A World of Moral Consequences

The Picture of Dorian Gray is a gothic novel by Oscar Wilde. Dorian Gray is a nineteenth century English gentleman having his portrait painted by artist Basil Hallward. During a sitting for the portrait, Dorian meets Basil’s friend, Lord Henry Wotton. Dorian is such a handsome young man and the portrait captures him so well, that Dorian laments that the picture will stay young, while he will grow old, horrible, and dreadful. He would give anything for it to be the other way.

Henry Wotton befriends Dorian and leads him down a path of hedonism. Wotton’s philosophy is: “The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.” Under this influence, Dorian cruelly breaks a young woman’s heart. Upon returning home, he sees the portrait has changed. He sees cruelty around the mouth that he hadn’t seen before. He hides the portrait because of what it now reveals about himself.

Years pass, and the portrait keeps a record of his soul. Dorian appears young and good, but the rumors about him swirl. The hidden portrait reveals the truth. Basil visits Dorian and learns the terrible secret. In a fit of passion Dorian stabs and kills Basil. In the aftermath, Dorian fears discovery of his crime. The novel states:

It was imagination that set remorse to dog the feet of sin…. In the common world of fact the wicked were not punished, nor the good rewarded. Success was given to the strong, failure thrust upon the weak.

The quote raises the question of whether there are moral consequences in our world. By the way, the wisdom literature of the Bible wrestles with the same thing. Proverbs gives the general truth that it is better to be righteous (Proverbs 4:18), but even the wisdom literature (especially Ecclesiastes) knows that sometimes it appears that the wicked prosper (Ecclesiastes 7:15, 8:10).

We may ask: Why doesn’t God punish us immediately for every sin? Wouldn’t it be fairer and clearer, if like rats in a maze we were zapped at every wrong turn? I suspect that God doesn’t do that because He wants more than people who negotiate moral choices correctly. A constantly zapped people might make the right choices, but would they love the good, and more importantly would they love God?

Interestingly enough, The Picture of Dorian Gray does give an answer to the assertion that the wicked are not punished. It vividly describes the ruin on the inside even if the world does not see the condition of the soul. Moral consequences exist even if they do not seem to work out perfectly in this life. Righteousness produces a different kind of person than wickedness. The general truths of wisdom can be observed in this life, even if we struggle with some exceptions: “The wage of the righteous leads to life, the gain of the wicked to sin” (Proverbs 10:16, ESV). Like it or not, we live in a world of moral consequences.

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