The Death of Socrates

The Death of Socrates

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Theories of the Atonement

In this note, I present a number of partial views of the Atonement. Each has been proposed by some party or other as a complete rationale for the death of Christ; but it seems to me that all are inadequate, and that it is necessary to weave together a multi-threaded account, as I have just attempted to do, if full justice is to be done to this momentous divine act.

Christ offers an example of how we should live.{1} In dying for the love of sinners, He melts the hearts of those that understand the significance of His action, turning them in repentance towards the loving God who will go to any length to rescue them from their folly and wickedness.{2}

This is Peter Abelard’s rationalistic “Moral Influence Theory” of the Atonement.{3} It is true, so far as it goes, and has the advantage of fitting smoothly with the doctrine of Ezekiel{4} and Wisdom.{5} However, it suffers from the serious defect of making it seem as if nothing changed qualitatively as a result of Christ’s death and resurrection; which is not what either the Gospel writers or the Apostle Paul seem to believe.


Christ transforms human existence by revealing every aspect of our experience, including death, as being capable of perfection and apt for sanctification. In Jesus, God became fully what we should be, sharing completely in our every human experience;{6} so that we might become in turn what Jesus showed us was possible. By being united to human nature, God conveyed immortality to the entire human race;{7} Eternal Life spreading, like a benign infection, via the sacramental ministry of the Church.{8}
For He strove and conquered. He was as man contending on behalf of the Father and through obedience{9} cancelling the disobedience.{10} He bound the strong one and set free the weak and gave salvation to His handiwork by abolishing sin; for He is our most holy Lord, the merciful lover of the human race… Had He not as man overcome man’s adversary, the enemy would not have been justly overcome. Again, had it not been God who bestowed salvation we should not have it as a secure possession; and if man had not been united to God, man could not have become a partaker in immortality. For the mediator between God and man had to bring both parties into friendship and concord through his kinship with both; and to present man to God, and make God known to man… Therefore He passed through every stage of life, restoring to each age fellowship with God… The Law, being spiritual, merely displayed sin for what it is; it did not destroy it… He who was to destroy sin and redeem man from guilt had to enter into the very condition of man, who had been dragged into slavery and was held by death, in order that death might be slain by man, and man should go forth from the bondage of death. [Irenaeus (c 202 AD) “Adversus Haereses III xviii 6-7”]
This is Irenaeus’ “Recapitulation Theory” of the Atonement.{11} It implies that God and mankind were reconciled as a result of the Incarnation in general,{12} rather than specifically the crucifixion of Jesus – although His death is a crucial part of His life story. This has always been the view of the matter favoured by the Eastern Church.


There are three uses of  “redemption” in the Old Testament. The first is that of “buying back something which had been captured by an enemy or unwillingly forfeited in some legitimate but forced transaction”. The second is that of “exchanging something dear to man but which of rights belonged to God for something of less value or significance”.{13} The third is that of “rescue from danger”.

Christ’s teaching, life, death and resurrection gave the lie to the idea that wrongdoing can separate the soul from God’s benevolence. He took to Himself the enormity of human vice and injustice{14} (accepting the verdict of a show-trial and acquiescing in the death it meted out, “paying the price” demanded by our sin) and showed that it was of no consequence before the incomparably greater power of God’s love. Christ won victory over sin and death by proving that when these forces were given full reign to do their worst to Him they were powerless to constrain or frustrate His will. He descended into Sheol,{15} broke the bonds of the spirits that had been trapped there pending His triumph, and led them to paradise. He passes His victory on to us by His offer of divine communion and of sacramental sharing in His death and resurrection. This is the “Christus Vincit Theory” of the Atonement.

In Medieval times this theory was expressed in terms of Adam having sold himself and his descendants into slavery to Satan as a result of the Fall and Jesus paying a ransom to Satan in order to buy back humanity for God. There is, however, no scriptural justification for thinking that Christ “bought back” humanity from being in the thrall of any third party, other than the fear of death itself.{16} Saint Paul does make two passing references to a “price” being paid by God;{17} but he does not specify to whom it was paid. The epistle to the Hebrews refers to Christ’s death as “destroying” the Devil, but not of it being any price paid to him.{18}

Christ also redeems humanity in the sense that in becoming one of us God ratified the fact that we have our own legitimate autonomy and are worthy of divine respect, being taken seriously and being dealt with on our terms; even when we do not return the complement and fail to respect God and to deal with God on God’s terms. In this God demonstrates the implacable divine concern for justice and for dealing righteously with mankind. Christ, acting in His manhood, effectively bought-out God’s formal property rights over mankind, redeeming us from any residual slavish dependence upon God. In particular, Saint Paul tells us that Christ’s death redeemed us from the divine tutelage or pedagogy which was partly what the Torah represented.{19} This is the “Liberation Theory” of the Atonement.


Christ also acts as redeemer in an inverse sense. One way of another, God is responsible for the suffering that is characteristic of the world. Just as God is due some kind of apology from mankind for the contribution that humanity has made to the disharmony of the world, through greed, cruelty and conceit; so mankind is due some come-back from God for the fact that God has at least allowed so many people to suffer – sometimes terribly. All that God would have to do to avoid being held accountable “and paying the price” for these facts is to remain outside and aloof from the material creation. The divine nature is impassible and so is not susceptible to critique or correction, to punishment or pain. There is no possibility of penalising God. However, it is not equitable for a superior to require that an inferior or subordinate should suffer – for whatever reason – that which they are themselves not willing to suffer.

Now, no price{20} that God could pay the conscious beings of Creation so as to make recompense for their suffering would inconvenience – still less trouble or discomfort – God in the slightest, neither would any penalty exacted on God enable God to empathise with the plight of suffering mortals. Hence the need for the Incarnation: for God to enter into and experience our human reality first hand.

In our human reality, God has accepted due punishment from humanity for God’s responsibility as the Creator of a world of suffering. If any-one ever feels that “God is to blame” for the evil that pervades this world; if any-one ever feels that “God should be made to pay” for “turning a blind eye” to disease, disharmony and disasters; they need only look at a crucifix to see God “taking the rap” for this charge.

In our human reality, God has not avoided responsibility for the sufferings of the innocent and for the fact that the wicked often prosper and for the fact that the natural world is a dangerous and hostile place. Instead, God became one of us and was put on trial and was convicted and was crucified; though He was not arraigned on any reasonable charge, and the juridical process was entirely unjust.

In our human reality, God has experienced the kind of grave injustice which every day cries to heaven for vengeance: and God did nothing to mitigate the physiological and psychological suffering that resulted from this injustice. Instead, God suffered with us – God experienced compassion – in the agonies of Christ’s human soul and Sacred Heart.

This is the “Divine Compassion Theory” of the Atonement. It shares with the “Recapitulation Theory” the idea that it is crucial that Christ entered into our mod of life so that He could share our experiences. It shares with the “Christus Vincit Theory” the idea that Christ paid a price as a redeemer – but suggests that the price was paid to humanity, not to Satan.


Christ offered amends to God for human sin by His integrity of life, even to the point of death; which offering of complete conformity to justice, righteousness or “of obedience to God’s will”{21} was of superlative value and could more than compensate for any formal offence “of disobedience” against divine justice and so render any excuse for human shame absurd.{22}
For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous. [Rom 5:19 RSV]
Christ made this offering as a man and on behalf of humanity; yet the value of His act lies not so much in the perfection of the human nature in and by which the act was executed as in the participation of the divine person who acted. It was not necessary that Christ should die for the sins of humankind; for every single tear ever shed by the divine Messiah had infinite worth, and each one that fell individually served to adequately make up for all of human wickedness. God’s infinite love is shown in the fact that Jesus did not simply act in a manner which was sufficient to make up for and purge away (that is expiate) the offences of humanity, but rather acted in the most extravagant way possible.

This is Anselm’s “Restitution Theory” of the Atonement.{23} It has much to recommend it, but there is no solid Scriptural basis for believing it to be an exhaustive account of the matter. It was subsequently developed and promoted by Thomas Aquinas and so became the central thread of western Atonement doctrine. It is not popular in the Eastern Church, whose theologians view it as too legalistic in character and as placing too much emphasis on guilt, merit and suffering.


Anselm’s doctrine later became the basis of the Protestant theory of “Penal Substitution”. According to this account of the matter, God is somehow constrained by “justice” and a boundless “hatred of sin” to take revenge for sin to an infinite degree. However, in His love, He did not wish to punish humanity by sending us all to Hell for eternity. Hence, God determined to punish Jesus instead; substituting His Son in our place and venting His righteous wrath on the Messiah, punishing Him vicariously for our offences against the divine honour.

The main justification for such a view of the matter is the Old Testament text: “It was the will of the LORD to bruise him,”{24} and yet we are told only a little earlier that “we esteemed Him smitten by God and afflicted, but he was wounded for our transgressions”{25} – which suggests that it is wrong to think that God in any sense punished the Messiah for anything. Rather, the “will of the LORD” should here (as often in the Old Testament) be understood in a permissive way; such that it was in accordance with God’s purpose that the Messiah should be bruised, not that God set out with the objective of ensuring that this would happen as a precondition for the forgiveness of mankind’s sins.

The following New Testament texts can be quoted as secondary justifications for the Protestant doctrine.
For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. [Rom 8:3-4 RSV]

For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.      [2Cor 5:21 RSV]

He himself bore our sins in His body on the tree,{26} that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By His wounds you have been healed.{27} [1Pet 2:24]
These texts are sometimes taken to mean that God punished Jesus, intentionally mistaking his “likeness of sinful flesh” for the real thing so that “the just requirement of the law” that sin ought to be punished could be fulfilled. However, they do not in fact present Jesus as being punished by anyone for anything. Moreover, even if Jesus had been punished by God this wouldn’t have satisfied any just and equitable requirement for sin to be punished, for two reasons.

First, it is not just for one party to be punished in the stead of another; except that one person may elect to pay a fine or make restitution for the offence of another – but this is not the issue here. Making restitution for an offence is not really punishment, it is rather the undoing of harm which has been done. Punishment is whatever penalty is imposed in addition to such restitution. Now in the case before us, no fine was payable and no restitution was made, other than in the sense that sin was in fact expiated; the harm of man’s alienation from God being somehow undone by Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Rather, pain was inflicted and a life was forfeited – which is an entirely different matter.

Second, any punishment imposed on Jesus could only be finite. While it might well be thought infinitely offensive that God be killed in human form, and it is certainly of infinite significance that God should chose to accept, embrace and forgive this outrage; the actual suffering experienced by Jesus (in terms of the quantity and quality of the physical and emotional pain he endured) was strictly finite, being limited by the bounds of his human constitution. Hence, no punishment inflicted on Jesus could possibly satisfy the infinite wrath of a vengeful deity.

The texts actually speak of sin itself being condemned “in the flesh”; that is, by God’s initiative in becoming human and “sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin” “He made Him to be sin who knew no sin”{28} so that “He himself bore our sins”.{29} I understand this “condemnation” of sin to mean that sin’s power to enslave human nature was taken from it as a result of Jesus’ expiatory life, death and resurrection, with the result that those who “walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” are “healed” and enabled to fulfil “the just requirement of the law” and so “live to righteousness” by being “doers of the law”{30} and even “become the righteousness of God”.


Each of these accounts is inadequate (the last most especially so) and it is wise to affirm that the significance of Christ’s Life, Death and Resurrection is multifaceted. It serves as an example for our imitation; as a demonstration of what it means to be
fully human; as a template for our divinization; as a ratification of God’s commitment to Creation; as the means for God to identify with and experience the human condition; as the means for humanity to be redeemed from the vestiges of servile dependence upon God and as the rational and proportionate expiation for the frailties, failures and wickednesses of humanity.

Now that humanity is redeemed, the way is fully open for everyone to take advantage of the offer of salvation, healing and fellowship which God holds out to us in loving-kindness.

1. 1Pet 2:19-21.
2. Jn 12:32-33.
3. P. Abelard (1079-1142) “Expositio in Epistolam ad Romanos”.
4. Ezk 18:21-23.
5. Wis 11:23-12:2.
6. If God is to be omniscient it is necessary that God has knowledge of what suffering is and, arguably, has it from the perspective of one who has suffered. This is particularly true of the divine Messiah, if He is to act as bridge-builder between God and Man. [Heb 2:10; 4:12-5:9; 7:26-28 & Irenaeus “Adversus Haereses” II xxii 4]
7. Irenaeus (c 202) “Adversus Haereses” V i 2.
8. Mat 5:13; 13:33. Mk 9:50.
9. “He learned obedience through what he suffered.” [Heb 5:8 RSV]
10. Rom 5:19.
11. Irenaeus (c 202) “Adversus Haereses” III xvi 6, xviii 1, xviii 7, xx1 1, xxii 3; V xx 2–xxi 2.
12. Irenaeus (c 202) “Adversus Haereses” V xvii 1.
13. According to the Mosaic Law every first-born male child had to be redeemed. [Ex 13:13; 34:20. Num 16:15-18]
14. 2Cor 5:21. Gal 3:13. 1Pet 2:24; 3:18.
15. Eph 4:9-10, 1Pet 3:18-20.
16. Heb 2:15
17. 1Cor 6:20; 7:23.
18. Heb 2:14.
19. Rom 7:1-6; 8:2. Gal 4:1-5. The Mosaic norms such as circumcision, Sabbath observance and dietary regulations were provisional measures. They were designed to establish a robust cultural framework which would elicit both an awareness of the ideals of holiness and justice and a conviction of mankind’s inability to attain these desirable goals by their own effort; that is, a knowledge of sin. [Rom 7:7-23]
20. 1Cor 6:20, 7:23.
21. Rom 5:18-19. Heb 5:7-9; 10:5-10. Obedience to God’s will should never be servile, but flow from a rational appreciation of what is just and represent a willing conformance to this understanding.
22. Heb 9:9-14.
23. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) “Cur Deus Homo” Book I.
24. Is 53:10.
25. Is 53:4-5.
26. “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.” [Is 53:4]
27. “With his stripes we are healed.” [Is 53:4-5]
28. This is clearly impossible. “Sin” is a state of being and a person cannot be a state of being, as such. At most, their nature might be characterized by such a state. In Jesus’ case not even this is possible in any ordinary sense. I suggest that “sin” here means “separation from God” and that Jesus “became sin” in the sense of entering into that separation in the way that a bridge spans the gap between the two sides of a canyon. In a sense, the bridge becomes the gap while at the same time filling it and so eliminating it.
29. This could mean either bore the consequences of our sins, our “griefs and sorrows” as Isaiah puts it; or else bore human nature, which in us is compromised by concupiscence. [Rom 8:4]
30. Rom 2:13.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Pascal's Wager

Pascal pointed out that the arguments for and against the reality of God – or, more fundamentally, whether that there was any point to “life the Universe and Everything” – were not fairly balanced, in the complete absence of any evidence one way or the other.

Following Plato’s account of Socrates’ argument,[1] Pascal observed that either there was a purpose to life or there wasn’t. Moreover, one could either live one’s life as if there was a point to it all or as if there was no such point. Now, if there is in fact no point to life it doesn’t matter at all how one lives – because there is no significance in anything whatever. On the contrary, if there is in fact a point to life it behoves us to attempt to discover it and to do our best to live according to our best appreciation of whatever the significance and purpose of life might be.[2]

Hence, whether or not life has any value, significance or rationale it makes sense to act as if it does. This is because if life has no purpose one has nothing to lose by living as if it did have one (even though one is wrong!) whereas if it does have a rationale one has very much to gain: in potential, the attainment of that value and the fulfilment of the purpose of life. Hence the rational person is compelled by their rationality to act as if life has value and is purposeful, and to seek out – as well they may – what that value and purpose might be. There is no possible motive for acting otherwise and to do so would be irrational and imprudent.[3]

Moreover, there cannot exist any valid argument or evidence against the proposition that existence is significant. This is because if there were such a valid argument or evidence then that argument or evidence at least would have significance, meaning and some kind of value; but this possibility is excluded by the supposed conclusion of the argument itself, namely “Life the Universe and Everything are devoid of value and significance.”[4]

Furthermore, this statement is incoherent, for if it were true it would be of huge significance and so contradict itself. So if one is going to be rational one must adopt its negation; which amounts to the statement “there is, of necessity, some significance to be found in Life the Universe and Everything.” The astute reader will recognise here a version of the Ontological Argument; where rationality itself here gives rise to the necessity of value and significance rather than “The Greatest Conceivable Being.”

Of course, neither Pascal’s Wager nor the version of the Ontological Argument which it implies directly addresses the reality of God. However, once one recognises that God is identical with the basis of value (“The Good”, as Plato names this) then there is little to be chosen between the statements “God is real” and “Being has significance.”

[1] Plato reports Socrates arguing that it makes sense to believe that there is a good life after bodily death. He observes that either this hope is true, in which case one should live one’s mortal life preparing for the blessed eternity which follows; or else it is false, and one might as well act according to the same (misguided) hope: because at least then one will live without fear and be of good cheer. See “Phaedo” (91a-b)
[2] Pensées (1670). Pascal actually worded his argument in terms of personal benefit and happiness. His version of the argument can, therefore, be construed as recommending the sacrifice of personal integrity for the sake of selfish gratification; but I do not believe this to have been Pascal’s intent. Pascal conceived his wager as a response to his quasi-Calvinist conviction (contrary to the work of Plato, Anselm, Aquinas and Descartes) that human reason was incapable of proving the reality of God.

[3] This purpose might be no more than hedonistic pleasure; in which case the fact that it is rational to live life as if it had significance would not force any-one to behave in a responsible or sober manner. However, people typically find that the pursuit of pleasure or fun or excitement as goals in their own right is ultimately unsatisfying. This is because these good things are in fact not the ultimate good, but at best contributors to and indicators of that good.

[4] It could be argued that if everything is pointless, then even this proposition is pointless and while it seems to have a significance this is no more than a delusion. However, if this is the case, how does it come to be the case that the contention is being pressed that “life is devoid of significance”? It would seem that the idea that anyone would bother to argue this case is incompatible with the case which they are supposed to be arguing for!

Suffering is intrinsic to education

Suffering  is intrinsic to the idea of life
The physics complexities which conspire to make a suitable environment for living beings (and which are also necessary if any kind of life at all is to exist) unavoidably have instabilities and other negative consequences, such as supernovae, earthquakes, tornadoes, cancer and influenza, which are experienced by life as “natural disasters”.

In other words, a system that is sufficiently non-linear to support any form of life is bound to exhibit occasional extreme behaviours which are catastrophic so far as that life form is concerned. It is therefore pretty much inconceivable for life to exist in a perfectly idyllic situation, where all its needs are reliably supplied and its continuance is never threatened. The self-same non-linearities which allow and support life necessarily threaten and subvert it.

Some forms of pain are inescapable aspects of life. The very concept of animal life implies the destruction of other life (that is, food) in order to construct and preserve itself. Even plant life is competitive and strives against other plant life to obtain resources. Nature is “red in tooth and claw” not because Nature wants to be so, nor because God chose for Nature to be so, arbitrarily; but because there is no other way for Nature to give rise to life.

According to St Paul, the present state of affairs is to be seen as provisional. It is a temporary subjection of created being to the process of evolution, with the purpose of bringing sentient life to birth. The painful process of struggle is justified by the end in view, its teleological hope.
For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God. For the creation was subjected
to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits
of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. [Rom 8 19-23 RSV]

The temporary distancing of the human soul from God which is characteristic of mortal life on Earth has a similar justification. It too is painful, it too has a resolution: in the Beatific Vision.

Still, it can be objected: “This is all very well, but surely a just and loving God would take great care to arrange that everything worked out well for His creatures. The fact that things are not ordered so that suffering is avoided, or at least minimised, shows that either God is not real or else is callous or impotent. There is no conceivable divine purpose which could possibly justify the sufferings of as many people as it is well known have suffered, due to human wickedness or natural disaster.”

The only adequate rebuttal of this objection is that it be somehow shown to be absurd. No other response could do justice to its gravity and significance. Showing that it is absurd would not lessen the moral force that lies behind the objection: for I take it to be patently obvious that the suffering – as also the wickedness – of humanity is of a character that is truly abominable. The only basis on which such abomination could be tolerated by a just and omnipotent God is that there is absolutely no alternative to it, other than the entire frustration of the very great purpose of Creation itself; which would then necessitate its non-existence.

Must God’s reality be obscure?
To this end, I first observe that if God acted to systematically prevent all natural disasters, their absence would eventually be noticed and become an overwhelming proof of continual and direct divine intervention. On the assumption that it is vital that the evidence for the reality of God’s being is morally avoidable, this is unacceptable. The occasional (or even frequent) miracle does not have this effect, for any finite number of miracles can always be accounted for as coincidences, delusional episodes, mass hysteria, freak events and simple good luck.

However, it is not at all vital that the evidence for the reality of God’s being should be insufficient to necessitate assent. While it can be argued with some sense that it is necessary that God’s precise purposes and intentions be somewhat obscure, the same cannot be said for the basic reality of God. In fact, the Bible is quite clear that the reality of God is pretty much obvious, and that it is hardly less apparent that God is good and just.

Providential Imprudence
Next, I concede that it is possible to conceive of a world that is pretty much like our own, except for the fact that God regularly intervenes in it to prevent anything (serious) from going wrong. This conceivable world would be replete with miracles, of course, and none would be able to doubt that God was both real and beneficent: the empirical evidence would be overwhelming. This knowledge, however, wouldn’t force any-one to love or respect God. In fact it might cause some individuals to resent such divine nannying; and with justification, for the effect of such continual and regular divine interference would truly be catastrophic.

In stark terms it would deny the very possibility of “knowing good and evil”. It would have this effect because no matter what any human did, things would work out well for them; because of God’s all-enveloping providential intervention. Hence there would be no possibility of wrong-doing; because all acts would have good outcomes, and hence no acts could possibly be bad ones.

The idea of personal responsibility and the notion that actions have consequences and that some of these are wholesome and supportive of life while others are perverse and morbid would be negated. God’s miraculous intervention would underwrite all human choices so as to eviscerate them of any possibility of negative outcome, and hence of moral significance. No human being would ever be able to realise that some acts were prudent and others imprudent; because, in fact, there would be no difference between prudent and imprudent acts. The very virtue of prudence would be made a nonsense.

Although it is not true that “good requires evil in order to exist”, nevertheless for a moral agent to come to understand for themselves (rather than to be pre-programmed with the fact) that there are good actions and bad ones – and become able to distinguish between these, and grow in competence to evaluate and judge such matters – the real possibility of failure and of bad outcome is necessary. Otherwise, there is no possibility of “learning from one’s mistakes” and so coming to understand the difference between good and evil.

The mitigation of evil
Now it can be argued that God might still act so as to mitigate the harm resulting from human actions. God could have intervened to prevent quite so many Jews from being humiliated, from suffering and from being killed by the Nazi’s, for example. However, while it may seem obvious to us that God could have done more to ameliorate the extreme suffering of the Jewish people, as also the terrible suffering of many other individuals and groups; we should not be entirely confident of this, because we do not know the side-effects which would have resulted from further intervention.

Moreover, we do not know that God does not do a great deal to mitigate suffering. In particular, we do not have knowledge of a world in which God definitely did not intervene to mitigate the harm intended by Hitler and his collaborators. We only have experience of this world as it is, which incorporates whatever level of providential divine intervention is in fact actual. For all we know, without God’s providential intervention the entire Jewish race might have been killed. If this is the case, then the extent of God’s action to help the Jews and to alleviate their suffering was considerable – if to our eyes entirely obscure.

Furthermore, if God acted to “cap” the negative consequences of human acts (not bothering to mitigate minor bad consequences, so as to allow humanity to learn about good and evil in small matters, while preventing seriously malign effects) it would make minor acts of imprudence or hatred little different, as measured by the severity of their consequence, from heinous offences and so entirely distort the human perception of the relative seriousness of various vicious acts. No, if an accurate perception of what evil means is to be obtained, sadly, it is necessary for God to allow human wickedness to have indefinitely bad consequences in this world; though I suppose that God might screen us from the worst we might wreak by establishing a logarithmic relationship17 between the severity of the unmitigated consequences of every act and the severity of the actual consequences which providence allowed. For all that we know, this is exactly what God has done. Perhaps this is why the invention of the atom bomb has not, as yet, let to the annihilation of the human race.

A disincentive to learning
In a world where everything is down to God’s will, there is neither any possibility for human ethical maturity nor any motive for human initiative or effort; for everything is God’s act and negative consequences are of whatever magnitude God allows, according to whatever arcane criteria God might elect to apply. Moreover, in a world in which God routinely protected the innocent and ignorant from the consequences of their imprudent actions there would be a serious disincentive against getting involved in any ethical dilemmas – and also against learning anything whatsoever!

For example, as long as one didn’t know of the peril of living on the slope of a volcano, God would stop the volcano erupting – so as to protect the naïve and innocent; whereas if one did come to understand the threat and still, imprudently, persist in abiding in that danger, God would not do so – so as to enforce moral responsibility. Hence, as soon as one has a glimmer of this implication of knowledge, one should rationally avoid learning anything about the workings of the world and eschew all scientific and philosophical inquiry. Truly, ignorance would be bliss!

The subjunctive mode
For an understanding of “good and evil” it is necessary to have an idea of the subjunctive mode: the notion of “might have been, if only”. This allows the idea that what results is conditional on my action: that I am responsible for what happens: that my will is contributory to reality and that what I do matters, has significance and makes history. This isn’t quite the same as believing that “things could actually have worked out different,” but is the state of mind that understands that effects have causes and that outcomes are attributable to actions.

If God were to exercise an absolute sovereign will, so as to prevent all evil and suffering, the subjunctive would be a nonsense; for everything would then be God’s responsibility. Humans would be no more than the characters of an author’s plot, and impotent characters at that: plaster saints with sterile virtues, who do no wrong (not because they know what wickedness is and seek to avoid it, but because they have no idea of what good and evil are and in their naïvety do all manner of foolish and reckless things, but with no ill outcome) because God prevents them even from “dashing their foot against a stone.”