Monday, December 28, 2015

Theodicy and hell

Many atheists argue that the existence of an all-powerful, all-good God is not possible due to the existence of evil in the world.  The argument goes that it's in the nature of a good being to destroy evil where possible, and that an all-powerful God would find it possible.

I disagree with this because I don't think it is the nature of goodness to wipe out evil.  Back in freshman theology, I learned an eye-opening reality -- good and evil are not opposites.  That is to say, they are not equal opposing forces which operate roughly the same way.  Instead, evil is a lack of good.  Good is creative, while evil is destructive.  So I can see a good force creating things that are evil, because that good force can't create things that don't lack anything without just creating another version of itself.  Evil exists to the degree that there is limitation in created things.  And when those evil things are in existence, I could see Goodness not destroying those things because it's not a destructive force, and because all things that are evil contain some good, or they would have no existence at all.  Hitler, for instance, had lots of goodness in him -- a healthy body, charisma, rhetorical skill -- and I could imagine a good being letting him live for the sake of those good things.

Beyond this, I don't think that good is simple and easily defined.  I dislike Hitler because he murdered humans and I care about humans; but if I had the same sort of love for bacteria, Pasteur would be the bigger mass-murderer.  It's impossible for us to think about goodness separate from human morality and human ends, because that is what goodness refers to, when humans speak of it.  (And Aquinas, I believe, backs me on this -- morality refers to a being's nature, so good for humans is different from good for God.)

So the problem of evil is kind of a non-problem if you just assume that goodness for God is something about creating and enjoying the universe and not having the sort of moral obligations humans have.

I'd rather talk about what God wants.  What are God's goals?  It seems obvious to me that if an all-powerful being has a single main goal, he will achieve it.  He will arrange the entire universe around that goal.  I can do the same with my own life goals -- sacrificing all other considerations to a single goal -- and the only thing that can stop me is my own human limitation.  God has no limits, so he will achieve what he wishes.

So: if God's goal were a lack of suffering for humans, he could easily have achieved this.  He could do it by being constantly involved, directly stopping any person or thing that was going to cause suffering to anyone.  Or he could have made it impossible for the human mind to suffer -- pain, for instance, could be a simple signal of "avoid" rather than including an experience of suffering.  Or it could be something that can only happen briefly but vanishes once the message comes across, so that no one could spend days or years in agony.  It seems obvious that stopping suffering is no part at all of God's goals, because evolution is a system that relies on death and pain to even work.  If you don't want anyone to suffer, it would be stupid to invent a system that requires huge amounts of suffering at every step of the process.

Or his goal could be salvation for everyone.  But if it is, the Catholic Church says that God is a failure at it, because there's a place called hell.  It seems to me that salvation for everyone ought to be possible.  God could have given us only good desires, so we naturally would want to obey God's will.  (Such as what the already-saved and good angels experience.)  God himself, after all, cannot desire evil, so why can we?  God could also carefully arrange things here on earth so that everyone gets exactly the influences that will help them be saved.  He could refrain from creating anyone whom he foreknows won't be saved, or let them die before they've had a chance to sin.  After all, we know that around half of conceived zygotes die.  Perhaps those are the people God knows would go to hell. 

But, some argue, salvation for everyone is not God's primary goal either.  What he wants even more than salvation for everyone is freedom.  He wants everyone to have the maximum amount of freedom possible, so that they could freely choose salvation or damnation.  But the world does not seem optimized for freedom either.  If maximum freedom was the goal, why are humans limited in knowledge?  To make a really free choice, we should see clearly what options are available and what the consequences of our choices will be.  The existence of God should be self-evident to everyone, and we should be able to go look at hell so we can see what the danger is.  We are not free to choose if we are unable to see what our choices mean until we've already made them all!  But that's how it is, if you can't be sure hell exists until you're dead and all opportunity for meritorious choices has ended.  I've heard people say that knowledge makes you less free, because no one who saw hell would actually choose it, but that's kind of my point.  You are more free when you have more knowledge, because a choice made without knowledge can't be aligned with what you actually want.  If you want a lady and not a tiger, knowing which door hides the lady and which hides the tiger is crucial information.  Your choices are more predictable when you have information -- no one would actually choose the tiger -- but they are more free.

Also, every human except Adam, Eve, Mary, and Jesus has possessed concupiscence, the innate tendency toward evil.  We have disordered desires we can't easily control.  It is obvious that we are less free to make good choices when we have concupiscence -- I mean, we all know that Adam and Eve were freer than we are -- but it's also obvious that God could prevent this.  After all, the soul is the direct creation of God; it does not come from our parents.  Original sin (and presumably concupiscence too) is something on our soul.  So for God to make sure each of us gets it, he has to apply it to each soul when he makes it.  Why would God do that?  Conversely, even if it's on the body, he could easily remove it for each person to increase our freedom.

The third issue is that some people are in situations which severely limit their freedom.  Some are deprived of education; others of love.  And again, what about the half of humans ever conceived who never make a single choice?  If this is a better situation than life on earth, why would God not allow all of us to experience something similar -- creation as an embodied soul and then immediate salvation?  But if it's a worse situation, why does God allow it to happen to anyone?  It seems to me that the situation of maximum freedom is what the angels are supposed to have: total knowledge, total freedom, and a single choice.  And clearly the angels' freedom couldn't be hampered by this, or God wouldn't put them in this situation.  But if this is so good, why didn't God let us experience something similar?

I admit that this is a philosophical question and I suck at philosophy.  But I've been reading up and I haven't found an answer to this objection.  For instance, I read a summary of Plantinga's famous Free Will Defense -- supposed to be the best answer ever devised to the Problem of Evil -- and all it claims to argue is that there could be a potential universe in which there is an omnipotent good God and also evil, not that it is possible in this universe.  That's a bit irrelevant, considering we do live in this universe and there are actual facts about this universe we know, like evolution and the death of embryos and freedom that is hampered by circumstances, which seem to complicate the issue.  In addition, if you want to profess Christianity rather than only theism, you have to deal with doctrinal complications like hell and concupiscence.  Creating a hypothetical universe to do philosophy in is like creating a two-dimensional space to do geometry in -- interesting exercise, but not entirely applicable to the actual world.

It is possible that there are answers to this question.  I've been looking for close to a year and not found them.  Certainly here on this blog the answers I get usually wind up with "it's a mystery."  The argument is that an omnipotent being would be able to come up with a reason why to allow suffering on earth and damnation for eternity, while still caring about humans.  I can't accept this, because some of the problems above are not a matter of ignorance, but of actual contradiction.

Now I can posit any number of scenarios that do work out.  God could be only interested in creating amazing and beautiful things and observing them, not in the happiness, whether temporal or eternal, of any of his creations.  I could still respect a God like this, though of course there would be no point in most of what we call religion.  I can also believe in a God who cares and therefore carefully brings all humans to eventual salvation.  This is universalism, and the downside is that it's kind of heretical from a Catholic perspective.  I've gone round and round with people about it, and I know there are some ways that people manage to be Catholic and universalist, but my conclusion on this is that the only reason a person would ever interpret scripture and tradition that way is because they can't believe in hell and don't want to give up Catholicism -- not because it's a reasonable interpretation of what the Church teaches.  I respect the effort, but if you want to be led by the Church rather than to force your own interpretation on its teaches, I think you have to admit the Church teaches people go to hell.

That, of course, casts doubt on Catholicism itself, and on Christianity in general.  If statements like "God desires all to be saved" and "wide is the road to perdition and many those who choose it" contain a contradiction with one another, that means that either God can lie, or Scripture is not the word of God, and neither is an acceptable answer.

There are many possible theistic systems which I could accept, which is why I still seek God even though the search gets more discouraging all the time.  But I don't feel I have a choice but to reject the doctrine of hell.  It is not only morally objectionable to me -- it's actually opposed to reason.


love the girls said...

Sheila writes : "It is possible that there are answers to this question. I've been looking for close to a year and not found them. Certainly here on this blog the answers I get usually wind up with "it's a mystery.""

I suggest you talk to your former teachers at Christendom. None of your questions are a 'mystery', but the explanations that will satisfy you could be tedious, and far better done in person by someone who has experience explaining them. Given that they are all off this week, today would be a good day to call one of them up for help.

Sheila said...

I've tried it with three different professors months back, and here are the answers I got:

1. "Sure it is confusing, and I don't understand it, but since God revealed it it must be true, and the Church requires you to believe it whether or not you understand it."

2. "I think problems with faith aren't a question of reason, but relationship. Spend more time in prayer."

3. "We should really talk about this stuff sometime." [Never follows up, looks awkward when we bump into each other socially]

I don't blame any of them, because it isn't any of their job to re-evangelize former students and they have lives and kids and dissertations to worry about. But I honestly think none of them had an answer, even though only one admitted he didn't.

I also spent about a month dialoguing online with a professional apologist. I think I was polite and I hoped he could tell I was sincere, but eventually he banned me from his blog and deleted a bunch of my comments so that it looked like I'd left the conversation. Not impressed with the sincerity there.

If I could find ANYONE who would commit to a discussion, continuing to hash things out with me and actually attempting to come up with answers, I would stick with that conversation. But when literally everyone I talk to about it either looks uncomfortable and bows out, or reminds me that obstinate doubt is a sin and threatens me with hell, I'm not much encouraged that further answers are out there.

love the girls said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Enbrethiliel said...


Only LTG could make me wish I were a fallen-away Christendom grad, too . . .

Sheila said...

LTG ... the idea of cold-calling a stranger and talking theology makes me want to leap headfirst into a volcano. I'm kinda shy. Maybe you could send him this post and see what he thinks? My email is linked somewhere on here, perhaps in my profile; I'm slow to answer emails on that one because it's mostly taken over by spam, but I do usually get to them eventually.

love the girls said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
love the girls said...

adding on, he says that email helps give him time to organize his thoughts.

Enbrethiliel said...


This comment is late because I haven't been able to sit down and write much lately.

What strikes me about this post is that it is all reasoning and totally ignores evidence--which is a little surprising coming from you! Most of us probably do deal with hell on a purely intellectual basis, but there are others who got to see it. I guess I'm just curious about what you do with the accounts of mystics and seers.

Take, for instance, the events at Fatima. In one apparition, the children were shown souls falling into hell like leaves. Later, there was the miracle of the sun, which was witnessed and experienced by thousands of people, some of whom were not believers. Doesn't the fact of the latter give credibility to the former?

Belfry Bat said...

In that I can't think of a good way to design a repeatable experiment about Hell, I think Sheila is quite justified in sticking to reasoning; what I'm less convinced of is the Supposed Ontology of Hell that seems implicit in all that reasoning. I mean: yes, it might make sense to object to the Creator Creating Hell with the purpose of sempiternally confining certain things there for to be tortured forever. But I'm not sure Hell really is a Created Thing. I rather think that Hell is something we do to ourselves in ultimately refusing to reject sin and love God. (Milton depicts something like this when he describes Satan as carving out Hell for himself in rivalry of Heaven, and finding it only makes him miserable and dreary.)

Baroness said...

This is admittedly not really my topic, but....

The way I've heard people explain it is not that God's point is for people to have freedom exactly. Yeah, God wants people to have freedom but he wants them to have that freedom for a reason: because he wants them to love him but you can't love someone unless you can choose to love them.

Somewhat in reference to one of Belfry Bat's points, the way I've understood hell (which may or may not be entirely orthodox, granted) is that it's not really a place of torment where God hurts you. It's more of simply an absence of God. If you're in hell its only because you do not want to be with God so God won't force you to be with him because you don't want to be with him. So he will let you be without him but due to, to paraphrase St. Augustine, our hearts being restless until they rest in him, we spend an eternity being unhappy because we didn't want to be near God and now we are not near him forever.

Sheila said...

E, I have reasons for not believing in Fatima, which I can go into if you'd like. And as for other mystics, you're mostly stuck taking someone's word for it, and I am not sure why I'd do that. People have odd visions or dreams sometimes, no doubt inspired by the religious beliefs they already possess, and it would be contradictory to believe all reports of visions ever.

BB, my point is that there are ways God could prevent the existence of hell without abridging anyone's freedom. You and I have talked about this a lot before. There are logical reasons why God could allow suffering or damnation, but they are contradictory with one another. For instance, if God wants people to freely love him, why would he let the Satan tempt Adam and Eve, give each of us concupiscence, restrict our knowledge of him, and allow many people to die without ever having a chance to love him? God has the entirety of logical possibilities to work with. Why doesn't he arrange things so that no one goes to hell? It's not like God is not still responsible for the things he allows as well as the things he actively does.

Here's a question that I think is relevant here: can your actions affect another's salvation, or not? If you can, that's horribly unfair -- that's saying God would damn a person forever for a decision that wasn't theirs. But if you can't, if God can simply hand-wave away your lack of baptism or someone's bad influence on you, why does he put us through this whole vale of tears in the first place? He should be able to just wave a hand and create us in heaven in the first place, if a certain kind of good earthly experiences aren't necessary to our salvation.

One of Plantinga's arguments is that some people are in a state of "transworld depravity" -- that in all possible scenarios that God could create, they would still be damned. And if that's the case, can that person really be considered to be free? And why would God create a person like this?

A lot of this weighs on the idea, held by many Catholics, that being in hell is still better than not existing at all. And I am not convinced of that. A life of depression of chronic pain often causes people to commit suicide. Even solitary confinement causes enough mental torment that jailers are very careful to keep suicide implements out of the cells. I can't imagine that a thousand years of unrelenting torment wouldn't cause me to wish I hadn't been created in the first place. And if you consider that no one exists at all unless God constantly, actively sustains them in being, I don't think you can count God out of the decision to create hell.

Baroness, your argument is one I've heard a lot, but when it comes down to it, I'm not convinced it *is* orthodox. You can study it if you'd like -- if orthodoxy is important to you. But my feeling is that if hell is not a place of *additional* torment, then a lot of what has been revealed to us about it is false: that the worm dies not and the flame is not extinguished, for instance. Jesus also says that it would be better for Judas that he had not been born, which would imply that hell is worse than non-existence. And, of course, there's been a lot of writing by Popes and Church Fathers saying that there is extra punishment in hell, beyond the pain of separation.

I know we talked about this a lot last year, so if you want to do a search on the blog for "hell," you'll probably turn up some long comment threads where people try to convince me that hell is a place of torment where lots and lots of people go. I'm not super into convincing you of that, because I don't believe it, but if I were to submit to Church teaching and attempt to let it guide my beliefs instead of trying to force my beliefs on it, I would have to admit that extra punishment in hell is the most likely possibility.

Enbrethiliel said...


Why am I not surprised you don't believe in Fatima? LOL! Well, it's a private revelation, anyway, so no Catholic is obliged to believe it. You don't have to explain why you don't.

But I am wondering now what you think of miracles as proof of anything. Based on our discussions here, there seem to be exactly two things that would convince you that the Catholic Church is telling the truth about reality:

a) a Gospel that modern archaeologists will agree was written no more than five days after the Resurrection; and

b) a pillar of fire in St. Peter's Square that you can personally hop on a plane to look at.

The first is kind of a tall order (LOL!), but the latter implies that you're open to something miraculous. Or that you were at the time you wrote it. If you still are, is there any approved miracle of the Church that still makes you go "Hmmmmm"?

PS -- As for why you'd take someone's word on something, you'd do it because you trusted the person. And if you trusted the person, it's because he had proven himself to be trustworthy when the evidence backed him up. That's what happened in the early Church and what has been happening with apparitions and other supernatural phenomena since. The sources didn't stop being trustworthy just because they turned 2,000 years old. I know that you really do want to examine everything personally, but the great thing about being a social animal is that we don't have to do this in order to know things; we can also be certain of things thanks to the veracity of those who did get to examine them. And of those who examined the examiners. And of those who examined the examiners of the examiners. =P Now, I do know that your RC experience meant that the whole social web is now tainted for you and I do respect that. I just thought I'd put in a good word for the honest people in the web, whether or not they are still credible to you.

Sheila said...

Well, if you remember back when I posted a list of the things that would convince me, there was more on it than that. For instance, an eyewitness account of one of the apostles dying rather than denying the Resurrection, or a really inexplicable miracle. The trouble with miracle claims is that, while they sound convincing in bulk (I mean, there must be millions!) individual ones usually aren't so convincing, taken separately. While looking for sufficient evidence to overcome my doubts, I looked into Fatima, Lourdes, Turin, Guadalupe, and several others which are considered particularly convincing and found that in each case, there was another perfectly reasonable explanation other than "miracle." Or, in some of them, there was no clear evidence the event had happened at all.

I do mistrust the social web, because I've seen how it can result in error (and I've explained reasons why it does, even when the individual people in it are well-meaning). And of course you too believe that the social web *can* be wrong, because Islam and Mormonism have one too. One of the more shocking revelations, to me, was finding out how far into the Middle Ages the same erroneous facts were repeated -- for instance, some Roman wrote that menstrual blood makes dogs go rabid and that same factoid was repeated by half a dozen supposedly credible medieval scholars! How then can I trust them on saint stories and miracles? Back then, accepting things on authority was given more respect, testing often wasn't done, and of course they had no cameras or methods for testing anything. I mean, there was a "Eucharistic miracle" last month, the diocese looked into it, and found the bleeding host was actually just red bacteria. We can do that now, but how many "bleeding hosts" have been caused by the same bacteria? You can hardly blame medieval people for taking it for a miracle, with no microscopes to tell differently.

And of course, personally, the web has failed me through most of the people whose word I took on faith. I assumed that people were more sure than they are, and took better care to arrive at the truth than they did. It troubles me to ask those same people whose word I took, "How sure are you?" and have them say, "Well, you can't be *sure.*" Is ANYONE sure? Did anyone actually do the footwork to become sure? I've seen people believe some ridiculous things and pass them off as gospel truth a LOT of times, in part because people don't want to take the trouble to factcheck.

I can hardly blame people for trusting the social web -- we do it all the time, it's second nature -- but it is prone to error.

Enbrethiliel said...


I'll bet that if there were an eyewitness account of an Apostle's martyrdom, you'd find something funny about it, too. LOL! But I have to wonder why an eyewitness account of this would be convincing when an eyewitness account of the Resurrection itself has not been

I'm also curious about one apparition-related miracle (and don't see the point of using the World Wide Web when I can use the social web more efficiently): what is the explanation for the tilma surviving that bomb?

In other news, has LTG's friend written back to you yet?

love the girls said...

Sheila writes : "I looked into Fatima, Lourdes, Turin, Guadalupe, and several others which are considered particularly convincing and found that in each case, there was another perfectly reasonable explanation other than "miracle.""

The miracle of Lourdes, like the miracle of the parting of the Red Sea, can be explained as ordinary occurrences. Years back a scientist proved that the Red Sea could have been parted by an earth quake.

What does not have reasonable explanation other than by miracle, is the foreknowledge. Bernadette washing in dirt prior to a stream coming into existence is not all that impressive as an example as foreknowledge, but when combined with the healings that do not have reasonable explanation, it does impress.

Similarly, foreknowledge of earth quakes are not all that impressive insofar as certain animals can sense them, and similar hidden to us occurrences, but the coincidence of a very peculiar type of earth quake that causes the water of a sea to divide occurring right as a tribe of people are in desperation to cross over that sea, is impressive and does not have reasonable explanation even if it can be explained completely by natural occurrence.

I suppose someone could say that the parting of the Red Sea is a myth, but then the same could be said of other crossings of water such as Caesar crossing the Rubicon. At some point we either believe, i.e. believe according to the proper understanding of the term, those who came before us, or we do not. And just as I believe a structural engineer when he says this beam will support this weight, so likewise do I believe the Red Sea parted by means of a very timely earth quake.

Sheila said...

E - Well, obviously I don't think the Gospels were eyewitness accounts. I don't think there's good historical evidence that they were. How do *you* know they were?

I thought the crucifix sheltered the tilma from the bomb, isn't that right? Don't know the details, but I had always placed it as "eerie coincidence" rather than a miracle.

I haven't yet heard back from LTG's friend, but since it took me till a couple of days ago to write my email (SCARY!) it's not his fault he hasn't written back yet.

LTG, you amaze me. You can believe that the Red Sea was divided, because the Bible tells you so, but you can't believe that it was done with a strong wind so that the water stood on each side like a wall, the way the Bible describes it? It's not like one would be more difficult for an omnipotent God than the other.

And of course I, like pretty well everyone, believe that you can sometimes trust what other people tell you, while not believing everything everyone tells me. Everyone learns to trust teachers (mostly) but not salesman, to trust what's written in this newspaper but not that newspaper, to assume that your doctor knows some things about medicine that your barber doesn't. So I have *reason* to believe the structural engineer on the topic of structural engineering, but I don't necessarily have reason to believe every myth that came out of the Bronze Age. What reason do you have for believing in the parting of the Red Sea that you don't have for believing also that the Trojan War was started by three goddesses quarrelling over an apple? There's more to the historical method than "believe everything that was written down."

Enbrethiliel said...


Obviously, I know that the Gospel of John is an eyewitness account because of Tradition! LOL! Someone who met St. John knew that he wrote it and made sure to pass it on to someone else, who passed it on, and so forth. I know this doesn't satisfy you, but that's how I know. Here, let me anticipate what you're doing now . . . *facepalm*

Or maybe I'm just projecting because I *facepalmed* when I read "eerie coincidence." LOL!

The question of where to draw the line when judging sources reminds me of an issue that came up in my blogging several years ago. After several years of being mostly a "good girl," I decided to have a "Bad Catholic Month" in which I let it all hang out. One of the things I did was criticise convert apologists. This drew the attention of someone who absolutely hated Catholics sniping at other Catholics online (hey, fair enough), and she made it her mission to discredit me. She left lots of critical comments about me on other blogs, and even waded into my own combox to tell people to stop reading me. I've since brushed off most of the stuff she said, but one issue she brought up has stayed with me through the years was (and I paraphrase): "Enbrethiliel may write beautiful things about Mary, but her blog is still poison!"

Basically, because of one critical post about other Catholics, five whole years of blogging had been turned into "poison." I had thought (as I had with the friend whom I told the secret baptism story to) that I had built up enough good will to be cut a bit of slack for an unpopular opinion and a bit of naughty behaviour. But I guess some people just have more stringent standards than others. There's nothing I can do about that, of course, but I do reasonably think my critic went totally overboard in her assessment.

Anyway, it seems to me that you're saying that because there is any error at all in historical documents (or in tradition), it is reasonable for you to mistrust everything in them. If that is what you think, then with respect, I think it is going overboard as well.

PS -- Let me play LTG whisperer again, if I may! LTG mentions an earthquake only because a scientist tried to explain away the parting of the Red Sea by saying an earthquake could have done it. (If the scientist had stuck with wind, LTG would be sticking with wind, too.) Anyway, the argument here is that even if there is a possible natural explanation for something (earthquake, wind, global warming, whatever), it's still kind of odd that this supposedly all-natural phenomenon would occur at such a wacky time. An earthquake/wind "just happens" to part the Red Sea right when the Israelites are about to be taken back into slavery by the Egyptians? Or maybe it's another eerie coincidence! ;-P

Here's a less epic example. I've been getting a lot of roses from St. Therese lately. Now, a skeptic could say that St. Therese clearly isn't the one sending me the roses because anybody with eyes could see that they were handed to me by other people. The implication being that only a rose that materialises out of thin air could possibly be a message from Heaven. But why does their coming from other people automatically rule out St. Therese being an earlier cause? And isn't it a third "eerie coincidence" (Sorry, but I can't get over it!) that someone who never gets flowers is suddenly getting a lot of them right after making a novena to St. Therese? I certainly don't offer this as incontrovertible proof of the supernatural, but it's an illustration of what LTG means.

Sheila said...

No facepalming ... just a rueful headshake, because you don't surprise me anymore. I know you too well!

I think the commenter was just trying to protect the "social web"! Think about it: if her way of belief is to absorb unquestioningly everything said by people she trusts, she can't be too careful about who she trusts.

And it seems to me that a source that's unreliable on one topic might be unreliable on more than one. If you've been buying food from the same restaurant for a year, and then one time you get horrible food poisoning from it, you might want to cut the restaurant some slack .... but at the same time, are you going to eat their food with exactly the same trustfulness as before? Or are you going to skip the fish, or take it home and microwave it, or whatever seems like a reasonable precaution. And once someone has lied to you, I would be surprised if you didn't doublecheck some of the other things they tell you ... especially if they never owned up and apologized.

Now of COURSE I don't think the commenter should have been terrible to you. Instead she should have said, "Oh, of course! I should use my own judgment about things I read instead of just assuming everyone with the "Catholic label" is 100% in line with things I think! I'll post a comment explaining the reasons why I disagree and go move on with my life." But, well, probably she was defensive of her favorite apologists. Tribal thinking, cultiness, call it what you will!

As for the roses thing, I suspect it's confirmation bias. You notice everything rose-related because you're looking for it. If I told you to keep an eye out for, say, birds and bird symbols, you'd probably find several this week, even though you hadn't noticed them all around you before. And honestly, this whole thing kind of disturbs me. If God and the saints are in so much control of reality that they can arrange for my mother to bump into a lady named Rose at church who showed her a rose-petal rosary (seriously happened!) then what exactly is keeping him from intervening in things that actually matter? He didn't mind influencing Rose's free will to make her seek out my mother and show off a rosary, but he can't be bothered to influence a child rapist's free will to stop him from raping children? What the heck? It shows God as having a set of goals and limitations which seem (to my TERRIBLY limited HUMAN conscience) downright immoral.

Sheila said...

Note: I just deleted LTG's comments that contained email addresses and phone numbers so that they won't be sitting here in plain sight forever. I still have them. :D

Enbrethiliel said...


The commenter definitely saw herself as a righter of wrongs in the Catholic blogosphere, but she was less a censor sniffing out possible errors than a busybody trying to nip certain behaviours in the bud. Other Catholic bloggers she bothered were those who started writing too much about non-religious things. She felt it was a form of bait-and-switch: making religious readers loyal to you and then subjecting them to stuff that would have made them click away at the beginning.

As for faith, remember that my account of mine has always been that it was a grace that I was given. It was never built on anything in the natural or social worlds, so neither can anything from there hurt it. The closest I come to skepticism is running into another world view that is totally different from the Catholic one (e.g. ancient astronaut theory) and seeing how easy it is to readjust my "lenses" so that the other world view looks as if it could be the true one. (This also happens a lot when I read your blog. I often go, "Wow! Sheila is totally right! I can't believe she hasn't deconverted her husband yet. HOW is he still standing???" . . . and then I close the tab and it's as if the lights in the cinema come on and I realise it was all another Horror movie. ;-P)

To use your restaurant analogy, it doesn't matter how many corrupt cooks take over the kitchen. I've received confirmation that it is the only place to dine. I get that this may not help you, but I also think that you're describing a personal difficulty rooted in your experiences rather than an actual problem with the system we have. Now, this doesn't make your concerns invalid. Indeed, I think they make good food for thought. But here you remind me of an atheist friend who says that even if there were a God, he would never believe it on the authority of religion--because religion is always human and humanity is "tainted." (His word!) And it's true that inasmuch as God has chosen human channels for His Gospel, those of us born after the death of the Apostles may never have 100% watertight evidence. (Heck, there could have been skeptics who met the Apostles!) But I argue that it is a built-in feature of the system rather than a bug.

That is, when it comes to the "elusiveness" of God, we diverge: I take it as one more mystery that reflects His wisdom, whether or not I will ever understand it; and you see it as such a terrible flaw in the plan (a plan that, among other things, will not prevent all instances of child rape but will send remorseless child rapists to hell) that you can't believe supposedly divine wisdom and unfathomable love could be allowing so much evil and suffering. Now I'm curious about why you don't seem to think there is another way--or whether you changed your mind about that.

I refer to previous discussions of suffering, in which you used the metaphor of God holding all our tears in His hand and said that you don't mind injustices on earth too much (my paraphrase!) because God could always make it up to the wronged parties later. Since then, you may have noticed that for God to make it up to them, there would have to be room for retributive justice--the idea that certain sins merit certain punishments. Which I recall is something else you don't like! Correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems to me that the main reason you're disturbed by the idea that God acts in some (petty) cases and not in other (serious) ones is that you think everyone gets only one shot: that, to return to the example, there is no way He could justify letting a child be raped because there is no way He could give justice to a raped child.

Enbrethiliel said...


The final thing I want to add before I go to bed (although this comment feels very unpolished) is that I think your judgment of God's actions as immoral is rooted in an error. The Ancient Greeks knew this was hubris, and they had the pettiest, most flawed gods ever! It's not just because none of us ever sees the whole picture, but also because there is a "splitting" here of good and evil, with the good getting assigned exclusively to yourself, even if you are "terribly limited."

You can see that letting a child be raped is reprehensible. And if we're judging fellow human beings, of course you're absolutely right. But now we must step out of the hypothetical world, because in Europe right now we have at least one real child rape case: a refugee assaulted a German girl. I know that you have been very supportive of Western countries taking refugees in. Why is God suddenly more to blame for the rape than people who have enabled the rapist to cross national borders freely? Are the former free agents or not?

In case it's not clear, OF COURSE I don't mean to say that you and similarly-minded people are personally to blame for what happened to the girl or that all the refugees are rapists. I'm not even going to reveal a political stance on this issue that may actually shock you coming from me. =P But I do see the refugee crisis as an example of well-meaning people trying to do the right thing, having it blow up in their faces, and not taking responsibility for it. And I don't think God deserves all the blame merely because He doesn't always save us (or others) from the consequences of our own actions. Even if those consequences were totally unintended.

If the refugees had been stopped by humans at the border of the EU, that little girl would never have been raped by one. Yes, this particular refugee could have been stopped by God at any point, but why pass the buck for this case when saying "God will take care of them even if we never open the borders" was not an acceptable option a few months ago?

PS -- I was tempted to call LTG's friend myself, so it's a good thing you deleted those comments. LOL!

Sheila said...

"You may have noticed that for God to make it up to them, there would have to be room for retributive justice--the idea that certain sins merit certain punishments. Which I recall is something else you don't like! Correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems to me that the main reason you're disturbed by the idea that God acts in some (petty) cases and not in other (serious) ones is that you think everyone gets only one shot: that, to return to the example, there is no way He could justify letting a child be raped because there is no way He could give justice to a raped child. "

Whoa, whoa, whoa! You're totally missing the point here ... that punishing the rapist does NOTHING to heal the child! They still have to suffer, they've still got the trauma, and it's possible they could still be led into a life of sin and despair as a result of the harm done to them. The only way God could make it up to all the victims of the world -- everyone who has undergone suffering, which is everyone -- is to give them all salvation.

With your "immigrant rapist" case, think of this: any human can't possibly know if supporting immigration will cause rape. We also can't know if that rapist, had they remained in Syria or Libya or wherever, would have raped other people. Perhaps more other people, because he wouldn't have been imprisoned after the first time. We are limited in our knowledge, which makes it impossible for us to predict and prevent all possible crimes. Of course our ability is always limited too. But if I were suddenly granted Superman's powers and I *didn't use them to save anyone* despite hearing them crying out to me day after day to help, you'd certainly be asking if I cared about them at all.

Obviously I think we should prevent all evil and suffering that we can. Definitely pointing out that we could be doing more to prevent evil than we are is valid. You yourself could probably save a sex-trafficking victim or pay for malaria prevention measures with just a hundred dollars or so. If you don't have a hundred dollars to spare, I don't blame you. But if you were a billionaire and still did nothing, I think I would blame you! And I certainly would conclude that if you had the ability to prevent all that harm and suffering and didn't do it, you didn't care much about those people.

And that's my point, really .... not that God is "bad," but that there is no logical way we can state that God wants everyone to be saved if he doesn't actually accomplish it. I can explain EITHER hell OR earthly suffering OR a lack of total freedom and knowledge on earth, but the explanations for each of these conflicts with the others, so that we are forced to conclude that God either doesn't care if we're free (or he would make us more free) or doesn't care if we're saved (or he would make sure all of us are). The only justification for this whole mortal existence, which is painful and leaves us too weak and ignorant to do what is right much of the time, is that God puts each individual one of us through it to bring us to heaven at the end. If he doesn't do that, then for that individual, there is no justification for what God puts him through.

An omnipotent, omniscient being would optimize the universe for his ends, and what are God's ends? So far as I can see from the visible universe, his ends have nothing to do with human desires at all. He just likes making complex, pretty things. But perhaps this could be explained by saying his ends are exclusively carried out in the next life .... but you would have to agree that his ends ARE carried out in the next life. The Catholic Church says they are not. So something must be preventing him from doing so, some logical impossibility, but I've pretty much ruled out all the possibilities! Can you think of any I've missed?

Enbrethiliel said...


It's also possible that a traumatised child could transcend that experience and lead a life of forgiveness and peace. Indeed, many have! In the case of the refugee rapist, you yourself suggest that the rape of one child that puts the rapist in jail immediately is the lesser evil than the rape of several children with the rapist going free--so perhaps a God who arranged that actually prevented more suffering than you give him credit for. (I don't think that's His actual design; I'm just going with the same example.) As you say, we don't know everything. I do get why you'd hold even one child against Him, but this really isn't a case of judging a fellow human who is a billionaire or has superpowers. God sees EVERYTHING. He sees something for that child that neither you nor I can.

But now comes the dark possibility that the child will end up rejecting grace because of what happened to him or her. While it's true that we don't have perfect freedom, and that some have markedly less than others, I don't think it's an excuse at all. People who whine about what God has dealt them (NOT saying that that is what you are doing here; not saying it at all) are like those who whine about what their parents have dealt them. Or society. Or genetics. Or whatever. After a point, adults need to take responsibility for their choices and stop blaming others. Only those who are really not capable of reason, like children of a certain age or the mentally ill, can be said not to be fully culpable. Here is where you and I have some overlap: I think that judgment and salvation will be so much easier for them.

Now I think it's worth foregrounding the Christian element again. The Church teaches that God Himself came down to suffer in one of the worst possible ways, precisely so that all other victims could have salvation. I'm not asking you to believe those events actually happened, but to see at least hypothetically that IF they did, we logically have to accept that there is no separation between God and the innocent who suffer AND that if God doesn't heal them in this world, He has set things up so that He can heal them in the next. That is His end, the catch being that He won't force us to accept that salvation.

I haven't missed your argument that everyone would choose salvation if they only had perfect knowledge, ergo it's not fair to damn people who reject salvation out of imperfect knowledge. I think, however, that you give people too little credit. Even very intelligent, very learned people make the wrong choices. I don't mean choices that have bad consequences that they cannot foresee, but choices that are simply, flat-out wrong. (We cannot foresee what accepting refugees will do, but we can say it's wrong to turn our backs while they die by war or starvation. Perhaps this is why the other side are losing: they're focussing more on predicting what refugees will do than on arguing that it's wrong on some principle to bring in so many.) Yes, the intelligent and learned are still limited in knowledge and freedom in some way; but they are hardly on the level of a mentally retarded child who may never grasp why it is wrong to steal. Again, the truly incapable aside, the majority of us have no excuse for not being responsible for our choices.

Finally, are we just hung up on semantics? I'd argue that justice can bring healing. We can't separate the sinner from the victim any more than we can separate the two dishes on the proverbial scales. It doesn't turn everything back to exactly the way it was, but to ask for that is a little unreasonable. Even te Risen Christ will always carry His wounds.

Also, just in case I'm missing your point again . . . Are you saying that because there is any suffering at all, God cannot call Himself good unless He also admits that He owes us? And that the debt He owes us is no less than eternal salvation?

Sheila said...

I'm saying that there is no *reason* for suffering unless it's somehow necessary to bring about Go's ultimate goal. If his ultimate goal is salvation, in order to justify suffering (or perhaps I ought to say, in order for creating a universe with suffering to be a sensible choice) then this world, with suffering in it, must be BETTER at saving everyone than a world without suffering and ignorance would be. And I can't imagine how that would be, given that perfect freedom and knowledge would surely result in most everyone choosing the best possible option.

I disagree with you on so many things that I really don't think we will get anywhere here. I know you want to believe in human responsibility, that everyone who's not actually mentally disabled is perfectly able to make the right choices, but I'm not sure this belief of yours is justified. I mean, if you study people statistically, you learn that some massive percentage of violent criminals have been abused by their parents. Sure, SOME abused children go on to live lives of virtue, but the skewed percentages prove that they are not equally able to do it. I am so tired of all the arguments that since SOME people manage to bootstrap themselves up from dire poverty, ignorance, trauma, etc., that must mean everyone who doesn't manage this could have done it if they'd only tried. Most don't, and maybe we don't know all the factors of why that is, but if 99% of people in a given situation don't rise above it, I'm not going to point to the 1% who do and say "See, all 100% are totally free and responsible for their own failure!"

I guess I have to come back to the question I've asked a few times, which I didn't catch your answer to: can we influence another's salvation, or not? We certainly DO influence one another's behavior, not irresistibly, but certainly in a way that can be measured and observed.

It makes sense to me to say that God allows the child to be raped because he foresees something better for them in the future. He knows that the child will rise above circumstances, become an advocate for other victims, whatever, and also that he will save the child to be with him forever. That is exactly what a good and merciful being would do. But if the child's rape will result in the deformation of his character -- if he will grow up to rape others and eventually be damned -- what exactly is the good end for which God is allowing the rape? Fr. Maciel was almost certainly a victim of sexual abuse. It didn't result in any good for him, and I find it difficult to believe it resulted in any good for anyone. So why would God allow it? Because he intended to eventually bring Maciel to salvation, along with the many people led astray by him? What other reason could he have?

Enbrethiliel said...



Sheila, I left a reply to you about twelve hours ago and am pretty sure it went through. Did it go to your spam folder? If not, I'll just retype it. I spent enough time on it that it's half-memorised anyway!

Sheila said...

Checked both my spam and moderation folders and it's not there! So sorry!

Enbrethiliel said...


No worries! The first draft is never as good as a rewritten version anyway, right? ;-P

I totally missed that question you were asking me, or else I would have answered it sooner. Sorry!

Yes, I do think we can influence the salvation of others, whether we're meriting graces for them or throwing obstacles in their way. But I don't think this takes away anyone's personal accountability in the end. I'll explain why as part of a response to two other things you've said.

First, you wrote: "Perfect freedom and knowledge would surely result in most everyone choosing the best possible option." Now, insofar as perfect freedom and knowledge meant that 1/3 of the angels fell and 2/3 remained in Heaven, and 2/3 can be described as "most everyone" among the angels, I'd agree with you. And what we know of hell from Fatima (presented here only for discussion!) seems to suggest that more than 1/3 of humanity shall end up there. Therefore, a world in which perfect freedom and knowledge would be better than ours. So why did a supposedly all-good God not give us this world? Catholic answer via me: because He gave us membership in the Body of Christ instead, in which the Head, Who has freedom and knowledge beyond that of the angels, saves all the other members through suffering, and these other members can merit other graces for each other also through suffering. People with less freedom, knowledge, and other goods can benefit from those with more of these.

Then there's the idea of bootstrapping, which we actually don't disagree on! (Yay!) I don't think the great majority are as strong as my earlier comment may have suggested. I just meant that the whiners--those with the reasoning ability to see how their past led to their present--have no excuse to keep choosing evil. I wouldn't have the same standard for someone who could not clearly see that abuse from his childhood had warped him in some way. It is precisely this inequality that we both see that makes me such a big believer in actively ordering the world so that the strong can support the weak without it being a heavy burden to the former or an obvious humiliation to the latter. Such an ordered world would be one in which having less knowledge or less freedom wouldn't hurt you, because whether or not you choose the good would not come down to you alone. You could ride on the strengths of others. (It's a little like the way the Internet makes everyone smarter: we can easily look up so much information because others did the hard work of research for us.) This is the world that that the Catholic Church used to be very active in trying to create, because it's the world that would give even the theoretical 1/3 for whom freedom and knowledge are no help a shot at salvation.

(To be continued)

Enbrethiliel said...


As for your final question on Father Maciel, which is also a general question about bad things happening to people that they can't seem to bounce back from . . . I think the only reason God would allow that sort of thing if He also foreknew that the trauma from it would not result in some merit, would be if He foreknew that the trauma would not ultimately make or break that person's ability and freedom to choose the good. And in Father Maciel's particular case, my personal opinion (take it or leave it) is that he was among the very strong 1%--the kind who can and often does carry thousands of other souls on his coattails. Like the third of the angels who fell, he freely and knowledgeably chose evil.

In any case, both justice and mercy demand that Father's influence on those whom he led astray will be taken into consideration when they are judged.

My own version of your question "Why does God allow some people to suffer only to go to hell?" would be "Why does God allow the Church to be hurt and become unable to reach everyone?"

(A more positive example of the 1% would be St. Francis of Assisi. There must have been lots of holy eccentrics in the Middle Ages. But no one else has his spiritual legacy because no one else had his spiritual strength.)

Sheila said...

So what you're saying is, bad example and suffering could affect a person's salvation, except in cases where they end up going to hell, because God would only allow that if he knew they were going to hell anyway? Honestly, it sounds as though what you're really saying is that while we can help, we can't actually cause anyone else to be damned though our bad example. Am I wrong?

I understand what you're saying, in the sense of "suffering is permitted because it allows us to help one another," but why would suffering result in graces anyway? What kind of banking is that? Is that a necessary, logical way the universe must be, or did God on purpose set it up so that he wouldn't help people unless other people had suffered a certain amount for them, just to make sure we are interconnected in the way he wanted us to be?


Belfry Bat said...

Halloo, again!

Firstly: Suffering, in the sense of spiritual anguish, was not part of the Original Plan, and had no place in it. I think this is very clear, both in the text of Genesis, and from the identity of Goodness and Creator --- and about that identity, if we cannot agree on it from the outset, I don't know what else we can do. But in any case, spiritual anguish, whatever its occasion, was not part of the Plan; rather, it is the result of some free creature having chosen for itself what is not good. The only systematic exclusion of suffering is the exclusion of freedom.

Physical suffering (let's call it "pain" for simplicity) is a more complicated story; on the one hand, we know that "ouch! hot!" is a useful thing, and on the other hand we also know that nerves can get confused, so that sometimes a safe body can be in pain and sometimes an unsafe one can be numb; and I really don't know why this is, but in any case pain and spiritual anguish are independent things, and as far as a discussion of salvation is concerned, spiritual anguish is the more important issue.

Anyways, Corollary: if suffering and pain are salvific, this is something God has added to the Universe logically-subsequent to one of its free members having invented suffering.

Sheila said...

Bat, I'm not sure you're quite catching my argument. First, God is responsible for his contingent will as well as the things he directly wills, especially considering he knew what everyone would choose. For instance, as a teacher, I might have started the year saying "It is my will that everyone should behave well, learn the material, and get an A," but of course I knew at the outset that this would not happen. And if five disruptive kids ruined it for everyone so that the whole class didn't learn and got failing grades, that would have been my responsibility too, because I could foresee that it would happen and didn't make a plan for this. Whereas if I knew that some would be disruptive, I could remove them from the classroom so everyone else could learn -- if my goal was either learning or passing grades. If I didn't do that, foreseeing what would happen, clearly those stated goals above are not what I really want.

In the same way, God chose this potential universe out of all possibilities, KNOWING that sin was going to be a part of it, so we have to say that this universe is what he actually wants, above any other logically-possible universe. God did not desire to create a good universe and have it accidentally go bad on him. He desired to create an originally-good universe that would go bad -- its going bad was foreseen by him, but that universe was selected all the same. God might have created a meaning to suffering "logically subsequent" to the invention of sin, but God chose a universe with sin and pain in it. Enbrethiliel suggests he did this so we could get grace from suffering, but you're telling me he only attached grace to the suffering because the suffering was already there, so we're back to square one: why did he pick a universe with suffering in it? And as I said in my post, even if our existing universe, not all of the suffering that happens is logically necessary. Much is completely preventable.

And the second thing you're not addressing is my question of what God wants. We've pretty well ruled out the avoidance of either physical or spiritual pain -- those might not be God's favorite things, but he tolerates them for the sake of some greater good. But what greater good is it? If it's freedom, as you seem to be suggesting, why are we not more free? What is the higher goal for which God tolerates a lack of freedom?

Belfry Bat said...

You seem to be supposing that God's knowing a thing is independent of the thing's happening; this is implicit in your assumption that God knows everything that happens in Creation without Creating it, whereon your assertion must rest that God is "completely" responsible for His permitting will. I answer that what God's permitting will pertains to does not exist outside Creation, and that "knowledge of Creation" does not make sense logically-prior to the thing being created. Or, what is there to know about what isn't? Yes, God knows my will and my future; it is nonetheless my will that is known, and my free choice that makes it known to God. They don't happen because God knows them or chose them for me: I make my choices, and in my choosing God knows my choices.

Now, what God wants: well, I think (and I'm told) he wants you (and me) to be happy; which means he wants us to recognize, and delight in, and work for Goodness (in the old formulas, to Know Him, Love Him, and Serve Him).

Enbrethiliel said...


So what you're saying is, bad example and suffering could affect a person's salvation, except in cases where they end up going to hell, because God would only allow that if he knew they were going to hell anyway?

If He knew they were going to be free anyway. I'm actually applying the same standard all around. We know that some people rise above their traumas and freely choose good. What I'm adding is that other people rise above their traumas and freely choose evil. There are also people who choose evil although their own share of suffering isn't bad enough to give them a sympathetic excuse.

Having said that, I do admit that bad example and suffering can have eternal effects. For instance, once a soul is in Heaven, he may see that he is in a lower place than he might have been because he was led astray on earth. And perhaps those who have suffered have a lesser punishment in hell than those who have not. But I think that justice demands that everyone make the crucial Yes/No decision himself. And if God Himself does not interfere with our free will in this, He wouldn't let anything in our lives interfere either.

I see what you mean about grace and suffering being a really odd couple--so odd that they probably weren't tied together at the beginning. (Grace and music, on the other hand, I can see. We could have sung all day long and merited grace for ourselves and others with pleasure! What do you think of this as the original plan, Bat?!) Ours became a universe of suffering only as a result of the Fall--and I think it's simply fitting that the punishment from the Fall has been turned into the means of our salvation. Basically, we're going to suffer anyway while we're on earth; but if we unite our suffering with Christ's, we can save souls with Him. To address another concern of yours directly, this isn't to say that "suffering results in graces anyway"--but that things are now set up so that rightly ordered suffering can.

Sheila said...

Bat, you're losing me a bit. Obviously God doesn't choose your choices for you; but in creating a universe where those are your choices, he chooses the universe we have, with your choices included. That is, he knew, before creating the universe, what would happen if he did; and he also knew all possible other universes which he did not create, and what would happen in those. So you can't say, "God created the universe not intending that Adam should eat the apple, what he wanted was the perfected world in which he did not eat it," even though of course God didn't directly will Adam eating the apple. God, knowing that if he put Adam in the garden with the tree and allowed the serpent in (WHY?) Adam would eat the apple, and so when he chose that possibility, he was choosing everything we now know -- a world with suffering and death. Like in my teacher metaphor, my knowledge that some of the class will act up doesn't make anyone act up, but if I fail to account for it, I'm a bad teacher. I am not sure whether or not this is what you are saying, or how what you said is different from what I said. You seem to be talking about God's knowledge being logically prior or subsequent to other things, but temporally speaking, of course, his knowledge is prior to everything. So regardless how God thought of it, all at once or going step by step logically, he had all the thinking done before he created a single atom, so in creating that atom, it was with full knowledge and intending the eventual end he would wind up with. Otherwise he would just start over and create something else!

If he wants us to know, love, and serve him, why is goodness so hard to recognize? Why are we not given total knowledge of God? And why is serving him hard either? God wants us to eat, we all get hungry. God wants us to have babies, virtually all of us want sex. But if he wants us to desire him, why do we not all have strong desires for him? Why don't atheists have God Anonymous meetings where they brag about how long it's been since they went to church? Why is atheism not an uphill struggle against certain knowledge of God and overpowering desire for him? In this hypothetical world where God wanted us to know, love, and serve him, we would all know what God was like. There would be one religion where all the people who cared to find out would be, not thousands of religions and denominations. And you wouldn't have even Catholics disagreeing on what God is like. Certainly you wouldn't have the majority of people on earth wandering in the dark, not knowing what the truth is, much less how to follow it. Can you see how this world is better organized for knowing, loving, and serving God than my hypothetical one? I can't.

If God picked this universe out of all possibilities to create, it must be better than all other logical possibilities for achieving his ends. Otherwise, why would he choose it?

Sheila said...

E, so what you're saying is, people can affect one another's salvation, but not to the point of actually changing whether or not they are saved. It could affect how easily they are saved, or how high a level in heaven they reach (if heaven has levels; I have always felt puzzled about this) but not whether or not they are saved, because that has to be exclusively the person's decision. Fair enough.

But that puts me back into this tangle: if salvation is not decided by others' influence, but others' influence can at times determine our actions, salvation is not decided by our actions. And if God can save us despite our entire earthly experience, why does he need for us to have an earthly life at all? That brings us back to the unborn-baby problem. A baby who dies before birth gets no suffering, yet God is still able to save that baby (I think). So why do the rest of us have to go through a vale of tears?

And if suffering isn't logically connected to salvation, for what purpose does God allow it?

Sorry I am laying into you and Bat so hard -- I am not seeing an answer in anything you're saying, and LTG's friend never wrote me back either. (LTG, are you SURE he was okay with me writing him?)

Belfry Bat said...

First off, don't worry, I'm feeling no scratches!

Secondly... Let me try an analogy. You're teaching your class, but probably your students have certain subjects with specialist teachers. Whatever subject it is, you want them to learn the material, do the work, and get an A. Does God know what grades you give your students in classes you don't teach them?

I really want to understand how you imagine God working; what you describe sounds a lot like a writer re-hashing a story, or a producer sifting through billions of finished scripts and story ideas before settling on one to turn into a film. But I don't know if that's anything like what you actually have in mind; in any case, I don't think God creating is anything like that, really, and likely as not you don't either, but... can we find a closer illustration?

Enbrethiliel said...


Please don't worry about it! I don't feel that you're laying into me hard at all. If it takes me a while to reply, that's only because I'm really busy or tired from work.

Are you saying that because suffering and salvation aren't tied together in the original order of creation, but "only" by God's design later on, then God should have found another way to save us? If so, then why do you think this isn't already the best way? I don't know about anyone else, but I can't think of a plan more loving than one which involves a God willingly suffering until death for us. Then there's another consideration, which I have placed at the end of the next paragraph . . .

Your question on the value of earthly experience reminds me of a talk on the Limbo of the Infants that I listened to recently. Among the issues the speaker tackled was the possibility that God gives all unbaptised babies a chance at salvation by asking them that Yes/No question right before they die. It's a nice idea, he said, only if we assume that all the babies would naturally choose Heaven. But since all of them still have original sin, some of them might actually choose Hell. Perhaps more than 1/3 would choose it. Much wiser to reserve for all of them a place of perfect natural happiness. They will never have the Beatific Vision, but neither will they ever suffer again. (And why do we think anyone is entitled to the Beatific Vision?) If there is a possibility that more of us would go to Hell if we didn't go through life, then a God Who wanted us all to be saved would let us go through life. Likewise, if there were a possibility that more of us would go to Hell if salvation weren't tied to suffering, then a God Who wanted us all to be saved would tie salvation to suffering.

Sheila said...

Bat, metaphors aside, God really has to know what will happen in the universe he creates. That's kind of included in the meaning of omniscient. Certainly whenever I make plans, whether to write a book or to go out to the store, I predict what will happen and revise my plan if I realize a problem with what I planned. I don't do a great job at this because I'm not omniscient, but God is. How can you get around that?

E, I guess my first question is, how would you know that? If a person was given the knowledge to make the choice and possessed free will, it seems to me they would choose the good, and certainly they would choose it at least as often as those of us who don't have full knowledge. Second, if gambling on the Beatific Vision is too risky for unborn babies so they should all go to Limbo, isn't it equally risky for the rest of us, so God should send us to Limbo too? (I think I would prefer Limbo if it meant no danger of hell for anyone.) Third, of course, you admit our freedom is lessened by Original Sin, and God did not have to make Original Sin transmissible .... Original Sin's existence in each of our souls is also God's responsibility. Why would he do that considering it reduces our freedom? And fourth, why would you think tying salvation to suffering would allow more people to be saved? I've explained at length the ways in which our human condition, from abuse to bad example to brain damage turning people into psychopaths, makes it *harder* for us to do right than a different situation might.

Enbrethiliel said...


Well, obviously, I don't know it. =) But my approach is to look at the universe we were given and to trust that God's wisdom and mercy created the best possible place for us and is redeeming us in the best possible way. So when I come across something that seems like a contradiction, I don't take it as evidence that something is off but as an invitation to meditate on a God Whose ways are really not our ways. Insofar as this goes, I admit that it is only my opinion that if we were in a different universe fewer would be saved. I think it fits well into Church teaching, but I do often wish a bishop were reading over my shoulder to let me know what he wouldn't give his Imprimatur to.

Yet I wouldn't hold an opinion on God if I didn't think it stood up to reason. For instance, we know that 1/3 of the angels fell, and they were without concupiscence. So it's reasonable to admit there is at least a risk that concupiscence would cause an even bigger fraction to fall, knowledge or no knowledge. From there, I peacefully opine that our merciful God has chosen to reduce that risk to souls.

By the way, do I understand you correctly as saying that people choose evil only because their freedom and knowledge are limited? If so, this is another thing we fundamentally disagree on. Even without the example of the angels, I'd say human history makes it clear that people often choose evil freely and despite knowing better. And I don't mean cases of stealing bread to feed your family or breaking the law because you don't fully understand it. I mean the M@no0sphere. What is breathtaking about those guys is that they really do know better.

so God should send us to Limbo too?

This seems to be the classic question of freedom vs. security. (I don't know if God Himself frames it that way, but it seems to be a universal human model.) It also seems that God would rather give us freedom than security, as the path of greater glory--both for Him and for us. (Yes, I'm getting to your question on freedom and concupiscence.)

Original Sin's existence in each of our souls is also God's responsibility.

This is perfectly logical . . . but then what? Does eternity turn into the endless blaming of God for all the things we don't like in the universe? (Come to think of it, doesn't that sound a little like hell?) Wasn't He punished enough on the Cross?

Christianity aside for a moment, I think this line of reasoning ("But HE made me do it!") is not the best road to go down. Not because it fails to stand up to logic, but because it demonstrably leads to evil. When people make excuses for their actions and refuse to be accountable, blame gets projected onto others. And sometimes those others are innocent.

If you don't mind me bringing a bit of psychology into this, this sort of thinking is "narcisstic splitting." (And I'm not just riffing off TLP!) This thinking divides the world into good and evil--which means that there's always someone who has to be evil. And of course, evil has to be eliminated, for the sake of the "good" ones. Perhaps the most famous example of narcissistic splitting in recent memory is George W. Bush's ultimatum: "You're either with us or against us." (I prefer, however, the more revealing "They hate us for our freedom"--i.e., they hate us for being "good.") The war became a way to absolve America of evil by projecting all the evil onto others and proceeding to eliminate them.

(To be continued)

Enbrethiliel said...


To be clear, I'm NOT saying you're a narcissist! This behaviour is something everyone has done at least once in his life, and that groups have done repeatedly throughout history. There are just some who don't grow out of it. (Maybe it's part of concupiscence? =P) Nor do I think that you're raising the issue merely to absolve yourself. It's clear that your concern is for souls who go to hell. You don't want them to go there (and neither do I!), but if the only way you've found to save them is to project all their sin upon God, then your next step will be some form of deicide. Maybe that's what you're doing now.

(Now I wish there were a bishop and a psychologist reading over my shoulder! But I do think I've given a decent textbook explanation, although I don't grasp all the nuances.)

I've explained at length the ways in which our human condition, from abuse to bad example to brain damage turning people into psychopaths, makes it *harder* for us to do right than a different situation might.

Which reminds me that something I explained at length in my lost comment was how the Catholic Church used to be active in creating a world that overcomes that human condition. And one reason I was a little relieved my comment didn't go through was that it had a defense of the burning of "dangerous" books! LOL! But specifically astrology books, so I guess that's okay? ;-P Seriously, recalling your post on all the things that contributed to your loss of faith: IF the Catholic Church's teachings were true, isn't there a sense in which it would have been better for you never have to gone to college and to live in a world where "dangerous" books would have been extremely hard for you to get your hands on?

Now, I'm not a fan of such a world myself. I liked my uni experience almost as much as I like the Internet, thanks. But the point I hope I'm getting across is that although human nature limits us, our own human nature is not all we have. This is true even when it comes to basic human needs. But if someone insisted on being ruggedly individualistic, to the point that he wouldn't eat anything he didn't grow or hunt himself, he really might die. Or be very malnourished. Granted, there are a few people who could do this and stay very healthy indeed. For the rest of us, including psychopaths, there is ordered society. If it's good enough for our food, it's good enough for our faith.

Sheila said...

Okay, now I'm a little offended. (And I'm only saying so because I said I'd be TRUTHful.) It's like you're missing my entire argument and creating one that makes more sense to you. I'm not mad at God for being to blame for so much of the evil in the universe. (I was months ago, but I got over it.) Instead I'm saying: the existence of concupiscence in our souls is something that God chose to allow. That must be because the existence of concupiscence is something that serves God's ultimate ends. Can we, then, reason about what God's ultimate ends might be, given that he has made a universe in which it is difficult to attain salvation? "That all be saved" *cannot* be God's ultimate end, because if it were he would act differently.

God may be a perfectly good being who just doesn't care all that much if people are saved. (Because, hey, who are we to say what is or isn't good for an infinite being to want?) Or he would like a certain number of souls with him in eternity, but he doesn't mind if everyone else suffers eternally. Or maybe he created only this life and no afterlife. But it is simply nonsensical to say that God desires all to be saved when he obviously isn't even TRYING!

I have lived most of my life without worrying too much about either physical or spiritual danger. Any physical harm that could come to me was no big deal, because it wouldn't happen except for my benefit, and spiritual danger I didn't need to worry about because if God really wanted to save me, he was going to make it possible. I felt that if I wanted to be saved, and if God wanted me to be saved, then obviously I would be, because between my will and God's will, all necessary conditions for my salvation were already met.

The reality, of course, is that the created universe is not like that at all. We all know that physical harm isn't always for people's benefit, and that being saved is apparently really hard. Why would it be that way? It's like I thought I lived in a well-supervised playground and it turned out it was actually a scrapyard full of rusty nails. And you can waste some time being upset about that (which admittedly I did for a little bit) or you can acknowledge that a God who would put his kids in a scrapyard is not the same guy as a God who would put his kids in a playground. And he is not so concerned about none of his kids getting hurt as I had thought.

I understand that, having total faith in the existence of God and the doctrines of the Church, you have no choice BUT to say "well, there must be some explanation." But for a person lacking positive evidence for the faith, this sort of thing stands as negative evidence. Not only do I have no reason to believe, I have reason to disbelieve. And I didn't get it out of dangerous books, either -- this reasoning is my own, though I made some effort to contradict it with "good books." In your perfect Catholic world (which God allowed to be destroyed -- WHY?) I would probably still disbelieve. I just wouldn't have a blog, which I guess would be almost as good from your perspective.

Sheila said...

As for truly evil people -- I don't know. It is hard to even imagine how a person could be in a state of total freedom and not choose the good, because the good is what we are designed to choose. If a person is just so messed up by nature that they don't choose the good, were they created flawed? Considering that all our choices are between various desires we have, why did God create human nature with a desire to hurt others, with selfishness, with greed? Not that the person is not responsible (I mean, if they're evil, they're evil) but that God desired for people to be in this state because he created them that way. For instance, being a psychopath may be genetic. What exactly could be God's goal in creating people that way? Or if they were created perfect and somehow chose evil (why? for what motivation?), God still knew that they would do that and created them anyway. He lets half of conceived babies die before birth, but he sustains life in these evil people until they've worked out their evil will. (Because, remember, nothing can exist without God sustaining it in being.) Without lessening the responsibility of humans, you have to admit that God shares the final responsibility for everything, because he had the power to prevent anything and chose to allow these things instead.

Belfry Bat said...

Well, we need something to fill in the gap that you don't want to metaphorize: "God really has to know what will happen in the universe he creates" you say. I think this has the tenses mixed up: I'd say rather, God knows what does happen in the universe he is creating.

And now I see there's a ... dozen? ... new comments before I get around to posting this.

Sheila said...

Well, tense is a bit irrelevant to a God outside of time. But I think we have to acknowledge that being omniscient means that you know, not just the present situation, but the potential effects of your actions, before you act. I mean, humans do the same, if imperfectly. If your idea of God's omniscience involves acting blindly, not sure whether or not Adam will eat that apple or Mary will say yes, but just sort of hoping for the best, I don't know if that's worthy of the name "omniscience."

Enbrethiliel said...


That point about narcissistic splitting probably first occured to me several months ago, when it might have actually been relevant. (I know that I've written it out in comments to you before, only to take it out again.) In any case, I'm sorry for giving offense when there wasn't even a cause for it any longer.

I think you hit the nail on the head in the first paragraph, when you describe the difference between our two perspectives. It really is true that we will see the same things differently, not because of what they are in and of themselves, but because of where we stand. And it's not merely because I have faith in the Resurrection, but because I have reasoning of my own, born from experience, just like you. Take your scrapyard/playground illustration. If you know me as well as you claim (which is in some doubt, now that you've insinuated I think awful things about your blog), then you must already know that I'm going to type that we were already in a playground; it was the Fall that turned it into a scrapyard. To which you'll likely ask what a freaking SERPENT was doing in a playground. But I wonder if my answer to that will actually surprise you . . .

Note that the serpent had been around for some time without causing any damage at all. Barring other changes in Eden, that situation might have continued forever. No Fall. Just happy times. It wasn't until someone actually took the serpent seriously that it was able to cause that much havoc . . . and it wasn't Adam who did it. Another of my personal opinions (which I haven't checked out with anyone yet, but also have no reason to think clashes with Catholic teaching) is that Eve's eating of the fruit alone wouldn't have been enough to cause the Fall. Both of them needed to eat it. But Adam wasn't persuaded by the serpent (who would have already had some time with him), but by Eve. If we want to be painfully logical about it, the playground became a scrapyard not because a serpent was allowed in, but because a woman was created. We could replace the word "concupiscence" with "woman" in all of your arguments and be similarly upset with God about the design of the universe.

I admit that it isn't your argument itself, but its clear parallels to obviously damaging ones such as the above that makes me think it's a Trojan Horse. And I don't think those others are damaging merely because the Church told me so, but because I've studied history. (Replace "women" with "Jews." Or with "blacks." Or with "Armenians." Or with "Christians." It's the same blame game over and over again.) But as you've noticed, what I can't do is meet your argument head-on, and if that's what you want, I hope LTG's friend answers soon.

I think the destruction of the Catholic world was a punishment for sin. (The reason God's punishments are so terrible is that they affect the innocent as well as the guilty.) I'd explain more why this doesn't shake my belief in an all-just, all-merciful God, but all I'd be doing is strengthening my own faith and giving you more negative evidence, so is there any point? I don't mean to be copping out on you, but I am genuinely wondering if there is anything in this world that both of us can still truly see in the same way.

Sheila said...

We both ... still like knitting? Right?

I don't think your idea of narcissistic splitting was ever valid. There's a huge difference between "God is the cause of all evil so I want to kill him" and "I feel betrayed and angry at God for not measuring up to my own ideal of him." If there's a psychological explanation of the way I felt, it's probably connected to my tendency to idealize those I love -- which you would THINK wouldn't be a problem with God, but there you are. Anyway, once I realized that it wasn't just bad, but actually illogical for God to act in the way I was postulating, I stopped feeling angry and started feeling sad instead. You see, I don't WANT God to be "dead"!

Have you read Paradise Lost? If not, you'd enjoy it. Milton says what you do, that perhaps Eve is to blame for sin. However, he couldn't convey this without making Eve appear fallen already. After all, why would she choose the apple unless she was in some way imperfect? Why would God put a defective creature in the garden? And no, I don't mean "there should be no women" but "God should have created Eve stronger." I mean, what did Adam have going for him that made him able to resist temptation? Seems simple to give Eve that same quality. That, or an opposite quality that also works (natural humility, perhaps). Either way, it was in God's capacity to arrange things better. Failing that, he could have turned the scrapyard back into a playground, or taken the children out of the scrapyard and put them in a new playground. Any number of things he could have done, and chose not to!

And of course punishment is no explanation at all, from my perspective. If God's punishments affect the innocent and guilty alike, then they're not punishments, but random wrath! There have been times when one of my kids misbehaved and I yelled at both -- but that is both bad and irrational. Bad, because the innocent child doesn't deserve it, and irrational, because it doesn't accomplish any instruction. If you get punished the same whether you're good or bad, you can't learn right and wrong from punishment. If suffering doesn't have any correlation with behavior (as I think you'd admit it doesn't) then it's not punishment.

You are probably right that we're not going to get anywhere. This conversation has jumped the shark. Maybe it's time to post some meal planning posts or something ... because it's not fun to disagree with friends, is it?

Enbrethiliel said...


Knitting for the win!!! (I occasionally crochet these days, too, by the way. Another shared interest, perhaps?)

Narcissistic splitting probably doesn't work in this case and I'm just stretching an otherwise useful model.

May I ask where you stand now on God? Do you still think there is a Good, just not the one the Church believes in and not really one you'd want to throw your lot in--or is the negative evidence against any God really piling up as well?

Sheila said...

I don't like crochet very much. No matter what I do, I always end up making it way too tight!

I think the Church is wrong about God. But I don't know whether/what sort of God there is. What seems most *likely* to me, looking at the universe as a whole, is that there is a God who cares primarily about creating beautiful, complex things, simply because that's what he likes, and does not really care about human ends as such. I don't feel offended by this exactly -- I mean, I don't care about bacteria much -- but at the same time, this isn't someone who would probably be listening to my prayers.

Of course I might be wrong; there's a whole array of possibilities and most of them wouldn't have any evidence one way or the other. It's sort of academic, but I prefer to imagine that there is a God. One that cares about me would be preferable, but I haven't seen my way though to that. After all, if he cared about humanity, he'd have revealed himself in some way, and if Christianity is discredited due to hell and that failed prophecy I wrote about and so forth, then I can't see a major religion that contains a likely revelation of God. It is possible, I suppose, that God meant for us to be blundering around in the dark with thousands of different religions and denominations because somehow this is what each of us needs .... but I can't really feel confident about that possibility.

Belfry Bat said...

I agree that God is eternal, and more than subsumes our chronology; but this is different from saying that the sequencing of things is irrelevant to anything involving God's omnipotence or omniscience (or mercy or justice). Even before we consider God himself, within Pure Reason there is an ordering, hypotheses preceding conclusions.

I'm not about to deny God's omniscience, but I will ask you to be precise about what that omni can encompass. God certainly knows all that is; about things that are not, nothing can be predicated. There is no freckling on the sixth finger of my right hand; neither is it even-toned. What God knows of Creation he knows of it because it is, not because it was-to-have-been, uncreated.

Enbrethiliel said...


Pardon me if I was just too much of a buttinsky, but when LTG didn't answer, I wrote to his friend myself. He says that he sent a reply last 11 January to the same Gmail address of yours that I know.

Sheila said...

Oh, thank you for butting in, actually, Enbrethiliel -- his reply went to spam and I never even thought to look there! I replied to him just now, we'll see how it goes.

Bat, while God does not know what is not, he certainly knows *that* it is not, right? He knows there's no freckle on your finger and no sixth finger anyway. And I think that we have to say that he knows not only what is and what was, but what will be and what might be. Otherwise it's rather ridiculous the way that we talk about omniscience, how people say "God knew if I were rich, it would have been bad for me, and that's why he made me poor." And of course the other argument is physical: if you know everything about a closed system, where each atom is and what its trajectory is, you also know what it looked like an hour ago, what it will look like an hour from now, and what would happen if you poked it.

If God has no idea what the potential effects are of his actions before he decides them, then he's just blundering around in the dark like the rest of us! Which is fine by me, really -- a non-omniscient God wouldn't be responsible for any of the crap that goes down, because he didn't know it was going to, or rather he didn't know whether or not it could have gone differently. I just don't think that's what the Church means by "omniscient."

And if it is, that seems to say something rather weird about God's freedom ... though I'm having trouble describing it. Perhaps consider the question, is there any detail, however small, in the universe which God could have created any differently than he did? And when deciding how to create that small thing, did he know, before deciding, which way he was going to do it? And if he already knew what he was going to decide, did he really decide? For instance, when the Doctor meets his past self and gives him an idea, which he got from his future self back when he was his past self (AAAAAGGGGGHHH!) -- who actually had the idea? Where did it come from?

And yet, if he doesn't know which way he's going to decide, then he doesn't know "the future," he knows *the complete set of possible futures that will result from his creating that small thing in any of the possible ways he could create it.* That, or he has no clue what could happen and he's just going to have to pick at random and hope for the best. Which is a totally trippy view of God and kind of cool but again .... probably not kosher.

Belfry Bat said...

Weird! Yes! It's all very very weird! (And Doctor Who is lots of fun!)

The quantum world is weird, too: the best known model, in its least exuberant expression, refuses to predict specific events, but only statistics, except that it also asserts grand conspiracies (such as local conservation of momentum/energy/angular momentum... these are mostly broken by General Relativity, but it takes a very very big conspiracy to turn that into anything useful). The best way I can think of to phrase it is that the physical universe is not put together in the same order that we see it happening... but anyways, in short: no, while the Universe is ordered, and reliable, it does not seem, today, that God meant Tomorrow to be completely implicit in Yesterday.

Of course that is a different thing from saying either of "God knows not" or "God has not decided", but it does leave plenty of room for genuinely free agents embodied in the World (and otherwise).

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