Having not long finished my honours dissertation on the problem of evil, you could say that I have sin and punishment on the brain. While I didn’t actually address the argument I currently wish to discuss in my TL;DR composition – I was focusing on the rather more grievous problem of natural evil – an interesting objection occurs to me.
Enough foreplay, I ought to actually state the issue: infinite punishment for finite crimes. According to many theists’ models of the universe, the post-death experience contains, for the morally reprobate, some kind of unending torment, usually fixated on the application of extreme heat. As with any time you introduce concepts of infinity into ethics, this presents a seemingly insuperable problem. Take the most loathsome individual of human history – the classics being Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin or Mao Tse-tung – and calculate the amount of suffering they caused in their lifetimes. Tally up the millions of deaths, the myriad suffering and the incredible sadness that any of these men visited upon the planet. If you were to put a number on this evil influence, it may well stretch into the millions, billions, or gazillions – but it will be well short of infinite. To co-opt a phrase from Douglas Adams, infinity is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind- bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to infinity. Thus, as counter-intuitive as it is, even the worst individual in human history, indeed, the combined efforts of every person who has ever committed the merest immorality, cannot justly merit an infinite punishment. There will come a point when any person has had all the punishment that their actions merit, and from that point all punishment is entirely excessive.
I may have been slightly premature to call this problem “insuperable”.There is a rather ingenious solution that has been put forth by some theists in order to redress the balance, and acquit their supreme being of the charge of cruel and unusual punishment. What matters is not the status of the sinner, the amount of suffering that they caused, but rather the status of their victims. Well, one victim in particular – all wrongdoing is a sleight against an infinite god. So, even the smallest infraction causes infinite harm, because it harms an infinite being, and therefore is deserving of infinite retribution. Don’t worry, petty thief, you’ll get yours.
Call me cynical, but I smell a very large rodent infesting this argument. It is undoubtedly true that we do take the victim’s identity and status into account when judging moral or immoral actions (whether or not this is strictly an ethical thing to do). Punching an infant is seen as far more immoral than punching a young adult. Both are immoral, but the former is seen as more so. So, the premise that the status of the victim is relevant to ethical considerations seems to be provisionally valid, whether this is due to the greater damage caused, or the relative blamelessness of the sufferer, Within this sensible assumption, however, is the kernel of the refutation of the “sleight against the infinite god” argument. If I were to punch an infant in the face, I would be quite rightly reviled as an unmitigated bastard for attacking a tiny creature who cannot defend themselves. If I were to punch a 6′ 7″, 300lb bouncer in the face, I would be regarded as a bit of an arsehole, punching well above my weight and risking a swift and somewhat justified head-kicking. If I were to attempt to punch out Cthulhu (or Godzilla, or King Ghidorah – insert your giant monster of choice), I would be seen as a pathetic insect with a deathwish, utterly incapable of perpetrating the harm that some mad impulse has driven me to attempt. You may be able to extrapolate the argument – in opposition to the desperate theist – that the more powerful the victim, the harder it is to do any harm to them. An infinite god ought to be even less amenable to harm than a Great Old One or the King of the Monsters.
On a side note, this argument obviously relies upon a particular definition of “evil”. I’m using exactly the same definition I used in my dissertation: Evil is the suffering of conscious creatures, whatever happens to cause it. I feel that any other definition either overcomplicates the issue, or introduces nebulous and irrelevant aspects into the discussion of morality and suffering.
So, this rather pitiable objection to regarding infinite punishment as entirely unjust is, in my mind, utterly refuted. I’m open to having my mind changed, but until I do, belief in any religion with any concept of infinite punishment (or reward, for that matter) cannot be moral. As always, this is not a denigration of religious believers of this stripe, but rather the recognition that the overwhelming majority of religious believers are better than their religion. I have no idea who might be reading, but if you’re out there, and if you have any thoughts on the matter, please, pass them on.