God & Punishment

Posted by  on December 31, 2011

A while back I saw Rick Perry receive thunderous applause for the number of executions in the state of Texas. More recently I saw his video in which he claims that he is not ashamed to admit he is  a Christian. Thanks to Rick, I started thinking about God and punishment.

On many conceptions of God, God punishes and rewards people for their deeds and misdeeds when they reach the afterlife. This afterlife might be in Heaven or Hell. It might also be a post first life Resurrection in the flesh followed by judgement and reward or punishment. In any case, those who believe in God generally also believe in a system of divine rewards and punishments that are granted or inflicted post death.

Interestingly, people who believe in such a divine system generally also accept a system of punishment here on earth. Some, like Perry, strongly support capital punishment here on earth while also professing to be of the Christian faith (and thus believing in divine punishment).

The stock justifications for punishment (like executions) include retribution, reparation, and deterrence. In the case of retribution, the idea is that a misdeed warrants a comparable punishment as a just response. In the case of reparation, the idea is that the wrongdoer should be compelled to  provide compensation for the damage done by his/her misdeeds. Deterrence, obviously enough, aims at motivating the wrongdoer to not do wrong again and to motivate others not to do wrong.

When it comes to punishment, it seems reasonable to accept certain moral limits. At the very least, the severity and quantity of punishment would need to be justified. At the very least, the punishment should be on par with the crime in terms if its severity and quantity (otherwise it merely creates more wrong). Punishment without adequate moral justification would seem to be morally unacceptable and would seem to be wrongdoing under the name of punishment rather than justice.

Getting back to God, suppose that God exists and does inflict divine punishments for misdeeds. If this is the case, then it would seem to be unreasonable, perhaps even immoral, for human courts to inflict punishment for crimes that God also punishes.

First, if God punishes people for their misdeeds, then there is no need to seek retribution for crimes here on earth. After all, if someone believes in divine justice, they would also need to believe that mortal retribution is unnecessary-after all, whether we punish the wrongdoer or not, just retribution shall occur after the wrongdoer dies. If we do punish a wrongdoer, then God would presumably need to subtract out our punishment from the punishment he inflicts-otherwise He would be overdoing it. As such, mortal retribution is simply a waste of time-unless, of course, it takes some of the load of an allegedly omnipotent being.

Second, if God rewards good deeds and punishes misdeeds, then there would seem to be no need for reparations here on earth. After all, if someone steals my laptop, then God will see to it that s/he gets what s/he deserves and so will I. That is, all the books will be balanced after death. As such, if someone believes in divine justice, then there seems to be little sense in worrying about reparation here on earth. After all, if we will just be here for a very little while then what will my laptop matter in the scope of eternity? Not a bit, I assure you.

Third, if God inflicts divine punishments and hands out divine rewards, it would seem absurd to try to deter people with mortal punishments. If someone believes that murderers are not deterred by the threat of Hell (or the hope of Heaven), then they surely would not think that the mere threat of bodily death would have deterrent value. To use an analogy, if I knew that a friend of mine would shoot anyone who tried to hurt me, it would be odd of me to tell someone who threatened to harm me that I would poke them with a toothpick. After all, if the threat of being shot would not deter them, the threat of a poke with a toothpick surely would not work.

It might be argued that we need to punish people here because not everyone believes in God. To use an analogy, if I told people that I am protected by  a sniper armed with a .50 caliber rifle, they might still make a go at me if they did not believe in the sniper. As such, I would want to show them my pistol to deter them. Likewise, to deter non-believers we would want to have jails and lethal injections to scare them away from misdeeds. After all, while some people might not believe in God, everyone believes in prison.

Of course, the fact that we rely on prisons and other punishments for deterrence does seem to indicate that we regard God’s divine justice as having very little deterrence value-unless, of course, it is claimed that criminals are atheists or agnostics.

There is also the usually concern that God does not seem particularly concerned with deterring misdeeds. After all, while religious texts present various threats of divine punishment, there is no evidence that God actually punishes the wicked and this certainly cuts into the deterrence value of His punishments. To use an analogy, imagine if I told my students that cheating in my class would be punished by the Chair of Student Punishments for Philosophy Classes and the punishment would take place after graduation. Imagine that a student turned in a plagiarized paper and cheated like mad on the tests, yet I did nothing and simply entered in grades as if everything was fine and nothing happened.  Imagine that the students never see the alleged chair and the only evidence they have for her existence is the fact that she is listed on my syllabus and a little sign I put up on an empty office. As might be imagined, the students would not deterred from cheating.

If there really was a Chair of Student Punishment for Philosophy Classes, she would make an appearance in the class and administer punishments as soon as she was aware of the violations. The same would seem to be true of God. Crudely put, if He does exist and metes out justice, then we would not need to punish (at least in the case of the misdeeds that concern Him). If we do need to punish, then it would seem that either He does not exist or He does not dispense divine justice.

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