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The dilemma of divine forgiveness


The dilemma of divine forgiveness suggests it is unreasonable to be comforted by the thought that God forgives acts that injure human victims. A plausible response to the dilemma claims that the comfort derives from the belief that God's forgiveness releases the wrongdoer from punishment for her misdeed. This response is shown to be flawed. A more adequate response is then developed out of the connection between forgiveness and reconciliation.

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1.  Anne Minas articulates and defends each of these objections in ‘God and forgiveness’, Philosophical Quarterly, 25 (1975), 138–150.

2.  For an especially provocative response to this question, see Thomas Talbott ‘Punishment, forgiveness, and divine justice’, Religious Studies, 29 (1993), 151–169. Talbott argues that divine justice is not only compatible with forgiveness; it actually requires it.

3.  See Peter Strawson ‘Freedom and resentment’, Proceedings of the British Academy, 48 (1962), 1–25; Norvin Richards ‘Forgiveness’, Ethics, 99 (1988), 77–97; Cheshire Calhoun ‘Changing one's heart’, Ethics, 103 (1992), 76–96; Margaret Holmgren ‘Forgiveness and the intrinsic value of persons’, American Philosophical Quarterly, 30 (1993), 341–352; Paul Hughes ‘Moral anger, forgiving, and condoning’, Journal of Social Philosophy, 25 (1995), 103–118; Piers Benn ‘Forgiveness and loyalty’, Philosophy, 71 (1996), 369–383; David Novitz ‘Forgiveness and self-respect’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 58 (1998), 299–315; Pamela Hieronymi ‘Articulating an uncompromising forgiveness’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 62 (2001), 529–555; Jeffrie Murphy Getting Even: Forgiveness and Its Limits (New York NY: Oxford University Press, 2003), 12ff.; and Glen Pettigrove ‘The forgiveness we speak: the illocutionary force of forgiving’, The Southern Journal of Philosophy, 42 (2004), 371–392.

4.  For one attempt to circumvent this objection, see Douglas Drabkin ‘The nature of God's love and forgiveness’, Religious Studies, 29 (1993), 231–238.

5.  Linda Zagzebski has recently offered an account of divine emotions that attempts to get around this sort of worry. See her Divine Motivation Theory (New York NY: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 203–213.

6.  For a defence of this claim, see R. S. Downie ‘Forgiveness’, The Philosophical Quarterly, 15 (1965), 128ff.

7.  Those who accept the second horn of the dilemma often appeal to the language of Psalm 51.4, in which the Psalmist addresses God, saying, ‘Against you, you alone, have I sinned’.

8.  John Gingell posed this dilemma in ‘Forgiveness and power’, Analysis, 34 (1974), 180–184. He was neither the first to raise it nor the last. John Milbank has recently attempted to answer it in Being Reconciled: Ontology and Pardon (New York NY: Routledge, 2003). However, he does so by introducing a robust theological and metaphysical framework that, while important for his larger project, brings in significantly more than is needed to respond to this question. I offer a simpler answer with fewer metaphysical commitments.

9.  Of course, such a response immediately raises the justice-based objection mentioned above.

10.  See Paul Tillich ‘To whom much is forgiven’, in idem The New Being (New York NY: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1955), 7–10; Jean Hampton ‘Forgiveness, resentment, and hatred’, in Jeffrie Murphy and Jean Hampton Forgiveness and Mercy (New York NY: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 37, 83; Robert Roberts ‘Forgivingness’, American Philosophical Quarterly, 32 (1995), 294, 299–300; John Hare The Moral Gap (New York NY: Oxford University Press, 1996), 223–225; Eve Garrard and David McNaughton ‘In defence of unconditional forgiveness’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 103 (2003) 41–46; Milbank Being Reconciled, 47; and Eleonore Stump ‘Love, by all accounts’, Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, 80 (November 2006), 36–37.

11.  See Hampton ‘Forgiveness, resentment, and hatred’, 37; Marilyn McCord Adams ‘Forgiveness: a Christian model’, Faith and Philosophy, 8 (1991), 299; Deborah van Deusen Hunsinger ‘Forgiving abusive parents’, in Alistair McFadyen and Marcel Sarot (eds) Forgiveness and Truth (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2001), 96–97; Trudy Govier Forgiveness and Revenge (New York NY: Routledge, 2002), 47–48, 141ff.; Jeffrie Murphy Getting Even, 14–15; Glen Pettigrove ‘Unapologetic forgiveness’, American Philosophical Quarterly, 41 (2004), 351–353; and Jessica Wolfendale ‘The hardened heart: the moral dangers of not forgiving’, Journal of Social Philosophy, 36 (2005), 349.

12.  For more on the difference between forgiveness and mercy, see Jeffrie Murphy ‘Forgiveness and resentment’, in Murphy and Hampton Forgiveness and Mercy, 20ff; and Jean Hampton ‘The retributive idea’, in ibid., 158f.

13.  Sigmund Freud Civilization and Its Discontents, James Strachey (tr.) (New York NY: W. W. Norton, 1961), 66.

14.  See McCord Adams ‘Forgiveness’, 293–294.

15.  There are competing accounts of the relationship between God's valuing X and X's having value. According to some, X comes to have value because God values her. According to others, X has value on some other grounds, to which God, as the ideal moral agent, is appropriately responsive. The argument of this paper is meant to remain neutral on this issue.

16.  Gingell ‘Forgiveness and power’, 182.

17.  For a discussion of what might constitute good reasons to forgive, see Murphy ‘Forgiveness and resentment’, 24–32; Holmgren ‘Forgiveness and the intrinsic value of persons’, 349; Hieronymi ‘Articulating an uncompromising forgiveness’, 542–549; Wolfendale ‘The hardened heart’, 354–361; and Glen Pettigrove, ‘Hume on forgiveness and the unforgivable’, Utilitas, 19 (2007), 457–460, 464–465.

18.  Joseph Butler, for example, makes this assumption a centrepiece of his account of forgiveness. See ‘Upon forgiveness of injuries’, in his Fifteen Sermons [1729] (Charlottesville VA: Lincoln-Rembrandt Publishing, 1993).

19.  Martin Hughes raises this worry in ‘Forgiveness’, Analysis, 35 (1975), 113–117.

20.  See Holmgren ‘Forgiveness and the intrinsic value of persons’, 350–351.

21.  See Richard Swinburne Responsibility and Atonement (New York NY: Oxford University Press, 1989), ch. 5.

22.  See Aurel Kolnai ‘Forgiveness’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 74 (1973/74), 98–102; Calhoun ‘Changing one's heart’, 78–81; Holmgren ‘Forgiveness and the intrinsic value of persons’, 350–351; Novitz ‘Forgiveness and self-respect’, 313; Jacques Derrida On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness, Mark Dooley and Michael Hughes (tr.) (New York NY: Routledge, 2001), 31–35; Nancy Potter ‘Is refusing to forgive a vice?’, in Peggy DesAutels and Joanne Waugh (eds) Feminists Doing Ethics (Lanham MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001), 138–139. For arguments to the effect that forgiveness may, at times, be obligatory, see Downie ‘Forgiveness’, 133; Berel Lang ‘Forgiveness’, American Philosophical Quarterly, 31 (1994), 109–111; Hare The Moral Gap, 230–231; Tara Smith ‘Tolerance & forgiveness: virtues or vices?’, Journal of Applied Philosophy, 14 (1997) 37–39; Wolfendale ‘The hardened heart’, 356–360.

23.  I am grateful to Bill Fish, Christopher Callaway, and an anonymous referee for this journal for helpful feedback on earlier drafts of this paper.

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Religious Studies
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  • EISSN: 1469-901X
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