2 years ago: The paradox of pitchforks, a devilish problem

March 16, 2011, on this blog: The paradox of pitchforks, a devilish problem

Let’s stipulate that the damned are to be tortured for eternity. OK, then, who exactly will be doing the torturing? It seems unseemly to imagine God directly involved, personally poking the gangrenous flesh of sinners with a heavenly pitchfork. And it’s unimaginable that this eternal duty could be delegated to the angels, who desire nothing more than to spend eternity in the presence of God, singing praises. Nor could this task be delegated to the saints. They’re saints, after all, and thus such an assignment would be for them an eternal punishment nearly rivaling that of the souls they would be assigned to torment.

This job, if it must be done, is clearly devils’ work. Only a fiend could carry out such an assignment. Only a demon — a monstrous, soulless, malevolent and wholly unholy creature — could devote itself to eternal torture, unrestrained by mercy, unhampered by revulsion or repugnance.

And thus we come to the paradox of pitchforks. Any creature capable of eternally wounding another creature with a pitchfork lacks the authority to wield that pitchfork, rightfully belonging at the other end of it. The pointy, business end of it.

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  • arcseconds

    Well, if the Devil is being burnt for all eternity in the pit of Hell, he’s not really available to go around tempting people and causing mayhem, is he?

    I think the story of Hell has sprung up in response to a number of issues, including Satan being portrayed as being very much at large in other parts of the Bible, the problem of Evil, and changing notions of the afterlife.

    My understanding is that many 1st century Jews and early Christians believed that you got your afterlife on the Day of Judgement, and not before, but eventually the notion that you went somewhere directly after death took over. You can see that the ‘pit of fire’ and Satan’s liberty are quite compatible with the first notion: Satan ends up in the fire alongside everyone else at the End of Time, but until then can do as he pleases. Once you start believing that the pit of fire is already in use, you start to have a problem on your hands.

    (assuming that you think the Bible and tradition are giving you evidence about the way the cosmos is which you’re supposed to use to construct a consistent theory)

    (of course, it’s not at all clear that Satan is really God’s enemy in much of the Bible. In Job, and maybe even in the Gospels, it almost seems as though Satan’s God’s prosecuting attorney. There’s nothing that really tells you or even hints that he has anything to do with the Snake, as far as I recall.)

  • arcseconds

    There are stories in which Hell is run by God’s loyal staff.

    The one that particularly springs to mind here is in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, where a couple of angels end up taking over Hell after Lucifer decides to pack up and leave. Initially the one that talks is horrified at the prospect, but he quickly gets used to the idea of running a new, reformed Hell, where you’re punished for your own good and purification.

    There’s also the sufi tradition which I’ve had occasion to mention here before. It’s always a difficult thing when the faithful start to pin the rap on the Supreme Being in some manner (I have it that there is a midrash that circumlocutes around the issue of who is really to blame for the Cain incident) and the Islamic tradition tends to be particularly harsh, as they tend to emphasize Allah’s omnipotence and authority. Some Sufis say that Iblis did not so much fall as take a dive, because, being the first of Allah’s creation and most near to Allah in thought (Iblis is sometimes portrayed as Allah’s lover), knew that the divine plan required a fall, and undertook this itself.

  • Sorry, but my first thoughts are of Pa Gothic in front of the farmhouse…

  • arcseconds

    … and if I remember my Paradise Lost correctly, Fred’s got it a bit wrong.

    What you’ve got to understand, is that Milton’s Satan totally rocks harder than you do.

    The fallen angels are cast out of Heaven and are imprisoned in Hell, and it’s not at all pleasant for them. Satan ‘reigns in Hell’ not because God’s somehow put him in charge, but because he was and is the rest of the devils’ leader and better. His speech about ruling Hell is a big middle digit raised to the notion he’s going to take all this lying down. Other demons want to keep their heads low and eek out the rest of their existence in Hell to avoid being punished even worsely, but Satan isn’t having any of it. There’s a debate, which Satan manipulates to his own ends, and they agree to seek out Creation and corrupt it. The rest of them are a bit too scared to go seek it out themselves, so Satan undertakes to do this alone.

    He talks his way past the gatekeepers, and tricks Uriel into showing him where the Garden is.

    I think there’s a bit where Satan existentially devotes himself to Evil, too.

  • There is only one afterlife, the same for everybody. It consists of an everlasting Church service. It is up to the individual whether this experience is Heaven or Hell.

  • christopher_y

    Well, if the Devil is being burnt for all eternity in the pit of Hell, he’s not really available to go around tempting people and causing mayhem, is he?

    Faust. Where are you damn’d?
    Meph. In hell.
    Faust. How comes it then that thou art out of hell?
    Meph. Why this is hell, nor am I out of it.
    Think’st thou that I who saw the face of God,
    And tasted the eternal joys of Heaven,
    Am not tormented with ten thousand hells,
    In being depriv’d of everlasting bliss?

  • Andrew

    This is part of what makes Sartre’s Huis Clos (No Exit) so brilliant. The pitchforks (as it were) are wielded by the damned souls themselves, with each one acting as the others’ torturer. Hell is not a physical lake of fire, it’s having to live forever under the gaze of the Other with the shame regret of a life not lived well.

  • stardreamer42

    We make God in our own image. If the God you worship is petty, cruel, and abusive… that says much more about you than it does about God, and what it says is that I need to back away slowly and watch my back against the knife afterwards.

  • Baby_Raptor

    Completely off topic, my apologies, but for people who are still in the mood to yell at Disqus, here’s a link to a survey that you can give them a piece of your mind in. Hopefully swamping them will make them change their minds.


  • Of course, it’s not an issue of the power to do the poking, it’s an issue of the will to actually wish this poking upon others.

    In other words, it’s not just the one capable of weilding the pitchfork that deserves to be at the pokey end, it’s the one who decides who’s going to be at the pokey end all those who enable.
    Basically, a prerequisit for deserving eternal hell would be being alright with the concept in the first place.

  • christopher_y

    Your wish is my command.

    How does the new Disqus compare with the previous version?
    1. By removing the option to display comment threads without nesting, it has been rendered impossible to see new comments grouped at the end or beginning of the thread. When engaging with a long thread, this means that readers have to read through the whole lot every time they visit to see if anything has been added. This is a crass waste of time.

    2. The facility to read the comment which is being replied to by clicking on the name of the commenter who is being answered seems to have been withdrawn. Since the new obligatory nesting is severely limited in depth, this provides the worst of both worlds.

    3. The facility to read the names of commenters who have “liked” a comment appears to have been withdrawn. This is a reduction in functionality which serves no imaginable purpose.

    How can we improve the new Disqus?
    Restore, at least as options that the site owner can choose to implement, the three facilities mentioned above: 1 the option to display threads without nesting, at least in order and reverse order of posting; 2. the option to read referenced comments from the comment which references them; 3. the option to see a list of commenters who have “liked” a comment.

    Additionally, the facility to vote down a comment should be made optional, as not all site owners will want this facility.

  • Carstonio

    I don’t understand what Fred means by “authority” to wield the pitchfork. Almost as if he’s talking about the right to wield it instead of the power to do so. Obviously any being capable of inflicting eternal torment would have to be monstrous. Stardreamer rightly points out that anyone who worships a cruel god should be feared. But it’s possible to believe in the existence of a cruel god and also believe that the god does not deserve any worship, like being raised by an abusive parent or being educated by a tyrannical teacher.

  • I was considerably less loquacious! :P

  • Baby_Raptor

    As was I. Don’t feel bad. ^_^

  • Mark Z.

    Also Pratchett’s Small Gods, where the damned are those who, when they face the truth of how they’ve lived, can’t think of anything to do but punish themselves.

  • In Small Gods, the only one punished is Vorbis, and it’s not so much a punishment as a consequence of how his mind worked.

  • Lori

    Do you actually know even one single person who would consider spending eternity in church to be heaven? I mean really be happy with a never-ending church service as opposed to saying that they’d love it because that’s what good Christians are supposed to say. I certainly don’t know anyone who would be. My dad probably comes the closest of anyone I know and even he would get bored at some point. The changes that would be required in a person’s personality, intellect and interests to make eternal church service seem wonderful would effectively obliterate the current self of every single person I know and replace it with something unrecognizable. Not improve it or perfect it, obliterate it.

    IOW, I really don’t get this view of heaven. I especially don’t understand it when it’s advocated by a person who expresses horror at atheists over the notion of non-existence after death. I don’t see much practical difference between non-existence and being so changed that you are no longer yourself. OK, that’s not quite true. I find the latter quite a bit creepier than the former.

  • Nick Gotts

    In the epilogue to Max Frisch’s The Fire Raisers, an allegory of the rise of Nazism, the protagonist, Biedermann (Everyman) and his wife are saved because Hell goes on strike, in response to Heaven pardoning “all those who kill in uniform”.

    But abandoning the idea of Hell, which I take it is the real point of the OP, doesn’t solve the problem of evil. There’s nothing logically wrong with the idea of a cosmos in which all sentient beings experience bliss throughout their existence. So if there is a benevolent creator, why isn’t that the cosmos we find ourselves in? If you want a bit of moral struggle or plot interest, these could be arranged simply by having different degrees of bliss. There’s absolutely no logical requirement for suffering.

  • Nick Gotts

    I’d do what I did when I was obliged to attend such services: make up stories or think about mathematics. But I must admit the sheer brain-blistering tedium often seeped through.

  • Worthless Beast

    I can actually see the “eternal church service” thing working… if you stretch your imagination on it. What I mean is… the people who like singing songs and clapping hands and doing the “church thing” can get what they want. The athiests can get what they want and/or simply expect, too (they’re all asleep in the pews because they got bored). And people like me, who find singing songs and clapping hands not terribly fun but are not keen on dreamless sleep, either… well, we’re off in the back pews reading some non-Bible book, playing Pokemon on the Gameboy or doodling things in the margins of the church programs.

  • Lori

    I really don’t consider sleeping the dreamless sleep of the bored for eternity to be heavenly. I am content to read for long periods of time, but as much as I love reading I would still want to sometimes do other things that can’t be done in any church service unless you really stretch the definition.

    And even if I could be happy doing nothing but read for eternity, why would I want to read sitting on a pew, surrounded by annoying singers and clappers? And if I’m partitioned off from the singers and clappers so they don’t annoy me then we’re back to the issue of me not really being in the church service.

  • Worthless Beast

    I was just doing an imagination exercise – trying to see how one might make the most of it if “Heaven” turned out to be like that. Heaven aside, I think much of life is like that – you try to make the best of what you’ve got wherever you are.
    My personal idea of Heaven is more like… “being all you really are,” “an eternity of learning and discovering,” or “in a world where people actually care about each other,” – less a place than a state, and if a place, one that is shaped by one’s own desires. I’d like my dreams filled with fields and forests and deserts, not on a pew… but if I wind up in a pew, I’m taking a program and drawing stuff.
    The more I think about it, personally (don’t kill me), I’ve realized I do not like the “either or” options I’m often given about “eternal” possiblities. A lot of people describe a traditional Heaven as very static (singing before the Throne all the time, hence the inspiration for North Korea analogies), and likewise, “death as nonexistance” strikes me as a static state, as well. Regardless of whichever turns out to be “true,” I don’t think I am required to like or to praise either one. In either case, if taking a third option is not an option, I suppose I’ll make the most of it or simply not know when I’m dead .

  • There is another unwelcome feature change which I have observed but you did not mention. That is, if multiple comments are nested at the same depth, the comment with the most up-votes floats to the top, rather than remaining in the order in which it was posted.

    I am not just talking about the “sort by best” option, even if it is set to display oldest comments first, that only applies to the roots of comment nests, not sibling comments under the same root. I imagine that this is useful for comment threads that expect a lot of “drive by” commenting traffic, so that the most thoughtful or useful comments rise to the top, but it wrecks discussion threads.

    One would think that a brand which names itself with a deliberate misspelling of “Discuss” would focus more on, you know, discussion.

  • Anton_Mates

    There’s also a Borges story suggesting that Judas is either the most noble of men, or the true incarnation of God, since he was willing to suffer spiritual damnation and earthly infamy to trigger the crucifixion and resurrection and thus save mankind.

  • arcseconds

    Well, it seems likely that God’s not a Benthamite, at any rate :]

    If the point was to just maximise pleasure, then why create other beings at all? God could just experience infinite bliss himself, or if necessary create just one other being and have it experience infinite bliss forever.

    I think most people would agree that would not, in fact, be a particularly great universe either. It certainly seems to lack interest.

    Which is more or less where I find myself with your suggestion, and your supposition that differing amounts of pleasure could give us moral struggle or plot interest doesn’t help.

    I could see myself trying to relieve your suffering, or being morally outraged that someone’s causing you to suffer, but somehow I find it hard to get worked up by people who are having a pretty good time, but some monstrous evil is preventing them from having a truly excellent time.

    ‘Oh no! They’ve only got one kind of champagne left! That fiend! Quick, call the Avengers and form Voltron! This injustice will not stand’

  • arcseconds

    Frankly, I think the problem of engaging in an ongoing discussion with lots of sub-topics and many posts has been solved, and it’s called Usenet.

    OK, so maybe that isn’t the ideal solution either, but it’s a heck of a lot better than disqus.

  • If they cared about discussion, they wouldn’t have misspelled their name.

    It’s like when you see a snackfood that claims to be made with “Cheez”.

  • David Szaks

    I have to say…. I had never thought about this before. And it is both amusing in its absurdity and at the same time and incredible insightful and thought provoking. I laughed, then cried a little in my soul.

  • mud man

    Obviously, the damned torture each other. Probably they spend the majority of their time torturing themselves.

  • The_Amazing_Kim

    Huh. And I only just realised the connection to that story arc in Buffy.

  • Nick Gotts

    Death as nonexistence is only a static state if you were in a static state before your conception, and if all the potential people who never existed are in a static state.

  • Nick Gotts

    So your desire (or God’s) for an interesting life outweighs the agony of quadrillions of sentient beings over the past few hundred million years. Nice.

  • Amaryllis

    Heaven isn’t a church service, exactly: the idea is that it’s a choral church service, or a concert in which everyone takes part, or a dance, or a poem, or a mathematical proof.

    Diane Kelsey McColley, on seventeenth-century ideas about music: “In the shifting world of sense and intellection, music witnesses to something real: number, hence rhythm and harmonic proportion, hence music, are everlasting. Since these actualities are infinitely recombinable, the unchangeable gives room for, in fact makes possible, unlimited creativity.”

    Heaven is where human beings made in the image of God, which is to say in the image of a creator, can participate in his joy of creation more fully than when limited by mortal bodies. Every unique voice adds to the mighty Harmony.

    It’s an idea not unknown to the moderns; consider Tolkien in Leaf by Niggle, or Mark Doty on Handel’s Messiah:

    This music
    demonstrates what it claims:
    glory shall be revealed. If art’s
    acceptable evidence,

    musn’t what lies
    behind the world be at least
    as beautiful as the human voice?
    The tenors lack confidence,

    and the soloists,
    half of them anyway, don’t
    have the strength to found
    the mighty kingdoms

    these passages propose
    – but the chorus, all together,
    equals my burning clouds,
    and seems itself to burn,

    commingled powers
    deeded to a larger, centering claim.
    These aren’t anyone we know;
    choiring dissolves

    familiarity in an up-
    pouring rush which will not
    rest, will not, for a moment,
    be still.

  • Amaryllis

    As for the management at Disqus, it would be gravely disproportionate to wish Hell on them.

    But maybe a short stay in Purgatory? The kind of Purgatory Tolkien describes, in fact, where you’re not tortured, you just learn to do things right.

  • FWIW, I did go and say just that. Maybe if we all chime in they’ll get the idea.

  • Worthless Beast

    As far as I’m concerned, if you are doing nothing and are nothing, it’s a static state.
    Even if I were convinced of it as my destiny without a doubt, you aren’t going to force me to think it *doesn’t* suck. If you accept it and don’t think it sucks, great for you, but you’re not me. I hope to dream when I “sleep” or at least when I’m going under. If that makes me “weak” in others’ eyes I don’t give a poop.

  • arcseconds

    Well, I suppose now I think about it, I suppose I must be!
    Because these totally seem like necessary and obvious truths to me:

    *) there are only two possible alternatives: universal suffering and universal bliss
    *) when there are two options and you say you don’t like one of them, you must like the other.

    you got me :]

  • Randall M

    If you are nothing, it’s not a state. Static or otherwise.

  • Worthless Beast

    I still think the idea of nonexistance sucks. Can you give me that at least?
    I mean, if I lose my last shreds of faith and speculation and became absolutely sure that’s what happens to everybody, I’d *still* think it sucks. Before I latched onto a more universalist mindset, I used to believe in Hell – and I thought that sucked.
    In the end, I have no control over what will happpen to me when I die, but as long as I draw breath, I’m going to be honest about saying the things I think suck, suck.

  • hf

    ‘Oh no! They’ve only got one kind of champagne left! That fiend! Quick,
    call the Avengers and form Voltron! This injustice will not stand’

    Sounds like a pretty fun party to me.

  • Nick Gotts

    I neither said nor implied anything of the sort, of course, and it’s very telling that you distort what I’m saying.

    I could see myself trying to relieve your suffering, or being morally outraged that someone’s causing you to suffer, but somehow I find it hard to get worked up by people who are having a pretty good time, but some monstrous evil is preventing them from having a truly excellent time.

    So what? Suppose for the sake of argument I concede that a universe without suffering would provide no opportunities for moral struggle. I’d much rather be enjoying myself moderately but less than optimally and do without your outrage on my behalf, than have that outrage and be in agony. I’m guessing the same would be true of the vast majority of those sentient beings that have suffered over the eons. But they didn’t get the choice, because, according to you, your god decided otherwise.

  • Nick Gotts

    We call a person who decides that others should suffer, without their prior consent, for that person’s own satisfaction, a psychopathic sadist. Why should we call your god anything different?

  • arcseconds

    someone’s distorting what someone’s saying, Nick, but it ain’t me :]

    I’m filling in the necessary premises for your accusation to make any sense, given what I wrote. Not what you think I wrote, or what you would like me to have written, nor a viewpoint that you fancy you can see lurking behind what I wrote, but what I actually wrote.

    You continuing to misunderstand me and lay accusations at me is quite hilarious, but it’s also a little embarrassing for me, because I thought I had done enough to point out your mistake! So not only am I inadvertently complicit in your ongoing missing of the point, but I’m also in the awkward position of having to explain a joke.

    I realise that it’s not your fault, and I’m sure it’s all due to you not getting enough sleep or something, so let’s call it a day and look at the matter with fresh eyes on some other occasion.

  • arcseconds

    cool. Is this Marlowe’s Faust? this passage is eerily familiar to me now you mention it, but I’ve not read nor seen the play.

  • christopher_y

    Yes, it’s Marlowe. An awesome play, which everybody should see if they get a chance. Content warning: 16th century anti-Catholicism.

  • Nick Gotts

    Evidently I’ve misunderstood you; I apologise. But I disagree that a universe without suffering would have to be without moral struggle. It would still be quite possible that I could greatly increase my felicity by reducing that of others, without any of them actually suffering.

  • Nick Gotts

    I’m not trying to force you to think anything. What made you think I am? I’d much prefer an indefinitely prolonged existence myself, so long as it’s a reasonably pleasant one. I’m sure I’m not going to get it, but that doesn’t stop me wishing I could have it.

  • Worthless Beast

    I am sorry for getting defensive, it just seems like whenever even vaugely religious things are discussed anywhere on the Internet, it’s easy for people to fall into “believe what I believe!” and looking down their noses at people who don’t.
    I was being merely speculative, speaking of preferences and ideas, is all. As far as “what will happen to me when I die” – it’s all speculation and I draw a blank in regards to what I “know.” For me, my faith is more like a hope than anything else – no certitude – it’s more like the feeling I get when I am doing creative work, hoping that other people will enjoy it or the hope I have during this ass-long winter here in PA that Spring will finally show itself in a week or so and decide to stick around. Is there a certainty that I will see these things in a world of random car accidents, heart attacks and form-style rejection letters from publishers who don’t bother to even read the work I send them? No, but the dreams keep me going.

  • arcseconds

    I think you may be replying to the wrong person… but i guess disqus is pretty confusing these days.

    It looks to me like you came here spoiling for a fight, and as a result you rushed right past me and started boxing with shadows.

    Before we could have a discussion about theodicy and what kind of world would be best, we’d have to have a discussion about values, and that’s difficult enough even when people are being more coöperative than combative.

    However, it might be worth pointing out that not everyone shares your values, and it’s not at all clear that you’re right in suggesting ‘the vast majority’ would agree with you. Even if they would, you don’t strike me as the sort of person who would normally accept the opinions of the majority.