The philosophical problems with belief in an afterlife

WHAT DREAMS MAY COME, Robin Williams, 1998, (c)PolyGram Filmed Entertainment/courtesy Everett Collec

My somewhat odd blog post here describes a dream I had recently about hell. The concept of hell (and indeed of heaven) raises a number of philosophical questions, perhaps the principle one of which is: Would an all-loving, perfectly good God condemn someone to unending suffering in hell as punishment for a specific sin or sins? On the face of it, it seems too unbalanced – for even the most heinous of crimes, surely there will come a point where the punishment must end?

There are significant disagreements among theologians upon this point. Some modern theologians, notably Hans Urs Von Balthasar have taken the position that universal salvation is possible, in other words that God will condemn no-one to hell for eternity. Others think this a betrayal of scripture and the Church Fathers – indeed, Christ spoke of the hellfire and eternal punishment in various places in the Gospels (eg. Matt 5:22, 10:28, 23:33)

huvb

click here for an excellent discussion of this book

The question needs to be placed in the light of the considerable problem which the existence of evil raises for believers. In order to make sense of the evil actions of certain people, some of whom escape earthly punishment for their crimes, believers usually turn to the explanation that justice will be done in the afterlife, that God will set right the wrongs done in this life.

It therefore makes sense that some afterlife punishment and reward would be needed in order to maintain belief in a just Creator. The problem is the separation of God’s mercy and God’s justice. A God who forgives all no matter what they have done would be just as unjust as a God who punishes all. There is another problem with arguing that God forgives all. Johannes Bokmann puts it like this: “If one were certain of attaining the ultimate goal no matter what, a quite essential motivation to conversion and absolute Christian resolve would be lost.”

The OCR exam board has focused on this area in the past with questions such as: “To what extent is belief in an afterlife necessary in resolving problems raised by the existence of evil?”. The suggestions for answering this are that candidates can focus on the theodicies, or discuss whether reincarnation is less problematic than belief in heaven and hell. The key thing to do though, in the A02, is to evaluate what kind of God is implied by punishment/reward models of the afterlife, and whether, given some of the inconsistencies which arise in God’s omnipotence and omnibenevolence on these models, whether such models are necessary to solve the problem of evil.

I will end this post with some quotations from Balthasar’s book:

“Christ allocates ruin to no one; he himself is pure salvation, and whoever stands by him stands in the sphere of salvation and grace. The calamity is not imposed by him, but exists wherever man has remained distant from him; it arises through continuing to abide with oneself. The word of Christ, as the offering of salvation, will then make evident that the lost man has drawn the boundaries himself and cut himself off from salvation.” (Cardinal Ratzinger)

“Every shutting up of the creature within his own mind, is – in the end – hell” (C.S. Lewis)

“Therefore we must read the New Testament, and read it ever anew, in the light of divine love. Certainly there is talk of fire, worm and the second death that excludes one from the kingdom. Christ does not recognize the evildoers, distances them from him. But hell, as refusal of divine love, always exists on one side only: on the side of him who persists in creating it for himself. It is, however, impossible that God himself could cooperate in the slightest way in this aberration.”

I want to end with a parable from Dostoevsky’s great novel The Brothers Karamazov, which Von Balthasar quotes. It seems to me to completely capture the intricate connections between free will, sin, evil and God’s divine omnibenevolence better than pages of philosophical and theological analysis:

“Once upon a time there was a peasant woman and a very wicked woman she was. And she died and did not leave a single good deed behind. The devils caught her and plunged her into the lake of fire. So her guardian angel stood and wondered what good deed of hers he could remember to tell to God; ‘She once pulled up an onion in her garden,’ said he, ‘and gave it to a beggar woman.’ And God answered: ‘You take that onion then, hold it out to her in the lake, and let her take hold and be pulled out. And if you can pull her out of the lake, let her come to Paradise, but if the onion breaks, then the woman must stay where she is.’ The angel ran to the woman and held out the onion to her. ‘Come,’ said he, ‘catch hold and I’ll pull you out.’ he began cautiously pulling her out. He had just pulled her right out, when the other sinners in the lake, seeing how she was being drawn out, began catching hold of her so as to be pulled out with her. But she was a very wicked woman and she began kicking them. ‘I’m to be pulled out, not you. It’s my onion, not yours.’ As soon as she said that, the onion broke. And the woman fell into the lake and she is burning there to this day. So the angel wept and went away.”

 

2 thoughts on “The philosophical problems with belief in an afterlife

  1. Hi Winnie,
    It is hard starting off with a new course; is there anyone in your department who can support you? I think the main thing is to use some straightforward books like the PushMe Press study guides to understand the arguments, then set them out to your students. I find the more you plan student-centred time into your lessons the more they will get out of it. By that I mean give them the arguments and then let them as much as possible get some kind of discussion going. Your job is then to have questions which will guide them to the key issues if they go astray…hope that helps in some way

  2. Pingback: The Little Onion | Philosophy of Religion

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