characters So the ability to do moral evil is a temporary use of freedom. It is akin to Wittgenstein's ladder-once you reach the top, you kick away the latter.

So the idea is that people's character's congeal over time such that the possible use of free will for evil is eclipsed. But this is no threat to freedom since they can still choose otherwise. It is just in heaven that choosing otherwise is choosing some other good. So in order to be free and morally responsible evil has to be possible at the begining of forming a moral character, but this possibility can be eclipsed at the end of the process.


Matt McCormick said...

Acolyte, see my many previous posts on evil and God, especially this one about the paradox of the soul building defense:


Acolyte4236 said...


My view isn't a soul building defense like say Hick's. In fact, my view is incompatible with it. Hicks is Origenistic, whereas mine is anti-Origenistic. I don't think evil is necessary for virtue-Hick does.

In any case, my view resolves the dilemma without compromising moral impeccability or libertarian freedom. Mackie was mistaken. The two ideas are compatible.

Eli said...

acolyte, you appear to have hit a bit of a wall. Would you not agree that, given the compatibility of libertarian freedom and the perfect goodness of all people (and the usual, never-justified theistic assumption that a world with free beings is better than one without), the best possible world would be a world in which there were many free, perfectly good beings? Yet we do not have this world. You may say that some kind of soul-solidifying process is necessary (why, again?), but this is inconsistent on its face and almost certainly not salvageable. For instance: let's assume that it takes 20 free choices to solidify one's soul as either good or not. Then anyone who dies before making 20 free choices doesn't have a soul fit for either heaven or hell - what then? Likewise, anyone who continues to make free choices after 20 will inevitably make good and bad ones, which contradicts the very premise of the idea. Or, if it doesn't contradict the premise, then there must be something exterior to people that provides for evil - in other words, the soul-solidifying process has nothing at all to do with why heaven contains only good-choosing people. I can construct similar arguments if souls have to solidify over a certain length of time, if you like, or if there's a specific choice they have to make, or...
I understand that this may not be the exact process you have in mind, but you conveniently neglected to specify yours - care to do so now?

Acolyte4236 said...

Funny, I didn’t take myself to have hit a wall. Asking for justification beyond intuitive appeal for the idea that a world of freedom and moral responsibility is better than one without is like asking for justification for the idea that a world with consciousness is better than one without.

Since virtue is attained through habit (Plato, Aristotle, Hume, et al.) a world with perfectly virtuous and free beings is not attainable without the possibility of evil. As for people who die still “in process” that isn’t hard to answer. To be consistent with libertarian assumptions, most traditions have an intermediate state where character formation continues. The solidification of the character doesn’t contradict the idea that the state requires practice and habituation. It is a consequence of it and exactly what a Virtue theorist would want. If someone reached a virtuous state, then they would continue only to make good ones and bad ones would be precluded.

Lastly, making remarks snide or implying deceit on the part of the other person doesn’t make for a good dialog or a good dialog partner.

Eli said...

"Asking for justification beyond intuitive appeal for the idea that a world of freedom and moral responsibility is better than one without is like asking for justification for the idea that a world with consciousness is better than one without." that you can't do it? I've seen people try, so it's not like there's nothing to be said. Moreover, I can imagine at least a valid argument that would do the trick. That you apparently can't says more about your lack of imagination than it does the state of the argument.

I notice how the rest of that stuff doesn't really address my point. This explanation you're pushing requires that, at some point, every - every - human transition from a fluid to a solid state of soul, so to speak. If that happens during life, then it clearly doesn't happen for everyone, and this contradicts the premise. If it happens after life, that opens up huge problems with personal identity, justice, fairness, and so on, and at least part of that contradicts the premise of the Christian God. (Besides which, if it happens after death, you've got to explain why it couldn't have happened before life - i.e., why life is necessary at all. In other words, you're right back where you started.) But I'll only be able to tell you how you're wrong if you make your theory coherent - so far you haven't done this.

"Lastly, making remarks snide or implying deceit on the part of the other person doesn’t make for a good dialog or a good dialog partner."

Neither does straightforwardly making deceitful arguments and then trying to pass them off as legitimate...