A Philosopher's Blog

God & Punishment

Posted in Ethics, Law, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Politics, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on January 4, 2012
Governor Rick Perry of Texas speaking at the R...

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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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45 Responses

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  1. WTP said, on January 4, 2012 at 9:57 am

    I got as far as this:

    “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.”

    You don’t see the numerous flaws in such logic? And you teach philosophy at a state university level? Another indication of tax dollars poorly spent.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 4, 2012 at 4:09 pm

      I had hoped that you would resolve to back up your claims about my alleged flaws in logic.

      Alas, I cannot see the flaws. Can you aid a blind man and tell me what they are?

      • WTP said, on January 5, 2012 at 1:09 pm

        You’re not blind, Mike. Your eyes are just closed. The inability to distinguish such is common amongst those suffering from obtusity. Open them up and read what Magus, TJ, AJ, and Nick all state below.

  2. Douglas Moore said, on January 4, 2012 at 10:11 am

    Common Mike. The Bible is rife with anecdotes and stories about people ignoring the possibility of punishment in the here or the after. Most of your post simply reinforces the central message of most religions: That humans have a difficult time doing right even when threatened with punishment.

    And the sun rises for both the good and the evil. You seem to think that there’s a hoard of christians who believe in a God that amounts to magic. What most of them believe is that at some point there will be justice and sense. Right now there is little of both.

    Magus

    • anon said, on January 4, 2012 at 1:09 pm

      “…the central message of most religions: That humans have a difficult time doing right even when threatened with punishment. ”

      I’d say the central message is usually “do what we say or we will punish you”.

      “You seem to think that there’s a hoard of christians who believe in a God that amounts to magic. What most of them believe is that at some point there will be justice and sense.”
      You claim there isn’t a “hoard” that don’t believe in magic and then say that most do, which one is it? Guess what is going to make “justice” and “sense”, magic (although it really won’t happen).

      • Anonymous said, on January 4, 2012 at 10:57 pm

        “I’d say the central message is usually “do what we say or we will punish you”.

        Are you being punished?

        Though I’m sure you’re for the replenishment of some. It just has to be the actions of others that you view as worthy of punishment. If someone tried to kill you, I’m sure you’d like to see them punished.

        Magus

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 5, 2012 at 8:38 pm

          I’d try to kill them right back.

          I don’t really have much faith that God would avenge my death, so I’m in favor of punishing people here and now.

  3. T. J. Babson said, on January 4, 2012 at 10:55 am

    “Interestingly, people who believe in such a divine system generally also accept a system of punishment here on earth. ”

    Shouldn’t that read “Naturally” instead of “Interestingly”? Remember the part about man being created in God’s image?

    • anon said, on January 4, 2012 at 1:02 pm

      Is man “all knowning”, “all powerful”, or even able to seperate rivers using their will alone? Seems that people are less able/different from god, not an exact copy.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 4, 2012 at 4:10 pm

      Substitute as needed or desired. Like butter and margarine.🙂

  4. WTP said, on January 4, 2012 at 11:35 am

    Interestingly, people who drink milk generally also accept a system of punishment here on earth.

    • anon said, on January 4, 2012 at 1:03 pm

      However, drinking milk doesn’t mean you believe in eternal punishment/reward.

  5. ajmacdonaldjr said, on January 4, 2012 at 12:06 pm

    False equation. The two have certain similarities but they are not the same. One is very abstract (=divine punishment) the other is very concrete (=social punishment).

    • anon said, on January 4, 2012 at 1:06 pm

      Why do humans bother to punish people if they believe their “creator” will do it too? Why duplicate punishment if the all powerful is going to do it anyway to make things “equal” or “just”?

      • Anonymous said, on January 4, 2012 at 11:00 pm

        “Why do humans bother to punish people if they believe their “creator” will do it too?”

        Because we still have to live here. Is this really a deep question? Maybe I should stop eating food, too, since there may be an afterlife….

        Magus

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 5, 2012 at 8:40 pm

          Actually, if heaven is assured, why not stop eating? You have heaven to gain and only a life to lose. If I believed that heaven awaited, I would have no fear of death at all. After all, killing me would merely send me to a better place quickly. That would be a win.

          • Douglas Moore said, on January 6, 2012 at 5:44 pm

            Sure. And Jesus should have jumped off the tower because angels would save him. “Interestingly” you’re making the same argument as did Satan in the New Testament. Maybe he was a philosophy major, too.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 4, 2012 at 4:13 pm

      But why have both? If I think that people will be punished for their misdeeds, why should I be out to punish them myself? To use the obvious analogy, if I believe that the criminal justice system will always catch and justly punish anyone who wrongs me, why would I set up my own system of vigilante justice? After all, that would only make sense if I believed the real authorities would either not catch the people or not punish them justly. However, God always gets His man (or woman) and His punishment is always perfect. So, why should we be vigilantes here on earth if we believe in a post-death perfect justice?

      • Douglas Moore said, on January 5, 2012 at 6:29 pm

        “But why have both?”

        Why have this life and an afterlife?

        Magus

        • Douglas Moore said, on January 5, 2012 at 6:43 pm

          And…

          “Give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. Give unto God what is God’s.”

          • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 5, 2012 at 8:46 pm

            Everything is God’s. Even Caesar. Right?

            • Douglas Moore said, on January 6, 2012 at 5:45 pm

              Ask Jesus.

              Apparently God does let us figure a few things out for ourselves. The Bible gives me no instruction on how to fix my toilet.

        • dhammett said, on January 5, 2012 at 8:14 pm

          Interesting question. Why, indeed. The question of punishment here on earth would be clarified if the afterlife didn’t enter the equation.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 5, 2012 at 8:45 pm

          Yes. The classic question: why are we here?

  6. T. J. Babson said, on January 4, 2012 at 7:16 pm

    Funny that Perry’s executions carried out with due process cause you to think, but Obama’s extrajudicial drone war doesn’t seem to bother you a bit. Now, why would that be?

    The administration has said that its covert, targeted killings with remote-controlled aircraft in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and potentially beyond are proper under both domestic and international law. It has said that the targets are chosen under strict criteria, with rigorous internal oversight.

    It has parried reports of collateral damage and the alleged killing of innocents by saying that drones, with their surveillance capabilities and precision missiles, result in far fewer mistakes than less sophisticated weapons.

    Yet in carrying out hundreds of strikes over three years — resulting in an estimated 1,350 to 2,250 deaths in Pakistan — it has provided virtually no details to support those assertions.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/secrecy-defines-obamas-drone-war/2011/10/28/gIQAPKNR5O_story.html

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 5, 2012 at 8:37 pm

      The drone war does concern me. Handing military grade weapons over to intelligence services to perform assassinations seems to be legally dubious and morally questionable. It also makes me wonder why some Republicans try to paint Obama as being weak on defense: look at his kill sheet.

      The drone strikes did not make me think of punishment, but rather assassination. I could, I suppose, write a piece on God and assassination.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 5, 2012 at 8:53 pm

      It is interesting that the left is largely giving Obama a free pass on his killer drones. I suspect that if a Republican was doing this, there would be some harsh words from that direction. The right also seems reluctant to engage him on this, which is not surprising. After all, he is killing terrorists (or suspected terrorists).

  7. Nick said, on January 5, 2012 at 9:24 am

    It would indeed be surprising is people who believed in a punishing God took punishment into their own hands, but I know of few theists who fit such a description. Like some people have pointed out, many evangelical Christians (perhaps this includes Perry) do not necessarily believe that God “balances the books.” In fact, evangelicalism usually emphasizes the claim that every person can receive salvation from eternal punishment, no matter their misdeeds (with varying opinions on what subsequent “repentance” must look like).

    If this is what an evangelical believes, then a murderer is just as eligible for “heaven” as anyone else (interestingly, it would be the rich man who allegedly has trouble getting into heaven, not the murderer…if we are going by what the New Testament has to say about it). So, the evangelical would not necessarily avoid punishing a person because s/he expects God to do so. If it is punishment that the evangelical is after, it might be up to the evangelical to make it happen. What seems wrong about this picture, however, is not that God isn’t the one doing the punishing; it is that someone who professes to be an evangelical would support killing anyone. There are plenty of New Testament passages that should motivate evangelicals not to support capital punishment (or the type of killing mentioned by TJ Babson). Indeed, many New Testament passages exhort a radically unconditional forgiveness of misdeeds.

    So yes, it is surprising that some evangelicals support capital punishment, but not because they should expect God to do the punishing.

    I do not know much about Buddhism, but if karma is anything like a cosmic retribution system (or if Buddhists believe in cosmic retribution at all), then Buddhists who support capital punishment might be guilty of the logical inconsistency Mike mentions, but not the evangelicals I am aware of. But, perhaps I misunderstand Buddhists.

    • Douglas Moore said, on January 5, 2012 at 6:35 pm

      “interestingly, it would be the rich man who allegedly has trouble getting into heaven, not the murderer…”

      I’m assuming you’re talking about the camel and the eye of the needle anecdote. But we must continue on in the biblical passage. An apostle then asks Jesus, “Then how can anyone be saved?” Jesus responds: “With God, all things are possible.”

      • dhammett said, on January 5, 2012 at 8:20 pm

        “With God, all things are possible.”

        And my questions, many, many moons ago were “If all things are possible, why didn’t He create a world that was Heaven “from the get-go”? Why bother populating it with humans who had the potential for evil? Because he wanted to? Because he could? Just because?

        Do you think you would have been happier if you had been born in Heaven? Unhappier? More or less worthwhile?

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 5, 2012 at 8:49 pm

          Leibniz addresses the question quite directly: he argues that God creates the best of all possible worlds. He takes God to be bound by the laws of necessity (that is, God cannot do the impossible-just anything possible). If He created a perfect world, it would be a perfect being and hence God. But there can only be one God (Spinoza makes this argument). since God cannot create another perfect being, we are stuck with an imperfect (but best) world.

          Voltaire and Hume took Leibniz to task for this.

          • dhammett said, on January 5, 2012 at 11:53 pm

            This is all very confusing.
            “God cannot do the impossible-just anything possible” But, as Douglas points out , Jesus says, “With God, all things are possible”.
            That phrase “all things” would seem to imply that nothing is “impossible” with God. I hope no one brings up the God creating a rock he can’t lift. The ‘possible’-‘impossible’ debate is semantics and the rock question is a sly distraction.

            So am I going to have to assume that Heaven isn’t a perfect world, or that someone other than God created it? Apparently, according to Spinoza and Leibniz that ‘someone’ would be no one. So, for purposes of this scenario, I’ll must accept that Heaven isn’t perfect, and that God created it . After all, billions of humans down through the years have tried so hard to make themselves worthy of admittance. It must exist. And it must be less perfect than God.

            As I asked in my response 8:20 response :Why didn’t He just skip the fun (for Him) part, eliminate all the drama, and put Man in this less-perfect-than-God Heaven from the beginning?

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 6, 2012 at 2:57 pm

              For Leibniz, Heaven would also need to be less perfect than God. The stock argument for their being one perfect being (max) is this: Suppose we have A and B. Suppose that A and B are both perfect. This entails there is no difference between A and B, thus A=B. So, there is but one perfect being. Spinoza takes this line of reasoning to pantheism: if there is anything other than God, it diminishes His perfection. So, God is everything. QED.

              No, God cannot create a rock He cannot lift, anymore than He can create a yacht so big that He cannot fill it with bitches (as per Colbert).

            • dhammett said, on January 6, 2012 at 5:41 pm

              Got it, I think. God is Heaven. God is everything. So possible/impossible, omnipotent/not omnipotent, omniscient/not omniscient become linguistic and logical distractions. And the whole rock distraction* is just a shiny trinket to occupy an empty space in someone’s mind.

              Too bad He couldn’t see where his wind-up toy was going to lead and just skip to the happy, or unhappy, ending.

              Can anyone out there give a reason why God “. . .didn’t . . . skip the fun (for Him) part, eliminate all the drama, and put [slightly-less-perfect] Man in a {slightly} less-perfect-than-God Heaven from the beginning?”

              * I said I hoped no one would mention it . . .

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 9, 2012 at 2:38 pm

              For Spinoza, God is a perfect substance. All the negative stuff would not be God, since that would be a privation.

              Spinoza took a lot of heat for his view-in fact, there was an assassination attempt against him.

              As far as why God didn’t just cut to the end game, that is an excellent question. There seems to be no good reason why God would need to create the physical universe and stock it with souls if there is an eternal Heaven. Of course, some religions don’t buy into heaven-there is just the world and the afterlife is just being resurrected by God back in the flesh.

          • Douglas Moore said, on January 6, 2012 at 5:54 pm

            I never think that a God would have to do anything. It is obviously the problem with pain argument but it may be that we’ll find the same as did Aquinas when one day he refused to write anything further, saying that he’d entered a trance and witnessed what was to come, and that the here and now became somewhat senseless. Perhaps in the next world, it’ll be like a basic training for a soldier who hates the boot camp experience but looks back fondly on the experience once he is done and thinks: “I’m still glad I did that.” But he’ll never have to do it again and he won’t consider it a matter of good and evil.

            I hated boot camp.

            • T. J. Babson said, on January 6, 2012 at 9:36 pm

              I hated boot camp, too. The total lack of privacy really got to me. USN 1981.

            • dhammett said, on January 6, 2012 at 11:09 pm

              Or perhaps there is no “next world”. But for some reason that doesn’t seem to be considered a possibility . . .

            • magus71 said, on January 7, 2012 at 9:16 am

              TJ,

              Funny you say that. that was the biggest issue for me, too. If I had my own room at the end of the day, it would have been tolerable.

            • dhammett said, on January 8, 2012 at 5:15 pm

              TJ: Your post reminded me of this—purportedly from the transcript of a Fox News interview with Rick Santorum:
              http://www.votesmart.org/public-statement/642234/fox-news-fox-news-sunday-with-chris-wallace-transcript

              “Well, they are in close — they are in close quarters. They live with people. They shower with people.”

              It’s normal that people living with people and people showering with people got to you. We Americans cherish our privacy. Some of us think it’s a right—subject to sensible limitations, of course. Some of us choose to live on a remote mountainside in Wyoming, and some prefer to live in New York City.

              For Santorum, I feel, it would have been the fact that there were “people”(they) living with people (us).

  8. enoch said, on May 2, 2016 at 4:44 pm

    there is also the possibility that humans do not understand what justice really is, squabbling over unimportant items as life.


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