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)


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.”


Nature of God concepts sheets

Michael Lacewing who is involved in the AQA Philosophy A-Level (a very different kettle of fish from the OCR Religious Studies ‘Philosophy and Ethics’ exam!) has provided some excellent quality handouts for his course over at this page .

They are of course for the AQA, but a couple of them are very good summaries on the Nature of God – just scroll to the bottom of the page. There is also a good one on how to do philosophy which could be profitably read by OCR students!


Assess the claim that the universe provides no evidence for the existence of an omnipotent God. (35)

Here is my attempt at doing the Jan 2012 A2 question on omnipotence. I did it cold with no notes in 45 mins and you can tell!

Edit: I will be adding my own revisions to this essay in bold soon to show what I think I should have included. In the meantime, if you’re interested, there is a good discussion of omnipotence in chapter 13 of the Puzzle of God by Peter Vardy. Oh, and if I had to give this essay a grade I reckon it’s a C as it stands! I really feel sorry for you A Level students – it’s really hard to do anything in 45 minutes!

A posteriori arguments from the universe or its features to God often claim that God needs to be omnipotent to guarantee the particular nature of the universe that we live in but how true is this? Surely to provide many of these features you don not need an all-powerful God, simply a very powerful one? For instance Kant argues that God is needed to guarantee the summum bonum and punishment or reward in the afterlife, but it has been noted that a very powerful angel might be able to provide the same thing.

Before we can assess this we need to be aware of the different ways in which omnipotence is defined. The classical definition as formulated by Aquinas says that God is all-powerful meaning that he can do anything that it is logically possible to do. This solves many of the problems that people such as Dawkins have claimed make omnipotence incoherent. For instance, Dawkins said that it had not escaped atheist’s notice that if God knew that he was going to intervene in the future history of the world (because of his omniscience) then he was not free to refrain from doing so, which constrained his omnipotence. Of course, this seems to be a problem unless a full understanding of God’s character as eternal and simple is grasped.

The key is in the words ‘logically possible’ – Aquinas argues that God can do everything it is logically possible to do but not the logically impossible because this would be self-contradictory. He says that for instance he cannot change the past, because it is logically impossible for something both to have happened and not to have happened at the same time. Even God cannot make this contradiction true. This applies also to Dawkins’ problem – God cannot logically both decide and not decide to do something at the same time.

Others like Descartes claim that this is too great a restraint on God and that he can do both the logically possible and impossible, so he can make a square circle for example. Thirdly and finally, Kenny argues that omnipotence is an expression of the great power of God, but doesn’t necessarily see this as meaning he can do anything.

When we come to the question of whether the universe provides any evidence for any of these kinds of omnipotence we have a difficult task. There seem to be no reasons to particularly favour the first two kinds of omnipotence – the existence of evil and suffering in the universe seems to particularly imply that any design we find is flawed, and therefore that if there was a designer he may not have been able to prevent these flaws (especially if we believe he also is omnibenevolent).

On the other hand the sheer existence of the whole of space-time as the universe might need explaining (as eg. Copleston thought), in which case it seems illogical to argue that the creator of that was not omnipotent – after all, this being would have to be radically free of space and time itself, and thus would be so unlike us or anything else in the universe that it would surely need to be omnipotent?

Many would argue that the concept of God’s omnipotence is not so much a logical consequence of evidence from the universe but that it logically follows from the concept of God itself – they would thus be using a priori arguments like the ontological argument where God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived. If we accept this as the definition of God, they argue, then we need to accept that God is omnipotent in the classical sense.

In conclusion the evidence from the universe to a classically omnipotent God would seem to be very thin – rather we might need to accept Kenny’s definition and say that if there is a creator of the universe he might need to be only very powerful, and say that in the form of life of our faith, claims for omnipotence of God are expressions of our beliefs as a network that ties together different elements of our lives – in the religious language game, God’s omnipotence plays a meaningful role not subject to questions of truth and falsity from the standpoint of objective evidence. But in doing this we may be guilty of Flew’s ‘death by a thousand qualifications’.

After doing this I suddenly remembered miracles and religious experience as well as Biblical notions of God as a good creator! This shows how important it is to revise all the topics as many times at A2 it is the connections across topics – the synoptic element – that really counts, and a question on the nature of God is going to rely on these connections. So here’s what I would add:

Some religious believers would maintain that miracles are evidence of an omnipotent God, as scripture in the Judaeo-Christian tradition is seen as the unfolding  revelation of God through His intervention in history, specifically displaying his power over evil and the ultimate triumph of good. God is not merely as powerful as Satan – goodness is not on the same level as evil – love conquers all. Miracles such as the parting of the Red Sea, the raising of Lazarus to life or the granting of Hannah’s prayer for a child are all seen as the omnipotent power of God’s love. In the Christian tradition it is paradoxically Christ’s sacrificial death and suffering that guarantees this omnipotence.

Vardy claims this is another definition of omnipotence – as the irresistible power of God’s love – and uses St Teresa’s words – “Christ has no hands now on earth but ours” to show that an omnipotent God may still work through selfless acts of love by humans. So omnipotence does not refer to the acts of a creator god but to the inherent power of humans to love selflessly. This would be a revisionary view and it is open to the question of how closely it fits in with the beliefs of Christians – do we want to limit God’s action only to the work he does through us?

The other problem is whether it can be claimed that because scripture says in many places that God is the all-powerful creator of the universe (eg. ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’) this counts as evidence – many argue that scripture is propositional revelation and that such statements are literal descriptions. However, this assumes a faith standpoint and would not seem to be verifiable outside of this context.

Dawkin’s dilemma given at the beginning is also not as easily solvable as I said:

It appears that God could not choose to do an action because the notion of choice is fundamentally one of time implying a time before and after the action. It is not easy to see how God could choose timelessly – surely God is compelled by God’s own nature to act necessarily? This appears to be a logical problem with God’s omnipotence as he would be constrained from acting freely. This limit set on omnipotence would be another challenge to the idea of omnipotence as classically understood and might be decisive in any attempt to decide from evidence whether God is omnipotent.

Finally theists might argue that the only evidence needed for God’s omnipotence is his ability to make his presence felt personally to people through religious experience. For instance Rudolf Otto talked of the ‘mysterium tremendum et fascinans’ in which God manifests himself to people as an awe-inspiring and terrifying experience, thus demonstrating his majesty and power. This might lead many to conclude that these displays of power show his omnipotence in a direct sense.

However, as Freud, Feuerbach amongst others have shown, religious experiences like these may be products of the mind, projections of neurotic contents and so have physiological or psychological bases. In conclusion, it seems unlikely that any of these pieces of ‘evidence’ constitute strong enough evidence for God as omnipotent.

The Nature of God – Omniscience

The Problem – if God knows what I’m going to do in the future I am not free to choose. Often stated as something like “If God knows I’m going to have muesli for breakfast tomorrow morning I’m not free to have toast.”

One answer, going back to Boethius is given here by C S Lewis:

[in a discussion of how man can have Free Will if God is omniscient]

“Strictly speaking, He never foresees; He simply sees. Your ‘future’ is only an area, and only for us a special area, of His infinite Now. He sees (not remembers) your yesterday’s acts because yesterday is still ‘there’ for Him; he sees (not foresees) your tomorrow’s acts because He is already in tomorrow. As a human spectator, by watching my present act, does not at all infringe its freedom, so I am none the less free to act as I choose in the future because God, in that future (His present) watches me acting.”

Omniscience question from Jan 2010 – with mark scheme

Critically assess the philosophical problems raised by the belief that God is Omniscient. [35]
Candidates may begin by placing this particular aspect of beliefs about God within the general discussion about God’s attributes, briefly discussing the context of believing in a God who is Omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent.
They may then go on to explore the meaning of omniscience, discussing what it might mean to know everything, possibly unpacking the biblical notion of God being intimately involved throughout His creation, having limitless knowledge of all that exists within and because of his creative act.
Credit may be given to those candidates who use this question to discuss the problem of evil provided their discussion is put forward in the context of ‘omniscience’ and is not just a general problem of evil response.
They may then raise questions form a number of philosophical positions; for example the may discuss the status of future knowledge within this understanding of God’s attributes. Some may make use of their knowledge of Boethius and talk of Gods knowledge not being future but being eternally present.
Others may raise question of what it might mean for humans to be genuinely free in a philosophical sense if God knows all we are doing and all that we will do.
Some candidates may evaluate this concept by exploring what kind of knowledge God can be said to have; unpacking some of the philosophical ideas present in any discussion of God’s knowledge such as the idea of knowing eternally.
Others may look at the idea that if God knows how we will behave in any given situation and that he does not stop us from acting immorally should he not in fact be held at least partly responsible for our actions.
This may lead some to assess the extent to which believers can hold the view that they are free agent before God as some would argue that god’s foreknowledge holds within it aspects of predestination.
Any valid and relevant approach should be given credit provided the assessments are justified and not just asserted.

Dr Manhattan and Free Will

Watchmen is a graphic novel by the author Alan Moore and illustrator Dave Gibbons. It has been turned into a film by Zack Snyder, and frequently makes lists of greatest works of literature. In the book there is a character called Doctor Manhattan, a human who has been transformed into a super-being by an accident in a laboratory, and has power over physical reality to the extent that he can destroy and recreate atoms. He also sees into the future because his perspective is such that he sees all of past present and future as a single moment.

Powers such as these have traditionally been associated with God in the theistic traditions. But what interests us in particular is his attitude to free will and choice. Because he knows intimately the very atomic structure of everything he also knows the causal conditions by which things occur, and the things that happen are shown by him in the book to be inescapable. This belief that everything is causally determined through previous events is called determinism, and is usually seen as contradicting beliefs in free will.