Tuesday, January 11, 2022

The Unverifiability of Claims Based on Personal Experience

The Unverifiability of Claims Based on Unreplicable Personal Experience

Sometimes arguments are made for particular points of view by means of appeal to personal, unsharable experiences, or "personal testimonies."  One example of this I've run across a lot comes from the Latter-day Saint community.  "I know that the Book of Mormon is true and I testify to you that it is true."  How do you know that?  "I prayed about it, and God has testified it to me by the Holy Ghost in my heart."  How did that happen?  What was that like?  How did you know it was the Holy Ghost?  "I can't explain it.  It was so clear, so real . . . I just knew it was the Holy Ghost!"  Well, how do you know it wasn't just your feelings?  Perhaps your praying worked on your emotions so that you got a powerful feeling, maybe even had something like a mystical experience of some sort, but it had nothing to do with the truth of the Book of Mormon but was simply a subjective experience.  "No, no, I know it wasn't that."  How do you know?  ". . . I can't explain it.  I just know.  There is no way for me to communicate my experience to you.  You'll just have to have the experience for yourself."  (I've had conversations very much like this in the past with Latter-day Saints.)

This kind of conversation seems to leave things at a bit of an impasse.  I have no way of proving directly that the person I'm talking to did not have a personal, revelatory experience of some kind that proved, conclusively, that the Book of Mormon is true.  I have no access to that personal experience to prove or disprove it.  Nor can my Latter-day Saint friend prove to me the verity of her personal experience.  So where can we go from here?  Actually, the Latter-day Saint way of thinking provides a way out of the impasse, at least to some degree.  I can replicate the experiment, so to speak.  I can pray about the Book of Mormon too, and see if I get the same experience.  If I don't, my Latter-day Saint friend will often suggest possible reasons for the failure--perhaps I was not sincere enough, or I didn't pray in quite the right way, or something like that.  I can then check my procedures, my motives, etc., and if I determine that I was indeed acting with honesty, integrity, and sincerity, that I was praying in the appropriate way, etc., then I can probably conclude from that that my friend's testimony has been falsified.  So there is a way forward there.

It becomes harder when the emphasis is placed on the personal experience and no way is provided by means of which I could replicate it.  If, upon reporting to my Latter-day Saint friend that the Holy Ghost did not testify to me of the truth of the Book of Mormon, she continues to insist that, nonetheless, her personal experience was real and proves the Book of Mormon to be true, despite our ignorance as to why I was not able to receive the same testimony, we are again back at an impasse.  She can't prove her experience true, and I can't prove it false.

This impasse is even more at the forefront in other conversations.  In recent years, a "personal experience" sort of argument has been made use of quite a bit in the areas of homosexuality and transgenderism.  The conversation often goes a bit like this (I'm simplifying to focus in on the point at hand, of course):

ALBERT:  You Christians are wrong to tell gay people they can't live the gay lifestyle.

RICK:  How do you know that?

ALBERT:  Because it is cruel.  Gay people are wired to be attracted to members of the same sex.  It is hard and cruel to tell them they have to suppress this part of themselves.

RICK:  Well, it all comes down to whether or not Christianity is true, doesn't it?  If Christianity really is true, then the all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good Creator of the universe and author of the objective moral law has told us that homosexual acts are unethical and we should not engage in them.  He would know, wouldn't he?  So if there is good reason to conclude that this worldview is true, then it follows that homosexual acts are unethical, doesn't it?

ALBERT:  But that is cruel!  You are telling people they can't be themselves!  It is unjust to ask this of anybody!

RICK:  I understand and sympathize.  I don't doubt that following the objective moral law in this area is very hard for those attracted to the same sex.  Perhaps it can be a comfort to them to realize that following the objective moral law tends to be hard for everyone, though the "hardness" manifests itself in different ways.  Ethics asks hard things of people.  It calls some to be martyrs, to endure death and torture rather than follow the crowd.  It calls us all to learn self-control, to suppress natural desires and bring them under the control of reason, which is an incredibly difficult thing to do.  Restraining sexual desires in particular is notoriously difficult, and yet we are all called to self-control.  It takes little imagination or empathy to consider all the ways in which, not just homosexuals, but lots of people have to struggle hard to control and redirect sexual desires that would lead them down paths most of us would recognize as harmful or unethical.  It is notoriously hard to "do the right thing" sometimes.  We should sympathize with each other, but we have no rational basis to conclude that something must be OK to do simply because it is very hard not to do it.

ALBERT:  All your answers are glib and cold and meaningless.  You can't possibly understand what homosexuals go through because you aren't a homosexual.

RICK:  I may not be a homosexual, but I am a human being, and I do have some idea of how hard life can be.  I recognize though, certainly, that I cannot really know, experientially, fully what it is like to walk in someone else's shoes.  But that doesn't prove that my ethical beliefs are incorrect.

ALBERT:  Yes, it does!  Since you can't know what it's like to be me, you can't tell me my feelings are invalid.  I'm telling you that I know, from personal experience, that a good God could never demand that homosexuals suppress their homosexual impulses.  It would be too cruel.  You can't understand that, but you have to believe it, because I am telling you from my own personal experience.

RICK:  But how do I evaluate your personal experience?  You claim to have experience that proves that homosexual acts cannot be unethical.  But I cannot have that same experience, so how can I verify whether or not it shows what you think and claim it shows?

ALBERT:  You don't have to verify it!  You just have to accept it!  I'm me, so I get to testify to my own personal experience!  You don't get to say anything about it!  You just have to accept what I'm telling you.

RICK:  But that would be irrational.  Just because you have personal experiences and have interpreted them in a certain way, that doesn't prove that you might not be interpreting them wrongly.  I can't just accept your point of view without critical analysis.  That would be to believe things without sufficient evidence, which would be dishonest.

ALBERT:  No, it would not be dishonest.  It is the only just, the only compassionate thing to do.  If you respect me, you will accept my personal testimony about myself without question.

(Again, this is a hugely oversimplified and unrealistic conversation, of course.  For a somewhat closer approximation to a real conversation, though still fictional, see here.)

Rick is right not to accept Albert's personal testimony uncritically, despite Albert's attempts to persuade him that compassion requires him to do so.  While we ought to be compassionate and empathetic towards people and the personal difficulties they struggle with, if we are interested in truth, we cannot accept conclusions without adequate grounding in the evidence.  As Rick noted, just because a person claims to have had some particular experience, it doesn't prove that they've really had that experience or that they've interpreted their experience correctly.  The simple fact that I am me doesn't make me infallible in the interpretations of my own experiences.  We all know that, if we are sufficiently self-aware.  People can often be misled by false interpretations of their own subjective experiences, especially if those experiences are tied to deeply-felt emotions or desires.  Again, just because my Latter-day Saint friend had some "religious experience," that doesn't by itself prove to me that they have rightly interpreted their experience to have given them infallible proof that the Book of Mormon is a revelation from God.  Very few of us, rightly, are going to become Latter-day Saints simply on the basis of such personal-testimony claims, which is why Latter-day Saints typically go on to tell people how to replicate that experience in their own lives.

Another example of an area where, today, we often run into the "personal experience proves everything" kind of argument is transgenderism.  "I'm a boy."  But you're a biological girl.  "I don't care.  I know I'm a boy."  On what basis do you claim to be a boy?  "I feel that I am a boy."  How do your feelings show that you are a boy?  What is your linguistic and philosophical justification for redefining the word "boy" to mean something different than it has meant in the past history of the English language, in Christian theology, etc.?  And what do you even mean by "boy" now that you've divorced the word from its original objective meaning?  "Look, I feel that I am a boy!  So if you will be compassionate and respectful toward me, you will simply accept that I am a boy and not ask any further questions!  I'm me, so I get to define myself, and you simply have to accept it, or you're a hateful bigot!"  (Of course, not all advocates of transgender ideology are so belligerent, but the belligerence is common enough in such circles that I do no injustice in making it a part of what a standard conversation of this sort often looks like.)  The problem with this, of course, is that this appeal to personal testimony provides no real evidence--or, rather, no evidence that is sufficiently accessible to people in general.  Just because I testify that I feel strongly that I should be identified as the gender opposite my biological sex, it does not follow that that feeling is correct.  It takes little imagination to understand how one could misinterpret one's feelings in such an area.  Personal experiences and feelings are interpreted in light of beliefs and assumptions a person has, and so those interpretations may only be as true as the truth of those beliefs and assumptions.  Therefore, a claim of personal feelings cannot be used to trump critical questioning of beliefs and assumptions that may underlie the interpretations.

So a claim based on unreplicable personal experience cannot, by itself, prove a belief to be true.  However, it is also true that, because the personal experience is unreplicable and out of the reach of the experience of others, claims based solely and completely on such experiences are impossible to directly disprove.  Sometimes the argument is made that because they cannot be disproved, that amounts to a good reason to accept them as true.  "I claim to have seen God!  You can't prove that I haven't seen God, so you have to accept that I have!"  But not being able to disprove something is simply not the same as proving something to be true.  If I can't disprove that elves exist, it doesn't follow that that in itself gives me good reason to believe that they do.  Again, testimonies of personal experience, when this is all we have, leave us not with proof or disproof but at an impasse.  We simply cannot know whether the claims based on the experience are valid or not.  The only rational position, then, is to be agnostic on those claims.

So does that mean that we must always be agnostic with regard to anyone's claims based on personal experience?  No.  If all we have is personal experience to go on, we would have to be agnostic, but we very often have more than that to go on.  With regard to Latter-day Saint claims, for example, we can investigate those claims at many points, as the claims touch on history, philosophy, theology, etc.  My primary reason for rejecting the claims of the Latter-day Saint worldview is because I have found them to fail philosophically and theologically.  I believe Latter-day Saint claims about God and other matters are falsified philosophically; they fail to stand up to logic.  Also, I believe I have positive reasons to believe in the truth of historic, Catholic Christianity, which entails the falsehood of the foundation of the Latter-day Saint worldview (the conviction that Joseph Smith was a true prophet, etc.).  If, having concluded that Catholic Christianity is true on the grounds of various solid evidences, I am confronted with an argument based on Latter-day Saint personal testimony, I will simply respond that, while I can't directly disprove claims based in such personal testimony, yet the mere claims do not prove themselves, and I can indirectly disprove them based on their incompatibility with other things I have reason to believe to be true.  If the Latter-day Saint protests that he knows his personal experience proves the Latter-day Saint worldview, and that I have to just accept that because I can't possibly know what he's experienced, I will reply that I have no good reason to think that he cannot have misinterpreted his own personal experience, and I have good, positive reasons coming from other sources to believe that, in fact, in this case, he has done precisely that.  If he insists that it is disrespectful of me not to accept claims based on his personal experience, I will reply that it is not a matter of respect or disrespect; it is a matter of intellectual honesty.  If a person believes he is being disrespected simply because his claims, even claims based on unreplicable personal experience, are not uncritically accepted, he needs to reconsider whether his requirements for "being respected" are actually reasonable ones or not.  We deserve to be respected as human beings, but no human being can justly claim to deserve to have everyone accept his own ideas without critical analysis.  This is not a genuine requirement for the respect we are owed as human beings.

With regard to homosexuality and transgenderism, I think the same analysis holds.  A homosexual may claim to have personal experiences that prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that homosexual acts are not unethical.  If I question this claim, he may object that I am in no position to judge his subjective, personal experience.  I must reply that while it is true that I cannot directly disprove his claim, the mere fact that he claims it falls short of proving it true, for I have no reason to believe that he is an infallible interpreter of his own personal experience, and it is clear to me that there are many ways a person might be mistaken about the real meaning of their own personal experiences.  Ironically, there are plenty of personal testimonies from people out there who admit to having interpreted their own personal experiences wrongly at various points.  So it would be intellectually irresponsible for me to accept claims based merely on such personal experience as if they proved themselves.  And, in the case of homosexuality, I believe I have good, solid reasons to believe that Catholic Christianity is true, and Catholic Christianity tells me, among many other things, that homosexual acts are unethical.  Therefore, I have good reason to believe they are unethical, and this evidence is not trumped by mere claims based on unreplicable personal experiences.  With regard to claims based on transgender experiences, again, I am not going to accept claims simply because they are made, without any good reason to think they are actually true, and the mere fact that a claim is rooted in someone's unreplicable personal experience does not constitute sufficient reason to believe that it is true.  I am going to evaluate that claim in light of everything that I know from history, science, philosophy, theology, etc.

What About the Lucy Argument?

An argument for trust in claimed personal experience might be made based on the sort of reasoning famously laid out in C. S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia.  In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, four children--two brothers and two sisters--go to stay for a while at the home of an old professor.  The youngest sister, Lucy, stumbles through a doorway into another world inside an old wardrobe.  When she comes back and tells her siblings about the experience, they don't believe her.  They are very uncomfortable, because Lucy has always been honest before, and they begin to fear that she might be developing some kind of insanity.  They finally decide to go and talk to the professor about her, but he surprises them by suggesting that they accept her word along with the existence of the other world she claims to have discovered.  He points out that everyone accepts that she is an honest girl, and he rules out insanity by observation of her behavior, and so he deduces that the most likely explanation is that she is telling the truth.  (You can find this conversation in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, chapter 5.)

Lewis makes a fascinating argument here, and one that, I think, has a lot of value and validity.  In the story, Lucy's siblings suffer under a preconceived bias without any real foundation--that there cannot be other worlds occasionally accessible through things like old wardrobes--and they use that bias as a basis to reject an exceedingly credible eyewitness testimony.  The professor points out the absurdity of calling into question the honesty or the sanity of a person well known to them merely on the basis of a felt need to preserve unwarranted assumptions about reality.  It is very easy for us to let our preconceived biases affect our objectivity in analyzing arguments and evidence.  Instead of letting our prejudices determine which evidence we will allow to have its say, we should instead allow the evidence to stand judge over our prejudices--even if that means questioning deeply- and long-held, and even fundamental, assumptions about the nature of reality.

But saying that we should allow even deeply-held assumptions to be questioned by credible evidence, including credible evidence from eyewitnesses, is not the same as saying we should give an uncritical pass to all claims based on personal experience.  Some claims based on personal experience are going to be more reliable than others.  We have to look at the specifics.  In the case of Lucy, we have an honest girl, with signs of sanity, telling a very detailed story about specific incidents involving specific individuals that occurred in a specific world with a specific name which she got into by going into a specific wardrobe, etc.  Lucy's siblings really had no reason to disbelieve her story, for they had no basis for their assumption that such a thing was impossible.  Given the incredible specificity of Lucy's story, there was no plausible explanation for her account beyond the possibility that she was deliberately lying, subject to some form of insanity (vivid, detailed hallucinations, etc.), or that she really had the specific experiences she related.  Given that her siblings knew her well and had strong reasons to believe her an honest person and not insane, and given that they had no real reason to disbelieve her story, no matter how counter-intuitive it was, the professor was right in pointing out that the best conclusion was to accept her story as legitimate.  (Of course, there might still be a question about how to interpret her experiences, but there was good reason to accept that, whatever the explanation, she actually had the experiences she claimed to have had.)

This is far different from the situation of the Latter-day Saint testimony I described above.  In that case, we would need to ask some further questions.  How well do I know the Latter-day Saint I am talking to?  Although it is charitable to assume honesty when reasonably possible, it would be foolish to ignore the fact that people often lie.  I can't just discount that possibility out of hand if I do not know how trustworthy a particular person is.  And there are degrees of lying.  Sometimes people lie outright, fully consciously and calculatingly.  Other times, there is a fair amount of self-deception going on, more or less consciously.  With a relative stranger (like a missionary coming to my door), I don't typically have the personal background necessary to evaluate levels of trustworthiness.  Also, in the case of the Latter-day Saint testimony, as well as lots of other kinds of "religious experience," there is often quite a lot of interpretation going on between the actual experience and a person's conclusions or beliefs based on that experience.  With Lucy, there was hardly any.  She either had those experiences or she didn't.  But a Latter-day Saint might really have a kind of deep, emotional experience when praying, and she might honestly and with strong conviction be persuaded, for whatever reason (background biases, expectations, etc.), that that experience means that the Book of Mormon is true, and yet she might quite easily be wrong in that interpretation.  It would be good to know more details about the exact nature of the particular experience a particular person is telling us about.  With Latter-day Saints, in my experience, it often comes down to a kind of feeling of joy or peace, perhaps accompanied by a strong sense of conviction that the Book of Mormon is true.  It is easy to see that an experience like that is highly ambiguous in itself and could be due to any number of factors, and that the leap from such an experience to a specific propositional claim like "The Book of Mormon is a revelation from God" is quite a large one, and not necessarily well warranted.  It is easy to imagine how people around the world might have similar experiences but interpret them differently based on different religious backgrounds, etc.  A person need not be insane or dishonest to be fooled by such an experience into thinking they know more than they actually do.  So it makes sense to take claims in this kind of context, generally speaking, with much, much more of a grain of salt than Lucy's siblings should have taken her eyewitness testimony.  Although both cases involve claims based on unreplicable personal experiences, the specifics of the cases are vastly diverse and the responses called for are very diverse as well.

The same can be said with regard to personal-experience-based claims connected to homosexuality or transgenderism.  If a person tells me that, as a homosexual, they can tell from their feelings that being asked to control and redirect homosexual desires is too much to ask for, so that it is impossible that there could be a God who would ask that, this claim seems to be based on very subjective and ambiguous evidence.  How difficult does a task have to feel like in order to constitute objective evidence that an objective moral law from God would not require it?  I find it interesting that people who would not balk at being asked to die, and even possibly to endure torture, in order to defend their values and do what they think is right, think that the difficulty involved in being asked not to engage in homosexual acts is "too much" to such an extent that they think that constitutes objective proof that such an ethical requirement cannot exist.  I am not aware of any objective argument that can show me the upper limit of what the objective moral law of God might ask of a particular person.  If, upon receiving such a reply as that, the homosexual responds by saying, "Well, of course you can't understand, you're not homosexual!  No one can understand me but me!  You'll just have to take my word for it that my experience constitutes a valid basis for such an objective argument," I'm going to have to answer that I cannot accept that claim as constituting sufficient evidence to abandon my entire Christian worldview and adopt their view on the ethicality of homosexual acts.  There is far too much subjectivity and room for error here.  Even if the person I am talking to is being perfectly honest, how do I know he is not leaping to his conclusion in a way similar to my Latter-day Saint friend--taking an ambiguous, though deeply-felt, emotional experience and jumping to an unwarranted conclusion based on it, a conclusion lacking in an objectively solid foundation and perhaps influenced by preconceived biases, assumptions, strong desires, etc.?  So I really have no basis to agree with my homosexual friend's conclusion based simply on what he perceives his personal experience to be telling him.  And, also similarly to the Latter-day Saint case, I have strong evidence coming from other sources telling me that his interpretation of his personal experience is incorrect.  I have good reason to believe that Catholic Christianity is true, and that worldview tells me that homosexual acts are unethical.  The personal-evidence-based claim of the homosexual can no more overturn that than can the personal-evidence-based claim of the Latter-day Saint.

Intellectual, Emotional, and Pastoral Considerations Regarding Personal Testimonies about the Ethicality of Homosexual Acts

I am going to conclude all of this by pasting a portion of a conversation I had with someone recently regarding these sorts of issues, and specifically regarding claims of personal experience having to do with homosexuality.  The conversation was useful, I thought, in bringing out some important points on these topics both on the intellectual level and on the emotional/psychological/pastoral level.

This is very interesting and crucially important, I think.  My conversations with you and with others expressing similar convictions has made me think about this a great deal in recent times. . . .  A couple of thoughts: 

1. It is very understandable that our emotions will accompany our reason as we think about these sorts of issues, issues which deeply impact our worldviews, our practical lives, our sense of identity, our feelings about social justice, etc.  It’s wholly appropriate for our emotions to be involved; it would be un-human to exclude them or assume they would be excluded.  In dealing with these issues, both the emotional side and the intellectual side have to be addressed. . . .  It’s a hard balance to properly respect and respond to the emotional aspects while at the same time not allowing those aspects to cripple the ability to deal with the intellectual issues thoroughly and effectively (or vice versa).  It’s something we think about a lot.

2. An important question is what role emotions have to play in informing or making intellectual arguments.  What weight should emotion have in our reasons for believing things?  There are pitfalls to avoid here.  On the one hand, we want to take the concerns arising from our emotions seriously and not neglect important things they have to say to us.  On the other hand, we don’t want to allow our emotions to give us an excuse not to deal honestly and thoroughly with the intellectual issues.  Sometimes reality might be painful and difficult, and I might need to choose to endure some pain in order to truly question my beliefs and assumptions and allow myself to be challenged by reality.  I might have to come to conclusions that are greatly painful and hard for me.  But if I care about reality and don’t want to try to escape into a false fantasy world where I feel safer, I have to learn to take that journey despite the difficulties--at least as much as I can.

3. Following #2, emotions cannot be regarded as immune from questioning or criticism.  I think there is a temptation that some people give in to these days (I think it is a bit of a fad these days) to think that if they feel very, very strongly about something, and that something is very deeply personal to them, that that exempts them from having to question those emotions, or to allow others to challenge them.  Questioning beliefs tied up with those emotions is often seen as a kind of personal attack and offense, and that sense of offense functions as a kind of screen against questioning and criticism.  This is dangerous, because it makes people feel a kind of justification for exempting themselves from questioning deep-seated, strongly-felt, and strongly-held-and-valued assumptions.  But this is a sure recipe for maintaining unjustified beliefs and prejudices.  If we want reality, we cannot exempt even our deepest beliefs and feelings from critical questioning.  These days, it has become popular in some circles to feel this way especially about moral issues and feelings.  A lot of people feel that if they have beliefs or feelings about moral and social issues they care deeply about, that somehow the depth of those feelings and the importance of the concerns justifies exempting those assumptions from critical questioning or challenge, as if allowing those assumptions to be questioned is a kind of betrayal of the moral convictions.  But moral convictions are only valid if they are based on truth, on reality.  They must be well-founded in the evidence before we have reason to take them as valid moral convictions.  So they cannot be exempt from questioning--at least not if we care about truth and reality.

4. So simply feeling strongly that homosexual acts should be OK, or being greatly concerned for social justice for homosexuals, do not in themselves prove that homosexual acts are ethical.  We also have to keep distinct different questions.  For example, it could possibly be true BOTH that homosexual acts are unethical AND that homosexuals have been treated unjustly and unlovingly in society.  If homosexuals have been treated unjustly, it does not necessarily follow that homosexual acts are ethical, and we cannot use the former as an argument for the latter (or at least I don’t see how the former actually proves the latter).  We can’t let our feelings about social justice cloud our judgment about the actual merits of arguments and evidence.  Also, being personally involved in this question does not, in itself, provide a reason for coming to a certain conclusion.  If I am homosexual, much might be at stake for me personally in the quesiton of whether or not homosexual acts are unethical.  This shouldn’t be minimized on an emotional level, but, at the same time, it cannot be used to provide a shield against crtitical questions.

5. One possible intellectually-meritorious argument that I could see arising out of the strong, personal emotions regarding homosexuality would be the one you have alluded to--the concern, as you put it, that “it’s wrong to suppress a natural part of life.”  I’ve addressed that in some of my earlier responses . . . but it’s an important objection that shouldn’t be dismissed too quickly.  I think the argument, if we articulate it out, goes something like this:  “God would not have made the world such that some people have a natural proclivity towards homosexuality and then also have forbidden homosexual acts in his moral law.  His moral commands would be at odds with what he created, and it would be inherently wrong for there to be a moral requirement to suppress a natural part of our created identity.”

I’ve addressed some of this in earlier responses.  For one thing, the situation we are currently in, where people are required by morality to suppress their desires in a painful way, is not the ideal state of creation, but is rather a part of the world in a fallen state.  As to why God would allow the Fall to occur, or in general to allow evil and suffering to happen in the world, this leads to the discussion of the problem of evil which we’ve looked at elsewhere.  In this fallen state of things, morality and our desires often conflict, and doing the right thing is often very difficult.  Most people recognize and accept this fact, that morality often asks hard things of people, and we often praise people for doing the right thing at great personal cost to themselves.

Can any objective argument be made showing that an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-wise, and all-good God would not have done what the Catholic worldview says he has done, in creating this world, allowing the Fall, commanding what he has commanded, etc.?  Can it be shown that it could not be the case that the objective moral law of God might require people with homosexual orientation to have to work to redirect their desires in the area of sexuality and not do what comes most naturally to them?  Perhaps an objective argument can be made here which rises above only the protests of feelings (which aren’t to be taken lightly, but also don’t necessarily constitute an objective argument) or is not mired in subjectivity and unquestioned assumptions, but I have not yet seen such an argument so far as I can tell.  But I’m open to such an argument being shown to me.

In making such an argument, we must also keep in mind the complexity of the issue and all the many factors involved.  We must recognize and give full credit to the great practical, psychological, and emotional difficulties of following Catholic teaching (in the area of homosexuality, but also in many other areas), but there are many other factors to remember as well.  We should note, for example, that while sexuality is often bound up with other aspects of human relationships, relationships can exist without sexuality, and there might be ways in which many of the needs of homosexuals and others can be at least partially met by other kinds of relationships that don’t involve sexual acts.  There is much to think about in that area.  While we don’t want to underestimate the difficulties of living Catholic teaching, for homosexuals and others, we also don’t want to overestimate them, in the sense of painting a more dire picture than is actually the case or overlooking ways in which the difficulties can be assuaged to some degree.

At any rate, there is much to think about here.  It can be very difficult to ask these kinds of critical questions, and we must do so with great care and sensitivity and empathy.  At the same time, again, if we are concerned not only with validating our feelings but also with making sure our beliefs are in accord with reality, we have to ask these questions. We cannot consider such questions off limits on the grounds that they are too personal, too painful, offensive to a person’s sense of identity, etc.

And one more short snippet:

This is another form of the objection we discussed above, and, again, I think it is a very important one that can’t be easily dismissed.  But it must be looked at with all the complexity it truly involves.  Again, most people recognize that morality, or even just prudence, tends to ask us to suppress or redirect natural desires, to deny ourselves things we have a natural inclination towards.  Take dieting, for example.  It’s a very hard thing to do, because in order to eat right and healthily we often have to fight against our natural inclinations, and this is a very difficult thing to do, especially for people who really enjoy eating and get a lot out of it.  I take that very seriously, being a person myself who really enjoys eating and looks forward to it.  Eating for me is kind of an oasis that eases the difficulties of life, and it really means a lot to me (even though that might sound kind of strange to someone who doesn’t feel this way, I am quite serious).  A friend of mine has a child who was recently diagnosed with celiac disease.  And the child has Down’s Syndrome, to make it worse.  She has to avoid her favorite foods now, and her parents will enforce this.  If I had that happen to me, it would be very, very difficult.  But that doesn’t mean that it can’t be the right thing to do, and that’s my point.  We can’t necessarily easily reason from “this will be really, really difficult and asks me to suppress and redirect strong and important natural desires, leading to great difficulties in life” to “I can’t possibly be required by morality or prudence to go down this path.”  And I could add a ton of other examples of all sorts, as I know you could as well with your creativity, intelligence, and empathy.  We could write a large series of books just listing the situations in which we would both agree that people are morally or prudentially required to suppress or redirect natural desires in a way that is very painful and difficult.  So why, then, should we think it so easy to assume that homosexuality must get a pass on this, must be exempt from all these other examples?  It is not evident to me that that case can be made objectively.  Another thought:  Even if, in some cases, we have to suppress or redirect our natural desires, there are more or less healthy ways of doing that.  I’m sure there are plenty of very ineffective and unhealthy ways of trying to suppress homosexual desires.  I’m sure there are plenty of ways of suppressing or redirecting other kinds of desires as well that are unhealthy and ineffective.  I’m sure there are different ways of dieting that are more or less psychologically healthy or unhealthy.  We should obviously pursue the most healthy ways possible when we are called on to deny ourselves something we want very much.  And we have to be careful to define words like “healthy” too.  Does “healthy” mean “living happily, feeling fulfilled, etc.”?  Perhaps, in that case, sometimes morality and prudence require us to live less-than-fully-healthy lives.  We might have to sacrifice some goods and sources of contentment in order to pursue things of greater value--like forgoing an adulterous relationship to respect spouses, or controlling not eating the things we want in order to take care of our bodies.  On the other hand, if we define “unhealthy” to acknowledge we might have stress from living life, and we focus more on more specific kinds of unhealthy states of mind, we might find we can redirect our desires to a great degree without being “unhealthy.”  In short, we have to ask specific questions and look at definitions, nuances, and complexities in these kinds of things if we will avoid making question-begging arguments.

For a larger dialogue on homosexuality and transgenderism, see here.  For a short article discussing how current "woke" culture tends to commit the error discussed in this article, while also making some positive and valid points, see here.

Friday, January 7, 2022

Philosophical Thoughts on Free Will, Foreknowledge, and Predestination

This article follows up on my article outlining Catholic teaching on free will, grace, and predestination.

The Nature of Free Will

There are two areas of philosophical confusion which, in my observation, tend to make it difficult for people to understand Catholic teaching regarding issues surrounding free will, grace, and predestination.  The first area of confusion has to do with the idea of free will itself.  There is a tendency sometimes for people to focus so much on the freedom of the will that they forget that the will is not completely unpredictable and uncontrollable.  They cannot see how the idea of free will is compatible with the idea that God knows the future and even plans the future.  In Catholic theology, the entire future unfolds, down to its last detail, exactly according to God's foreknowledge and plan (the plan of "predestination").  If that is so, many wonder, how in the world can we really have free will?  For (it would seem) if God infallible knows everything I am going to do in the future and even has planned everything I am going to do in the future in some way, then it is impossible for anything to happen differently than God knows and has planned, and so I can't make any different choices than the ones God knows and has planned for me to make.  So I would seem to have no free will at all.  So how can Catholic theology hold together free will, foreknowledge, and predestination?

At least part of the answer is that while, of course, coercion, force, certain psychological conditions, etc., can override or circumvent the will and so limit or remove its freedom, there are ways in which the will can be moved and directed which don't override or destroy freedom.  It can be helpful here to distinguish between "necessity" and "certainty."  As with many words adapted to abstract, philosophical use, people don't always use these words in the same way, so we don't want to be so rigid in our use of these words that we can't recognize differences of meaning in how we and others use them and so end up getting into meaningless, semantic fights.  Nevertheless, in some philosophical/theological circles, these words have been used in a way that can be helpful at capturing an important distinction.  We can think of the will being moved "necessarily" or "with certainty but not necessarily."  For the will to be moved necessarily is for the will really to be obliterated by having its options removed, so that the person willing can really only do one thing and it is impossible for him to do otherwise.  For example, say you want me to eat a cucumber.  It so happens that I hate cucumbers, so it is not going to be easy to get me to eat one.  You might attempt to get me to eat a cucumber by forcing me to eat one necessarily, removing my options and so circumventing my will.  You could tie me down and force the cucumber down my throat.  Or you could use a supercomputer to take over my brain and force my body to eat the cucumber.  Etc.

On the other hand, it is possible to move the will with certainty but without necessity, without removing legitimate options and thus circumventing and destroying the act of free choice.  Going back to the cucumber example, you might get me to certainly, yet freely, eat the cucumber by using persuasion, which involves appealing to my motives so that I freely alter my choice.  You might offer me $1,000 to eat the cucumber.  If you did that, I would certainly eat it (all other things being equal).  I would still hate the taste of the cucumber, but my distaste for cucumber would lose the battle with my desire to win $1,000.  If I really hated cucumbers and wouldn't do it even for $1,000, you could offer me $1,000,000, if you happened to have that kind of money on hand (and were that bizarrely obsessed with getting me to eat a cucumber for some reason).  In a case like this, you have performed an action that caused me to do something you wanted me to do, and made it certain I would do it, but without any overwhelming or circumventing of my will.

This can happen because acts of will, while free in some ways, are not arbitrary or groundless.  This is evident both from the law of causality as well as from a simple psychological examination of how the will actually works.  The law of causality does not allow that something can come from nothing.  If an effect occurs, it must have a cause sufficient to explain the effect.  The only alternative to this would be to have something coming from nothing.  But "nothing" is nothing and so does nothing.  It has no reality, and so cannot originate anything or exert any energy or activity to cause anything to happen.  It cannot be the explanation for why anything happens.  So if anything happens, if anything in reality undergoes change, some cause must have effected that change.  If there is anything in the universe that cannot explain itself, it must be explained by something outside of itself and not by "nothing."

And with regard to the psychology of willing, consider for yourself how you make choices.  When I examine the activity of my own will, I see this basic pattern:  1. I am aware of various states of affairs that could come about or be brought about.  I call these my "options."  2. My mind begins to examine its own desires.  What do I like?  What do I dislike?  What do I want to happen?  What do I not want to happen?  3. As this process continues, I recognize that, among the things I have some desire for, there are things I want more than other things.  In other words, I find that I have "preferences."  I prefer some states of affairs to other states of affairs.  Out of the complexity of my views, ideas, and desires, my mind attempts to sort out what I truly prefer to have come about or to bring about, all things considered, in that moment.  4. Finally, I am successful at determining my true preference in the current situation, and I settle on that preference.  This act of my mind settling on a preference is what I call the act of "choice."  5. Then, if what I have chosen is to perform some action, my body (or my mind) responds to the act of choice by performing the action (or at least attempts to do so).

Is this not how the action of choosing goes for all of us?  We can see, then, by looking at it, that the act of choice is not arbitrary or outside a nexus of causation.  My choice flows from my preference.  My preference is what I most desire or value in that moment.  (And I would add that, when I am thinking of "desire" here, I don't mean mere non-rational instinct, but what my rational mind values.)  And what I desire is a product of many, many things--my personality, my beliefs and values, all the circumstances that exist around me and inside of me at the time of my choice, the earlier circumstances that led to those circumstances, all my previous experiences, the entire previous history of my life, my DNA, the choices of my parents, the choices of their parents, the entire history of the universe, etc.  At the moment of my choice, I choose what I prefer, and the desires, values, beliefs, ideas, etc., that determine what I prefer do not spring out of nowhere.  They are what they are because of prior causes.  This is why you can cause with certainty, but without will-circumventing necessity, that I will choose to eat that cucumber.  This is why, if you happened to know everything about me and all the circumstances affecting my choice at any given moment, you could always predict with 100% accuracy what I would choose.  This is why, if you happened to have control of all the causal factors in the entire universe, you could ensure that I would always choose what you wanted me to choose.

Now consider God's relationship to the creation.  God is the First Cause, the Source of all reality.  There is no being in the universe that does not derive from him.  There are no chains of causes in the universe which do not ultimately trace back to his action.  And God is also omniscient, or all-knowing.  There is nothing in all of reality which he does not know thoroughly.  If that is the case, then it cannot be otherwise than that the history of creation will unfold according to God's perfect foreknowledge and plan.  When God created the universe, he knew exactly what he was creating, and he created exactly what he wanted.  And he knew everything that would result from that creation down through the entire chain of universal history from beginning to end.  He knew all the free choices that all creatures would make.  He knew all the free choices he himself would make as he would continue to interact with creation as its history continued to unfold, for he knew himself and his own preferential tendencies perfectly as well.  So God could not have created the universe without, at the same time, perfectly knowing and planning its entire history, down to the smallest detail.  As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it (#308), "[t]he truth that God is at work in all the actions of his creatures is inseparable from faith in God the Creator."

And none of this is in any way inconsistent with free will, for God's foreknowledge and predestination, understood in this way, do not at all overwhelm, obliterate, or circumvent anyone's free choices.  Just as you did not obliterate my free will when you offered me money to eat the cucumber, neither does God obliterate free will when he creates a universe and ordains a history in which he knows I will choose all the things I will choose in my life.  (See here--and particularly time index 17:00-20:53--for a helpful discussion of this same issue by Bishop Robert Barron.)

The Problem of Evil

All of this leads us to the second major problem a lot of people have with Catholic teaching in this area.  Even if I can see how God's foreknowledge and predestination are consistent with the freedom of my choices, yet if all of this is so, why does God's plan involve so much evil?  Why did he choose to create a world in which so much sin and suffering happen?  Why not create one where everyone makes only right choices and is always happy?  When we think of the will as outside of God's control, this can provide a kind of smokescreen, to an extent, against this second objection.  Why all the sin and suffering?  Well, God can't really do anything about it, because he can't control free will.  (Of course, this gets God off the hook from responsibility for evil only by removing his sovereignty as God, but people often don't press these sorts of things to their logical conclusions.)  But if God can control free will, if it is not outside the effects of his plan and foreknowledge, then how could God justifiably create a world in which all this sin and suffering happen?

I won't attempt to give a complete answer to this question here, because I have already dealt with it in a separate article to which I will refer you.  Sometimes this objection is expressed in terms of feeling like God is somehow still violating my freedom by exercising such absolute control over the history of my life.  I think this thought partly stems from a failure to fully recognize how different God's relationship with us is from our relationship with other creatures.  If you were to somehow gain absolute control over my life such that my entire life history became subject to your knowledge and plans, I would complain that you had violated my "free space," for no creature from outside of myself should have that kind of control over me, and you could only have gotten that kind of control by somehow conquering me from without and subjugating me illicitly.  But I make a mistake if I then transfer that feeling to my relationship with God.  God is my Creator.  His control over my life does not result from any kind of illicit conquest or manipulation or invasion of my "space."  His control arises from the fundamental fact of who he is and who I am.  The one who creates my fundamental essence and my entire world cannot but be the source of all that I am and cannot fail to exercise a kind of ownership and control over my life and my world that no mere creature could ever have.  It is his prerogative, and no one else's, to know fully and to determine the course of the universe's history and my history.  To complain about God's plan governing my life is like complaining against my mother for giving birth to me.  "If my next-door neighbor tried to give birth to me, I should be very upset!  So how I can tolerate you having given birth to me, Mom?"  Well, by the very nature of our relationship, my mother has a kind of role in bringing me into existence that my next-door neighbor can never have (unless, of course, my next-door neighbor happens to be my mother).  My mother's unique role is not a usurpation, but a natural and fully appropriate relationship.  And so is God's unique role in my life as my Creator and the one whose plan governs my life history.  

I talked above about how God's complete knowledge of and control over the factors that determine my choices make it so that I will choose precisely and only what God wants me to choose.  But does that mean that God wants me to choose to sin?  If a person should choose to commit a mortal sin, rejecting fundamentally a right relationship with God, and end up in hell as a result of this, was it God's will for this to happen?  The answer is: yes and no.  God hates sin and suffering.  He does not take delight in either of these things.  But he sees that the overall good of the universe, that which brings about the greatest overall goodness and happiness, is best achieved by allowing certain evils to occur.  So his design for the history of the universe was not set simply on stopping me from committing any sin or experiencing any suffering.  He saw that the best way to set up the universe was to ordain a set of circumstances such that it would come about that I would, at times, commit sin and experience suffering.  He did not produce sin in me (for sin is a negative thing, like darkness, rather than a positive being, like light), but he set up the world such that he knew the result would be that I would sin and that suffering would come to me--not because he delighted in the idea of my sin and suffering, but because he knew that allowing these things would bring about a greater good.  And this extends to all the sin and suffering in the universe, even to mortal sin and hell.  So God did not want me to sin, per se, but he wanted to create a universe in which I would be freely permitted by him to sin because he knew that this universe would be the one suited to accomplish his perfect purposes.

A Brief Note on Various Philosophical and Theological Schools of Thought

How does what I've said above relate to different philosophical schools of thought regarding the nature of free will?  There are two positions, broadly speaking, which are typically discussed--libertarianism and compatibilism.  I often find that there are ambiguities in terms of how these positions are defined that make it difficult to identify with either of the labels.  For example, sometimes the libertarian view of free will is defined as the idea that "it is possible to choose otherwise at the moment of a choice," and compatibilism is defined as the idea that "the will is free if, at the moment of choice, a choice is made according to one's own mind and will, voluntarily, even if it is impossible to choose otherwise because the will is determined by the strongest desires of the person."  But the phrase "able to choose otherwise" is ambiguous.  Are we talking about the ability of my mind to actually make choices between various options--that is, my ability to use my rational mind to settle on preferences?  Or does "able to choose otherwise" imply the idea that there is no certainty in choosing--that, at any given moment of choice, there is an absolute possibility that various choices might happen such that there can be no knowledge in principle about what choice will actually be made until the choice is actually made?  "Ability to choose otherwise" in the former sense is an idea that makes perfect sense and is an essential component of what it means to make an act of will.  "Ability to choose otherwise" in the latter sense is logically absurd (because it implies that totally uncaused events happen for no reason, thus denying the law of causality) and, far from being an essential component of the idea of a free act of the will, it is completely incompatible with how willing actually takes place.  It turns an act of will, which is really the act of a rational mind settling on a preference, and turns it into something fundamentally different--a totally random event which is independent of everything that comes before it (and therefore, absurdly, independent even of the person making the choice and any act of that person) but which produces actions and events in the world.

If we define "ability to choose otherwise" in the former, rational sense, then I could identify my position as libertarian.  But if we define "ability to choose otherwise" in the latter, absurd sense, then I would be inclined to say I am a compatibilist.  The libertarian view, taken in the absurd sense, is incompatible with Catholic faith, because it implies a fundamental incompatibility between the Catholic doctrine of free will and the Catholic doctrines of divine foreknowledge and predestination (not to mention that by obliterating the law of causality it destroys the very rational fabric of reality itself).

What about the various Catholic schools of thought pertaining to free will, grace, and predestination--in particular, Bañezian Thomism and Molinism?  I think that my account of free will above is consistent with any of the accepted Catholic schools of thought.  It doesn't take sides in the details of the disputes between these schools.  For more on my views regarding the Bañezian-Molinist dispute, and in particular how I understand Molinism, see here, here, and here.  All the historic, approved Catholic schools of thought agree on the fundamental theological points of Catholic doctrine regarding free will, grace, and predestination.  Here is how Catholic philosopher Alfred J. Freddoso describes the traditional Catholic teaching on free will and predestination and how both Bañezian Thomism and Molinism agree on this teaching:

According to the traditional doctrine of divine providence, God freely and knowingly plans, orders and provides for all the effects that constitute the created universe with its entire history, and he executes his chosen plan by playing an active causal role that ensures its exact realization. Since God is the perfect craftsman, not even trivial details escape his providential decrees. Whatever occurs is specifically decreed by God; more precisely, each effect produced in the created universe is either specifically and knowingly intended by him or, in concession to creaturely defectiveness, specifically and knowingly permitted by him. Divine providence thus has both a cognitive and a volitional aspect. By his pre-volitional knowledge God infallibly knows which effects would result, directly or indirectly, from any causal contribution he might choose to make to the created sphere. By his free will God chooses one from among the infinity of total sequences of created effects that are within his power to bring about and, concomitantly, wills to make a causal contribution that he knows with certainty will result in his chosen plan's being effected down to the last detail. 

This much is accepted by both Molina and the Bañezians. They further agree that it is because he is perfectly provident that God has comprehensive foreknowledge of what will occur in the created world. That is, God's speculative post-volitional knowledge of the created world -- his so-called free knowledge or knowledge of vision -- derives wholly from his pre-volitional knowledge and his knowledge of what he himself has willed to do. Unlike human knowers, God need not be acted upon by outside causes in order for his cognitive potentialities to be fully actualized; he does not have to, as it were, look outside himself in order to find out what his creative act has wrought. Rather, he knows 'in himself' what will happen precisely because he knows just what causal role he has freely chosen to play within the created order and because he knows just what will result given this causal contribution. In short, no contingent truth grasped by the knowledge of vision can be true prior to God's specifically intending or permitting it to be true or to his specifically willing to make the appropriate causal contribution toward its truth.

For more, see my problem of evil article, and my predestination article this article follows up on.  To see arguments relative to the deeper, most fundamental philosophical issues involved in all of this, see my case for the existence of God and the truth of Christianity in general here and here.

Published on the feast of St. Raymond of Peñafort.

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

The Bible and Slavery

In another context, I recently addressed some questions about the Bible and slavery, and I wanted to post those answers here in an article as well.

1. “The Bible is inconsistent with the modern teaching of the Catholic Church in various areas, such as slavery and the death penalty. Therefore Catholicism is internally inconsistent, because it claims that the Bible is the Word of God while at the same time claiming other teachings to be true which contradict it.”


I don’t think that the Bible contradicts modern Catholic teaching, if we understand both properly. Let’s look briefly at the two alleged examples--slavery and the death penalty. Again, though, as I said in my response to earlier drafts, if you want to make an objection like this, you ought to make your case yourself rather than simply hinting at it. To simply say “The Bible contradicts modern Church teaching on slavery” is insufficient as an argument. No evidence is presented. It is merely an assertion. I might just as well respond by simply saying “The Bible does not contradict modern Church teaching on slavery.” If I said that, I would be doing as much as you have done. You have to present your argument clearly and specifically and then show me the specific evidence that supports that argument. Otherwise, you put too much burden on the person responding to you, who could justly simply ignore your un-backed-up assertion. Their only alternative is to do your homework for you by doing all the research and pointing out all the specifics themself.


Nevertheless, let’s look at the claims. We’ll start with slavery. What does the modern Catholic Church say about slavery? Here is the Catechism of the Catholic Church #2414:
The seventh commandment forbids acts or enterprises that for any reason - selfish or ideological, commercial, or totalitarian - lead to the enslavement of human beings, to their being bought, sold and exchanged like merchandise, in disregard for their personal dignity. It is a sin against the dignity of persons and their fundamental rights to reduce them by violence to their productive value or to a source of profit. St. Paul directed a Christian master to treat his Christian slave "no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother, . . . both in the flesh and in the Lord." 
So “slavery,” as condemned by the Catholic Church, is to treat a human being as if they had no human dignity, as if they were simply merchandise, to reduce them by violence to being nothing more than a source of profit.

Does the Bible endorse slavery, defined in this way? No. It repudiates that idea. Let’s look at “slavery” as it exists in the Bible. Some key passages are Exodus 21:2, 16, 20-21, 26-27; 22:1-2; 23:12; 25:39-55; Deuteronomy 15:12-18; 16:11, 15; 23:25-16; Ephesians 6:5-9; 1 Corinthians 7:17-24; Philemon 1. All but the last three here are from the Law of Moses as that law lays out rules relating to slavery.

Here’s my attempt to summarize the picture of “slavery” found in the Law of Moses:
Often a person becomes a “slave” (or “servant”--see my note on terminology further down) by finding himself in a situation where he needs or owes money. A person may offer himself and his labor to another person in order to pay off a debt. A person could also become a slave by being a captive of a just war. Or a thief may be required to work to pay off the debt of what he has stolen. Also, parents are allowed to give their daughter in marriage to a person who has agreed to marry her and treat her as a wife and to receive monetary compensation for doing so. (However, if this happens, she must have full marriage rights. She cannot be given to others for money and required to work as a general servant, and if the person decides not to marry her, he must allow her to be taken back by her family. He might also have arranged for her to marry his son, in which case she must be treated as a daughter. If he won’t do any of these things, she must be released from the contract freely.) If the person who becomes a slave is an Israelite, he can only be a slave for six years. After that, he must be released. (This would apply to female servants as well as male servants.) All debts in general to Israelites are to be canceled every seventh year. If the Israelite male slave is set free before the end of the six years, he can leave with his wife and children if he was already married when he became a slave; but if the master had himself given the servant a wife, so that the wife also belongs to the master as a slave, she is not necessarily let go with her husband. The husband might choose to stay in that case. He might even choose to stay as a permanent slave. It is permissible to buy slaves from non-Israelites, and they can be made permanent servants. However, any slave who runs away from his master is not to be returned to his master (which seems to imply that the benefit of the doubt goes to the slave, that he has run away because he has been mistreated, etc.). Slaves have the right to fair treatment and respect for their rights in general. A slave can be corporally disciplined, but not severely. If any serious or permanent damage is done to a slave, that slave is set free. (Since slaves can simply run away and be free as well, perhaps the “setting free” in this case also implies the canceling of the debt that is being paid off in many cases.) If the master kills his servant, he is to be punished with death, as with other intentional homicides. (However, the homicide must be proven. If a slave dies, but his death is not clearly related to a beating received, the master is not to be blamed.) Slaves are to be allowed to rest on the Sabbath, and to participate in the holidays and festivals of Israel. No one is allowed to kidnap anyone and make him a slave. There has to be a just cause for someone to come to owe their labor to another person.

Sometimes we find words like “buy” and “sell” associated with servanthood in the Law of Moses. We have to be careful to define terms here, for today the use of words like “buy” or “sell” to apply to people and their services has the connotation of treating people like merchandise instead of like people, stripping away all their natural human rights, etc. But this connotation is not present in the biblical use of such language, which merely indicates that monetary transactions are sometimes involved in transferring a person’s service from one “master” to another. If Floyd works for me (say, he is working as a requirement to pay off a debt), and John wants to give me money so that I will assign Floyd to work for him instead, one could say that I have “sold” Floyd to John, but this would not necessarily imply that I have stripped Floyd of his human rights or am treating him as dehumanized property. As I mentioned, and as can be seen from the passages I cited above the Bible is quite clear in its opposition to any “slavery” that dehumanizes persons. Even when master-servant relationships are recognized, there is always an exhortation to remember justice and human dignity in the midst of it, as, for example, in Ephesians 6:5-9:

Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ; not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but as the servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart; with good will doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men: Knowing that whatsoever good thing any man doeth, the same shall he receive of the Lord, whether he be bond or free. And, ye masters, do the same things unto them, forbearing threatening: knowing that your Master also is in heaven; neither is there respect of persons with him.

Also, the idea of a particular race being enslaved because that race is inferior is a concept completely alien to the Bible. The concept of an “inferior race” itself is completely foreign to biblical categories. In the Bible, all human beings are said to be descended from Adam and Eve, as well as more recently from Noah, and they are all equal in fundamental worth. In Acts 17:26, St. Paul said that God “hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth.” It is certainly true that certain groups of people, such as the Canaanites and the Amalekites, become particularly wicked and are punished in extraordinary ways; but this has nothing to do with their race but with their wickedness. When Rahab the harlot chose to do the right thing and follow God, she was spared even though she was a Canaanite (Joshua 2:1-21). When Israel became wicked, God threatened to punish them with precisely the same punishments with which he punished the Canaanites. God, through the prophet Amos (in Amos 9:7), said this to Israel during one of their wicked periods:

"Are ye not as children of the Ethiopians unto me, O children of Israel?" saith the Lord. "Have not I brought up Israel out of the land of Egypt? and the Philistines from Caphtor, and the Syrians from Kir?"

In other words, Israel shouldn’t think they are better than others because of something intrinsic to their nature. “If I brought you up from Egypt,” says God, “well, I bring lots of people up from lots of places. So what?” In the context, the point God is making is that they should not expect special treatment merely because they are Israelites.

In the New Testament, in Acts 10:34-35, the Apostle Peter said, “Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him.” The Apostle Paul, speaking of the unity that exists in the Christian church, said, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). To the Colossians, he wrote that in Christ “there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11).

So I see nothing in the biblical teaching regarding slavery that contradicts modern Catholic Church teaching on this subject. The appearance of discrepancy is to a great degree dispelled simply by defining our terms more carefully and not equivocating over the meaning of words like “slavery.” With regard to the general question of the ethicality of slavery in the Bible, we must remember to keep in mind a few things:

We must remember to question our assumptions. This is especially an important thing to remember when we are dealing with moral issues, because moral positions are so often based not on rational evidence but on intuition and feelings, and they tend to be held very strongly and deeply and with great passion and zealousness by people, which makes them easy subjects of prejudice and bias and unquestioned assumptions. It is easy and natural for people, when discussing these sorts of subjects, to cling zealously to assumptions, to resent their being questioned, to get angry when another position is advocated or when objective questions are asked, and to refuse to listen to or think through or be teachable to alternative arguments or points of view. All of this is a great recipe for erroneous thinking based on unwarranted assumptions, so we must be very careful here to balance our passion for justice with an openness to rational inquiry and evidence.

We must be specific, nuanced, and thorough. As we have seen above, it is easy, with issues like this, to oversimplify our evaluation of the issue--such as by declaring the Bible contrary to modern Church ethics simply on the basis of the fact that the word “slavery” is condemned by the Catholic Church but is used in a positive way in some translations of the Bible, without asking more specific questions about the meaning of the word in different instances. Or it is easy--especially when influenced by passion and bias--to read the worst possible meaning into biblical texts rather than trying to give them as much benefit of doubt as is reasonably possible, which must be done if we will avoid question-begging in our argument against the Bible.

We should remember that, although the Bible is the Word of God, and so whatever it approves or advocates is advocated by God, yet sometimes God’s laws for humans are less than ideal. What I mean is that when moral ideas are translated into laws for particular human beings and particular human societies, those laws will be a mix between moral ideals and realistic conditions. Human lawmakers understand this. Sometimes an imperfect or corrupt system is in place that cannot be immediately abolished by legislation. In such a case, laws may be passed to bring conditions as close to the ideal as is reasonably possible. Situations or actions may be regulated without necessarily being approved as ideal. God sometimes does the same thing. Recognizing that they are not always ready to understand a full ideal, he leads his people slowly and gently, guiding them incrementally towards the full ideal. His commands might regulate what, in more ideal conditions, might be entirely abolished. This is true throughout Scripture. It is especially true when we are talking about the Law of Moses, which was an application of the moral law adapted to a particular people at a particular time in particular circumstances, and one of the purposes of which was to lead the people of Israel slowly and gently to a greater recognition of sin, salvation, and moral truths. Jesus himself explicitly acknowledges this about the Law of Moses in reference to divorce (see Matthew 19:3-9). Upon telling the people that divorce is unethical, he is challenged by the Pharisees who point out, rightly, that the Law of Moses permits and regulates divorce in some cases. He responds that Moses allowed this “because of the hardness of your hearts,” even though this was not the ideal from the beginning. Even though divorce is contrary to the ideal of God’s design for marriage, yet the people of Israel weren’t at a point where they could attain that ideal, and so the Law of Moses regulated divorce in non-ideal circumstances, trying to mitigate the harms and bring the situation as close to the ideal as was possible in that time and place. With regard to slavery, this means that we should not necessarily infer that just because God regulates certain relations between masters and servants that that implies that these relations represent what is ideal. In some cases, God may have been leading his people slowly over time to eventually overhaul their understanding of human relations more fundamentally, teaching them values incrementally, in ways that would be effective for them, so that those values would eventually bear fruit in them by bringing their hearts and their societies into conformity with the greater ideal.

So in order to make an argument against the Bible based on the moral issue of slavery, first we have to make sure our understanding of the facts are accurate, thorough, and nuanced, and not biased, incomplete, inaccurate, or oversimplified. Secondly, we have to show how a proper understanding of all the relevant facts leads necessarily to the conclusion that the Bible violates true morality. We will have to show that we know what true morality is, and that we can prove that our ideas about morality are correct without question-begging (such as by assuming Atheist assumptions without argument), and that we can truly and specifically show a contradiction between what is clearly in Scripture and what is clearly taught by the true moral law. This kind of argument is certainly possible, but it is a whole lot harder than most people realize who make attempts at it. Most people are content simply with vague, intuitive, feelings-based, oversimplified generalizations.

For more on biblical slavery, see this fascinating and well-researched article.

Now what about the death penalty? Much of what I’ve said above in terms of how we should go about evaluating these sorts of questions applies to the death penalty as well as to slavery. Since my answer here is already very long, I will refer you to another article which addresses the death penalty objection. The article can be found here.

2. “In Exodus 21:7-11, the Law of Moses allows parents to sell their daughter into slavery! How in the world could this ever be deemed ethical?! Obviously the Bible promotes moral monstrosities!”

Here is the passage in question:
And if a man sell his daughter to be a maidservant, she shall not go out as the menservants do. If she please not her master, who hath betrothed her to himself, then shall he let her be redeemed: to sell her unto a strange nation he shall have no power, seeing he hath dealt deceitfully with her. And if he have betrothed her unto his son, he shall deal with her after the manner of daughters. If he take him another wife; her food, her raiment, and her duty of marriage, shall he not diminish. And if he do not these three unto her, then shall she go out free without money.

I summarized the basic idea here in my summary of the Law of Moses on slavery in #1 above. I’ll paste the relevant portion here:

Also, parents are allowed to give their daughter in marriage to a person who has agreed to marry her and treat her as a wife and to receive monetary compensation for doing so. (However, if this happens, she must have full marriage rights. She cannot be given to others for money and required to work as a general servant, and if the person decides not to marry her, he must allow her to be taken back by her family. He might also have arranged for her to marry his son, in which case she must be treated as a daughter. If he won’t do any of these things, she must be released from the contract freely.)

What moral objections could be raised against this? Perhaps the objection could be raised that this scenario violates the right of consent the daughter ought to have. The text says nothing about the daughter’s consent. The subject is simply not addressed. So we must be careful not to make unwarranted inferences and read ideas into the text that aren’t there. Does the Bible elsewhere address the question of consent in situations like this? I am not aware of a lot of places where this is addressed, but one passage does come to mind--the story of how Abraham’s servant found a wife for Isaac in Genesis 24. I won’t paste it all here, but go and read through it This is an interesting story in many ways, but one interesting thing about it is that it gives a rare glimpse into how the wife-to-be’s consent was thought of by the people involved in this scenario (see especially v. 8 and v. 57-58). It seems that her consent was considered essential to the whole affair. Does this mean that consent should be assumed in Exodus 21:7-11? The text simply doesn’t tell us. The law as written simply doesn’t address the subject. In Catholic marriage law, the consent of both parties is required for the marriage to be valid. What about Jewish law? Interestingly, it seems that Jewish law in the Talmud (a repository of Jewish traditions of interpretation of biblical law compiled not far from the time of Christ) requires consent for a marriage to be valid as well. (See the Wikipedia article on this.) So why assume that consent would not be a part of the equation in the scenario envisioned in Exodus 21? I am not aware of any good reason to make that assumption.

Perhaps it might be argued that the culture of the Ancient Near East in general treated women in ways that did not grant them the full rights and freedoms they ought to have. In such a context, it might be argued, there is not adequate protection for these rights in the Law of Moses or in biblical revelation in general. There might not be adequate protection for consent, for example, even if it is assumed to be necessary. It is true that in any human society--including both the societies of the Ancient Near East and our own modern American society--there are many imperfections. There is no human society where the full ideals of the moral law are fully lived up to and protected in such a way as to make it impossible for violations of those ideals to happen. I mentioned in my response to #1 above that the Law of Moses sometimes regulates things in the context of less-than-ideal circumstances. Moral violations and crimes happened in ancient Israel, despite God’s moral law and the Law of Moses. As we know from our overall answer to the problem of evil, God allows evils to happen in this world and refrains from always preventing them because he sees it is for the greater overall good. This includes allowing human societies to exhibit the imperfections of the fallen human condition even to the point that no legislation can fully close off all the loopholes clever human sinners can find in order to engage in unethical acts and treat people unjustly. Different societies will be prone to different vices, as they will have different cultural personalities, different levels of knowledge, different moral sensibilities, etc. God, in his infinite wisdom, decides what to allow to happen, what to prevent, what to command, what to permit, what to regulate, what to legislate, what not to legislate, what to suggest or exhort to rather than to command or legislate, etc. Since he is omniscient and omnibenevolent, it makes sense for us to trust his judgment in such matters--that he is running the universe in the best way possible according to what is truly good and important overall.

Perhaps it might be argued that it is inappropriate for the parents to receive money in return for agreeing to allow their daughter to marry the person. Why is this inappropriate? So long as it does not involve the dehumanizing of the daughter or the reducing of her to merchandise, why could not monetary compensation be involved in such an affair--especially if the family is in great need of money? The man who is marrying the daughter is receiving something very valuable, and the family is losing a beloved daughter (in the sense that she will no longer be living at home, etc.). Why should not this transaction involve some compensation? Can a clear, objective case against this be argued? If so, I am not yet able to formulate it. But even if someone believes that this is inappropriate, or at least subject to possible abuse and so a dangerous allowance, we must remember again that these laws are not only applications of pure moral ideals but are also attempts at realistic regulations within the particular circumstances of this particular society. As such, they might regulate a practice that is not ideal but which could not realistically be entirely abolished at that time. The law could mitigate a non-ideal situation in order to move the people of Israel closer to a more adequate manifestation of the greater ideal over time.

If other objections are raised, we must keep in mind the rules of good, thorough, nuanced, and objective reasoning that we’ve outlined and tried to apply above and to remember to try to avoid oversimplification, bias rooted in highly charged emotions, etc.

3. “But all of your reasoning above is simply an attempt to justify the unjustifiable. You seek to whitewash what is plainly unethical by overcomplicating the matter.”

No, that’s not what I’m doing at all. I am pointing out genuine complexities and nuances that are relevant to the evaluation of this issue, particularly as the issue is raised in order to function as an objection to the claim that the Bible is the Word of God.

It is certainly true that one fallacious way of reasoning that people often employ is to whitewash the clear apprehension of truth by means of introducing unnecessary confusion and obscurity. That is something to watch out for. Whether anyone is doing this in any particular case has to be evaluated on the basis of a careful look at the evidence. However, it should also be remembered that there is an opposite fallacy to watch out for as well. People can sometimes try to avoid criticism and questioning of their own views and arguments by portraying the other side’s arguments as “unnecessary and confusing complications,” thus making people ignore important nuances and complexities and instead simply accept a biased and feelings-based assessment of the issue without serious questioning. This is especially effective when an opponent’s argument goes against the grain of common intuitions and prejudices within a certain culture. In such a case, people are already inclined to be suspicious of the argument, and so they are easily led to dismiss it as false without adequate and serious consideration. (And, of course, it should be remembered too that people sometimes resort to these sorts of fallacies without necessarily intending to do so consciously and deceptively. The users of these fallacious ways of reasoning are sometimes the victims of their own fallaciousness. As always, the antidote is to keep practicing the four “skills of the class”: 1. Define terms, and have clear and distinct ideas. 2. Be self-aware and other-aware. 3. Question all assumptions. 4. Have a proper balance between teachability and tenacity of belief.)

For more general apologetics for Christianity, see herehere, and here.

The Problem of Evil

Why the Problem of Evil Is Difficult to Answer

The problem of evil is one of the classic concerns/arguments raised against the existence of God.  "If God is all-powerful and all-good, how could there be evil and suffering in the world?  If God is all-powerful, he can eliminate the evil.  If he is all-good, he would want to.  So there should be no evil."  Personally, I do not find it to be a terribly difficult objection to deal with on an intellectual level, but it is very tough to respond to overall.  I think perhaps that one of the reasons for this is because it strikes hard on the emotional level.  The sufferings caused by the evils in this world are felt very deeply, and evil, as the hymn says, seems "oft so strong."  It is difficult, when one is the midst of experiencing great evil or suffering, to imagine how the allowance of such evils could be justified, or to see how any good could possibly counterbalance them.  Consider a novel as an analogy.  The characters in the novel, while in the midst of the apparent victory of evil (it is typical in a story for the power of evil to reach its greatest height, its victory apparently assured, right before the climactic "eucatastrophe"--as Tolkien called it--where good finally defeats evil), cannot imagine how evil could be defeated and good could possibly win.  (I think of Sam's great speech to this effect in The Two Towers movie.)  The end of the story is very difficult to conceive of from the vantage point of the middle of the story.

Because pain and wickedness are felt deeply, and because of the difficulty of envisioning the end from the middle, it is difficult for people oftentimes to give an unbiased intellectual hearing to answers to the problem of evil.  It feels like a betrayal or a trivialization of the greatness of the pain to hear someone make an argument for how the allowance of such evils in the world could be justified, or how the allowance of evil leads to a greater good.  No matter how intellectually convincing such arguments are, on an intuitive and emotional level, they feel woefully inadequate to the reality.

That is all very understandable, and yet, if we wish to get reality right, we must try to approach even this topic with sound, objective reason.  We must distinguish between what our feelings tell us and the intellectual merits of the arguments.  This is one place where the virtue of faith comes in.  Faith is believing to be true what one has good reason to believe to be true even when the appearances are against it.  I once heard the concept of faith illustrated by means of the idea of an airplane pilot flying through thick clouds.  The pilot's intuition, judging from the appearances out his window, keeps telling him that he is about to crash into a mountain, but his instruments tell him he is nowhere near the mountains and there is no danger on his current trajectory.  The pilot has to suppress his instincts and intuitions and trust his instruments.  (I have no idea if pilots actually experience situations like this, not having any experience with flying anything, but the analogy is still useful either way.)  That is how the virtue of faith works.  Our reason leads us to certain conclusions, and yet our instincts make these conclusions seem false.  We have to trust our reason over our intuitions and over the appearances.  But this can be very difficult, and we must be careful to give ourselves and other people what we and they need at the time.  The existence of evil poses intellectual challenges to the idea of God.  These challenges must be met by rational arguments.  But when people are in the midst of evil, they often need comfort, encouragement, pastoral care, and other kinds of personal and emotional support as much as or more than they need intellectual answers.  We cannot respond to the legitimate intellectual challenges by expressions of emotion or platitudes, nor can we properly comfort and encourage people simply by giving them intellectual answers to arguments.  Both of these have an essential role, but they must recognize their proper place.

A Response to the Problem of Evil

So here is how I think the Christian worldview can provide an intellectually-satisfying answer to the problem of evil:

God is the Supreme Being, the Creator.  He is also the Supreme Good.  He embodies the fullness of being, goodness, knowledge, wisdom, life, happiness, etc.  To know God is to know the fullness of joy and to be completely satisfied.  God himself exists as a Trinity of persons who delight in knowing and loving each other eternally.

God created the world in order to display and share his glorious perfections, to fill up the emptiness of the world with the joy of who he is.  As God's creatures, our ultimate happiness can come only from finally achieving the Beatific Vision - the joy of fully knowing God in eternal life, of which we only have a foretaste in this life.

But to know God fully, and to reach the joy of knowing God fully, one has to understand the nature of what God is not as well as what God is.  God is the fullness of being, life, goodness, wisdom, happiness, etc., so the absence of God, the opposite of God, entails emptiness, death, evil, foolishness, misery, etc.  That is why the opposite of God is hell, and hell is the destiny of beings who intentionally, with full understanding of what they are doing, cut themselves off from God (what Catholics call "mortal sin").  Hell is the natural as well as the just consequence of rejecting and opposing God, of not giving him the love that is due to him or finding our happiness ultimately in him.

In order for God to display and share his supreme goodness in and with the world, he has seen fit to allow evil and suffering to exist in the world.  Only by experiencing and understanding evil and suffering can we truly come to know God fully.  Evil and suffering are hateful to God, and yet he allows them to happen in the world to bring about the greater good of sharing the joy of who he is.  God is all-knowing and all-wise, so he knows what is best, and he only allows evil and suffering in the way and to the degree necessary to bring about the greatest good.  His plan for history, both in terms of the good he brings about and the evils he allows, is best suited to accomplish that greatest good.  The Supreme Good of who God is infinitely outweighs the worst evils that can happen in the universe, for while the evils and sufferings of this world are very great, God is infinitely greater.  We can understand this idea in general and see the reason behind it, but, with our limited knowledge, we rarely understand why God does or allows the particular things he does.  In fact, our own ignorance of the full meaning of what is happening is one of the things God allows in the world as part of his overall good plan.

God is not unjust in allowing the evils and sufferings he does.  None of us deserve any good from God, for everything we have, every aspect of our existence and life, is a free gift from him.  We are nothing in comparison to God or without God.  And not only that, but we are sinners.  Left to ourselves without his grace (the help that comes to us when God shares with us his own life and power), we inevitably fall into foolishness, weakness, wickedness, and misery.  Our first parents fell into mortal sin against God, and all their descendants come into this world following in their footsteps.  Only God's grace can turn us from mortal sin to supreme love to God.  God sent his Son--the Second Person of the Trinity--into the world in order to share with us his divine life and give us the means of deliverance from evil.  God the Son became a sharer in our humanity, uniting himself to us, so that he could absorb into himself all our emptiness, foolishness, weakness, sinfulness, and misery, sharing with us the fullness of his divine life, wisdom, power, goodness, and joy.  He has thus provided deliverance from our fallen condition, though the process of that deliverance takes place over a lifetime (and sometimes longer) and is usually painful (much like healing from a serious disease in a hospital is often a painful experience, though it leads to the revival of life rather than to death).  Left to ourselves, we are rebels against God and on the path to hell, but God in his grace gives us another path--the path back to him and to happiness.  Thus God is not unjust in allowing the evils to come upon us that he does, and we must remember that he only allows those evils that are best for the overall good.  If we trust him in these things and follow him, though our way may be very painful, in the end it will lead us to what is best.

I think the picture of reality described above shows how the existence of evil is not incompatible with the existence of an all-powerful and all-good God, and so answers the problem of evil.  The various points of this picture derive from the existence of the classical theistic God, and so if that God is shown to exist, these points all logically follow, as I have shown here (briefly) and here (more fully).

A Response to a Follow-Up Question

In order to shed further light on the problem of evil, I would like to follow up the above summary with my answer to a specific question regarding biblical morality which was asked of me in a different context.  Below is that question and my response to it.

“What about the killing of infants and animals in the Bible as they are swept up in God’s punishments.  For example, in response to the Amalekites’ attack on Israel a few hundred years earlier, God tells King Saul to wipe out all the Amalekites.  1 Samuel 15:1-3:  ‘Samuel also said unto Saul, "The Lord sent me to anoint thee to be king over his people, over Israel: now therefore hearken thou unto the voice of the words of the Lord. Thus saith the Lord of hosts, 'I remember that which Amalek did to Israel, how he laid wait for him in the way, when he came up from Egypt. Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.’ "' How can this be just?”

It is easier to see why God brings strong punishments on wilful sinners, particularly those who commit mortal sins (which involve a knowing and willing rejection of God as one’s supreme good and a turning away fundamentally from him).  If God is the Supreme Being, he is the Supreme Good, the source of all being and goodness, and so he is supremely valuable (as I argued in my case for the existence of God and my case for Christianity which I wrote up with Robert).  Therefore, rejection of him or opposition to him or contempt for him will be supremely bad and will naturally and justly reap supremely bad consequences (in other words, hell).  It is not surprising, in light of this, that God brings strong penalties on sinners in the Bible.  When God punishes sin, his punishments are not arbitrary.  With God, there is no ultimate distinction between a punishment or a reward and a natural consequence, for nature itself comes from God and his will.  God’s punishments are not arbitrary, but are logical and rational, in accordance with his divine nature and the very nature of reality itself.  He simply allows the sin to reap what it truly and naturally deserves and brings upon itself.  And his punishments are not unjustly harsh.  An Atheist or an Agnostic might see God’s punishments (whether in nature, in Christian theology, or in the Bible) as harsh, but that, I think, is partly owing to their assumption that God doesn’t exist.  If God doesn’t exist, he is of no importance, and so sin against him is no big deal, and so it doesn’t deserve or warrant any serious punishment or consequences.  But if God exists, as I said above, he is supremely important, and so sin against him is supremely serious, and the consequences of sin supremely dire.

But what about when God brings serious negative consequences on those who do not commit mortal sin or are incapable of mortal sin--like infants and animals?  Is this just?  We have to keep in mind that God is the Supreme Being and the Supreme Good.  He possesses all being, goodness, value, and happiness.  They belong to him.  They are a part of his divine life.  No one possesses these things other than him.  Apart from him, they do not exist.  Apart from God, there is only non-being, emptiness, death, evil, and misery, as I argued in my case for Christianity.  If any being who is not God experiences happiness, it is only as an unmerited gift from God.  We have nothing of our own that naturally attains or merits or warrants the happiness that is part of God’s own life.  Everything we have is a gift of God, and what we have as mere creatures is infinitely inferior to God.  Without the unmerited gift of God’s own life (which is what theologians call “grace”), we are doomed to evil and misery.  Although infants and animals are not capable of personal sin, they are part of the created and fallen world.  They do not naturally possess happiness or a right to happiness.  They are naturally prone to suffering.  When our first parents fell into sin, they brought the whole human race along with them, and, as St. Paul says (Romans 8), the creation itself is subject to the bondage to decay until it shares in the liberation of the children of God which comes through Christ.  Although infants do not commit personal sin, they are fallen creatures who do not deserve happiness, and, not being God, they are naturally subject to evil and misery.  God, for good and just reasons in his overall plan, has allowed the consequences of the Fall of our first parents to come to them and cause them to be born into the world without the grace of what Catholics call “original justice”--that condition in which grace kept our first parents holy and happy before they rejected it.  As a result of this, they share in the misery of their first parents to the extent they are capable of it, even as infants.  But they are also sinners in embryo.  When they grow up and develop the capacity for moral action, they will, without grace, grow up into mortal sinners themselves.  So, being part of fallen humanity, they share in their own way in the lot of fallen humanity.  Their suffering, however, cannot be the same or at the same level with the suffering of those who commit personal mortal sin, for God punishes no one for that which they do not deserve.

In the case of the adult Amalekites in the text, they had not lived at the time the Israelites came out of Egypt, so why are they punished for what their ancestors did?  As with the infants, I don’t think we should think of what happened to them as a “punishment” in the strict sense--as if God were blaming them personally for something they didn’t do.  Rather, he was simply bringing the consequences of their ancestors’ behavior upon them.  These Amalekites were fallen human sinners.  As such, they were already subject to death and the sufferings of this life.  If God, in his providential plan of history, chose to allow that to manifest itself by means of a link between generations--so that one generation reaped the failures of an earlier generation--there is nothing that can be shown to be unjust about that.  It is very similar to the case of the infants mentioned in the previous paragraph, but with the added element that these were adults who were personal sinners themselves.  And there is no evidence that they had repented of their ancestors’ actions or regretted them at all, or had changed in their basic approach to life (attacking innocent people and killing them, etc.).  For this reason as well it was not inappropriate for God to bring upon them the consequences of their ancestors’ sins.  In general, God often allows our actions to affect others and their actions to affect us.  Human beings are often the recipients of the consequences of other human beings’ good or bad actions.  The ultimate examples of this are all of us inheriting original sin from Adam and Eve, and those who are saved receiving the benefits of Christ’s atonement.  But in everyday, ordinary life, we often see less dramatic versions of the same basic principle, especially with parents and children (as children often receive great harm or great good from the actions of their parents).

What about animals?  They, too, are creatures and are part of this fallen world, though, unlike human infants, they are not sinners in embryo.  They will never be capable of moral action.  That capacity is contrary to their nature.  Still, they are not God, and so they do not deserve happiness, and they are justly subject to share in the consequences of being part of a fallen world, though they cannot suffer the same way that those guilty of personal mortal sin can suffer.  If God. for good and just reasons, has chosen to allow them to share in the calamities of being part of our fallen world, we have no basis to declare this to be wrong or unjust.

We can even think of adult humans who committed no personal mortal sin.  Of course, there are not many of those.  We can think of Jesus and Mary.  They could not suffer exactly the same way that those guilty of personal mortal sin can suffer, but they did suffer.  They could suffer because they were human and so were finite creatures, and also because they lived in the context of a fallen world.  (Jesus was, of course, God as well as human, but he was [and is] fully human.  He took upon himself the fullness of our humanity along with its weaknesses and frailties and sufferings, though in him that humanity was united to the divine nature.)  In the case of Jesus and Mary, and indeed any of us fallen sinners who, by grace, have repented and chosen to turn to God, our suffering can take on a voluntary and redemptive quality.  That is, we can willingly accept the suffering God providentially brings into our lives and choose to embrace the good that it leads to for ourselves, for others, and for the glory of God.  Christ voluntarily accepted suffering in order to overcome it and liberate others from sin and its consequences, and we who are in Christ are given the privilege likewise of offering up for the good of others our suffering and the virtues that are involved in suffering in pursuit of God.  God can use our suffering to help others in many ways, and we can be a willing part of that.

A closing note in general on this whole discussion of God’s punishments and negative consequences in Scripture.  When we discuss these things, we must be careful not to give an unbalanced emphasis to some things in the Bible over others.  This is especially something to watch out for when we do not really know the Bible very well.  There are lots of Atheists, I suspect, who know virtually nothing about the Bible except the “harsh” passages Atheists like to throw around.  But anyone who knows the Bible holistically is well aware that to think of the Bible as if it solely consisted of these “harsh” passages is to grossly misrepresent it.  In fact, the emphasis of the Bible, and of the Christian worldview grounded in it, is quite the opposite.  God is love (1 John 4:8).  Love is the chief characteristic of his life.  The members of the Trinity delight in their love for each other.  Love is what created the world, as God chose to let that Trinitarian love overflow into creation.  We are saved by love.  Our salvation from sin and misery has come about because God the Son died on the cross to save us.  He gave his life out of love for us and love for his Father.  God is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy” (Psalm 103:8).  And when God allows evil and suffering to happen in the world, and when he allows and ordains in his providence that evil reap its just and natural consequences, he is not acting contrary to love, but according to it.  When we love someone or something, we hate that which would destroy or defame what we love and value.  God’s punishment of evil is simply the flip-side of the coin of his love.  (Again, Atheists and some others see God’s punishments as arbitrary and cruel because they do not interpret them in their proper context, taking seriously that God is the Supreme Good so that sin against him is the supreme evil and calamity.)  God only allows evil when he knows it will bring about a greater overall happiness in the ultimate view, as it allows his divine life to be experienced fully and so loved and delighted in to the happiness of all who choose to embrace it.  The Bible is full of beautiful exhortations to love our neighbors, to love our enemies, calls to social justice (think of Jesus and the Old Testament prophets), calls to fairness and equity among all, etc.  Some of the most beautiful passages advocating compassion are in the Law of Moses (Exodus 22:21-25; 23:1-12; Leviticus 19:9-18, for example), and many more in the prophets, in the New Testament, etc.  So let’s remember to keep a balanced view of the whole context of Scripture and the Christian worldview when discussing these matters.

For more general apologetics for Christianity, see here, here, and here.