Reading Time: 4 minutes / Chris Whiteside
Reading Time: 4 minutes

It’s not often that I get to think about a theological issue in a different way, or realising a different issue or application of a problem. However, I was having an email conversation the other day with a friend (JH), and one came up.

Here is JH’s email:

From the Catholic Encyclopedia:

“Hence it is in His [God’s] eternal, unchangeable, comprehensive knowledge of Himself or of His own infinite being that God knows creatures and their acts, whether there is question of what is actual or merely possible.

The Roman Catholic Church also teaches that if one dies in mortal sin without being truly sorry and asking for forgiveness, one goes and deserves to go to Hell forever.

I put the following indented to a university professor of religion, logic and philosophy with 45 years teaching experience:

Note the red above. With the power to see what would have happened but did not, I see a profound moral problem for God.

A passes all the tests for Heaven based on his life: beliefs and forgiven sins when he died.

B’s life record and beliefs were as good as A’s except he committed adultery and died in the act before repenting.

God knew B would have truly repented and asked for forgiveness had he not died when he did.

But, the fact is, B died in mortal sin without repenting and therefore  goes to Hell as Roman Catholic doctrine requires.

God with his omniscience, knows that had A been in B’s shoes he would have done the same as B and even worse.

So, we must conclude that God tolerates A in heaven even though He knows  A would have mortally sinned as B did, but he just didn’t have the chance.

The professor’s response is shown in bold:

It seems so!  And (apparently) He also has no problem with people in hell who he knows would have repented if they had had the chance.

Thus, we have a situation entirely caused by God’s omniscience as defined by the Roman Catholic Church, where A is in heaven and B is in hell when if God simply took into account the whole story, what he knows would have been the case but did not happen, A would be in hell and B in heaven.

Seems odd, especially when Jesus/God said that simply to lust was the same as doing.

So, moral or not, that is the way it is.

God has the power to be immoral and we must, not merely acknowledge it, but we must truly believe that what we think is moral, really is moral.

That is hard to do for an honest/moral person.

This got me thinking about repentance and untimely deaths. I want to zone in on one particular point in this email.

An interesting scenario that I had not considered before, and I have written a few criticisms on hell, concerns the idea of the death of someone who did not repent due to an unexpected/untimely death, but who could have gone on to repent had they not died. I guess the believer would retort that God would indeed save such people, knowing the counterfactuals. So someone might be saved whom we think is condemned to hell on account of them having the capacity to repent in the correct scenario (i.e. a scenario where erhaps they did not die and then went on, without too much outside coercion, to repent and freely accept Jesus).

This is easily offered as a rebuttal because no one actually knows who has been condemned and who hasn’t. Hell is an unknown (heck, theists massively disagree on its finer details, organisation and, indeed, whether it actually exists or not). It’s completely unfalsifiable, in one sense, to make claims over which subgroups of people are accepted into heaven or condemned to hell.

But this presents further problems. To return to what JH stated originally:

God knew B would have truly repented and asked for forgiveness had he not died when he did.

But you could potentially think of almost infinite scenarios that could occur if she hadn’t died – if life had been different in any number of ways.

This person, B, dies. Had she lived, there could have been almost infinite forking pathways of what might have happened, many involving repentance, and many not.

You get into a right bewilderment of options, and so perhaps the best reaction is to say: we have to draw the line at her actual death and just go with it. Because we could have had her leaning over to the left more on a Tuesday, if she had survived, and this could have meant she lived long enough to repent, but ended up not repenting because of the events that spread out from her leaning over to the left.

The other problem, other than the sheer multitude of counterfactuals, is the idea that these scenarios (rightfully) assume some kind of causal determinism, in that certain sets of events causally determine whether a person ends up repenting or not, rather than some sort of magic free will.

God, assuming divine foreknowledge, would know all of these counterfactuals. As a result, which version of events does God pick of person B? Does God make the choice in such a way as to favour forgiveness? Do any paths have more weight than others?

Perhaps the only sensible way really is, as mentioned, to go with the actual death scenario. B dies, she has not repented, and that’s tough – even though in another forking path potentiality, she does repent. Because to pick that nicer outcome is to cherry pick the repentance fork over any other given fork, and that would be special pleading.

Religionists have many quandaries! It’s much simpler being an atheist.


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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...