Ancient and Modern Concepts of Divine Justice
- On this Page:
- Secular Law's Failed Attempt to Eradicate Divine Justice
- A Rawlsian Resolution to Dogmatic Conflict on Divine Justice
- Afterlife? So What?
- Am I 'saved'?
- (Click the images for a lightbox slideshow)
This article presents historical accounts of the afterlife in sidebars, and concludes with my personal belief on it (which is mostly ignored). In the main text I do present a brief metaphysical statement, followed by a new notion of how Divine Justice could be fair to those of different faiths, and even atheists, based on a theory from Dr. Rawls, who received the National Humanities Medal from President Clinton for his work on justice and fairness. There is also an associated article about deathbed repentance on this site, atJudgment Day: an Encounter with Divine Beauty (click here).
Secular Law's Failed Attempt to Eradicate Divine Justice
Natural Law is a philosophical concept that the nature of our existence, in a natural world, provides the conceptual basis for concepts of justice. Divine natural law emerged first, as the final resolution to the obvious inequities of life, for which belief in an afterlife is a prerequisite to ensure all people are treated fairly. In an attempt to restore the peaceful harmony of an ancient 'Golden Age,' justice was originally conceived as a natural order under divinely bestowed authority, bringing justice from the Gods to the Earth. Its best known earliest form was the 10 Commandments of Moses, but its effect was very localized. The contrary position, secular law, holds that justice can exist by itself without divine authority, an assertion that philosophy has reluctantly concluded is not necessarily true.
In the East, besides a few concepts of afterlife in Buddhism, the East does not otherwise uphold the existence of afterlife, and are outside the scope of this article. In the West, the development has ping-ponged more than once.
Moses is the first historical figure known to suggest divine rules on earth that lead to judgment in afterlife. After descending from Mount Sinai with the stone tablets stating them, he thought he could go away for a bit. On his return, he found his followers had started to worship a 'golden calf.' The Golden calf, later called 'Baal' by the Canaanites, was indubitably the Egyptian bull God Apis originally. Similar stone tablets to Moses' that adulated Apis were found in Sakkara (see picture).
Thus, even after Moses weeded out savages by watching how they drank water from a river, they were still too naive to know the difference between canon and idolatry. Moses ground up the tablets into dust, in an attempt to stop further confusions. Even after that, the people were still so naive, they still carried around the dust in the Holy Ark of the Covenant (which gave Spielberg a great topic for a silly movie). Since that time, humanity on the whole has not taken a singnificantly more mature view on any afterlife that may exist. The existence of consciousness has remained opaque to both science and metaphysics, yet even so one continually encounters extremely trite post-hoc justifications of belief from both theists and atheists alike that totally ignore the extensive philosophical thought on the subject by some of the world's greatest thinkers, ever after all of which, the necesasary belief on any particular stance as unquestionnable truth has remained unresolved.
By the time Plotinus wrote about the Golden Age in 700BC, population increase had started war in the Bronze Age, as well as ideological collapse in the Iron Age. Plotinus made an effulgent appeal for a restoration of virtue. Draco's first attempt at secular law was a disaster. In 600BC, Solon made a more successful attempt, but only defined rules, rather than law itself. About 400BC, Plato and Aristotle established ideas of secular law that built on prior divine natural law and new ideas on human virtue, attempting to define what secular judicial authority 'ought' to do'–A field called 'deontology', based upon the discipline of 'epistemology,' the study of that which is metaphysically knowable.
Ancient Greece did have some concept of guilt, explored exhaustively in the trial of Clytemenestra for murdering her husband Agamememon in the bathtub just after his long-awaited return from the siege of Troy. While Aeschylus suggests the conscience ultimately brings justice to us all, it's not entirely clear whether any human protagonist in any Greek myth takes personal responsibility for their actions. Even when Sophocles recounts in the myth of Oedipus, who blinds himself after learning he had unknowningly killed his father and married his mother, Oedipus blames the Gods for what they did to him, making his self mutiliation the undeserved retribution he must inflict on himself for his crime.
Despite amazing accomplishments in secular natural law from Cicero and Justinian, the Western world decided to agree with Augustine's assertion that the needs of salvation trumped secular law, until Henry VIII finally resurrected Cicero's concepts, starting the ages of reformation and enlightenment. In 1739, Hume observed 'that which is' cannot produce statements of 'what one ought to do' without introducing moral premises. Deontology has since produced superb rule-based, or 'descriptive' concepts, including utilitarianism and legal positivism, which assume pre-existing qualities, such as 'happiness' or 'natural rights,' are pre-existent and non-disputable. However, on debates as to what happiness is, or who deserves any particular right, deontology has had markedly lackluster success without resorting to a 'normative' foundation for rules, via accepting the necessary existence of intrinsic or 'a priori' concepts of 'goodness.' With regard to justice, epistemology cannot ultimately define what is fair without presuming that fairness is good. Thence, the existence of a priori goodness reintroduces debate on the existence of a benign but just God, making the concept of divine justice unavoidable, and thus, the possible existence of an afterlife unavoidable.
Rome's concept of divine justice was a little simpler than in ancient Greece, perhaps because Romans were almost entirely devoid of the experience of peresonal guilt. The single one account of a person feeling personal guilt in all surviving Roman texts is in Virgil's Aeniad, where Dido confesses she feels guilt about betraying her husband due to her passion for Aeneas. Even so, while often compared to the Greek tragedian Aeschylus in style, Aeneas decides she is only guilty of feeling guilty (see this article). Other than that, Rome simply renamed the Gods (Hades became 'Orcus') and imported Greek mythology in bulk (only the Gods needed to be renamed to become Roman myth). Besides some Bacchanalian cults dedicated to the futile strivings of Orpheus, the main items of interest reflect Roman fascination with travel (e.g., the ferry across the Styx), suffering (the lost souls who couldn't take the ferry), laziness (the Asphodel fields), heroic drunkenness (Elysium), and yet again, infidelity (Persephone). Regarding Elysium, its only feature of real interest was the river of Lethe next to it, a few sips of which would cause torpid forgetfulness. If you valiantly served Rome in war, you got to Elysium and forgot all the horrors you suffered, otherwise, if you paid the ferryman you got in, and the Gods only punished people for personal reasons.
Hence, despite the rational appeal of secular law, it has not managed to eradicate notions of divine justice, even from philosophy, as so many atheists ardently desire in the current era. This article puts aside the deontological problem to consider divine justice in and of itself. If there is an afterlife, the first issue is why any divinity should consider human beings deserve such justice at all, a complex question I address in my blogthe Wiser Designer Argument (click here).
The Pre-Incan Moche empire, ca. 100~800 AD, is thought to have similar beliefs in the afterlife to the Egyptians. This is the famous 'Lord of Sipan,' who is said to have hidden in treetops dressed in feathers, in order to drop down on passersby, slaughter them and suck blood from their necks through a wooden straw. The skeletons around him are thought to be his sentinels, who had their arms and feet cut off after their death so they wouldn't be able to run away.
As the Moche had no known written language, postulations are based on verbal tradition and archaeological evidence only. The vampire myth is probably later fancy, but one does have to wonder why the hands and feet of the so-called 'sentinels' were cut off after death. Together with the elaborate tomb itself, it does really seem to indicate belief in an afterlife, although probably not as elaborate as the Egyptian belief in a tripartite soul.
One archaeologist (my father) had a different explanation. He thought they didn't always build tombs like this to protect the treasures from theft. He thought the rulers were so evil, they made large and elaborate tombs to trap their spirits inside, or at least, make them not want to venture out, horror of horrors. If that were true of the Moche, the 'sentinels' were not the Lord of Sipan's retinue, but rather, his afterlife prison guards.
A Rawlsian Resolution to Dogmatic Conflict on Divine Justice
If there is an afterlife, God has a bit of a problem. People with different doctrines on it frequently accept nothing but their own authority. Whereas any benign deity in the afterlife would certainly accommodate belief assertions as much as possible, differing assertions on necessary truth make it particularly difficult for God to resolve conflicting doctrines, as well as how to resolve fringe cases. Fringe cases include: what to do with souls from before the doctrines were decided upon, by whatever means they were decided; what to do with people born after the doctrines who never had an oppurtunity to learn them; people who would believe, but are subject to political persecution, and thus human actions have interfered with freedom of will; and people who might agree with the doctrines, but haven't really professed so to anyone else. Thus, while doctrines consider these all to be 'fringe cases,' per se, to current core doctrince on salvation, or liberation, or equanimous judgment, it's quite a large number of people.
The ancient Egyptians may only be said to believe in a tripartite soul (ba, ka, and pha) only because that corresponds to Western conceptions of mind, body, and spirit. The words themselves have more complex meanings, and Egyptologists have a much larger vocabulary on the nature of the Self, including Khet ("physical body"), Sah ("spiritual body"), Ren ("identity"), Ib ("heart"), Shut ("shadow"), and Sekhem ("power"). The Christian doctrine of forgiveness may also be a simplification of Egyptian theology. Besides being confusing in its multiplicity of Gods, the Egyptian book of the dead says that we are weighed on a scale to determine if our evil weighs more than a feather. Everyone fails the judgment, and the crocodile-headed demon Ammit eats them. But another God called Thoth usually forgives people anyway and lets them into the afterlife.
The obvious similarities between Egyptian mythology and later Christian doctrines led me to postulate that Jesus lived in Alexandria during the 18 years between early childhood and later manhood that are not described in the New Testament. Due to Judaea originating from a slave rebellion and migration, it's not something that would naturally be included in the gospel's historical account. That led me to other conclusions, such as how likely Jesus also learned medicine from scrolls plundered from the Library of Alexandria, as well as Buddha's teachings on compassion, making his often suggested journey to India less likely. For a full discussion, please seeMiracles: Could artificial respiration be a lost skill?.
Hence, if there is a Christian heaven, and it was a Kingdom during Christ's life, by now it has probably become a democracy. With so many churches claiming exclusive authority, rather ignoring the problem it creates for God in the afterlife, what else is God meant to do? The best solution for God would be to let people decide on the details of afterlife existence, and as in the United Kingdom (and Thailand and so on), God remains a monarch with advistory powers to resolve conflicts of will when so requested.
Thus, if there is an afterlife, God is probably looking for the best kind of democracy to stop unresolved infighting in the afterlife. If so, Rawls' theory of justice provides the most fair basis for a Constitution to date. As per the 2nd New Divine Law, everyone (including atheists) would get a vote every five years or so; but according to the 1st New Law, atheists can't run for power and would be stuck in hell. So churches compete for choosing who else goes down to hell for the term, and who is allowed back up, with a majority block of atheists controlling the vote from the permanent hell they inhabit. Rawls'point is that those with the most power to influence judgment gain no power from it themselves. And it's the best idea I've ever heard to fix God's dilemma. Dr. Rawls must have a special place in God's heart, even if he is an atheist, which is rather unknown, even by his family.
I used to think heaven would be boring, but this kind of justice wyould make the afterlife a lively place, especially with any temporarily condemend running around campaigning for a stint in The Good Place.
A quirk would be Elysium, Hades, and so on. They'd have to be like Native American land and retain their own sovereignty, but their members wouldn't have to live there.
Afterlife? So What?
Of course, the actual existence of heaven or not should make no difference at all to how people behave on this earth. And in fact, the ancient Greek word for heaven also referred to heavenly experience on this earth. When one acts in accordance with Jesus' teaching, the experience definitely at least feels everlasting in our own consciousness and memory, for which reason, joyous acts of giving are far more than momentary happiness, and that could be what Jesus meant, or maybe not.
The Doctrine of Salvation may have been chosen by the First Nicaean council to consolidate its power away from the Aryans, which its creed was designed to exclude from heaven, completely in violation of Jesus' new law. The evidence is that the Roman Emperor Constantine was not particularly concerned with the details of the creed, as he continued to regard himself as a Sun God (the picture shows a minted coin during his reign, with sun rays irradiating from his head). Rather, it appears Constantine simply ordered the Nicaean council to define a state religion because he was impressed by Christian ethics, or even just because he was trying to stop the growing practice of self-mutilation as proof of repentance.
This is because the banning of self-mutilation by those wishing to be clergy was the first law of the Nicaean Council in its first canon. Most famously, the Church Father Origen castrated himself, although apologists have been trying to say otherwise. Egyptian texts also indicate that freed slaves continued to mutilate themselves as a justification not to pay off debts to their former masters, so the empire granted the Nicaean Council more authority. Then Augustine wrote in "City of God" that the needs of personal repentance for salvation should trump the needs of secular law, which turned out to be a very popular doctrine, resulting in the 900 years of the Dark Ages. For better or worse, the doctrine has continued to exclude alternative explanations of Jesus' life, including gnostic writings, such as the Gospel of Thomas, which bypass arguments of theological doctrine entirely and simply discuss Jesus' teachings on how to find fulfillment in life.
Whichever is true, I don't find much actual necessity that there is an afterlife, and far more significantly, I don't understand why so many people are infatuated with it. Really the point should be this: what we would choose to do in any afterlife should be the same as in this life: care for each other. It's still the good thing to do, even if it needs to be in people's own self interest to make most people do anything good at all.
Am I 'saved'?
This is important to some people, so here's my answer. For myself I pray to St Thomas. He needed proof Christ rose from the tomb, and being a philosopher, I can't make a decision without evidence yet, but if there is a heaven, I'm going to love meeting Jesus. Nothing could make me happier. It's certain he'd be there, even if Islam is right, so I will show some proper loyalty, wherever he is.
If there is an afterlife, and another religion is right, and Jesus is in hell, then I'll still be right there, next to him, holding him up.
I'll be right there next to him holding him up, because walking on feet with nailholes through them must be incredibly difficult, not to mention painful, which no one seems to care about for some reason. I'd offer to chase off all the people pestering him for favors all the time, and he'd refuse. I'm sure we could have a grand time for thousands of years, just doing that alone, that is, when other people haven't sent me to hell, me standing there looking stern when people pray for more money than they need. I can't think of anything better to do for eternity. It will be heavenly )
Buddhism doesn't need to include the existence of an afterlife as part of its core beliefs, the Four Noble Truths. In an effort to reach more people, a major branch of Buddhism called the 'Mahayana' permits local beliefs to be included in its doctrines, which has resulted in some holding that enlightened people can reach an eternal state of Nirvana in this life, which being eternal, is independent of the body. However that belief is not necessary to the core doctrine's concept of 'dependent origination.'
More significantly, there is another branch of Buddhism, the Vajrayana, which has evolved so much it is considered separate from the Mahayana, although its ideas could have originated from a now extinct religion in Tibet called 'Bon.' According to the 'Tibetan Book of the Dead,' souls normally do reincarnate, but initially pass through an intermediary afterlife before the next life. In this afterlife domain, demons appear successively tempting souls to reincarnate as animals, women, low men, and lords. The sufficiently enlightened soul can ignore all the temptations and not be reincarnated. However, a small number of special souls, called 'Boddhisattvas,' are able to resist the temptations and either reincarnate to help others reach enlightenment, or become Spirit Gods. This silk painting, an object for meditation called a 'Thangka,' is one of the oldest surviving, from 600AD. It shows the domains of the afterlife, with a presiding demon who eats evil souls who are too evil even to reach the first temptation.
Of all the concepts, it seems to be the most encompassing, allowing other religions to exist within it in various ways, so although it is contrary to virtually every other doctrine claiming exclusive authority, I have to say it's my favorite.
On walking the road to Calvary throughout life, stranger and stranger things start to happen. The further one progresses, the more people who one once supported find they can care for themselves better. They drop away, singly and in groups, into gray mists beyond; until one day, with aching bones and weary feet, one realizes there is nothing more one is able to do for others, as we approach the final pains and final mercy of death everlasting, whether there be afterlife thereafter, or nay.
For myself, though lacking in faith, there is still hope;
for while the past is cold, still I embrace the future.
Others may have faith, but lack in hope;
embracing the past, but fearing a future cold.
Yet even now, in every moment, beyond horizons yet unseen,
on distant gray shores ahead and behind, love's bright haven shines.
Before the beginnings, after the ends,
from faith or hope, or both, Love transcends.