Thursday, 19 February 2009

Adventures With Jesus #4: Crime And Punishment

I think today I finally reached some form of meaningful conclusion regarding the activities of this week. An argument can only ever end in three ways. One side realises they were in error, both sides agree to disagree and go off and do something else, or the layers of conflict and disagreement are peeled away one by one until the exact point of conflict is identified, classified, and then returned to the box.

Naturally, given that it isn't easy to change my mind and all but impossible to get me to let something out of my teeth, that third option is by far the most satisfactory conclusion to any discussion I have, and today I finally reached it. Obviously, on a simple level it was always going to come down to faith vs no faith, but specifics are important.

As usual, though, I'm getting ahead of myself.

Today's talk essentially attempted to answer the question: why does a just God send people to Hell? The speaker suggested that this is almost impossible to answer without a sufficient understanding of God. I'm not sure that's true (though I can see why a Christian would think such a thing). What we need to make sure we understand is not the nature of God, but the nature of justice.

There are a number of theories on what does or doesn't constitute justice. My personal favourite was always utilitarianism, which punishes criminals from the perspective of maximising the benefit to society. We throw people in jail to prevent society from being harmed, to warn others of the consequences of similar transgressions, and to allow time for prisoners to learn how to be more beneficial members of society. It's probably not all that surprising that this is an attractive theory to a liberal atheist.

None of the above, of course, applies to God's punishment. To throw someone into Hell once they have already died saves no-one, nor does it allow for rehabilitation. Yes, the threat of Hell can be used to cajole people into doing the right thing, but since we have no way of knowing whether sinners do end up in the lake of fire or not, there seems no reason to carry through on the threat.
What banishing those who reject God can be described as is retributive justice, which states that justice is served by ensuring one receives punishment commensurate with the crime (we'll leave aside the fact that Jesus himself spoke out against retributive justice). If God is infinitely powerful and loving, then rejecting him is infinitely odious, and thus infinite punishment is called for. Thus, "infinite justice" actually turns out to be a single question: "have you turned from God?" So long as the answer to that is "No", it seems that there is literally nothing that can't be forgiven.

Lacking the ability to question God in person, I can't be sure that this isn't in fact the case. What's interesting to me, though, is that the justification for this position given in the talk seemed so at odds with that conclusion. The idea that a loving God might punish in the same way as a loving mother might punish her child, for example [1], immediately falls apart because a mother punishes (hopefully) because she wants her child to become better. It's utilitarianism in microcosm. You could throw "Being cruel to be kind" in there too, if you want; the point is that the focus is on the long game (the long game we were told 48 hours ago was so vital). Locking someone away and throwing away the key isn't to anyone's benefit.

Likewise, appealing to our sense of outrage over such atrocities as Rwanda is somewhat self-defeating. I'm sure the victims of such indescribable, incomprehensible horrors were screaming out for God's justice. The problem is that we're being told that justice won't take place until it's entirely too late for it to be of any benefit. More than that, if you're entire family get hacked to pieces and you lose faith, andthe vicious, blood-stained murderer ultimately seeks forgiveness, then you're the one who'll end up in Hell for all eternity.

That isn't justice, by any human understanding. And yes, the whole point is that God's justice and ours isn't going to match up. But that's a hard, uncomfortable position, and you have to own that. You can't try to justify it by listing all the things we wished we could fix. God is going to leave it broken, and from where I'm sitting, is more likely to punish those that were shattered into glass and blood along the way.

So much for the contents of the talk, then. None of that was what I was referring to earlier regarding my minor revelation (revelette?). That came during the brief conversation I got to have with the speaker (who if nothing else demonstrated endless patience with questions that must seem very silly from a Christian perspective) following the second Q&A session. During that session the old question came up regarding what happens to people who live and die without ever meeting a Christian (even now we're coming across new tribes in the Amazon Rainforest, for example). That never struck me as the right question, though. To me the right question is this: exactly how long after the first Christian missionary stumbles into the village of a new tribe does everyone there get earmarked for Hell unless they convert?

The answer we got back to that question when I posed (probably somewhat incoherently) was tremendously obvious, and yet somehow I'd never really considered it. "I don't know, but given that God is fair, whatever happens will be right".

This, in a nutshell, is the exact point of conflict. For a Christian, the most basic tenant is that God must be right. For me, the fundamental truth is that God must make sense. We can't negotiate this stuff, it's axiomatic. Every time we're confronted with baffling and seemingly contradictory truths, I take it as evidence that God can't exist. A Christian takes it as evidence that we don't understand God well enough.

In some ways that's the problem with Main Event Week. It's an attempt to persuade people of a truth that cannot be understood, merely trusted. It's also why my preferred talk so far has been on the subject of the Bible's historical accuracy, and why that lecture was preceded by a warning that it would be unwise to make such academic discussions the focus of the week. You can't understand your way to God.

Of course, the only way I can get to anything is through understanding, and I'm happy with that. Even if somehow Free week had penetrated my barricades and I'd ended up in church on Sunday morning, I'd give it a week at the outside before I was wanting to know the exact age at which a child goes to Hell unless they're a Christian. It's in my DNA to ask questions: I guess that's why I've ended up where I have.

Still, it's nice to spend some time every now and again reminding yourself of who you are, and where you're going. Or, in this case, where you choose to stay.

[1] In fairness, the speaker was happy to admit there were flaws in the analogy, but I'm not sure the analogy itself was the problem so much as a terribly nebulous and changeable concept of what justice entails.

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