Will Vladimir Putin Ever Face Divine Justice?
Monday Notes
Will Vladimir Putin Ever Face Divine Justice?
In times of tragedy, the case for an afterlife—and ultimate punishment—is strengthened.
Published on: Mar 28, 2022  |  

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Some people see tragedy—such as the one currently unfolding in Ukraine—and wonder how a higher power could ever let such a thing happen. This is also known as "theodicy," or the puzzle of why a good God does not intercede to limit or prevent suffering. In other words, this is the problem of evil. What we know of God, at least in the monotheistic faiths, is that he could intercede. And if he is capable of stopping a great injustice from happening, the fact that he doesn't suggests that he is choosing not to stop it.

This is intuitive enough, but there are a number of complications that arise from this response to the question of why things that shouldn't happen do. The most obvious complication is that the notion of "choice" is an intrinsically human one. What does it really mean to say that God is choosing to do one thing over another thing? Is God capable of choice in such a manner, or is the act of choosing wrapped up in the fact of human fallibility and finitude? To be conflicted about two potential paths is only possible in light of uncertainty and moral dilemmas. These are human experiences, and it is unclear whether they can be applied to God in any meaningful sense.  

If God intervened, which tragedies would meet the requisite threshold? Would he only intervene in the case of genocides, but not mass killings? If mass killings qualified, what about diseases that seem to extinguish life randomly and unfairly—individual tragedies that accumulate into profound collective loss?

Then there is the matter of free will. Accountability in the eyes of God—usually in the form of final judgment in the hereafter—only makes sense if humans have some freedom to choose between right and wrong. If they are not free to decide, then it would contravene logic to say that they should be punished for something they had no control over in the first place. Obviously, various religious traditions subscribe to some form of predestination. It is possible to say that God's will contains paradoxes that humans cannot decipher, and that to attempt to divine a rational explanation for punishment and salvation is infringing on God's mystery. If, however, you are willing to accept a "rationalist" account of God's decision-making, then it would follow that God cannot stop individuals from committing horrendous acts against their fellow human beings, because this would undermine the entire structure of divine accountability.

In other words, if God had somehow acted to prevent Vladimir Putin from invading Ukraine in the days leading up to that fateful decision, it would have effectively negated Putin's freedom to decide. What Putin did is not particularly unique in the sweep of human history (although it may seem unique to us moderns), so if God were to "intervene" against Putin, it would necessitate preemptively intervening in perhaps millions of comparable scenarios relating to invasion, war, and oppression that are (or were) the norm in the human experience.

So then we're left with a situation of profound injustice, one that is only likely to get worse in the weeks and months to come. There is a reasonable chance that Putin will get away with it. I suppose I am odd, but it's in times of tragedy like this when my belief in God is strengthened. Because I am not willing to accept a world in which justice is beyond us. And perhaps the only prospect of true and ultimate justice for Putin, and those like him, is that they face their reckoning in the next life, if not necessarily in this one. To be sure, limited justice is possible in the here and now—if the Russian military is repelled and Ukraine survives as a sovereign nation. We should hope for that and fight for that, with every means at our disposal. But even if Russian forces leave Ukraine in defeat and disgrace, Putin will likely still be able to live his remaining years in relative comfort.

What belief in God allows us, then, is the knowledge that justice may be delayed, but it will come in due time. I believe that heaven and hell exist. But even if they don't, it would be better to believe that they do, especially now.