Divine injustice

Confusing signsA common atheistic argument is that any kind of divine judgement which requires people to have heard and believe a particular religion is unfair. This was in fact the first argument against religion that occurred to me as a teenager and set me on the road away from Christianity.

In response to this, in the plethora of comments which followed an article on de-conversion.com, a Christian called Joe advanced the following argument by analogy.

…if you won free tickets to Hawaii, but were told some others will not be going there because they refused the free tickets, would you give up your free ticket? Would you reject the free trip to Hawaii, even though you knew that the other people had been “offered” the same thing but rejected it? How lame and stupid would that be?

His analogy differs slightly from the commonly accepted ideas of the Bible. The tickets are offered but not accepted. This is different from Christianity, and most religions, which are not offered to everyone, because not everyone gets to hear about them.

During a discussion in a pub a Christian friend of mine recently made a similar argument. His version imagined the protagonist bobbing around in the water as the Titanic sunk. As a helicopter approaches and offers to pull them from the water, they wouldn’t say, “Hey, why aren’t you saving that guy too?”.

As is often the case in face to face debates, that sounded wrong to me, but I didn’t have an answer ready off the top of my head. However, on later consideration, the analogy of the helicopter rescue is flawed for a different reason. It would be unreasonable to complain that the helicopterHelicopter rescue is not rescuing everyone because the helicopter:

  1. Does not have the ability to do so.
  2. Does not claim to provide perfect justice.

Now it seems obvious that neither of those apply to any judgemental deity. Most monotheistic deities are generally considered omnipotent and at least in the case of the Christian God, having perfect judgement is reputedly one of his qualities. So when people question a doctrine that requires belief in a particular god for salvation, they’re asking “What kind of justice is that?”. They’re not just saying it’s unfair, they’re saying it’s unfair and yet it claims to be fair.

Responses to this usually invoke the ineffability of God – “God’s ways are not out ways” or “We cannot know the mind of God”. The trouble with those answers is if you go down that route then all bets are off. You might as well give up trying to understand anything about what God thinks or wants from us. Your guess would be as good as mine.

Neither of these contemporary examples are the first to use this line of reasoning. In Mere Christianity, C.S.Lewis says:

Here is another thing that used to puzzle me. Is it not frightfully unfair that this new life should be confined to people who have heard of Christ and been able to believe in Him? But the truth is God has not told us what His arrangements about the other people are. We do know that no man can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him. But in the meantime, if you are worried about the people outside, the most unreasonable thing you can do is to remain outside yourself.

C.S. Lewis statueThere are several problems with this. I’m going to gloss over the “We knows” which assume the Bible’s accuracy. For the sake of brevity I’ll even ignore the Bible verses which do explain what the arrangements for the ominously-named “other people” are. In my opinion, the important issue here is this: A being claimed to dispense perfect justice appears to be monstrously unjust. It’s not justice to require that people chose the one true religion out of the many that exist and have existed, some of which many people will never hear about. Worse still the choice is made on pain of death or eternal damnation (depending on how you interpret the scriptures). Yet this being is supposed to be loving, just and omniscient. It casts doubt on the whole idea.

By saying it is unreasonable for us to worry about the people outside, Lewis seems to be trying to appeal to our selfish side. You don’t want to be on the outside, do you? It’s dark out there and well, we just don’t know what happens to people who get left out there. Stop fussing and come inside.

If this used to puzzle Lewis did he resolve it merely by ceasing to think about it? This doesn’t strike me as very intellectually honest. Simply suggesting that people should stop worrying about this issue is not addressing the argument.

10 thoughts on “Divine injustice

  1. By saying it is unreasonable for us to worry about the people outside, Lewis seems to be trying to appeal to our selfish side.

    Um, is that what’s said? The quote provided was:
    But in the meantime, if you are worried about the people outside, the most unreasonable thing you can do is to remain outside yourself.

  2. Oh yes, you’re right! Sorry, I should have re-read that more carefully.

    He’s only saying it’s unreasonable for us to stay outside, which I still think is trying to appeal to our selfish sides.

  3. Possibly.

    More charitably, he might be saying it’s unreasonable not to save ourselves just because others can’t save themselves.

    Of course, I don’t know, not having read the book.
    And sure, it’s appealing to self-preservation, if that’s what you mean by our selfish side.

  4. God has not told us what His arrangements about the other people are. We do know that no man can be saved except through Christ.

    In my liberal Christian days, I figured that Jesus would be gracious enough to intercede on behalf of those who had lived good lives according to some religious faith. I figured that was one of the ineffable ways God could effect salvation beyond the seemingly narrow Christian parameters. I just happened to be among those fortunate enough to know the truth.

    Yeah – pretty lame. I gave it up.

  5. John Morales,

    More charitably, he might be saying it’s unreasonable not to save ourselves just because others can’t save themselves.

    Yes, I guess that’s a fair way of putting it. I think the issue really is that he’s missing the point of the argument:
    They’re not just saying it’s unfair, they’re saying it’s unfair and yet it claims to be fair.

    And yes self-preservation is probably a better way to describe it, perhaps I was unfair on Lewis. If you want to read the whole of Mere Christianity you can follow the link to Philosophy for Life. Ebonmuse also did a review of it.

    the chaplain:
    I think many liberal Christians think like that. If God is love then he wouldn’t let anyone die or go to hell just for an honest mistake.

  6. Joe’s analogy using Hawaiian tickets is somewhat lacking. An analogy with an email offering millions of dollars in Nigeria as long as you handle “small” expenses or offer all of your financial information seems to be closer.

  7. Lewis tried to deal with this problem in the last Narnia book. The Calormene prince who has spent his life worshiping Tash actually goes to Heaven because Aslan says, essentially, “Nothing good can be done for Tash, even if you say his name, but only for me; and nothing evil can be done for me, even if you say my name, but only for Tash. Therefore, though you have prayed to Tash, it is I who have heard your prayers.”

    It’s an answer, anyway, though I don’t think many Christians use it.

  8. Thanks Ridger, although I have to admit I don’t really follow what Aslan is saying there. I’d read the book, but I’m a bit old for Narnia and I never really liked them as a kid.

  9. Well, since Aslan is basically Jesus, it seems that he’s saying that no matter what other gods you pray to, since they don’t exist, Jesus was the one hearing your earnest prayers the whole time. However, that seems to go against the “Thou shalt have no other gods but me” commandment as well as the “No man cometh unto the father but by me” statement. Not only that, but where does that leave atheists? I find these answers quite lacking, which is one of the reasons I left Christianity and all possible other religion behind.

  10. Thanks Obi – I’ve re-read what The Ridger wrote and I follow the argument. Yes, it does go against what has been said in the Bible. although I thought the “No other gods but me” thing was odd as it implicitly acknowledges the existence of other gods. Why else would it be a problem?