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Līlā; or, It’s Just a Ride

One of the perennial questions of religion is raised by the existence of evil.  The world, as is apparent to  anyone with eyes to see, is a rough-and-tumble place, a place where huge amounts of extremely nasty things occur.  In and of itself, this obvious fact is, while unpleasant, also unremarkable.  For a non-believer, the evil in the cosmos just is.  There’s  no particular reason for it, any more than there is for any other observed phenomenon.  The universe is a quirk of random chance, and it is as it is, a mixture of good and bad.  Much of the badness, in fact, is a function not of any cosmic principle, but of our perspective as humans.  Disease, suffering, and death are very much meaningful–and unpleasant–to us, since they affect us in ways we don’t at all like.  For the disease-causing pathogens that live on us, though, we’re a veritable smorgasbord, a means by which they prosper, albeit at our expense.  Things like earthquakes, hurricanes, and such are impersonal phenomena that just happen with no motivations at all, either good or bad.  They occur merely because of natural processes, and the fact that we are sometimes in their way is our problem, not theirs. It’s all a matter of perspective.

Even for believers of various stripes, not all religions give any particular answer to the “problem of evil”.  Buddhism famously begins with the assertion that the cosmos is irremediably screwed up, to wit, the First Noble Truth, which declares that “all existence is suffering”.  In short, the world is a cesspit of misery that will never be any better than it is.  We may have better or worse experiences in the course of manifold reincarnations, but in the end, it all boils down to suffering, even if it’s deferred for a bit.  Thus the goal of Buddhism is to leave the wheel of birth and rebirth–samsara–for good by attaining nirvana.  At that point, one is no longer reborn into this universe of misery.  Jainism takes a similar viewpoint, in which the ultimate goal is the cessation of rebirth through moksha (liberation) at which point one’s jīva (soul) leaves the phenomenal cosmos for the Siddhashila, a place of perfection in which the now-purified and omniscient jīva dwells eternally in perfect bliss.  As with Buddhism, the idea is that evil, suffering, and nastiness are baked into the cake of the universe, so that the idea is to escape the universe.

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Arguments Against Universalism: Your Own Damn Fault, Part 2–Better to Reign in Hell


We’ve been looking at arguments against universalism.  Here, here, and here we considered the traditional view that God damns sinners to eternal hell as a form of retributive punishment, and found it lacking.  Last time, we looked at the notion that the damned actually damn themselves.  From an external perspective, which is what we considered, it seems that such a system paints God in every bit as bad a light as does the notion of His vindictively casting sinners into hell.  There is, however, another, more psychological flavor of the “damned are in Hell because they damned themselves” argument.  I’ve touched on it in the past, but I want to look at it in greater detail now.

The argument is in brief that those who are ultimately lost have not transgressed a rule or set of rules that God has implemented and thus failed to make the cut for Heaven.  Rather, they have made themselves, by their own choices, incapable of Heaven.  To use an analogy:  If I loaf around as a couch potato and don’t go to training sessions, I won’t make the track team.  This won’t be a punishment as such–rather, it’s because I won’t have the ability to run!  Moreover, if I hate track, then to me, being a couch potato is even desirable!  Thus, in a sense, the damned not only have cultivated attitudes and habits that make it impossible for them to appreciate Heaven, but they also get what the really want.  Hell, to them, is perhaps not a punishment, but an actual desire.  This model of damnation is strikingly–and chillingly–described in C. S. Lewis’s classic novel The Great Divorce.

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Arguments Against Universalism: Justice Must Be Served, Part 3–An Eye for an Eye?


Last time we discussed whether infinite retribution for even the worst of finite sins is just.  Our answer to that was, “No.”  Here, though, we’ll look at a more fundamental question:  Is retributive justice itself truly just?

In the first post of this discussion, we looked at the various types of punishments for transgression, and what purposes they try to achieve:

  1.  Restitution seeks to redress a loss.  For example, if you steal from me, you must give the money back.
  2.  Prevention or containment seeks to prevent a crime from happening again.  If you’re in jail for bank robbery, you can’t rob another bank (at least until you are released).
  3.  Deterrence seeks to prevent crime in the first place.  If I know I’ll go to jail for bank robbery, I’ll be less inclined to rob banks to begin with.
  4.  Rehabilitation seeks to retrain or reform a criminal so that he or she can become, in the words of the cliche, a “productive member of society” who will not be inclined to be a repeat offender.
  5.  Retribution is the notion that certain responses are inherently appropriate for certain offenses.

All of these models of punishment are more or less intuitively obvious.  Certainly a criminal should make restitution for his or her crime; prevention and deterrence are fairly obvious motivations for punishment; and while rehabilitation had been controversial for various reasons, it still is fairly logical on its face.  Retribution–that a person deserves a certain punishment because of what he or she did–is, however, more mysterious.  It seems to be uncontroversial and intuitively right; and yet it seems to defy easy analysis.

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Arguments Against Universalism: Justice Must Be Served, Part 2–Just Desserts


Not that kind of dessert; but I couldn’t resist the visual pun!  🙂

Back here we began the discussion of the traditional argument in favor of Hell (and thus against universalism) which asserts that God is just in condemning to Hell the souls of those who are not saved (by whatever specific criteria that is determined).  In that context, we looked at the functions of punishment for transgression, and we came up with the following:  restitution, prevention, deterrence, rehabilitation, and retribution.  After discussing these various motivations for punishment, I concluded with this:

Hell certainly won’t rehabilitate the damned, since they are said to be damned eternally, incapable of reform.  It won’t give the saved restitution–if someone murders me, no amount of Hell he experiences will bring me back to life.  Further, whether I go to Heaven or Hell is traditionally said to be dependent on my own spiritual state.  In short, Heaven is not a “restitution” to me for getting murdered.  If I’m in a state of mortal sin, I’d go to spend eternity in Hell with the one who murdered me.  Prevention and deterrence are not operative here, either.  Fear of Hell might keep a living person on the straight and narrow.  However, after the Last Judgement, when everyone is either in Heaven or Hell, neither prevention nor deterrence has any further purpose.  The saved can no longer sin, so there is no necessity to deter them from evil.  Even if the damned were “let loose” from Hell, the saved can no longer be harmed in any way, so there’s nothing the damned can be prevented from doing to the innocent.

Thus, the only logic of Hell can be that it is a just retribution.  If an eternal Hell exists, retribution is its sole logical purpose.  Thus, in looking at this  issue, the question is not “Is eternal damnation just?” as such, but “In what way and to what extent is retribution, or more precisely retributive punishment just?”

Thus in trying to determine if it is just for God to damn certain people for eternity, we actually have two questions.  The first and most obvious is, “Is eternal punishment for one’s sins just?”  This is the question I’ll discuss in this post.  However, the very question brings up another, subtler question, to wit:  “Is retribution a just motivation for punishment at all?”  That question I will deal with in the next post in this series.

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The Lady Gaga Project

Because I live for the applause….  I do like it when I get traffic here and it’s great when my posts make people think, actually, but as to this post, some explanation:

Way back in the early part of my series on the Fall, I put a picture of Lady Gaga at the top of a post on theology and titled it by quoting “Bad Romance”, purely on a whim and the humorous notion that it might drive blog views.  I doubt it did that very much, but I got a kick out of it, and as it turned out I worked more ideas from the song into later posts.  I’m not exactly one of Lady Gaga’s “little monsters”, but I have a moderate fondness for her music (though the latest album is distressingly weak), and somehow I find “Bad Romance” compelling.

Anyway, I just finished my fifth post themed from “Bad Romance” and I decided I’d put them all here (in addition to the series to which they properly belong and under which they’re already listed).  The topics are not directly connected, but they circle around the Fall of Man and universalism, with a bit on dualism and the Bible, too.  Perhaps after reading some, visitors may be interested in looking back at previous posts in the sundry series.  In any case, enjoy!

Synthesis, Part 1:  I Want Your Ugly, I Want Your Disease

Synthesis, Part 3:  I Want Your Horror, I Want Your Design

Dualism:  I Want Your Drama, the Touch of Your Hand

I Want Your Psycho, Your Vertigo Schtick–Lady Gaga, Open Theology, and My 1500th Post!

I Want Your Love and I Want Your Revenge:  Hell

The Mind is Like a Mirror Bright


In which I clarify and expand some notions that I unintentionally left hanging last time.

My thesis there is that sin–or human imperfection, if you prefer more neutral terminology–is much like addiction.  An addict, becoming progressively more deeply addicted, becomes less in possession of true freedom of action.  Unlike a first-time user, who freely uses nicotine or heroin or whatever, the addict uses it from physiological and psychological need.  Even with the realization that what he’s doing is bad for himself and that it may compel him to do other negative things–lying, cheating, stealing, even murder–in order to get the next fix, he is powerless to stop.  His freedom of will is mitigated, overlaid, suppressed, all because of the addiction.  This is why interventions are often necessary to get an addict on the way to healing.  Unable to take the first step himself, he needs a prod from others.  He may even need to be forcibly institutionalized.

By analogy, I said sin is like an addiction.  We suffer from it as a result of genes, upbringing, society, and so on, and are in its grip from the start (what we could call “Original Sin”).  Thus, our freedom is compromised by our sinful tendencies, and we are unable, by ourselves, to take the first steps to overcoming sin.  In traditional theology, prevenient grace is God’s “intervention”–the prod he gives us that makes us able to begin the process of spiritual rehab (I should point out that this works in any religious framework.  God can, and in my view does, give prevenient grace to non-Christians as much as to Christians.  The basic concept here could be re-framed in terms of other religions, too, but in this context I’m using the Christian perspective).  Extending this further, I argued that this is not a breach of our free will.  My contention was that just as an addict’s free will is compromised by his addiction, ours is compromised by sin.  I think a strong Scriptural and theological case can be made for this.

Thus, there is a person’s surface, or “false” will–the will that is wounded and compromised by sin.  Just as the addict “wants” drugs, we think we “want” all kinds of bad things.  Below the false will is the true will–what we’d really want if cleansed of sickness.  Just as an addict, after drying out, realizes he doesn’t really want more drugs, the sinner, after cleansing, realizes he never really wanted to sin.  Of course, this rests on my unexamined assumption–that is, that there actually is a “true” will, and that this true will is on the side of the angels–that it really, beneath it all, wants the good and wants to escape addictions, of drugs or of sin.  But is this assumption true?

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Choices and Consequences

consequencesWe’ve been looking at different issues interrelated with universalism.  In light of some of these, it bears returning to a more fundamental concept:  How do people get to hell (assuming they indeed do so), anyway?  This seems like a stupid question, but bear with me.

Traditionally, the image is that of Jonathan Edwards’s famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God“:  that is, God, in His wrath, casts the damned into Hell.  Of course, the unspoken assumption here is that eternal Hell and unending punishment is just.  Such arguments usually end in the assertion that God is perfectly just and that since His ways are so far above ours as to be inscrutable, Hell and damnation are therefore just, no matter what we think.  Even if it could be argued that it would be unjust for a human to do such a thing (and there are actually people who are working on this), the idea is that God, being above us, is not bound by the same ethic as we are.  It seems to me that this is an invalid argument, and I’ve argued, based on Plato’s Euthyphro, that God must follow the same standards as we do in this case.

At this point, supporters of hell try to get God off the hook by the free-will argument.  They make the claim that God does not condemn anyone to hell.  Rather, He sets certain ground rules as to appropriate actions and the consequences thereof.  If a person lives in such a way that the consequences are eternal Hell, this is not God’s fault.  The person knew the ground rules and he knew the consequences.  Like the person who gets drunk and goes out driving anyway, only to wreck, likewise the damned receives the fruit of his own action.  This is what I’ve previously described as going to Hell in a nice handbasket.

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All Things Dull and Ugly

In which I try to show that God is better than we are.  But of course he is! you say.  Let me explain.

I ran across this on Facebook a couple of days ago, and it is certainly food for thought.  I was moving in a certain direction with my last few posts on universalism, but this and some other things have induced me to deviate a bit on the way to where I’m going with the series, since pertinent issues keep arising.

One issue with hell that’s often brought up is this:  Those in Heaven experience perfect happiness; and yet if some (or many) are in hell, then some of those in Heaven will have friends and loved ones–even spouses, parents, or children–in Hell.  This would obviously seem to make heavenly bliss impossible.  So how can the saved experience Heaven if some whom the love are in Hell?

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More on Universalism–Compulsion vs. Choice


In the last post, we saw how both we and God must be held to the same moral standards.  If it would be wrong for us to condemn someone to an eternal (or near-eternal) hell, then the same is true for God.  Now the typical work-around for this, with those who promote the traditional idea of hell, is that God doesn’t condemn anyone; rather, by their free choices, the damned condemn themselves.  The damned were not sent or compelled–they freely chose to listen to the little guy with horns and a pitchfork on the wrong shoulder!  I’ve discussed this notion more technically here.  What I’m doing in this post is tackling the same notion–that allowing people to damn themselves gets God off the hook–in a less technical and philosophical, and more direct way.  This was originally from  a blog discussion on universalism that I had awhile back.  I had written up my response in a Word Pad document for posting; but I’ve since forgotten the context, so I don’t remember exactly when, where, or with whom I had this discussion (though I know the likely candidates for each). 

In any case, I’ve put my part of the discussion here intact.  I decided not to edit it, and left it as is.  However, to give it context for the discussion we’re making here, and to clarify some points, I’ve added this commentary which I’ve put in dark green (I originally did it in red, but decided that’s too hard on the eyes), leaving the original post in black.

God has the choice to make or not make any of various possible universes inhabited by intelligent creatures.  Free will isn’t really the issue:  since He’s all-knowing, He knows exactly what choices these creatures will freely make.  Thus, He knows, for example, that in Universe X, containing Joe Schmoe, Joe, as a result of his temperament, the choices that are presented to him in Universe X, and so on,  will freely make choices resulting in his eternal damnation.  In fact, God knows this with absolute certaintyI’m aware that this last point could be argued–some would say that by definition God cannot know a freely made choice with 100% certainty.  He might know it with any arbitrary accuracy short of that; but there would always be room for doubt.  For the purpose of the discussion here, though, we’ll let that be for now; I’m looking more in-depth at free will in a separate, though related, series.

Now God makes Joe, his temperament, etc. and also sets the ground rules of Universe X.  Thus it seems reasonable to say that God is in a real sense responsible for Joe ending up in Hell.  To argue, “Well, it was Joe’s choices that damned himself” seems fatuous.  It’s as if I bred a type  of dog that is highly disposed to chase cars and then turned it loose in Times Square, then disavowed responsibility for the inevitable moment when the dog gets run over.  Yes, arguably the dog doesn’t “make a choice”; but given God’s perfect knowledge, it’s a difference of degree, not kind.  After all, God knows with 100% accuracy that Joe, in Universe X, will end up damned, so the for all the difference it makes and all the good it does him, Joe might as well be the dog turned loose in Times Square.

Now one might still say that it’s Joe’s fault because he freely chose; but at this point I think we’re at a metaphysical impasse.  I think some want to use “free will” here as a way to absolve God of blame.  Yes, He made Joe and every aspect of his personality, and put him in Universe X, where he will certainly be damned, as opposed to Universe Y, in which God foresees that Joe would not have chosen so as to be damned; but Joe is still free, so the fact that God essentially set him up is still not His fault.

This is more or less the argument of “free” as “lacking exterior compulsion or duress” vs. “free” as “able to decide otherwise”.  In the first case, God doesn’t “force” Joe to do the things that lead to his damnation, any more than in the dog analogy I “force” the dog to chase the car that runs over it.  This is essentially the viewpoint of soft determinism or compatiblism.  Many forms of Calvinism tend towards this view; that is, no matter what the biological inclinations and desires, family background, etc. that Joe may have, he is still free to choose options in a real sense.  By way of contrast, incompatibilism–which is the perspective both of those who assert the existence of free will and also of those who assert so-called “hard” determinism–argues that pure determinism cannot be reconciled with true human free will.

If this is your perspective, then I guess there’s nothing more to say, since you apparently don’t mean by “fault” or “responsibility” what I do (once more, see the discussion here)I think God is on the hook there, and Joe’s freedom doesn’t absolve Him.


1.  God is supposed to be perfectly loving and to desire the salvation of all.

2.  Since He can foresee all results, even of free choices, with perfect accuracy, He can be said, in effect, to choose how many will be damned, since He knows the exact outcome of every decision of every being in every cosmos He could create.  He knows, e.g., that in Universe C only three percent of the humans will ultimately be damned, but that in Universe D, all of them will be.  By choosing to make Universe D, God would be deliberately choosing the damnation and eternal suffering of everyone in it, even if each person freely chose the actions resulting in this.

3.  From 1, it would seem that God would choose the universe with the fewest damned.  Arguably, He would not choose to make a universe in which any were damned.  Of course that gets into “best possible world” stuff–it’s better to have ten million damned and four million saved than to have a world where none are saved–but this is fatuous, and Voltaire did a better takedown of this line of thinking than I ever could.  There is no way we can make determinations like that (who says the four million saved is worth the ten million damned, anyway?), not least that since damnation and salvation are eternal, it becomes difficult to put valuations on those states.  Anything claiming otherwise is mere assertion.

4.  Thus, assuming the traditional view that most are damned (let’s say 95%, just to put a number on it), it seems odd that God would have made this universe, rather than one in which only 50% were damned, or 25%, or 10%, or 0%.  My opinion is that He did, in fact, make one in which 0% are damned (not to say they don’t undergo lengthy purgation; I’m talking about eternal damnation).  To be explicit, I think He made a world in which 0% are ultimately damned, and that world is this one.  We are, after all, discussing universalism.

5.  Thus, if you assert otherwise, it seems that either you’re saying that somehow 95% damned is congruent with God’s love and mercy–which is fine, but it’s hard to see how that works; or that you’ve got to say that God couldn’t make a universe with better stats.  I don’t see how you prove that; and if God is  all-loving, I don’t see why he’d even make such a crummy cosmos in the first place.

I doubt any of this changes your mind, which is fine; but perhaps it puts things in a clearer light in terms of what I’m arguing.

Next:  A couple more refinements, followed by a look at the motivating factors behind those with the beliefs against which I argued in this post.

Part of the series Universalism (What the Hell?!)

Confucius and Socrates

Confucius and Socrates

I’ve mentioned the term “Rectification of Names” before.  The term in Chinese is  正名, or in Pinyin transcription, Zhèngmíng.  This is a very important concept in Confucius’s philosophy, and in my view it is universally applicable.  The basic idea is that one has to have a clear understanding of the world as it is and to use this understanding to call things what they actually are.  In short, we are enjoined to be honest, and in order to be fully honest we must not only not lie, but we must describe things as they really are.  To this end, we must dispense with cant, jargon, obfuscation, propaganda, and so on.  We should call things what they are because only in so doing can we understand how we should behave in any given situation.  The paragraph below gives a succinct description from the Analects (courtesy of here):

A superior man, in regard to what he does not know, shows a cautious reserve. If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success. When affairs cannot be carried on to success, proprieties and music do not flourish. When proprieties and music do not flourish, punishments will not be properly awarded. When punishments are not properly awarded, the people do not know how to move hand or foot. Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately, and also that what he speaks may be carried out appropriately. What the superior man requires is just that in his words there may be nothing incorrect.

— Confucius, Analects, Book XIII, Chapter 3, verses 4-7, translated by James Legge

Rectification of Names is a Confucian term, but the idea behind it, as I said, is universal.  One of the greatest proponents of this concept, though he didn’t use that term, was the great Greek philosopher Socrates.  The “Gadfly”, as he called himself, was so important in the history of Western philosophy that all Greek philosophers prior to him are lumped together as the “Pre-Socratics”.  Socrates himself never wrote anything–our knowledge of him comes from his portrayals in the dialogues of his greatest disciple, Plato.  In his earlier dialogues, Plato is considered to have portrayed Socrates fairly accurately, though later on he uses him more as a mouthpiece.  In any case, I want to focus here on Socrates’ discussion of what is known as the Euthyphro Dilemma, named after the dialogue in which it is discussed.

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