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“Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mold me Man? Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me, or here place
In this delicious Garden? As my will
Concurred not to my being, it were but right
And equal to reduce me to my dust,
Desirous to resign and render back
All I received, unable to perform
Thy term too hard, by which I was to hold
The good I sought not. To the loss of that,
Sufficient penalty, why hast thou added
The sense of endless woes? Inexplicable
Thy justice seems.”

Paradise Lost, Book X

“…it is not merely of some importance but is of fundamental importance that justice should not only be done, but should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done.”

—Lord Chief Justice Hewart, opinion in R. v. Sussex Justices, Ex parte McCarthy (1924)

The first quote above comes from the scene in Paradise Lost where Adam and Eve are being driven from the Garden of Eden for their sin. As they’re cast out, God transforms the Earth from its original paradisical state into a ruined, fallen world – creating scorching summers and freezing winters, pestilent swamps and glooms, introducing death and setting all living things to kill each other in a perpetual war of predation. Seeing this curse take effect, Adam wonders why his sin has brought down such punishment on the innocent planet and on all his future descendants: “Why should all mankind, for one man’s fault, thus guiltless be condemned?”

Granted, the text does slip in a self-justifying apologetic – having Adam acknowledge that his act means that all his descendants will be as corrupt and sinful as him. But again, why should this be the case? Morality is not Lamarckian: what we choose has no necessary connection to the character of our descendants. Criminals do not always beget criminal progeny, nor do law-abiding citizens invariably give birth to the same. Adam and Eve were not genetic engineers, to rewire their own genomes to affect their descendants in this way. If original sin gave rise to a sinful race, who could be the architect of such a change but God? If he hates sin so much, why would he work a change that would ensure a vastly greater amount of it would be produced? And how could it be just for him to cause humanity to be sinful and then punish us severely for being what he created us to be? This is truly, as John Milton put it, “inexplicable justice”.

But as the famous legal saying goes, it is not just important but is of fundamental importance that justice should be seen to be done. Part of what makes a decision just is that all people, including the recipient, see and understand the connection between the act committed and the reward or punishment accrued. If that connection is broken, so that rewards and punishments arrive seemingly at random with no discernible connection to a person’s actions, then how can anyone know which deeds they should or should not commit? If there is no clear link between what we do and what we receive in return, there can be neither moral learning for the agent nor deterrence or encouragement for others.

It follows, therefore, that “inexplicable justice” is not truly justice at all. Even if there’s a cosmic overseer counting up our merits and demerits and dispensing karma accordingly, if we do not know why these things are happening, then in fact we have not been treated justly. This argument applies to all the odious religious apologists who explain the natural disasters and catastrophes that afflict humanity as God’s justified punishment for our sin. Unless the connection between act and punishment is made clear and explicit – and it has not been, as much as some would like to pretend otherwise – then this theodicy cannot hold up.

The fact that inexplicable justice is a contradiction in terms also applies with a vengeance to another time-honored religious doctrine, the idea of Heaven and, especially, of Hell. As Greta Christina points out, the invisibility – the lack of evidence – of such a place makes it fundamentally unjust, even if it really exists. We cannot know for sure what actions will incur such a punishment, nor can we see others who’ve been sentenced to it. As a means of social control through fear, Hell is unfortunately very effective. But for this and many other reason, a means of justice is one thing it cannot possibly be.

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...