Friday, November 14, 2014

Just punishment?

I'm afraid I might be a heretic.

A friend of mine posted this.  One of his points is that hell is an infinite amount of punishment for finite crimes, and it seems to him that a good God would not do that.

I replied that hell isn't punishment, it's the natural consequence of choosing to be without God.  Existence without God, and without any of the things God has made except for yourself, would be miserable ... and that's what I think hell is like. 

In fact (I reasoned) I don't think I believe in "retributive justice" at all.  Retributive justice is the idea that all wrongdoing deserves punishment, apart from natural side-effects (I'm going to call those consequences, for the sake of clarity) or punishments intended to teach (I'll call those discipline).  But punishment just because every evil deed has an equivalent punishment, just like the laws of physics, regardless of whether it does any good?  I don't believe in that.  It makes no sense.

And yet, if you do believe in it, it explains all kinds of things.  If "evil for evil" is an unchanging law of the universe, that even God has to follow, then the redemption is explained easily.  God couldn't forgive our sins with a wave of his hand, somebody had to be punished, and Jesus took care of that.  (This is not by any means the only way to explain the redemption, in case you are made uncomfortable by this description, as I am.)  And it explains the entire sin-cured-through-sacrifice model of the Old Testament -- though, honestly, I think that it's a pretty shallow way to understand that symbol.  Sin is not a thing that can be destroyed by killing goats -- God is rather explicit about that even in the Old Testament.  Couldn't you argue that sin is the destroying of your relationship with God, and you restore it through sacrifice by once again acknowledging God as the ruler of your life?  The sacrifice itself is just a symbol of God's importance to you, that you care enough to give something up for him.

Well, so far as that goes, I'm not a heretic.  I think.

My argument is just this: retributive justice doesn't exist in the real world, and when people attempt to apply it, it does not help.  That it doesn't exist is obvious: some sins aren't punished at all (and the world doesn't implode), and most of the suffering that happens to us isn't a result of sin at all.  And as for when people attempt to apply it .... isn't revenge bad?

When one person sins, that causes a horrible unbalance .... but any attempt to rectify the imbalance by visiting a "punishment" on the sinner just makes things worse. That's why forcing the Germans to pay reparations for WWI helped cause WWII. That's why every bomb exploded by Hamas leads to an attack by Israel, and every attack by the Israelis just ends up bringing on more bombs by Hamas. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth ends, in real life, with everyone being eyeless and toothless. And that's imagining that humans even could work out some kind of calculus for one kind of retribution each crime deserves -- a life for a life, perhaps, but what is the proper punishment for rape? for mass murder? Even assuming we could figure that out, when have we EVER seen that retribution heals sin, even in the slightest? Surely if this were really the way the world works, we'd be able to see some examples in the visible realm?  (Retributive justice is an argument for the death penalty, but I am strongly opposed to the death penalty, so .... no help there.)

Jesus said, "You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on [your] right cheek, turn the other one to him as well" (Mt 5:38-9).  If Jesus recommends this sort of behavior, why the heck wouldn't it be universally good?  Why couldn't God do the same thing -- when we sinned, forgive us?  (And, in fact, from where I stand, that's exactly what he did.)  If retributive justice were an immutable law of the universe, why would he then recommend we not follow it?

And the reality is, in real life, Jesus' recommendation works.  When someone is angry with you and treats you badly, if you retaliate, they escalate.  If you respond with forgiveness and kindness, their anger often dissolves.  When my kids misbehave and I punish them, they get angry and misbehave more.  When I listen with understanding and try to explain how to do better, they so often surprise me by behaving better.  

So much for why I don't believe in retributive justice.  But that's where things get hairy.  If I am firmly convinced that retributive justice is wrong and that a good God wouldn't practice it, and it turns out the Church tells me it's right and a good God has practiced it, well, I'm a heretic. 

Today I got into a facebook debate on this topic (on purpose, I was hoping for a good explanation) and unfortunately I'm being proven wrong.  With respect to my interlocutor (because it really is a very thorough answer), here's what started to get me worried:

"It may seem gratuitous to you that God should add punishment beyond what is entailed in the loss of the beatific vision to the souls in Hell, but that opinion is difficult to reconcile to both the theological tradition and the Magisterium's teaching on Hell and Purgatory though the ages.

It is hard to reconcile the position that the pain of Hell is nothing but the pain of loss. E.g., Innocent III specifically distinguishes the punishments of original and actual sin on this basis, "The punishment of original sin is deprivation of the vision of God, but the punishment of actual sin is the torments of Hell." I don't have time right now to determine what degree of theological certitude that attaches to the thesis that there is a positive punishment beyond the loss of the beatific vision inflicted on the damned, but it is at least deeply engrained in theology, and even magisterial teaching, and it certainly seems to be included in the Scriptural depictions of Hell. Hence it seems at least rash to deny it.

Second, the entire theology of indulgences presupposes that beyond simple preparation of the soul itself for the beatific vision, there is a debt of punishment due to sins (even after they are forgiven). His Holiness cannot snap his fingers and purify a soul of its selfishness or its attachment to sin, but he can snap his fingers and by fiat apply the superabundant merits of Christ, which were left to the Church, to pay the debts of particular individuals for their sins. That's what an indulgence is. That's why a condition of an indulgence is that you already be free of any attachment to sin; The Church can't declare you free from an attachment to sin (only one [thing] purgatory does for the soul) but she can free you from your debt (the other thing that purgatory does for the soul) . If you deny that there is retributive justice, you deny that there is a debt of satisfaction due for sin, and if you deny that, then you take away the justification for indulgences, and so are committed to denying that the Church has the power to grant indulgences."

Ruh-roh.  I don't know if it is dogma that God steps in to add extra punishment onto the torments of hell in the name of "fairness" or justice (I hope not), but the indulgence thing was declared by Trent, complete with anathemas and all.  The Church does teach that it has the right to grant indulgences.  Indulgences make no sense from my point of view of purgatory -- that it's simply a time when you are taught to love God more and freed from all the things that are keeping you from him.  Because God (or anyone) can't just snap their fingers and make that happen; it's a process that you have to go through on your own time.  In fact it seems nonsensical to me that there should even be a purgatory if God has the ability to just whisk us out of it.  Why would a good God do that?

Okay, so the right thing to do is probably just to admit I'm wrong and start believing that the universe is ruled by this unfathomable law of tit for tat, a certain amount of suffering for every sin.  That God himself can't forgive us without visiting the suffering on somebody, like his own son, or ourselves after our death.

The trouble is, I absolutely can't believe that.  I can't believe that God would create me with a strong sense of good and evil, and then do things that put him on the "evil" side of the equation.  I can't believe that punishment (as opposed to consequences or discipline) can ever be a good thing.  I can't believe that forgiveness is the exception and not the rule.

And that spells trouble.

If anyone can figure out how to save (what's left of) my faith in the Church at this point, please, please speak up. 


Ariadne said...

I don't know if anything I say will help, but I feel like I should try.

What I like to keep in mind is that we don't understand God and we can't see the big picture. I think of God as a loving, understanding parent, and we are like toddlers. We try hard to please Him, we try hard to understand Him, but we're like small children drawing stick figures and calling it fine art. I think God laughs at us (in a nice way) because He thinks we're cute. This also makes it easy for me to see why He's so willing to forgive us, no matter what we do. Even when our children drive us crazy, we always love them. Why would God do less?

Hell is difficult to understand. This is why a lot of Christians reject the doctrine. It's hard for me, too, so I don't think I can help you with that very much. I know God loves us, so I know that Hell must be somehow necessary and just. I'll trust Him for that, even though my finite human reason can't grasp the reason for it. Also, God gives us every possible chance to avoid Hell, so if you're there, you must want to be there (in some sense). For what it's worth, I've heard that the pain of separation from God is worse than the physical pain, and I believe that. My personal opinion is that most people don't go to Hell because all they have to do is repent before they die in order to avoid it. I believe Hell is a choice, when you come down to it.

I hope some of this helpful.

Salixbabylonica said...

Preliminary thoughts:

Just because something would be wrong for me to do does not mean that it is wrong for God to do. I am not God. I do not have his wisdom or capabilities. Therefore, there are things, not wrong in themselves, which I cannot be trusted to do, but which God can. We set aside our desire for justice here on earth in the confidence that there will eventually be a court of justice which will give each his due.

Actually, I think that for most people the concept of the "eye for an eye" seems instinctively, obviously right. And I do think there is something in the fabric of humanity that finds that coherent. There is a imbalance that must be righted, beyond what will merely teach. For if the only sense in which God punishes is to teach, then the worst people, those unwilling to learn and become better, should therefore get off scott free. And that is a universe that makes me very angry. If there is no punishment for those who do evil, ever, then there is absolutely no reason not to punish them ourselves.

However, from what we can know of God in Catholic teaching, it seems that in God there is not just some concept of justice - God's laws seem to demand that there be a balance between justice and mercy.

Ariadne said...

I like how my comment focused on mercy while Salixbabylonica's focused on justice! That balances out nicely, since you really do need both in any explanation of Hell. Good points, by the way!

Sheila said...

SB, I am actually quite shocked by your comment. I can't see why it should make anyone angry to know that a bad person didn't get punished, if it wouldn't help anyway.

In fact, I'm beginning to suspect that this is something that goes really deep with people, where our gut decides if we believe in retribution or not. Because everyone I have ever asked about it either says "Absolutely I don't believe in it, that would be horrible" or "Absolutely I believe in it, it would be horrible if God *didn't* act that way."

Now of course all the unrepentant sinners get infinite suffering anyway, because being deprived of God IS infinite suffering, even if it's by your own choice. But I can't see rejoicing in that. It just makes me sad.

I believe the main way God makes things right after we die isn't in punishing the bad people, but in rewarding the good. And for every suffering we've experienced in this life, there will be consolation. I can't see being perfectly happy in heaven, looking down on the souls in torment in Hell, and saying, "No, there ought to be more flames." Won't I be far past being upset about the bad things they did?

Ariadne, I agree with you about hell, except that I don't see any reason for there to be physical pain in hell at all. Though perhaps it makes sense if being far from God also means being in physical pain, since all comforts -- warmth, food, light -- come from Him too.

I did come up with something of a satisfactory answer today, by factoring in the devil. Perhaps the suffering in hell and purgatory is us working off our debts to the devil, because when we have sinned, we in some sense pledged something of ourselves to him. Does that make sense? I am not an expert on the devil ... and I DO NOT WANT TO BE. Ew.

The other thing that was interesting to learn today is that the Church doesn't promise that indulgences get people out of purgatory. They are intended for yourself, during your life, in place of penance the Church formerly would have imposed. But you can ASK God to apply it in some way to the souls of the dead, and we hope that he does. At least that's what a Christendom professor told me this morning, and I'm off to look it up. So perhaps I was right about purgatory, and it is exclusively a place of purification rather than straight-up punishment.

Ariadne said...

I'm not sure I fit into either camp. On the one hand, I understand revenge and retributive justice and the human need for them, but on the other, they make me sad because I have crazy intense empathy, even for most very bad people. So I guess I feel somewhat divided on the issue, which makes me glad I don't have to decide how people are punished for crimes!

Also, I've always thought of Purgatory as a place of purification by means of pain. We need to be cleansed of our sins and faults so we can be united with God, and that's what Purgatory does for us. So I would agree with you on that one.

Enbrethiliel said...


Hmmmmm. I'm probably not the best person to save your trust in the Church, Sheila, because you and I seem to disagree completely on the basic point! I think that there's a sense in which wrongdoing does deserve punishment--and it's the same sense in which doing good deserves a reward. It's not about the punishment (or the reward) doing any more good later on, but about them simply being good, by being just.

And it totally makes sense to me that different kinds of sin would have appropriately different punishments. Not repenting of heresy, for instance, is vastly different from not repenting of sodomy. They are the same only in their ultimate rejection of God. It would be very unjust for them to merit the same degree of punishment, and God is not unjust.

Nor is He unmerciful, of course. But now I may shock you some more by topping Salixbabylonica's comment and saying that it is often mercy that makes me angry. =P I'm as dependent on God's mercy as everyone else, but people getting off scot-free after they've done horrible things can really do a number on my faith. It makes no sense, I know. Don't I believe in a merciful God who paid all our debts at Calvary? But yeah, the story of David and Bathsheba and the parable of the workers in the vineyard aren't easy for me to hear when they come up in the readings.

Finally, this topic reminds me of a book on Angels, which tackled the question of how a Guardian Angel reacts if the soul he was looking after ends up in hell. The explanation given--which I accept--is that it is by the will of God that unrepentant souls go to hell and an Angel's greatest joy is in the will of God, so a Guardian Angel wouldn't really be "bothered" (to borrow the human condition) by such an outcome.

The Sojourner said...

I still need to have my husband read this post because I feel like there's a formal logic error in your interlocutor's argument somewhere (the downsides of not having had a classical education myself!), but I would like to point out a thing or two.

For one, I don't see how indulgences can possibly be a sort of tit for tat retribution for sin. I mean, if I murder someone and then pray a Divine Mercy chaplet on a particular day, I don't see how one act makes up for the other. It's definitely not eye for eye, you know?

I've always seen indulgences as being rather like God is the parent and we are the child, like Ariadne says. If your child makes an enormous mess, you're not going to let him say, "Oh, sorry" and get back to playing. You're going to have him get a rag and start mopping. But at the same time, you don't expect him to clean the whole mess by himself and don't stand over him criticizing him when he misses a spot. You're going to help.

I think it's important for us (not for God, because he is God and could always just clean up the mess himself) to make even a token gesture at "balancing the scale", so to speak. I think it teaches us something, and helps us orient ourselves a little more toward God and a little less toward selfishness and sin.

How that works as far as earning an indulgence which we can apply to someone else, I don't know. I doubt it works like transferring money to somebody's bank account, where they need 5 billion dollars to get out of purgatory and God makes them wait until everybody puts in 25 cents rather than just forgiving the whole sum. I think that in some weird way our little turnings toward selflessness can help other souls also make those incremental turns, until they are oriented entirely toward God and therefore suited to Heaven.

But none of this is research or logic, it's just me. So maybe I'm a heretic too. ;)

Enbrethiliel said...


Hi, Sojourner! A few years ago, I read a great explanation of what indulgences actually do. They don't buy forgiveness of the sin and certainly don't make up for it, but they can pay off its just punishment. The analogy that the authors used was of a man who is in jail for killing someone, repents, and is forgiven for it by the victim's wife: the repentance and forgiveness don't automatically change anything about his sentence. An indulgence would be like the victim's wife writing to a judge or to a parole board (however your penal system works) and obtaining a reduced sentence for the man. This is definitely not "an eye for an eye," and it's something that has room for both justice and mercy.

And well, I think the bank account illustration you give is actually apt! The debt is already a given, and the possibility that we can help to pay each other's debts is allowed by our being members of One Body. If we can offer our sufferings and our Communion for someone else, why not indulgences as well? But since an indulgence rests on the condition that the receiver have turned away from sin and repented of it, we can probably only be sure of being able to obtain indulgences for souls in Purgatory.

Note that this comment is a mix of what I remember from a book with an Imprimatur and Nihil Obstat and what seems to me to follow logically from other Catholic principles.

Sheila said...

Sojourner, that's almost exactly how John explained it to me -- that penance is for instruction, to help us turn away from sin, and to show we are truly sorry, not that it actually pays off the amount of bad we did, like a bank. When God expects us to do something or suffer something in exchange for our sins, it's for our benefit, not as a straight-up exchange. I mean, if it were an even exchange, why would I get different penances for the same sins from different priests? How could any priest know how many Hail Marys are equal to, say, swearing?

However it could be that our own perfecting of ourselves, because we are mystically in union with the souls in purgatory, may be helping them in some way -- not in a "this many days off your sentence" sort of way, but in a real way nonetheless.

Enbrethiliel, in your case I am absolutely unsurprised to find you take this tack ... this is, I think the point on which we've disagreed in the past. If I heard that Hitler had repented, and at the very moment he repented, he was received into heaven with rejoicing, I would be SO GLAD. It wouldn't seem unjust to his victims, it would seem wonderful for his victims, that the killing and hurting had finally stopped and the healing could begin.

And really, there's no way to explain this away. It's not a language problem, or a disagreement in the metaphors we're actually using -- you think it would be unfair if sins weren't punished, and I think a good God would never punish without some benefit (like instruction or purification of the sinner). So I have to either argue that the Catholic Church has left this an open question -- at least, open just enough for me to find room for my point of view, if only barely -- or Catholic teaching comes down on one side or the other. At which point I have to come to terms with it -- either change my mind about something I am SO SURE about, or find some other religion. And both of these, I am very disinclined to do.

Sheila said...

The whole criminal in jail metaphor doesn't work for me. The point of jail is deterrent and rehabilitation. In hell, there is no rehabilitation, and no one is on the spot to see the sufferings of hell and thus be deterred. (Anyway, for those people who are motivated by the thought of hell, hell is bad enough if it's purely the deprivation of God, isn't it?

And if God is the aggrieved party in every sin -- which he is -- then he is the one who ought to be writing to the judge, asking for clemency, or conversely, demanding the maximum sentence. What kind of person would he be, if he demanded the maximum instead of begging for mercy?

Jesus spent a great deal of his time on earth preaching forgiveness, even to the point of allowing oneself to be hurt again by turning the other cheek. And that, too, is what he did by dying for us while we were still sinners. I've spent my whole life trying very hard to rid myself of any desire for vengeance, to forgive, to be the sort of person who would beg for mercy for the worst of criminals. To have this turned around on me and be told, "But God himself doesn't act that way" ..... it's not changing my view of right and wrong, it's changing my view of God. And I don't like that at all.

Belfry Bat said...

We cannot be so free as your friend with words like "infinite" and "finite" and remain sane. To say that ultimately refusing the love of the infinite God Who Is Perfect Love as a transgression is simply finite is careless, and to describe the suffering of a finite soul as simply infinite just because it is aeviternal is also careless. A finite creature cannot contain infinite suffering; and the Church Fathers, in outlining the doctrine of Original Sin, assert that Adam's fault was indeed of an infinite character, and our finite ability (indeed nil, separated from God) were the cause of the necessity of Salvation.

There's a fascinating passage in Paradise Lost, where the unhappy Satan asserts that, dreary as his Hell is, Heaven would be much worse for him, because he still couldn't enjoy it. It reminded me of an idea I'd been trying some time before, that God brings each of us to the best place we can be in, without ever undoing our being. Of course it's awful to think that Hell could be the best for any soul, but it seems we are told it's possible.

Rebekah said...

Hi Sheila. This is the first time I’ve commented on your blog, although I’ve been reading it for a while after enjoying your comments on Seraphic Singles. I hope it’s not odd if I de-lurk to comment on this.

It looks like everyone has their own way of making peace with this issue, so I thought I’d share mine, in case it helps. For me, the key is that in scripture there seems to be a difference between sin and the sinner. Sin is hideous and deserves to be destroyed, “punished” if you will; people, on the other hand, are precious and God loves us. God wouldn’t be just if he simply overlooked all the blood-soaked crimes of humanity; but he wouldn’t be the loving God he is if he didn’t want to save us.

My sense of justice cries out for the judgement and punishment of sin (not the sinner), and I think there is some kind of moral law or cosmic balance involved, that sin has some kind of cosmic weight and can’t just be overlooked. I think the final reckoning of judgement day, as described in scripture, means that all sin will be judged for what it is, and thrown into the lake of fire, and that that is a good thing.

But sin is not the same as the sinner, and through Christ we can be separated from our sins and be with God. It says in the Old Testament that God doesn’t rejoice in the death of any sinner, and I don’t think he has to “punish” us as individuals in order to prove he’s holy. Therefore, my (very!) layperson’s way of understanding “punishment” of unrepentant sinners in the afterlife is this: if we don’t repent but insist on clinging to our sins as those sins are justly thrown into hell, we’ll be thrown in with them. (Possibly thanks to CS Lewis’ “The Great Divorce,” I even get a weird mental image of people shouting ‘Nooooo!’ as they dive in after their beloved sin). It’s difficult to believe anyone would cling to sin if it meant their own destruction, but we see it happen in this life, so it’s not such a leap for me to imagine it happening in the next one. Perhaps this can be applied to the idea of purgatory too, but I’m not sure because I’m not Catholic, and it’s not something I understand.

In short: aside from consequences and discipline, I don’t think that God has to punish every individual for their sins; however, I do believe justice demands that every sin needs to be judged for what it is and wiped out when the world is put right. To take the Hitler example, like you I’d rejoice that he was saved if he repented at the last minute. I’d also rejoice to know that in saving him God put Hitler’s sins “as far as the east is from the west” away from him and poured out his wrath on the hideous things Hitler had done, destroying them forever.

Not sure if I’m right about all of this, but it’s helped me lay to rest some whispering doubts that kept cropping up.

Rebekah said...

PS This probably goes without saying, but I do hope at some point you're also able to discuss your questions with a priest or well-trained lay theologian you trust!

Enbrethiliel said...


Oh, HOW did I not get Comment #13? ;-)

For the record, if I received word from Heaven that Hitler had repented before his death and had made it there (or would make it there after some more "time" in Purgatory--which doesn't really matter because God and Heaven are outside time, but I thought I'd throw that in for fun =P), I would also be SO GLAD. Probably gladder than you: I have a shockingly soft spot for the Nazis that I probably shouldn't elucidate further. ;-P

When I think about certain sins justly deserving certain punishments, I'm not thinking of sinners at all. To me, God isn't allowing someone to suffer for no reason, but allowing something to be corrected for the sake of justice. That a someone *is* inescapably tangled up in the redress of that something doesn't bother me too much . . . not because I'm truly cold-blooded (LOL!) . . . but because I feel totally assured that an all-loving God knows what He is doing, even if I can't wrap my head around it. I believe that He punishes every sin and loves every sinner, with no contradiction.

And I kind of like Rebekah's way of imagining what happens: if you cling to your sins instead of repenting, then you're going to have to experience the punishments that those sins deserve. And maybe there have been some people who would rather experience the punishments of the worst mortal sins than have a place in a Heaven. =( I can imagine it, though the thought gives me no satisfaction or consolation.

I hope I don't scandalise you further, but the one historical figure whom I truly fear for is the Marquis de Sade. From the little by and of him that I've read--and you can be sure that I DON'T want to read further--I just can't see him wanting to give up his sick pleasures for the sake of Heaven. Of course I'd be happy if he did, but he's currently on the big warning sign in my head. (The abstract thought of hell doesn't bother me as much as the possibility that a very specific someone is in there, for reasons I can understand. There's my deterrent. =S) Even scarier to me is a Horror franchise that I have decided never to read or to watch: it has to do with a vision of hell as a BDSM club, with all the souls there so degraded that they are unable to tell the difference between extreme suffering and extreme pleasure. Now, I don't want to think that God's mercy would allow a person to be so corrupted by sin on earth that that person would vastly prefer to be in hell after death. But if I had to imagine such a scenario, well, those Horror writers and filmmakers got there ahead of me with the visuals. So I shun the books and the movies out of worry that they will also corrupt me (A few years ago, a priest friend once warned me that I was getting a little *too* fascinated by Judas), which means that they are ironically a great example of Horror ordered to the good: they're depicting hell as the awful place that it is so that I don't want to end up there.

Enbrethiliel said...


The criminal-in-jail metaphor is meant for Purgatory--definitely not for hell. Once you're in hell, you're in hell . . . though there we also have those legends about St. Brendan learning of Judas's regular reprieve and St. Gregory the Great getting to baptise a miraculously resurrected Emperor Trajan . . . not to mention Dante's indulgent loophole that got the pagan Ripheus into Heaven. Pun slightly intended. ;-) (I'm sorry if all those links count as spamming, but I do like the way that Brandon tells those stories. Yes, they're all from the same blog, but I read so few Catholic blogs these days.) Through all the centuries of the Church's existence, there have been Catholics who have struggled with the idea of hell--and at least one of them was a canonised pope!

Your own struggle kind of reminds me of a former friend of mine. After her dog died, she asked me (the "Catholic expert"--sigh) whether she'd see him again in Heaven. I said that I really didn't know, that some sources would say yes, that others have argued no, etc. Then she confessed that she just couldn't believe in a God Who wouldn't let her sweet dog into Heaven. Now, I have NO idea about Heaven and animals, but I do know that if Heaven truly isn't a place for them, her ideas of God will have to change. Maybe not here on earth (where, frankly, I don't think her views pose too much of a problem), but if they are wrong, then they will be corrected in Purgatory.

Sheila said...

See, I don't really mind either hell or purgatory if you take out the idea of retribution. Hell makes perfect sense as the place where you go when being second to God in heaven is unacceptable to you. Paradise Lost is helpful for that, and The Great Divorce too. "Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven" is wrong, but it makes sense from a certain perspective.

I imagine that after we die, God leads us slowly to understand what sin really is, and what goodness really is. Bit by bit (because our intellects are still human, and take time to work with) the comfortable lies we tell ourselves will be stripped away: we'll stop saying "I'm basically a good person" and "I'm just not strong enough to say no to this temptation" and start realizing that every sin IS a rejection of God, that we could have done better and chose not to.

We'll also be taught everything we didn't understand about God, and those who rejected Him out of a misunderstanding of who He is will learn otherwise.

After all that, it will be clear to us .... were we choosing God all along, though perhaps under the guise of our neighbor or some other perceived good, or were we choosing to reject him, even though we thought we were worshipping him? And those of us who, after all that, find they really do choose God, will be free to run to him, and those who reject him will never leave the unpleasant place of not-with-God that they are in. Though I've heard the suggestion that, since God is everywhere, they are not truly not-with-God -- they are forced to deal with the reality that God is present and keeping them in existence, even though they hate him.

But you see this understanding leaves no room for punishment. It also leaves no room for the idea that the good will be *happy* to see the damned in hell. I can't imagine a good person could ever be happy about that. Will we realize it's the best God could do for them? Surely, but I think we will still wish they could let go of their sins and come with us. Like if you're at an amusement park, having a blast on the roller coaster, and your friend who gets sick is watching from the ground. You know they can't come with you, that it's best for them to stay on the ground, but oh how you wish they could.

Enbrethiliel said...


The problem I see with your vision is that it turns every sin into one generic, formless sin of ultimate rejection of God. And it would be extremely unjust of God to blur all the lines between sins that way. Where is the justice in ruling that the sin of drunkenly murdering a spouse's lover after catching them in the act and the sin of soberly participating in mass genocide are equal and deserving of equal punishment? Our own legal systems would make a distinction between them. Are we more just than God?

The exact issue that you have with retributive justice seems to be that it doesn't do any good . . . to the soul. Well, yes, in the sense that he no longer has a shot at Heaven. But that doesn't mean there is no good done at all. It is to the glory of God that the universe is ordered with perfect justice. And it may be that getting less justice would actually torture a soul more!

Socrates has argued--and as far as I can tell, Catholic philosophy totally agrees with him here--that it is better for us to be punished for crimes that we committed than to get away with those crimes, because despite all the suffering involved in the first case, justice is being done. So in a state of full awareness of good and evil and the will of God, it could conceivably hurt a soul more to be denied perfect justice. Giving everyone the exact same generic punishment would turn out to be another agony--and one that nobody deserved. In that sense, retributive justice is also a mercy.

Mary said...

Hi Sheila, I am by no means a theologian, but I read this post and just had to comment at least very briefly. In short, I think it is important to remember that the Church has always taught that mercy is the greatest attribute of God, and that purgatory is a demonstration of his mercy. In fact, the greatest suffering of souls in purgatory is their longing to be with God and the fact that they cannot yet have perfect unity with Him, not that there is some form of retributive torture being doled out. It is the consequence of the ways we have chosen to damage our relationship with God through sin.

So because sin damages and sometimes severs our relationship with God, there are inevitable consequences of that which lead to suffering. But the paradox of God's justice is that it is also his mercy, and he took it upon himself to experience every bit of that suffering that comes from sin, even to the point of feeling utterly separated from the Father ("My God, my God, why have you abandoned me") so that we could offer his perfect sacrifice to repair the otherwise irreparable damage done by our sin. He offered himself up, and gave us himself to offer to God to restore us to union with him. I don't remember who, but there was one saint who said that no matter how great the sinner, he has only to open the door of his heart the smallest bit, and God will do all the rest. Because God has done all the rest. He's taken on the punishment that is the inevitable result of our sins, and said "Here. I want you to be with me so badly that I suffered this for you so that not even your sin could come between us."

Your honesty is a beautiful thing. Don't stop asking questions...but also ask the Holy Spirit for guidance as you look for answers.

Sheila said...

Mary, I agree with your view. My problem is that many people have been arguing that this view isn't Catholic, and that the Church *demands* that we believe a retributive model. I haven't been able to figure out for sure whether or not they are right .... I hope not.

Rebekah, I forgot to say this earlier, but thanks for de-lurking. I never know if people are actually reading what I write unless they comment once in awhile. I'm hoping to find a good priest I can discuss this with .... unfortunately, most of the priests I know locally are not ones whose judgment I really trust. Hopefully I can find someone good to talk to eventually.

Paul Tillotson said...

This is a very interesting topic that forces us to think deeply about right and wrong.


1 - I saw the argument that wrongdoing deserves punishment because "doing good deserves a reward."

This seems to be automatically accepted by everyone, but I question this.

Why does doing good deserve a reward? I like rewards, so I would find this pleasant, but it doesn't follow that good deeds deserve reward just because I would like a reward.

In fact, I believe that good actions and bad actions should be chosen because they are good or avoided because they are bad. To the extent that I believe and expect that God will provide overwhelmingly large rewards or punishments for my actions, this actually hinders my ability to choose the good *because it is good*. It takes my focus off of the action itself and onto the reward God will provide.

I've heard the statement "dance like no one is watching" if you want to be an excellent dancer. I would add "do good like no god is watching" if you want to be an excellent moral human.

This is connected to the Euthyphro dilemma: when we call an action "good" are we saying "This action is what people should do" or are we saying "This action is what God rewards?" Those two statements can both be true, but those two statements do not mean the same thing.

2 - About the eye-for-an-eye being instinctively right:

In the society in which the eye-for-an-eye arose, there were no ocular surgeons who might be able to repair an eye, and even now many kinds of bodily damage that occur cannot be righted. Having this rule in tribal behavior or primitive legal systems serves the obvious purpose of limiting anti-social behavior.

However, what if there was a surgeon who could repair any possible eye damage, or any other bodily damage. In that case, if someone destroyed your eye, would you rather destroy their eye too, or get your own eye repaired?

(Assume that the person will be prevented from damaging any more eyes either way.)

If you say you're ok with your own loss as long as someone else has a corresponding loss, the only way I could describe you is: "You prefer to hurt others more than you prefer to have good yourself."

3 - I also saw the theme that God is bigger than us and so we can't understand his actions relating to who he choses to reward or punish.

If I don't understand good, bad, and justice, then can I even call myself a moral actor?

If I'm not a moral actor, why should God punish or reward me at all?

Analogy: we don't punish insane people for crimes because they cannot understand what they are doing is wrong. Remember that we lock up an insane person to prevent damage to himself or others, but we don't *punish* an insane person.

In the same way, it's illogical to me that God considers me to be responsible for my actions enough to reward and punish me for them, but simultaneously I'm deficient enough in moral understanding that I cannot understand the justice of God's actions that are a response to *my own actions*. If I don't understand it, doesn't that prevent me from being a moral actor?

4 - "It is better for us to be punished for crimes that we committed than to get away with those crimes."

In that case, what does an indulgence do? According to this principle then any attempt to let you remain unpunished for your crimes is yet another injustice, so God could not let you to escape punishment.

Perhaps the idea is to modify the Socrates' principle, adding an proviso that someone else can suffer for you, but I think that considerably changes the principal because you have (for all practical purposes) gotten away with those crimes anyway.

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