Reduction ad absurdum
“You’d almost whish there was a divine judgment, so at least he’d have to recognize it.”
It was the exclamation of a non-believer I know personally about someone who had done her wrong and who had not recognized it. It is certainly a familiar sentiment, a cry for ultimate justice, a final settlement of all scores. This is the thing that theists believe keeps them ‘good’ (even though this doesn’t explain why most atheists are ‘good’ as well) and what gives purpose to their lives: the divine ruling over whether you have done enough good to deserve heaven. (Actually this is the Catholic interpretation. Other Christians believe you only need to believe to be saved. But still they cling to a notion of moral judgment in much of what they say so, yeah…consistency!)
Final judgment, at least in the three main monotheistic religions, is one of God’s primary functions. In fact if you take away creation (which physics takes care of so there!) and you dismiss the final judgment, what if any purpose would God still have? Indeed it would go a long way to disproving God himself. Divine justice, much like rounded-squares, can’t exist if you really reason about it. It just doesn’t work! Not just in a practical sense, seeing that with all the malice around it obviously fails as a deterrent, but also on a theoretical level, when you think it through, it doesn’t make a lot of sense.
Let me explain myself:
Broadly speaking we can divide our actions into four possible categories:
1)Things we do that we consider ‘good’ and are widely considered as such.
2)Things we do that we consider ‘good’ but others may have a problem with.
3)Things we do that we believe to be ‘bad’ but others think ‘justified’.
4)Things we do that we consider ‘bad’ and no one thinks otherwise.
Among these categories are obviously different levels of motive, intend and various dimensions of mitigating factors. But the division is quite solid however simplistic it otherwise may be. Religions by themselves tend to make the story even more simplistic and reduce it to categories 1 and 4, to black and white dimensions, as if everyone agrees about what is wrong and what isn’t. And for some part they are right: they have their books that draw lines in the sand and, if you believe that stuff, which make for some form of a “universally-accepted” morality. Except of course that it doesn’t even come close. To start there is a lot that is not in those books, as they were written once and never updated (update requests are pending I heard). Specifically for the Bible, we are very acutely aware that the book contains many contradiction and even more room for interpretation where it does provide any guidelines. So basically there is still going to be a lot of things we do that belong to categories 2 and 3, for which we are wrongly convinced it is ‘not-bad’ or for which we feel privately guilty despite the world thinking nothing much of it. Either way, since a lot of these things fall into ‘the grey area’ there is not going to be any retribution during our life-time. After all, if it were not for the ‘wrong’ that people saw go unpunished; the concept of “ultimate judgment” might not have been invented to begin with. As it is, I maintain it arose as a coping mechanism, to allow the ‘wronged’ to continue their lives and to allow society to apply a more cost-effective ‘retribution’ system that excluded ‘injured egos’ and ‘hurt feelings’.
Either way all categories we used are based on subjective human perceptions and are not objective or ‘true’ in an absolute sense. Theists therefore believe that when we die all our actions are put before the all-knowing ever merciful ‘God’ where they are stripped from subjectivity and put before the perpetrator ‘as they truly are’.
My point is that, however comforting this primitive notion may be for some, it just doesn’t work. The reason why it doesn’t work is because we haven’t done only the one thing in our lives, nor have most of us done exclusively good or mostly bad things. Never mind our own perceptions of our actions, most of us have done some bad if perhaps only in the perception of others. How can this possibly be judged? “Oh but an infinitely-wise creature as God surely can.” -You say. But that’s the point; “God” is not the primary point of failure here: we are. Judgment can not be seen separate from our capacity to receive it and we, as emotional beings, are simply incapable to receive punishment and reward at the same time. Let me clarify: suppose you have saved the human race during your life-time. Not only that. You did it “the hard way”, risking your own life, taking bullets and beatings ‘John McClane-style’ with the express intend of saving others or Die-Hard trying. You, my friend, are a hero, pure and simple! But yeah, there also is that one little thing, when you were a little younger, when you took gruesome vengeance on that guy who killed your sister and laughed while he died miserably, holding his own intestines. It obviously was not your finest hour and what’s even worse (perhaps), you feel you were utterly entitled to do it and regret only that it didn’t take him longer to die. <Enter God>. Well God is all wise and glorious and he tells you he has rarely seen a person like you. Obviously for the good you did you deserve eternal bliss. However, the bad you did was extremely overwhelming as well and it isn’t canceled out by the good just because it was only committed on one person. You clearly deserve eternal damnation for it, specifically you deserve to be burned forever. In light of the good you did however the sentence is reduced to an eternal flogging. This is rather merciful of God I think. But are you grateful? I think not, saving the world as you did and still getting flogged forever! So clearly there is a problem.
There are three problems with the divine judgment as we are taught it:
1)the use of unlimited durations
2)the exclusive use of extreme measures for reward or punishment
3)the simultaneous judgment of everything you did all together
If you do 65% bad things in your life while the other 45% was good and for either one of these divisions (obviously it can’t be for both) the sentence is forever, for all eternity, no matter what punishment or reward you are given for the other one, its relative worth is nothing. Will your victims (of that 65% bad) think you are really punished if you end up eating four-star-dinners in heaven for eternity? I doubt it. Or, in the other case, will you think you are fairly judged if for a mere 15% ‘unbalance’ towards bad you are send to Hell eternally after a ‘pat-on-the-back’ for the good you did? Surely that would be too great an injustice for a ‘merciful’ God to be dispense, wouldn’t it?
Assume that another person did 15% bad and 85% good things during his/her life. The use of an extreme punishment/reward system does not allow for correct judgment at all. (This system is so obviously tuned to deterrence and not for justice.) Logically for such a good person the only right outcome must be that they get eternal bliss. However there are still many people who were wronged by those 15% bad things that this person did, whom are counting that he/she at the very least recognize their wrong doing. What is God going to do? Give a lecture on those 15% and then send the person on for eternal ‘orgasms-in-the-sky’? Is that justice for the wronged? It doesn’t sound proportionate to the fact that he/she still did 15% bad stuff. Will a kindergarten-telling-down as in “don’t pull each-others hair”-ish cut it? (no pun intended) What if the person sticks to his guns, and refuses to accept this thing to be wrong, does that make him eligible for eternal damnation? Wow! Way to over-punish someone for being a bit stubborn I’d say.
Tightly woven into the above is that time is an intrinsic factor of punishment and reward. By judging the good WITH the bad neither is done justice. Suppose you did 50% good and 50% bad. Now what is God to do with you? Eternal bliss? Eternal damnation? How can there ever be justice if the good and the bad must be judged simultaneously? Just think what you would do if your child did something good and something bad and you learned of it at the same time? Well I’m guessing you would find a punishment proportioned to what he did, punish him, ask him if he would ever do it again, and then after a while repeat the process inversed for the good he did and comprising of reward instead of punishment. That sounds reasonable right? Isn’t it astonishing that a dumb, fallible creature as yourself can beat an infinitely-wise, all-knowing and endlessly merciful God at his own game!? Because God can’t solve this puzzle without inflicting more injustice than justice. But we do because instead of lumping everything together in one end-times-verdict we get to impact people over time. Not over “infinite time” mind you, but over valuable time none-the-less. We do not get to dispense limitless verdicts (capital punishment could be considered as much, although for many this is not decoupled from the religious judgment they suppose will follow) we dispense limited ones, intended to alter a person rather than to avenge the wrong they did. After death a person can’t demonstrate his adjusted behavior, his compliance with the ‘correct way’. Religions have therefore replaced this recognition and contrition with limitless punishment both in time and severity. Surely if the punishment is endless it doesn’t matter whether the person regrets the wrong he did, he will at least regret the never-ending-
story circumstances they brought him in. But this solves nothing. When punishment is only vengeance (and not corrective) it is not justice or even morally just, and without the opportunity to recognize and make amends, punishment can only ever be that: vengeance. It is therefore of little surprise that eastern religions have devised a believes-system that ‘condemns’ a person to a retry at life (often in a less enviable form or starting-position) in the form of reincarnation. But lest you think that this is the solution to everything, reincarnation has its own share of objectionable and paradoxical consequences that negate it.
Einstein once famously (and erroneously) said that ‘God doesn’t play dice’. Never mind that he used ‘God’ only as a metaphor we must take away from it that even for Einstein reality had properties that transcended his imagination. Much as the demonstrated effects of quantum-mechanics violated his and our intuition, so does the absence of ‘purpose’ and ‘ultimate justice’ in life violate our sense of ‘what-life-should-be-like’. But the universe is what it is whether we like it or not. So we have to let go of childish 19th century notions and make our own purpose in life, come to grips with the relative value of life as well as its inevitable end and learn to deal with the absence of justice where it may occur. It is often said that the best revenge is to live well. This is not always easy to implement. Personally I feel It is not about forgiveness for those that wronged you, it is about indifference towards them. Deny them the opportunity to stab you again, revoke your compassion for them should they stumble. And otherwise, Live long, and prosper!
So there it is. Once you think about it, the supposed divine judgment, encompassing all we are assured it to be, is incapable of doing justice in front of the nuances that daily life bring with it. It stems from our flawed perception and existential hope that projects eternal bliss onto us while reserving some measure of vengeance onto our enemies. I can’t deny that there are some extreme cases where, if it were real, I feel Hell would be justified punishment for some, at least for some time. But I suspect this is merely my own craving for vengeance acting up. Never the less I’m still convinced that 99% of people can not be done justice by a system that judges everything at the end, without opportunity for amending or change, using limitless sentences to run over limitless time. It is a justice system that leads to injustice, or, (in mathematical terms) it is a system that implies its own opposite. This is a paradox, it is a ‘reduction ad absurdum’ as is used in many proofs and therefore, mathematically, it means it is demonstrated that it can’t be true!
Quod Erat Demonstrandum. (I always wanted to use this sentence once. J)
Live long and prosper. Hailaga