Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them.”
An elderly student auditing a philosophy class once asked, sarcastically, “When you say “God,” which god are you referring to? The Flying Spaghetti Monster?” She was alluding to a phrase from Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion who was hoping to ridicule theism by pointing out all the different conceptions of god, or the gods, that humans have devised. The serious answer to a non-serious question is “you tell me your most serious and considered conception of God, and I’ll show you a mirror of your soul.” If there is nothing there, then there will be a God-shaped hole in your heart, to which Roger Scruton adverted. And actually, the apophatic assertion that God is mostly indescribable is a very high-level conception indeed. For that reason, when students say “I don’t believe in god, the biblical God, but I believe in a higher power,” I am happy to say “That’s God,” or “That’ll do!” At least for philosophical purposes, the most minimal postulate is the existence of the divine and the transcendent anyway. Then the issue becomes one of arriving at a decent idea of their nature. In this regard it is perfectly appropriate to discard any imagined attributes of God that do not make sense. “The Bible must have a meaning worthy of God, or none at all,” Origen, a Church Father, points out, though a Father viewed with suspicion at times by the Church.
Nietzsche noted that every philosophy is a confession of the philosopher. A good philosopher brings his whole being, intellectual, volitional, affective; and his experience, to his philosophizing. This has an individualizing effect, putting the philosopher at odds with theology which is socially approved philosophy. Of course, most people are not philosophers. Nonetheless, many of their thoughts and actions are likely to embody a naïve philosophy. In that way, we are all philosophers whether we like it or not.
Saint Paul wrote: “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.” There are conceptions of God that belong to the childhood of man, and then those reflecting a more mature understanding. A certain kind of moral legalism – here are the rules, now follow them – is necessary for young children and some adults stuck at this level. Of course, there are conflicts between rules – be polite, do not lie – and such a person has no means for adjudicating between them because he does not understand the spirit of the law, only the letter. The Bible reflects these levels and moves from moral legalism in the Old Testament to the demands of Jesus’ parables set as problems for ever deepening understanding. Even then, there is a big difference between “the infinite loftiness of the person of Jesus Christ and his behavior, on the one hand, and most of his parabolic teaching, on the other, with its incredibly revengeful kings, masters, landowners, and householders, with its weeping and gnashing of teeth, and its unquenched fires and undying worms. And Christians have shown a peculiar propensity to take hold of these parables in order to bolster up their own vindictiveness.”
Avicenna writes: “The secret of destiny is a stony path. Do not walk along it.” And, his cryptic “he who knows the secret of destiny is an atheist.” He was worried about the potentially corrupting effect of higher-level truth on the majority of men who exist at a very low level of understanding. God does not reward or punish. The truth is that people create their own destiny through their thoughts and behavior. But, since many people refrain from wrongdoing simply because of the fear of God, removing this fear could be harmful, and effectively end their faith in God. Origen contends: “The anticipation of a higher knowledge by someone unpurified and unprepared can be harmful and even existentially false for a person.” “The WORD, the personal, absolute, and sole truth, does not become a liar by its adaptation to different stages of maturity.” Someone’s life and soul will take a turn for the worse if he acts on his worst impulses. If his only way to understand this fact is to imagine a punitive God, rather than just “consequences,” then he is closer to the truth that being good is better than being bad, even if he has the nature of those consequences wrong. They are self-inflicted, not bestowed by God.
Each level of understanding has its appropriate features, and we all exist at some such level. In the beginning of human culture, every stone and every tree has a god in it – its own individual god – an extreme polytheism. Even every bend in the river has its own god. Human motivations are projected onto volcanos and flooding rivers. They erupt or destroy the village because the gods are angry and they must be placated with that which is most valuable to us – human beings, frequently children, slaves, and prisoners of war; with a little nod to expediency. If things get bad enough, human sacrifice will extend to the king who makes a convenient scapegoat when things go wrong, for he is in charge after all. This level is characterized by magic, superstition, and the cult of human sacrifice and the false sacred – the scapegoat victim who gets credited with bringing peace to the community in the manner of a god.
At the next low level of moral development the paradigm of a successful person is one of strength and courage – the warrior ethic instantiated by the Klingon, Worf, from Star Trek Next Generation, or Achilles from The Iliad. Here the gods are the power gods. The difference between the human and the divine is that the gods are bigger and stronger than people. Their rule is based on fear, which gets assimilated to “respect,” and their rule is arbitrary. The gods are unpredictable and people are well-advised to stay out of their way. Here the gods are like an alcoholic drug abusing and/or mentally ill father. The whole concept seems designed to produce anxiety and a fear of what might be coming next. What receives a smile and a pat on the head one day might be rewarded with a severe beating and scolding the next. This does have some basis in fact, capturing the capricious nature of much of human existence.
The next level is God the lawgiver. He divides humanity between the saved and the damned, and differentiates the true believer from the apostate. He is a king and he is just. He writes the laws and he sets up punishments for infringing those laws. While fundamentalist and simple-minded, such a conception of God has its uses. Origen writes at one point “Just because something is not true does not automatically mean it is false.” It can be an analogy or an indicator pointing at the truth. Every conception of God will be deficient in some way so we are condemned to being wrong – it is just a question of degree. To put it another way, we can aim for an approximation of the truth, but the truth accessible to us is something that resides in the human soul, which is imperfect, and then the words and categories we employ are also limited. God the lawgiver is more true than the wrathful God who smites those who displease him, and such a conception of God is easier to bear than a schizophrenic bully. Unfortunately, nuance is not to be found at this level. And there is a painful literal-mindedness. Avicenna writes that, in contrast to the punitive lawmaker image of God, “reward,” and “closeness to God” are really pleasure in the soul corresponding to the extent of its perfection, and “punishment” and “alienation from God” is really pain in the soul corresponding to its deficiency. To a degree, this means that each one of us is exactly as happy as we deserve to be, with gradations of hell and heaven here and now. Of course, there is also the matter of undeserved misfortune or good fortune with the former perhaps obliterating any real chance of happiness.
The next level is the first rational conception of God. With rationality there is the chance to strip away sociomorphic accretions stuck like barnacles onto the conception of the living God, inappropriately imported categories and concepts that apply only to fallen reality and evil necessity. Ideally, for instance, we would just let miscreants suffer the consequences of their actions. In practice, as a social reality, it is necessary to lock them away to protect the rest of us from their predations. On top of that there is a very human desire for vengeance. This desire is evil but are a very definite part of earthly existence, and are not to be attributed to God.
Rationally it is easier to figure out what is not true, than what is true. Anything that it is frankly ridiculous to attribute to God or to reality as a whole must be rejected. And, most especially, it is necessary to imagine that anything you can see God can see better. Having God behave in a worse way than you would is ridiculous.
In human relations there can be a point of no return. Your spouse cheated on you one too many times. Your son threw up on the living room floor after having totaled the car and does not seem the least sorry about it. Your child’s friend steals from your house and, though you can afford the losses, it makes you feel unsafe and you banish him. We lose patience, our ability to forgive reaches its limit, and the desire to protect yourself from further abuse takes over. You can also run the risk of being an “enabler,” or “facilitator,” to use rather revolting pseudo-psychological terms, where you are actually preventing the person from facing the consequences of his actions and helping to make him worse. Cleaning up the vomit yourself, buying him a new car, and permitting your son’s behavior as usual is not good.
God’s nature is Freedom so he cannot do other than he does without violating his own essence. People wonder why He “permits” evil. If it were in his power not to permit it, he would still permit it because a universe with goodness, love, and friendship in it is better than one without it. None of those things exist meaningfully without the possibility of their opposites. Goodness is not good if it is compulsory and evil is forbidden. Love and friendship are beautiful if free from coercion, but evil, manipulative and wrong if forced. Such a thing would violate the dignity of man which resides in his freedom.
If the consequence of making a wrong choice is eternal damnation with no chance of redemption and forgiveness, then “choice” is nullified. Having a gun pointed at your head is regarded as force and duress. It removes moral and legal responsibility for actions. Eternal damnation is infinitely worse than being shot in the head, so its prospect is incompatible with freedom. No one could take credit for a “good” action at gunpoint, let alone hell forever, so goodness would be obliterated also.
A universe with love in it is better than one without love, therefore freedom must exist as a matter of logical moral necessity. Exactly what role freedom plays in the life to come is utterly unimaginable, and that is absolutely fine. We can take it that love does not end in the afterlife, so neither does freedom. That is axiomatic. The “how” is for angels and those on the other side to worry about. “Everything on earth is a mirror and mystery of what is completed in the eternal order of salvation. Earthly freedom of will is only an image of heavenly freedom of love and grace.”
It makes no sense at all that the ability to convert, and redemption, has an expiration date. That would represent a reprehensible limit on God and a flaw in the structure of reality, nullifying the infinity of God’s love, therefore we can safely conclude that it is not true. Since my soul is eternal, I will forgive my son any violation, though I will not condone it, and as a practical necessity on earth, I might forbid him entry to the house, but if he is truly sorry and promises to mend his ways, and I believe him, then he can return. But, God does not have practical necessities so there is nothing logical, necessary, nor “natural” preventing God’s forgiveness. Thus there are no irrevocable decisions – good or bad, at least in the heavenly realm. The idea that change and forgiveness terminates upon death could be a spur to do all you can while alive, related to the idea of “noble lie” found in Plato’s Republic, but it has the drastic downside of attributing a terrible and false limitation to God’s love.
Eternal damnation violates the principle of proportion. No sin or wrongdoing could possibly justify eternal damnation. It is sometimes imagined that, upon death, the newly dead experience the pain and suffering we have inflicted on other people, reexperiencing highlights from our life from the other side of the fence – from other people’s point of view concerning our actions. Near death experiences sometimes have this feature. This seems rather delightfully just and potentially edifying. We have certain intuitions about the nature of heaven, much of it apophatic, but otherwise it is terra incognita.
Avicenna points out that punishment cannot be as theologians have conceived it. Instruments of torture, like stinging scorpions, the burning of fire, and the lash, would make of God a sadist who slakes his wrath on his victims, and a hypocrite, for God would be doing exactly the sort of thing he is supposed to have forbidden us from doing.
The two great commandments are to love the lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. And to love your neighbor as yourself. The story of the Good Samaritan makes it clear that your neighbor has no ideological or religious restrictions.
In Dante’s Inferno, it is imagined that part of the joys of heaven is witnessing the suffering of the damned. Certainly Dante, appearing as a character in his own story, seems to delight in the suffering of various people who have done him wrong. Whatever is true of heaven, what Dante describes cannot be true for it would celebrate Schadenfreude: taking joy from other people’s misery. This could be explained by the fact that Dante is in hell and he is having correspondingly hellish thoughts. No decent Christian could be happy in heaven knowing that his neighbor is suffering the torments of hell. Either we are all saved, or no one is. This is a troubling thought and seems immensely wearisome; a never-ending concern for the suffering of others: a Mother Teresa who does not die, but continues to tend the sick for all eternity.
The concept of individual salvation is egocentric and makes a mockery of God’s command to love your neighbor. Salvation for all is a more Christian aspiration, combining love and faith. Perhaps part of that faith is a faith in man and in the limits of his folly. If God is Truth, and Love, just how long can someone hold out from that? For all eternity would be awfully good going. Without the aid of a crystal ball no one can know if universal salvation will ever be achieved. However it works, if it works at all, it cannot have anything to do with compulsion, thus there can be nothing inevitable about it. A forced salvation would violate the freedom and dignity of man. But, conversely, a time limit on God’s forgiveness; on the possibility of conversion, and redemption, would mean that those of us lucky enough to be forgiven and redeemed already could stop worrying about our fellow sinners. Unfortunately, this would end the God-given moral obligation to love our neighbor. “Don’t worry. Be Happy!” It would be our moral duty to continue to pray for those in hell as long as they remain there.
The hope of universal salvation means the hope that suffering will eventually end. Until then, the obligation to contribute to universal salvation and tend to the sick and soul-weary also never ends. Plato’s philosopher who returns to try to help the prisoners in the cave is effectively going to hell, for hell is the imagined absence of the divine with its inexorable nihilistic logic.
There is no reason to think that change and learning from mistakes is impossible after death. Nothing motivates such an assumption. In fact, the idea that we have one chance to get it right and then live with the consequences for all eternity makes no sense and would make of God an arbitrary monster. Talk about high stakes testing! Since my goal is for my students to learn one way or another, in my own teaching, students are allowed to resit quizzes and exams as many times as they like. Their ability to do so, however, terminates when the semester ends because my duty to the next group of students takes precedence. God, however, has no semesters nor finite limitations, so would not put an end period for do overs. If this life were someone’s one chance to get it right it would make this life maximally meaningful and significant, but it would also be unmotivated and scandalous.
Scoot writes: “we cannot enter the beatific vision as anything less than perfection, capable of unity with God (because God does not accept anything less than perfection). So any imperfections we have in this life are fleeting, and will be removed from us in Purgatory. Our character flaws disappear and only Holiness remains.” This might possibly be true. Who knows? The idea that God cannot love and accept us in our imperfections cannot be true. And simply removing our faults seems to have potentially robotic, enslaving implications. It resembles the woman who marries a man with the intent of changing him more to her liking. It violates the integrity of the beloved.
The same person continues: “God is the Father who stayed at home and waited for his prodigal son to return to him. the Father didn’t go out looking. The son could have stayed away. The point is that the Son needed to first learn that he was wrong and then return home. and he needed to do it while he had time. This life is our time separated from the Father. We must spend it learning what we have done wrong and growing in virtue, so that we might seek him out and find him after we pass on to the next life.”
There is nothing inconsistent about a loving father who goes out searching for his son.
Origen writes: “Human nature does not have the wherewithal to search for God and attain clear knowledge of him without help from the object of his search.” And “it is only with divine grace, and not without God coming to the soul by way of a certain divine inspiration, that one comes to God.” In our search for and desire to be reunited with God, God’s grace is extended to us. The Father and Home are effectively one and the same so the father cannot leave home. Wherever the Father is there is Home. So, though the father cannot leave home, as a snail takes its home with it wherever it goes, it does not mean he does not go out looking. We are all sinners. None of us deserve heaven, so we get there through God’s grace. Luckily, there is no reason for a time limit, so the son need not worry about his Father becoming impatient or shutting the door in his face saying “Too late! Never darken my doorway again!” According to that awful interpretation of the Prodigal Son, the Father should be holding a pistol behind his back (a Luger seems appropriate) and would pretend to welcome him home, only to shoot him. Shooting someone would be infinitely more merciful and less painful than eternal damnation. Just put him out of his misery already!
The coming of The Christ meant that for the first time in world history, God became man and the distinction between the realm of Caesar and the realm of God became clearer. Christ’s murder revealed the scapegoat mechanism for the first time, and man had the opportunity to distinguish earthly sin and heavenly goodness. It also brought freedom and thus pain. Dividualist writes: “the Christian sense of freedom also seems frightening, rather than liberating to me. Can’t we just have a God who coerces us all to do all the right things? What is the point in having an ability to make disastrous choices? I never really want to grow up. I had to anyway, when my daughter was born, because children need grown-up parents. But that is about the only utility in being grown-up. Or productive work, that one, too.” For many, freedom is an unwanted burden. It means having to grow up and accept responsibility. One way to stay a child is the denial of God and the spiritual, which leaves us with determinism, thus offering the illusion of freedom from freedom; the Grand Inquisitor’s position from The Brothers Karamazov.
Without the revelation of heavenly, anti-sacrificial morality – the only kind that exists – human beings would be stuck with utilitarian-style thinking; with Caiaphas – “Better that one man should die than that a whole nation be lost.” With Christianity came the possibility of Personalism; the individual Person as the highest good, next to God. Greek and Roman thinking was cosmocentric, not Personalist. Jews had no real concept of the afterlife and focused on racial survival, not the Person in eternity. God and Christ offer the hope of something more than the frustrations of earthly existence and more than the competition inherent in the struggle for survival and success.
“I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor power, nor heights, nor depths, nor any other thing in creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
 Matthew, 18:21-22.
 Luke 17:3.
 Origen, Spirit & Fire, Catholic University of American Press, p. 20.
 1 Corinthians, 13:11.
 Berdyaev, Self-Knowledge, Semantron Press, p. 300.
 Origen, p. 17.
 These levels are derived from the psychological work of Clare Graves, which have been reimagined by Beck and Cowan in Spiral Dynamics, and further interpreted by Ken Wilber. Beck and Cowan color-code the first level as “purple,” the power gods as “red,” and the authoritarian God as “blue.”
 Origen, p. 17.
 Origen, p. 351.
 Origen, p. 84.