It’s Saturday morning, I’m sitting with a coffee by the fireplace, and the balloon is watching me. (He’s hovering over the kitchen table at the moment. At least he’s still smiling.)
Now that I have some time I can offer some thoughts on “Evil and Nate’s Principle“. Please click the link to read Nate’s comments. Otherwise my response may not make much sense.
Let’s start with a restatement of Nate’s Principle:
Nate’s Principle (NP): God would never permit a being to suffer to bring about a greater good G, unless G satisfies the following conditions: (a) G directly benefits the person who suffers (this is consistent with G’s having other positive benefits for other people), (b) G *outweighs* the evil of permitting suffering, and (c) necessarily, God could not achieve G without permitting the suffering: G must be such that there is no way to realize it without first allowing the being to suffer.
Nate then gives us the scenario of a man named John who suffers and dies from an illness and goes to hell. God allows this to benefit five other people who are moved by the suffering John endures. Nate objects that this scenario violates (a) and thus that God uses John merely as a means to achieve goods in the five others who witness his death.
Nate’s thought experiment depends on the condition that John is lost eternally which entails that universalism is false: “This (plausibly, I think) assumes that universalism is false, so either annihilation or damnation to hell awaits death.” As a result, the force of the thought experiment is undermined if the man is saved ultimately because in that case the suffering can be viewed as part of the means of his reconciliation.
This brings me to my first of two responses. Nate is correct that it is plausible to think that universalism is false given other Christian beliefs. But universalism isn’t obviously false given that there are many Christian univeralists who offer powerful biblical, theological and philosophical grounds for their view. In recognition of this fact, I defend hopeful universalism in my book What on Earth Do We Know About Heaven? according to which every Christian ought to hope for the salvation of all. Just so we’re clear, hoping is not the same as wishing. To wish that p is consistent with believing it is not possible that p. (Josephine might wish she had received a pony for her birthday when in fact she received a pair of socks. Her knowledge that she didn’t receive the pony [a fact which is now accidentally necessary] is consistent with her still wishing that she had. But hoping is not like this. Once Josephine opens her gift and realizes there is nothing else, she must abandon all hope of a pony.) And so Christians are not merely limited to wishing that universalism were true. They can still hope that it is, in which case John would be saved. This hope provides the space for a defence (if not a theodicy) against Nate’s objection. (Footnote: universalism is consistent with hell. But on a universalist view the suffering of hell is temporary and reformative.)
Now let’s turn from defense to theodicy. I will now argue that even if universalism is false and John goes to hell, we still ought to think that John’s dying is consistent with (a) and thus that it does not violate Nate’s Principle.
In order to elucidate this second point we must note first that it is a standard principle in Christian theology that just as there are levels of reward in heaven, so there are levels of punishment in hell. (Incidentally, those punishments can be viewed as inflicted by God, but they could also be viewed as self-inflicted. A young man who opts to sniff gasoline in his spare time already is suffering egregiously from the immediate effects of his own choices.) It follows that there are worse ways to be lost.
So now consider two scenarios. Scenario 1: John suffers slowly and dies and goes to hell (as in Nate’s illustration). Scenario 2: John dies quickly and goes to hell whilst benefiting no one. At this point, so it seems to me, the Christian who accepts Nate’s principle ought simply to say that God actualized Scenario 1 rather than Scenario 2 not simply to benefit the five others, but also because doing so would result in John suffering less in eternity than he would have in Scenario 2, and that diminished suffering in eternity would far outweigh the increased suffering John experienced during his death. Thus, we meet the demands of (a).