In my Introduction to Philosophy class this morning, I discussed the Problem of Evil with my class. Over the centuries, it has been formulated in various ways by various people, but the gist of it is simply this: If God exists and He is all-powerful and morally perfect, how could He allow evil to exist in this world?
Before I could get very far into the discussion, a middle-eastern student jumped in and proclaimed, "Evil has to exist, because God created this life as a test for us to see if we will do evil and go to hell, or if we will do good and go to heaven!" Well, here's a little bit of background information: There are many students from the middle east who are taking my class presently; in fact, they form the majority of the students in the class. They are devout Muslims (or at least appear to be), and I think some of them take pity on the fact that I, an atheist (they don't really see Buddhism as a religion, since Buddhists are Godless people), am doomed to burn in the fires of hell, and so they see it as their God-given mission to speak to me about God whenever possible, and hopefully save me from eternal hell-fire.
Anyway, back to the student. I replied with one of the standard responses to this line of thinking: "But if God is really all-powerful, you would think that He would create us to be better people, so that we would all pass the test with flying colors and go to heaven, wouldn't He?" But that didn't get me anywhere. He insisted that a test wouldn't be a real test if God made us all passers. Somebody has to fail and burn in hell for the test to be truly meaningful; there have to be real consequences, you know.
After some more back-and-forth and a bit of meandering here and there, I decided to try a different tack. I said to the class, "Okay, here's the deal. In order for things to be fair, a punishment must be proportionate in degree and kind to the crime or sin committed, right?"
The students agreed to this.
"Unlike, say, murder," I continued, "going against God is not a physical sin, but a mental or spiritual sin. If this is so, then the appropriate punishment should also likewise be mental rather than physical, right?"
The middle-eastern students looked dubious (I actually suspect that some of them may not even have thought of this mental-physical-punishment distinction before today), but nodded their heads anyway.
"So if going against God is primarily a mental sin, then God should punish us not by sending us to burn in hell (which would be physical punishment), but by sending us to... Hawaii!"
As you might expect, the Middle-eastern students, none of whom have been to Hawaii, were totally flummoxed: Why would Hawaii be hell? Why would lazing on the beach and drinking pina coladas all day and going to Luaus at night (not to mention the sight of bikini-clad female bodies all the time) be hellish? I explained, "Well look, no matter how wonderful the beach and pina coladas and Luaus are, you can only do that for so long before you start getting bored and wanting to do something different. And if you are sentenced to be there and can't ever leave, then sooner or later, you will come down with what the islanders call 'Island Fever'. [Five-minute segue to explain Island Fever] So the suffering will not be physical, but purely mental or spiritual. Now, don't you think that would be a good place for God to send non-believers to?"
None of the Middle-eastern students bought my argument. They all left class feeling even more puzzled than before ("Hawaii? Hell? Really?"). By the way, I am actually speaking from personal experience here. Back in the summer of 2007, I actually spent a month in Hawaii while studying with Eddie Modestini and Nicki Doane at their studio on Maui. I really enjoyed studying with them, but maybe because I am really not a beach-and-sunshine person--and maybe also because of my fellow campers at the farm I was staying at, whose uncritical quoting of Eckart Tolle-esque new-agey sound-bites really got on my nerves--I got really, really bored after about a week or so. I looked forward to yoga class every morning, and then retreated somewhere to read a book after class was over. So I probably would, like, die of Island Fever within three months if I were to actually live on Hawaii permanently.
My first post in more than five months, and I'm blogging not about yoga (not directly, anyway), but about philosophy. Or more precisely, the teaching of it. Ah well. Cest la vie.
* "Waikiki Beach, Honolulu" by Cristo Vlahos - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Waikiki_Beach,_Honolulu.JPG#/media/File:Waikiki_Beach,_Honolulu.JPG