The Pain of Hell

Is God a torturer?

A difficulty some persons have with the doctrine of hell is the impression that hell implies vengeance and torture, which are incompatible with loving God. It is of course quite understandable that the more caution humans are in establishing punishments, the less they look at punishment as a deterrence and the more they look at it as a corrective for criminals, the harder it will be for them to understand an eternal punishment that is only employed in order to keep men from sin and evil through fear of this punishment.

The classical understanding of the punishment and pain of hell, since the middle ages and to some extent in the Father so of the Church (although the modern view of the pain of hell also finds a basis in some patristic thought) is more or less: God wills all human beings to come to him, to love him and their neighbor, and thereby to attain their own happiness. Now, in order to love, one must forego works that contradict this love; hence, to motivate men to withdraw from these evil deeds, God established the eternal separation from him and the pain of hell as punishment for works that fundamentally contradict love. The understanding of the fire of hell as a material, physical fire corresponds well to this understanding of hell, although this understanding of hell's punishment is not essentially connected with the notion of material fire.

Some modern theologians (e.g., Rahner, Greshake, Kehl, quite possibly Ratzinger) are of the opinion that this "classical" understanding of hell can no longer be maintained, that this understanding of hell is incompatible with a God who is merciful love. If God now does everything out of love, even in relation to sinners, we cannot say that suddenly after their death God no longer acts towards sinners out of love, but only or at any rate decisively out of justice. These theologians then understand the punishment of sin as an innate consequence of guilt, not as something more added by God as a disincentive to sin. That does not inflict pain on the sinner as a punishment. The punishment is the suffering inherent in sin, the ultimately unavoidable consequence of turning away from God, the source of goodness and of peace. Sin is a rejection of love. Hell is the fixation in this unloving state. But without love a person must finally be unhappy and suffer.

Several things speak in favor of this hypothesis, of this understanding of hell. In the Christian tradition we definitely do find the thought that sins brings its own punishment with it. We also very often find the thought the God, in his mercy, punishes sinners in hell less than they deserve. But if God in his mercy punishes sinners less than they deserve, it is plausible or even probable that he has not planned more punishment for hell than necessary or appropriate in order to discourage people from sinning. Hence, if the suffering inherent in sin can be appropriately described with the words that Scripture uses, such as fire, the worm, eternal destruction, and so on, than this punishment suffices as a deterring warning from sin, and it is probably that God brings about no further pain.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church also tends somewhat in this direction. It has nothing to say directly to what was traditionally called the poena sensus (the sensible or experienced pain/punishment of hell, in contrast to the punishment that consisted in a privation, in not enjoying God [poena damni]). It says "the chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs." (n. 1035) But other than by the use of the term "chief punishment" doesn't give even an hint that there is any other punishment. The phrasing does not seem to exclude the view that the principal punishment consists in separation from God, while other punishment consists in the experience of loss and loneliness subsequent upon this voluntary separation. It seems to leave open both the classical and the modern view.

Speaking about the eternal punishment of hell and the temporal punishment of purgatory, the Catechism says, "These two punishments must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin." (CCC 1472) Pope John Paul the second says something quite similar, but substitutes "punishment" (castigo) for "vengeance" (vendetta): "Man… can unfortunately choose to reject [God's] love and forgiveness once and for all, thus separating himself for ever from joyful communion with him. It is precisely this tragic situation that Christian doctrine explains when it speaks of eternal damnation or hell. It is not a punishment imposed externally by God but a development of premises already set by people in this life…. The images of hell that Sacred Scripture presents to us must be correctly interpreted. They show the complete frustration and emptiness of life without God." (General Audience, July 28, 1999).

On the other hand, whatever one thinks of this hypothesis of modern theologians, it would be a mistake to think that we can readily reject as impossible the classical understanding, held by many fathers and doctors of the Church. It is a mistake to suppose that God must act as we would act if we were entrusted with the rule of the universe and other human beings. It may be that the classic understanding of hell cannot be entirely understandable from a human perspective. This would not, however, immediately imply that this understanding is false. It could also be a sign of our very limited insight into the providence, love, and justice of God. As noted, the Catechism is rather careful on this question. It says "the chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs", (n. 1035) suggesting another punishment besides this punishment, but maintaining silence on the question of what exactly this is.

Living Without Mortal Sin?

Do some persons live and die without ever committing any mortal sins? Recently Fr. John Zuhlsdorf ("Fr. Z") stated that "there is only one woman ever who" was "entirely free of mortal sin throughout their life”. Despite correction by several commentators, he continued to defend his claim, putting forth the arguments that (1) one cannot prove the absence of mortal sin (since God alone knows the heart), (2) "If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us." (1 John 1:10), and (3) "by definition Original Sin is mortal sin and we all commit it. We all have the guilt of Original sin."

In the past I have also heard somewhat similar opinions from other sources. So, a few remarks on the matter:

(1) The burden is on the one who claims that a person who has done wrong to prove it. If someone claims that St. Thomas Aquinas, for instance, committed a mortal sin, it is up to the one who claims this to prove it. It will not do to say "prove that it's not so!" Granted one cannot directly prove that St. Therese of Lisieux, St. Aloysius Gonzaga, St. Maria Goretti, St. Dominic Savio, Bl. Jacinta of Fatima, etc., never committed a mortal sin, it surely lies on the one who accuses them of having committed mortal sin to prove it. To claim as a fact that someone committed grave evil is objectively slanderous unless one has some way of being sure that they did so. Now Fr. Z seems to suggest having a solid basis for making this claim in the doctrine that grace is a gratuitous gift (we can't know with the certainty of faith if we are in the state of grace), and that we all sin (1 John 1:10). However, and here lies the problem, the saints and doctors of the Church do not agree with him in his interpretation of these doctrines and their implications.

(2) From the Fathers through the Council of Trent and beyond, the assumption is that some, but not all, fall into sin after baptism. It is clear that grace suffices to in fact persevere a substantial length, and indeed an entire life, without sin. It may be a minority, but it is supposed to be at least some.

I quote also St. Thomas Aquinas, responding to an objection that grace cannot be a habit in the soul, since a habit is something stable and permanent, whereas grace is easily lost, since it is lost through a single act of mortal sin: "Although grace is lost by one act of mortal sin, it is not easily lost, because it is not easy for someone who has grace to do such an act, on account of his inclination to the opposite action, as the Philosopher says in Ethics V, that it is difficult for a just man to do unjust deeds." (De veritate q. 27, a. 1, ad 9). If mortal sins are not frequent in all Christians, then you can be sure that some have died without committing any mortal sins (since some die a few years after reaching the age of reason, some a single year afterwards, some a few months afterwards, etc.), unless, far from positing the traditional providence of God that preserves some people from any mortal sin ("caught up lest evil change his understanding or guile deceive his soul." Wis 4:11), one posits a very special providence of God seeing to it that everyone other than Mary falls into mortal sin, a rather problematic hypothesis.

(3) Moreover, we have positive, and strong evidence that individual persons have lived without committing any mortal sin: certain persons, who have been canonized as saints by the Catholic Church, have testified that other persons (also later canonized as saints by the Catholic Church) lived and died without committing any mortal sin. For example, St. Robert Bellarmine testified it of St. Aloysius Gonzaga, and St. John Bosco testified it of St. Dominic Savio. This view of St. Aloysius life is moreover affirmed by the liturgy itself, in which we pray, "O God, giver of heavenly gifts, who in Saint Aloysius Gonzaga joined penitence to a wonderful innocence of life, grant, through his merits and intercession, that, though we have failed to follow him in innocence, we may imitate him in penitence." The implication of this prayer is that St. Aloysius preserved baptismal innocence, and that the vast majority of persons did not. (Updated correction: Or the prayer may mean by "innocence" that he committed not only no mortal sin, but also none or next to none fully deliberate venial sin; then the implication would be that the vast majority of persons have committed at least some fully deliberate venial sin.)

Leaving aside the theological and rational arguments (which are in favor of some living and dying without committing mortal sin), if one has to choose between St. Robert Bellarmine, St. John Bosco's, and the Roman liturgy's view, and the personal interpretation of another individual, one would be wise to side with the saints and with the liturgy of the Catholic Church.

(4) Regarding St. John's statement that "If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar" (1 John 1:10), I simply recall his own statement in the same epistle, "All wrongdoing is sin, but there are some sins that are not mortal," as well as "No one born of God commits sin; for God's nature abides in him, and he cannot sin because he is born of God." (1 John 3:9)". The sins we are commit, the "daily sins" (St. Augustine), are in most cases venial sins, and John is including these when talking about sin when he says "If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar."

(5) Regarding original sin, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches explicitly that original sin does not have the character of personal guilt in us, nor is it "committed" by us: "[Original sin] is a sin which will be transmitted by propagation to all mankind, that is, by the transmission of a human nature deprived of original holiness and justice. And that is why original sin is called "sin" only in an analogical sense: it is a sin "contracted" and not "committed" – a state and not an act.
Although it is proper to each individual, original sin does not have the character of a personal fault in any of Adam's descendants (Catechism of the Catholic Church, nn. 404-405)"

In any event, even if one could theoretically call original sin "mortal sin" by analogy, that is not the traditional Catholic usage of "mortal sin" (Otherwise it would be senseless to ask, for instance, whether someone could be in original sin and venial sin, without mortal sin, as St. Thomas Aquinas does), nor is it the usage of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

To sum up, the testimony of the saints and of the Church is that grace can and does indeed preserve some people (and not just the Blessed Virgin Mary) from all mortal sin, and also points out some concrete saints whom grace has so preserved from mortal sin throughout their lives.

Lying and Moral Intuitions

Peter Kreeft recently wrote a post titled "Why Live Action did right and why we all should know that". There are three elements to his thesis, two bare affirmations–Live Action did right; we should all know that–and an affirmation of how any sound person would know they did right.

His position and argument can be summed up in the following sentence:

By an intuitive judgment that is based on moral experience and on a comparison with other ways of defending person's lives (eg., spying, physical harming someone else to keep them from killing people), it is evident to most people, and to all normal human beings that what Live Action did is right, and if you think otherwise, you're morally stupid, and care about principles or moral uprightness more than about people.

I'm not going to take a position on the legitimacy of what Live Action did, but I take a definite position on this manner of arguing: it is unsound, guilty of several classic fallacies, and uncharitable, arguing by ridiculing one's opponents.

1. Appeal to the people–because most people think its so, it must be so–or simply begging the question. Peter Kreeft premises: Most of my students immediately and firm conviction is that Dutchmen "were not wrong to deliberately deceive the Nazis about the locations of the Jews they had promised to hide". He then affirms that these students "know, without any ifs or ands or buts," that such Dutch deception is good, not evil, and that anyone who is more certain of a universal philosophical principle, from which he would conclude that such deception was wrong, "is not functioning as a human being but as a computer, an angel, a Gnostic, or a Kantian."

When we discuss Kant and the issue of lying, most of my students, even the moral absolutists, are quite certain that the Dutchmen were not wrong to deliberately deceive the Nazis about the locations of the Jews they had promised to hide. … They know, without any ifs or ands or buts, that such Dutch deception is good, not evil. If anyone is more certain of his philosophical principles than he is that this deception is good, I say he is not functioning as a human being but as a computer, an angel, a Gnostic, or a Kantian.

Here Kreeft is either (1) begging the point at issue, using his students merely as a illustration of that which he takes as a fact anyway, namely that whatever deception was realistically necessary to save lives (whether one uses the term "lying" or not) was good, or (2) arguing from the fact that the intuition of most persons is in favor of lying in such situations.

2. Begging the question and ridiculing your opponent: "Physical hiding and verbal hiding are two sides of the same coin, whether you call it lying, or deception, or whatever you call it. What it is, is much more obvious than what it is to be called. It’s a good thing to do. If you don’t know that, you’re morally stupid, and moral stupidity comes in two opposite forms: relativism and legalism. Relativism sees no principles, only people; legalism sees no people, only principles."

3. Argument by ridiculing your opponent: "If lying is always wrong, then it is wrong to lie to a nuclear terrorist (the “ticking time bomb” scenario) to elicit from him where he hid the nuclear bomb that in one hour will kill millions if it is not found and defused. The most reasonable response to the “no lying” legalist here is “You gotta be kidding”—or something less kind than that."

4. Argument from analogy, which, however, reduces to the previous fallacies, either appeal to the people or a begging of the question). The genuine morality of what Live Action did is the same as that of spying in order to save lives. But spying in order to save lives is morally right. Therefore what Live Action did is morally right.

The closest analogy I can think of to Live Action’s expose of Planned Parenthood is spying. If Live Action is wrong, then so is all spying, including spying out the Nazis’ atomic bomb projects and saving the world from a nuclear holocaust.

This is a logically valid argument. Kreeft does not argue for the premise that spying is morally licit, but this premise is probably not disputed by those whom he is opposing. The more questionable premise is his supposition that the morality of spying is the same as that of lying. He does not give any argument for this, thus it is either simply assumed (begging the question) or assumed on the basis of majority opinion.


Peter Kreeft does give a certain argument in favor of the use of the argument from majority opinion in moral matters: because they deal with concrete realities, "moral experience, instinctive moral judgments about concrete situations by our innate moral common sense" has priority over "clear definitions of general moral principles and valid logical reasoning from them"

Several questions pose themselves in regard to this: (1) what do we do when faced with a moral situation, such as that of lying to save someone's life, where the instinctive moral judgment says it is morally right, and the instinctive moral judgment of others says that it is morally wrong? If we say that the instinct of the majority is right, it seems we would have to say that the use of artificial contraception is morally right, a conclusion Kreeft would not accept. In the Aristotelian and Thomistic account, it is not just anyone's instinctive judgment which is decisive, but the judgment of the virtuous man? Is Kreeft so sure of his virtue that he can say that one who denies that his instincts are correct are "morally stupid" and is "not functioning as a human being"?

(2) What do we do when faced with a moral situation where, when the situation is presented in one way, we have one instinctive moral judgment, and, if the situation is presented in another way, we have a different instinctive moral judgment?

I hope to return to the question of instinctive judgments and moral reasoning in a later post.

See also: A Response to Peter Kreeft, On Lying, posted on the New Theological Movement Blog, and Augustine vs the Priscillianists by Mark Shea, two other responses worth reading.

Are We Obliged to Do the Impossible?

In asking whether passions and emotions can be sinful, Aquinas raises the objection:

“No one sins in doing what he cannot avoid,” as Augustine says (On the Free Choice of the Will III, 18). But man cannot escape the inordinate movement of sensuality, since “the sensuality ever remains corrupt, so long as we abide in this mortal life, and that is why it is signified by the serpent,” as Augustine says (On the Trinity XII, 12,13). Therefore the inordinate movement of the sensuality is not a sin. (ST I-II, 74:3, obj. 2).

The response he makes to this objection is that though it is impossible to avoid all inordinate movements of sensitive appetite, it is possible to avoid any particular inordinate movement, and that this ability is sufficient for a voluntary sin.

[The corruption of the sensitive appetite] does not prevent man from using his rational will to suppress individual inordinate movements, if he has a presentiment of them. He can do this by, for example, turning his thoughts to other things. Yet while he is turning his thoughts to something else, an inordinate movement may arise about this also: thus when a man, in order to avoid the movements of concupiscence, turns his thoughts away from fleshly pleasures and to the consideration of science, sometimes an unforeseen (impraemeditatus) movement of vainglory will arise. And therefore a man cannot avoid all such movements, on account of the aforesaid corruption. But it is enough, for the account of a voluntary sin, that he be able to avoid each individual one. (Ibid., ad 2)

Now, if a man is in proximate danger of having an extremely disordered desire for sensitive goods, it seems clear that he ought to do what he can to avoid that, and would be guilty of neglect if he turned his attention to avoid sins into which he is in no special danger of falling. Consequently, it seems to follow from Aquinas's position that a man can in one and the same period of time have acted morally as well as he could, have made the best moral decisions that he could make, and yet be guilty of a voluntary sin. This conclusion seems, on the face of it, rather problematic.

Does Aquinas hold the same position when he considers more particular matters? It does not appear so. In a later article, he asks whether disobedience is a mortal sin, and raises the objections:

Someone is said to be disobedient when he does not fulfill his superior's command. But superiors frequently give so many commands that it is scarcely or not at all possible to keep all of them. Therefore, if disobedience were a mortal sin, it would follow that man could not avoid mortal sin, which is an untenable position. Therefore disobedience is not a mortal sin. (II-II 105:1 obj. 3)

Now, it seems equally true in this case that a person could keep any given command, and thus, by focusing on keeping the most important commands, he fails to keep some of the less important commands (whether because of time conflicts or just because there are some many commands that he can't remember all of them). It was nonetheless absolutely speaking possible for him to keep any individual one of those other commands, and thus by Aquinas's general reasoning, it would seem that the failure to keep the command remains a sin.

Aquinas does not accept the reasoning in the concrete, however, but replies:

No one is obliged to what is impossible. Therefore, if a superior gives so many commands that a subject cannot fulfill them, the subject is free of sin. And therefore superiors should refrain from giving very many commands. (Ibid, ad 3.)

I'm not sure what to think about Aquinas's position here. Is he, in an attempt to describe scientifically a real human experience, to get at the experienced psychology of such faults, making an abstract argument that is not strictly valid, and this becomes evident when one considers not abstract but concrete cases? Or is there a decisive difference between the two cases?

It's All Adam's Fault!

In several recent posts, I argued that when a person is to some degree determined toward evil on account of an external cause, he is to that degree less free and responsible for doing the evil. In a similar vein someone might argue: it is practically speaking a foregone conclusions that we are going to commit many sins, because we are born sinners, and we are born sinners not because of anything we did (as in Origen's account), but because of Adam. It's his fault, not ours. He's really the one responsible for our sins!

There are a couple of complementary ways to approach this objection. First, we may insist, as the Early Church Fathers, as well as nearly all the Eastern Fathers tend to do, that we still retain the basic freedom to choose what is good; the divine spark and light of the Spirit in the soul has been dimmed, but not totally extinguished from the soul. This is the objective approach to answering the objection.

But how do we reconcile all these affirmations, that (1) to the degree that one person's bad action is predictable on account of the agency of another person, the former is less free and less responsible for that bad action, that (2) on account of Adam's sin, we are virtually certain to commit numerous sins, and that (3) we remain free and responsible for our sins?

The first way of doing so is to recognize that our present freedom, while real freedom, is merely a dim shadow of the freedom that is possible to the human spirit. The freedom of all of our free acts and choices, both good and evil, is a shadow of the freedom of a man whose spirit possesses true mastery of choice, for whom the "perishable body" does not weigh down the soul. If our sins are ten thousand times less voluntary than Adam's sin (which may or may not be true), this does not mean that our sins are involuntary, or that we are not free, but that Adam's freedom was a freedom greater than we can possibly imagine.

The other way to answer the objection is that whatever the cause of our sinfulness, that is, our separation from the holiness of God and our tendency to sin, the fact remains that it is we who are sinful, we who sin, we who so often act in disgraceful and shameful fashions. C.S. Lewis illustrates this well in the Problem of Pain:

Theoretically, I suppose, we might say ‘Yes: we behave like vermin, but then that is because we are vermin. And that, at any rate, is not our fault.’ But the fact that we are vermin, so far from being felt as an excuse, is a greater shame and grief to us than any of the particular acts which it leads us to commit. The situation is not nearly so hard to understand as some people make out. It arises among human beings whenever a very badly brought up boy is introduced into a decent family. They rightly remind themselves that it is ‘not his own fault’ that he is a bully, a coward, a tale-bearer and a liar. But none the less, however it came there, his present character is detestable. They not only hate it, but ought to hate it. They cannot love him for what he is, they can only try to turn him into what he is not. In the meantime, though the boy is most unfortunate in having been so brought up, you cannot quite call his character a ‘misfortune’ as if he were one thing and his character another. It is he—he himself—who bullies and sneaks and likes doing it. And if he begins to mend he will inevitably feel shame and guilt at what he is just beginning to cease to be.

Augustine emphasizes (in some respects excessively) this second approach to the state of sinfulness in which we are born. This approach, in contrast to the first, is principally subjective, focusing on our experience of a separation from God, our corresponding behavior, and consequent shame. Though this second approach would not suffice on its own to answer the objection that would deny our responsibility for sin, it is a valuable complement to the first approach.

Are They Few Who Sin?

In the posts Is predictability incompatible with responsibility for sin and The Difference Between Truth and Error, I argued that external causes (genetics, upbringing, circumstances, etc.) that are not the result of a person's will, and yet make it more likely that that person will commit an objectively evil act, decrease the voluntariness of that act. As pointed out in a comment, this principle could be used to absolve almost everyone of responsibility for sin, and in fact is not infrequently so used in modern times. Clarence Darrow argued in the trial of Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold for murder: "Nature is strong and she is pitiless. She works in mysterious ways, and we are her victims. We have not much to do with it ourselves. Nature takes this job in hand, and we only play our parts…. What had this boy had to do with it? He was not his own father; he was not his own mother….All of this was handed to him. He did not surround himself with governesses and wealth. He did not make himself. And yet he is to be compelled to pay." Though this argument was not credited by the judge, who stated that it did not pertain to the court to make a judgment of ultimate responsibility, one might argue that God judges precisely on the basis of ultimate responsibility, and does not condemn a person for an act to which he was largely led by upbringing, circumstances, etc.

What to say about this? For the sake of illustration, and in the spirit of modern science, let's describe a person's amount of responsibility with a number from 0 to 1, where 0 means the person is totally free of responsibility, and 1 means he is totally responsible. Where is the dividing line between the acts of sin for which God holds a man accountable, and the acts for which God does not hold a man accountable? If God does not condemn a person for sin unless he is at least 0.99999 responsible for it, the view that nearly everyone goes to heaven might be quite a bit more plausible. Conversely, if God condemns a person for sin if he is even 0.00001 responsible for it, the view that nearly everyone goes to hell would become more likely.

We do not have direct insight into the mind and judgment of God on this matter, but we have hints about his answer; God's answer to the question of this post would seem to be similar to his answer to the question "Are they few who will be saved?"

Strive to enter by the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. (Luke 13:24).

Whatever God's future judgment may be about those who are led to sin through their upbringing, their culture, and so on, our earnest concern should be to avoid sin and to follow Christ, and similarly to draw others away from sin and to Christ.

Aquinas On The Evidence For Original Sin

In a previous post, I quoted Newman and Chesterton speaking of evil as evidence for either the non-existence of God or the existence of original sin. Aquinas touches briefly on this topic in the Summa Contra Gentiles III, ch. 52. He outlines the argument as follows: God in his providence rewards good deeds and punishes evil deeds. But the whole human race is subject to various bodily and spiritual punishments: death, hunger, thirst, ignorance, weakness, etc. Therefore there is some sin of the human race that is being punished by these pains. Aquinas then raises the objection that all of these pains need not be punishments, since they simply follow from man's nature; being made up of various elements, man must be capable of death and corruption; again, "the sensitive appetite must incline to things in which the senses delight, and which at times are contrary to reason, and the possible intellect is in potentiality to all things intelligible, and has none of them actually, but has by its very nature to acquire them through the senses, and therefore with difficulty acquires the knowledge of truth, and is easily led astray by the imagination."

In response, Aquinas says, "one can with sufficient probability think [one can reasonably think; satis probabiliter poterit aestimare] that, divine providence having fitted each perfection to that which is to be perfected, God united a higher to a lower nature in such a way that the former would dominate the latter, and, should any obstacle to this dominion arise through a defect of nature, God by a special and supernatural act of kindness would remove it." The empirical argument for original sin presupposes more than the kind of divine providence that can be philosophically proven; it presupposes something like a providence in which God's care for man knows no limits, in which, from the very beginning, he gives man as much as possible.

Now imagine several different suppositions: (1) the atheistic position that there is no God, (2) the position that there is a God who is the cause of the world, and who intervenes in the world, but has little special concern for man, (3) the position that there is a God who is the cause of the world, but whose special providence for man regards only the future destiny of man (or man's soul), (4) the Christian (and to some extent Jewish) faith in God.

The existence of evil constitutes significant evidence for original sin only on the fourth supposition or a similar one. And conversely, the doctrine of original sin makes the world in which we live more intelligible only in light of the fourth supposition (the Christian or similar view of divine providence).

Thus rather than taking the prevalence of evil as evidence that either there is no God or that there is Original Sin, it would be more accurate to say that the prevalence of evil constitutes evidence that either the Christian view of God and divine providence is wrong, or that the Christian doctrine of original sin is correct.

Newman and Chesterton on Original Sin

Newman, reflecting on the pervasive presence of evil in the world, "the blind evolution of what turn out to be great powers or truths… the disappointments of life, the defeat of good, the success of evil… the prevalence and intensity of sin, the pervading idolatries, the corruptions, the dreary hopeless irreligion…" (Apologia pro vita sua, 242) says that were he not certain of the existence of God, "I should be an atheist, or a pantheist, or a polytheist when I looked into the world." (Apologia pro vita sua, 241). He intends this as a statement regarding his own person, and not as a critique of arguments for the existence of God. Nonetheless he seems to take the presence of evil as objective evidence in favor of either (1) the non-existence of God, or (2) the existence of original sin:

What shall be said to this heart-piercing, reason-bewildering fact? I can only answer, that either there is no Creator, or this living society of men is in a true sense discarded from His presence…. I argue about the world; if there be a God, since there is a God, the human race is implicated in some terrible aboriginal calamity. It is out of joint with the purposes of its Creator. This is a fact, a fact as true as the fact of its existence; and thus the doctrine of what is theologically {243} called original sin becomes to me almost as certain as that the world exists, and as the existence of God. (Ibid., 242-243)

Chesterton also appears to take the manifest fact of evil in the world as proof that either (1) God does not exist, or (2) if he does, then that there is an original sin which accounts for the this evil:

Modern masters of science are much impressed with the need of beginning all inquiry with a fact. The ancient masters of religion were quite equally impressed with that necessity. They began with the fact of sin — a fact as practical as potatoes.  Whether or no man could be washed in miraculous waters, there was no doubt at any rate that he wanted washing. But certain religious leaders in London, not mere materialists, have begun in our day not to deny the highly disputable water, but to deny the indisputable dirt. Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.  … The strongest saints and the strongest sceptics alike took positive evil as the starting-point of their argument. If it be true (as it certainly is) that a man can feel exquisite happiness in skinning a cat, then the religious philosopher can only draw one of two deductions. He must either deny the existence of God, as all atheists do; or he must deny the present union between God and man, as all Christians do. The new theologians seem to think it a highly rationalistic solution to deny the cat. (Orthodoxy, "The Maniac")

Now, Chesterton's principal intention is to argue against the position of "certain religious leaders," naming R.J.Campbell, and thus he may not directly intend to affirm that original sin may be proven in every respect from the fact of evil. Nonetheless, the question remains, in reading both Newman and Chesterton: is the existence of God in fact compatible with evil only if one postulates original sin? Or are they making an implicit, unreasoned identification between the existence of "God" and the existence of the Christian God, with the kind of providence  that Christians believe God has for man?

James Chastek made a post a few weeks ago that touched upon the same question from another point of departure, which readers of this blog may also be interested in: Who believes in the God that the argument from evil would seek to refute?

The Difference Between Truth and Error

In my previous post Is predictability incompatible with responsibility for sin? I argued that there is a difference between predictability or determination to evil and to good; since the will's first inclination is to good, a determination to or predictability of evil that comes from without (e.g., due to circumstances, etc.,) diminishes the freedom and responsibility of an act, while a determination to good need not. Another way to illustrate the same point is in terms of the classical teaching on ignorance as a cause that makes acts involuntary.

Suppose there are two persons with basically the same degree of virtue, each faced with a similar choice between a good and necessary act and an evil act, and that in normal circumstances each would be fairly likely to choose the good act. Now suppose that the first person is going to be so convincingly persuaded (by the devil, by another person, or by circumstances) to do the evil act that there is no significant possibility that he will not do it, while the other person is going to be so convincingly persuaded to do the good and necessary act that there is no significant possibility that he will not do it. In the first instance, the person acts on account of an error that is put upon him from without, while in the second case, the person acts on account of a true insight and/or opinion concerning the value and necessity of the good act. Hence the first person's act is involuntary insofar as it proceeds from an error for which he is not responsible (unless there were grave neglect involved in the process of being overwhelmed by the error), while the second person's act is voluntary.

In Aquinas's account, leaving aside the causality of original sin, the influence of other persons (human beings or the devil) reduces to making someone perceive things in a particular way, either by presenting them with an argument, concept, idea, picture, etc., or by affecting their emotions, which makes them perceive things in a particular way. This seems to imply that given someone is faced with a specific choice, temptations from without, to the extent they increase his probability of making a wrong choice, decrease the voluntariness of that choice, unless and to the degree that there is neglect involved in letting himself be affected by the temptation.

Is predictability incompatible with responsibility for sin?

Several interesting discussions developed in the comments of the post an argument against limbo. One of them revolves around the question of the compatibility of determination to sin with moral responsibility for sin? To what extent can the action of other persons make a given person likely to sin? To what extent can a person be morally responsible for an evil deed if he was practically certain to do it in the first place?

The argument was made that if a person who has a 99% chance of sinning is not held morally responsible for that sin, than a person who has a 99% chance of acting virtuously is also not morally responsible for the virtuous deed, and ultimately, no one is held morally responsible for any good or evil deeds.

There is a long-lasting argument between philosophers over a "compatibilist" or "incompatibilist" understanding of free will and determinism. The former view holds that free will is compatible with the choice's being predetermined (and in principle predictable) in the sequence of causes–even if, all things considered, there was no ultimate possibility that the person would make a different choice, the choice was free because it proceeded from his desires and deliberation–while the latter view holds that free will is incompatible with a predetermination of the choice.

The question of the responsibility for sin given that one is "very likely" to sin and given that one is "certain" to sin are not entirely the same, but are closely related. My first remark on all this is to note that in the philosophical discussions, the difference between good and evil is frequently overlooked or considered to be irrelevant. The question is reduced to a consideration of choosing A or B, and the effect of predictability or determination of the choice upon moral responsibility for that choice. If one is certain or almost certain to choose A, is one responsible for choosing A?

It seems to me fundamentally mistaken to consider the question in abstraction from the question of good and evil, or from the question of whether the action in question fulfills or harms the will's fundamental freedom and orientation.

The question of moral responsibility seems to amount to this: is the human person, as a person, the cause of the good or evil of the choice they make and the act they do? If a person hurts someone else while sleepwalking, the person is the cause of that evil, yet not as a person, since the properly human acts of reason and will are not involved in the act at all. Again, if a parent purchases medicine for a sick child and gives it to that child, unaware that a malicious person has put poison into the medicine bottle, the parent is not morally the cause of the evil of "poisoning the child," because, though they deliberately choose to given the contents of the bottle to their child, and in this sense choose something bad, the reason for the badness of the choice is not in them, but in the person who put the poison in the bottle.

What should we say about a case in which one person leads another person to an evil choice? If parents, for example, persuade their ten year old daughter to kill her child by abortion? In such a case the act proceeds from her reason and will, and in this sense is a free and moral act. However, the question remains: to what is the evil of the act, and the disorder in her reason and will to be attributed? To her, or to her parents? While God alone can judge the heart, I would say that if she was in general well disposed to life and unlikely to make that choice without the influence of her parents, and under the influence of her parents unlikely not to make that choice, then the disorder of the choice is in any case to be principally attributed to her parents, and with high probability not to be attributed to her. For, when we consider her own principle of motion, we see a tendency to good action, which in this particular case is broken, hindered from coming to actuality. Since there is a highly probable explanation of this fact in her parents, it is unreasonable and improbable to attribute the explanation to the girl herself, even though it is in principle possible.

What about when one person leads another person to a good choice? If someone persuades a woman not to have an abortion? To what extent is the goodness of this choice to be attributed to the woman herself? As in the other case, if she was otherwise inclined to have an abortion, yet under the influence of someone else unlikely to have an abortion, then the correctness of the choice can be in some sense principally attributed to the person who persuades her to keep her child. However, if she is persuaded on the basis of a fundamental will for something good (rather than through some kind of trickery), then the goodness of her choice can also be attributed to her. Insofar as she had a particular inclination that would have led her to have an abortion, which was overcome through the intervention of another person, she is not morally responsible for the goodness of her choice, anymore than the girl in the other example is responsible for the badness of her choice. But insofar as the good choice comes from a more fundamental inclination of her will to good, she is responsible for its goodness, and praiseworthy for it.