One of the most attractive theological solutions to the problem of evil is what has been termed afterlife theodicy, revolving around the extreme disjunction we may presume to exist between the scale and scope of suffering on Earth and the scale and scope of joy in Heaven. By ‘scale’ I mean the quantity of suffering and joy, respectively, and by ‘scope’ I mean the quality and duration of suffering and joy. The problem of evil withers away once we frame earthly evils, plentiful as they may appear, within their proper context of a potentially limitless, eternal bliss in Heaven. Thus, I do not mind the momentary pain of the dentist’s drill when I know that it will rid me of the toothache that has been plaguing me for weeks. More to it, I do not mind very much the toil of an eight-hour working day on Friday morning when I know that a two-day weekend is right around the corner.
Now multiply this disjunction between suffering and rewards up by an infinite degree; of course, we cannot fully perform this mental operation, perhaps not even adequately, given our limited capacity for imagining infinity, properly speaking, but we should by an act of concentrated imagination try to see before our mind’s eye what eternal joy would look like. Would I be willing to suffer a day’s worth of excruciating (ex cruce, ‘from the cross’) pain if I knew that a three-month summer vacation were waiting for me at the end of it? How about an hour’s pain and a six-month stretch of time to do with as I please – spending time with loved ones, reading, writing, traveling? Or just one minute of pain and a year’s vacation? A second of pain – and a decade of holidays? Multiply up the joy by an infinite degree, and divide the pain infinitely, too, and you will have arrived at the radical disconnection between earthly suffering and heavenly joy made available to us by God, according to the Christian worldview.
In this light, the problem of evil appears in its proper dimensions as something of a non-problem, practically speaking, a sort of optical illusion, a deceptive sleight of hand forced upon us by sensuous earthly reality and our corporeal state of being. We are embodied creatures—sentient, sensate, and suffering—and so perceive most readily the pain of our own bodies. As embodied creatures, we can only with great effort, and perhaps not even then, force ourselves to contemplate the possibility of eternal bliss (but we cannot really feel it). But if the disjunction between earth-bound suffering and heaven-sent joy is greater than that difference that obtains between a grain of sand and the vast expanse of the Sahara desert, we should, by an act of the intellect and will, force ourselves to ignore present pains and focus ourselves squarely on the possibility of our participation in Heaven’s joy. The so-called problem of evil only appears to us as a problem because we have not fully appreciated what possibilities lies in wait for us in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Now, some thinkers do not accept this line of reasoning. The philosopher Stephen Maitzen calls this account the “Heaven Swamps Everything” theodicy (2009: 122), which is not a bad turn of phrase; but he thinks it fails to stand up to scrutiny because he believes it conflates justification and compensation. How can even a very large compensation for a relatively minor wrong meaningfully justify this wrong? It cannot, Maitzen thinks, and so the theodicy collapses. God’s allowing for evil on Earth is not justified by Heaven’s bliss; rather, the sufferings of Earth are compensated for by the joys of Heaven. But compensation implies an offense, and an offense an offender; thus, under the “Heaven Swamps Everything” theodicy, God appears to us as an offender willing to redress the injuries he has imposed on us. He is not justified, and so this account is not, sensu stricto, a theodicy in Leibniz’s terms (from Theos, “God,” and dike, “justice”). “Even if heaven swamps everything, it doesn’t thereby justify everything,” Maitzen (2009: 123) writes.
But this way of framing things falls down in its failure to apprehend what eternal bliss really entails in all its vastness: its true enormity. Our measure of things remains narrow and earthly. To be terrestrial is to be pedestrian. But Heaven is anything but pedestrian. Notions of justification, of balancing the scales, are so entirely bound up in this terrestrial realm: Who can say whether we will not feel that everything was worth it, yes, was in fact justified, by a very great reward in the end? In fact, we may not need to engage in complex mental acrobatics to see this. A woman suffering through childbirth may feel that this pain is worthwhile in light of the joy of having a child. But it is surely strange to call this child a kind of “compensation” for the trauma of birth – this word has too cool and commercial a ring to it. Why, precisely, can we not say that the pain of childbirth is “justified” by the child, when just is that which we can live with? Justice is a settlement, a settling-in, a coming-to-peace: in short, a (Hegelian) reconciliation. To justify God is to reconcile oneself with the world as it has been revealed to us by Him. The mother accepts the trauma of childbirth in the retroactive light of the joy of having the child. Similarly, Heaven’s community of saints may be able to live with the knowledge of their past sufferings in light of eternal bliss, precisely because eternity’s weightiness is capable of tipping even the heaviest of scales: eternity is a machine that fuels reconciliation; it makes the limited suffering of earthly life appear like a pinprick prior to an endless feast.
To those who think that this introduces an intolerable subjective dimension to notions of justice, one might respond by showing that one part of the problem of justice lies precisely in its ability to make itself acceptable to our minds. In the Anonymous Sayings of the Desert Fathers, we learn of one elder [γέρων], Abraham, who recognized the validity of the afterlife theodicy in his own monastic practice:
“The brothers begged one of the elders to refrain from his excessive labour. He answered them: “I am telling you, children, Abraham is going to be sorry that he did not strive harder when he sees the great gifts of God.”
[Τινὰ τῶν γερόντων παρεκάλουν οἱ δελφοὶ παύσασθαι τῶν μεγάλων πόνων. Ὁ δὲ πεκρίθη αὐτοῖς· Λέγω ὑμῖν, τέκνα, ὅτι Ἀβραὰμ ἔχει μετανοῆσαι ὁρῶν τὰς δωρεὰς τοῦ Θεοῦ τὰς μεγάλας, διότι μὴ πλέον ἠγωνίσατο. (Wortley 2013, N.197)]
The original word that has been translated as “strive harder” here is a conjugated form of the verb αγωνιζομαι (agōnizomai), meaning, inter alia, to “enter a contest” (NAS New Testament Greek Lexicon); it is related to the word agonize in English and ἀγών (agōn) in Greek, which means “contest” or “competition.” If we read the Desert Father in light of this etymological connection, can we not view this terrestrial life as an agonizing contest whose potentially limitless prize at the end finally redeems the race? This was the apostle Paul’s view. As he writes, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim 4:7). The original Greek is instructive here: “τὸν καλὸν ἀγῶνα ἠγώνισμαι,” or “The good competition has been competed in,” translated more literally. If Paul has competed well, he can expect the sportsman’s “crown of righteousness” (ὁ τῆς δικαιοσύνης στέφανος) (2 Tim 4:8), a reference to the laurel wreaths bestowed upon victorious Olympic contestants.
The theodical project risks placing us in an overly juridical frame, suggesting that the proper logic is that of the courtroom trial rather than the heroic contest. Life is not a legal trial but a kind of game that demands good sportsmanship. And the prize is not so much a (juridico-commercial) restitutionary compensation but a freely given prize or gift, which cancels all suffering by its very magnitude. This must remain obscure in so far as one apprehends these issues legalistically, without an appreciation of how this gift is given lovingly: God is not an insurance agent but a loving parent. And it is in this light that the Desert Father’s words bear repeating: “I am telling you children, Abraham is going to be sorry he did not strive harder when he sees the great gifts of God.” It is we who must justify ourselves in the face of these “great gifts,” not God who must justify himself in the light of earthly suffering. In this sense, a proper afterlife theodicy approaches a kind of anthropodicy: a justification of earthly life in the life that lies beyond this realm.
The problem of evil depends for its subjectively felt efficacy on a distortion of scale. We misapprehend present sufferings to the degree that we fail to measure them in view of a state of eternal bliss. In the light of this everlasting joy, earthly suffering shrivels up into near-nothingness or next-to-nothingness. It is the recalibration of our distorted apprehension of the scale and scope of suffering that brings God’s goodness back into its properly excessive, superabundant form.
Maitzen, S. (2009) Ordinary morality implies atheism. European Journal for Philosophy of Religion 2, 107-126.
Wortley, J. (ed.) (2013) The Anonymous Sayings of the Desert Fathers: A Select Edition and Complete English Translation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.