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Introduction: In certain genres (cultivation), people regularly undergo judgements as a way of getting stronger. Once they reach a certain break point, they are struck by lightning, and if they survive, they progress, or else they are seriously wounded and stalled, or killed. There are several break points.

Using a generic RPG as an example, the judgement happens every 5 levels and the baseline judgement grows stronger each time since your level is higher.

World: I have a slight variation of that cliche where the "judgements" are split between trials of conscience and tribulations of karma.

  • Trials of conscience are inner affairs where you come to terms with regrets and guilt.
  • Tribulations of karma are divine retribution for bad things you've done (in Heaven's point of view), and the worse things you do, the harsher the punishment is. Ordering a massacre also gives you bad karma, so you can't just wash your hands of it just because you didn't directly do it.

Question: Given that bad people are punished and the heaven sees all, I have trouble justifying why powerful bad people exist apart from those that "recently turned bad." After all, if the divine authorities of the world disliked bad people enough that they are intervening through the judgement system, no bad people (committing bad acts) should exist. The judgement system does not bother with mere mortals and only affect people above a certain level of power (since more powerful people are closer to influencing the fabric of reality, so to speak).

I need help thinking of an in-universe justification for the existence of powerful bad people that isn't bad people rule-lawyering themselves out of punishments. Or why the system doesn't kill some supervillains and not others.

Summary: Heaven punishes bad people directly. Why do powerful bad people survive to continue doing bad things when they should've died on their way to power?

Edit: The question is probably too opinion-based as is. I don't know if this will make it any less opinion-based, but I'll pick the answer based on what seems most plausible (to me) as a reason why a "good" system acting on a benefit analysis of karma would spare bad people. While this does invalidate some answers, it may be helpful for anyone else browsing the site.

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  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Jul 29 at 7:33
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    $\begingroup$ I'm certain that in a world like that, a whole industry with the purpose of gaming the system would emerge. Let's call it JEO (Judgement Engine Optimisation). $\endgroup$
    – kapex
    Jul 30 at 8:23

32 Answers 32

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I have a few ideas.

The gods aren’t as stressed about evil as humans are: In this scenario, the gods see human evil as not all that bad in the grand scheme of things. They exist in such a higher level that the idea of killing/harming mere mortals isn’t an irredeemable sin in their eyes. They might see it more like a school bully beating up one of his/her classmates; you punish them, sure, but you don’t KILL them (Obviously irl there would be more serious consequences if one kid killed another, but you get the idea). Gods and deities simply see things on a broader scale than we do.

Humanity chose this fate themselves: This one draws directly from Christianity. In this scenario, there was an original time before the trials you talked about, but humanity as a collective, purposefully or by accident, chose to allow both good and evil to exist in the world, along with their consequences. As a result, the gods don’t directly curate people’s actions, since that flies in the face of what humanity as a whole wants; in this scenario, humanity values their free will more than their security. Allowing evil to exist is the price they pay for allowing good to exist as well. Not every human consciously thinks this way, but at their core, most believe this.

It’s god-etiquette: The gods simply think it’s bad form to kill people for mortal crimes, and try to only kill people for divine crimes. There doesn’t have to be a strict rule, it can just be a custom. If you go this route you don’t have to explain it, it can just be part of god culture, the same way in human culture we have different words for formal and informal speech; it’s just something we do, there’s no single reason for it.

It’s a metaphor: I’m not gonna go too in-depth on this one, since it’s a bit of a stretch. Basically, in this one, no one knows why the gods keep letting bad guys get away with shit, and it’s a constant source of discontent with the world from its inhabitants. This serves as a metaphor for how bad people just kinda get away with shit in the real world even when everyone knows they’re guilty, and how shitty that feels for the average person. By linking it to its real world parallel, you make it much easier for the audience to suspend their disbelief.

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  • $\begingroup$ That first para sounds like deism $\endgroup$
    – Neil Meyer
    Jul 28 at 16:39
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    $\begingroup$ I like the idea of classifying crimes against the gods as separate from those against mankind. Leaves room for good worldbuilding and escalation of stakes. $\endgroup$ Jul 28 at 19:15
  • $\begingroup$ @NeilMeyer doesn't deism entail ceasing all interaction with the mortal world, and not just specific kinds, as outlined in this answer? $\endgroup$ Jul 29 at 6:25
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    $\begingroup$ Gods not being concerned with such "trifles" as murder doesn't seem to be compatible with the moral framework of justice, retribution, trials and karma, at all. To the contrary, it smacks of relativism, which is just another form of rule-bending invoking deus ex machina as the excuse. Humanity choosing trials that include temporary suspension of justice and judgment, as well as rationales such as godly etiquette of allowing prolonged trials rather than immediate retribution (further trying humanity by willfully exposing them to uncertainty) seem more plausible and compatible with the OP. $\endgroup$
    – pygosceles
    Jul 30 at 20:25
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Systematically killing the evildoers gives them no chance to repent and amend for their past behavior.

A powerful evildoer turning good because they changed their mind is potentially more useful than a once powerful evildoer now rotting in the grave, because their power can now be used by the other side.

And don't forget that, in order to keep a pool of powerful good-doers, you need the justification given by the existence of powerful evildoers. Why would you give assault rifles to cops if they only had to face mosquitoes?

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    $\begingroup$ Because the bullets would fly right past them, duh. Everyone knows you need a flamethrower to kill mosquitos! $\endgroup$
    – No Name
    Jul 28 at 11:48
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    $\begingroup$ @NoName a Death Star would be far more effective $\endgroup$ Jul 28 at 16:44
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    $\begingroup$ @EkadhSingh Fixed the problem at the source. No more mosquitos. $\endgroup$ Jul 28 at 17:04
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    $\begingroup$ "A powerful evildoer turning good because they changed their mind is potentially more useful than a once powerful evildoer now rotting in the grave..." <- en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_the_Apostle $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Jul 28 at 20:27
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Several ideas:

Competing Gods There are many different gods (or pantheons) each with their own opinions about which actions are evil and which are not. Which gods decide your "exam" is determined either geographically, or based on which ones you worship, or based on something else (eg. time of day). By timing these "level ups" or doing them in the right place people could make sure gods they think are sympathetic are the ones judging them.

Death is too kind The gods think death is too kind a punishment (after all, they know what happens after death). Perhaps the worst evil-doers are struck with long lasting pain instead of death. (But allowed to continue to be a problem for all the other mortals).

Chosen People The gods have a particular tribe or people they care about above the others. When people from this particular group are the ones being awful then the gods are likely to cut them some slack, especially if their victims are from the less valued tribes.

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    $\begingroup$ In the same vein as "Competing Gods", people chose a path to ascension and stick to it. Different path require different qualities and will be judged differently. Someone following an evil path will instead get striked down if they feel guilt or empathy. $\endgroup$
    – Echox
    Jul 28 at 12:39
  • $\begingroup$ Competing gods is the general reason given in a lot of settings, such as D&D's Faerun. One god or pantheon protects their followers from other deities that might otherwise slaughter the evildoers out of hand. $\endgroup$
    – Taejang
    Jul 28 at 15:40
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  • Evil is in the eye of the beholder. What others consider evil actions, might be the evildoer's way of serving what they consider to be the greater good. And the gods have a soft spot for good intentions.

  • They pray. They repent. Evil Bill asks for forgiveness. Usually right before divine judgment.

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    $\begingroup$ This would seem the most plausible for me, how do you define "bad"? Is ordering a massacre to save your own people "bad"? Of course to the people who are massacred yes, but to the people that survived because of it, it isn't. Is stealing food because you are starving "bad"? What about blowing up a power plant because you think it might cause devastating problems in the future? In addition you can consider mental problems as well. Should someone who is psychotic and not always in control of themselves be punished for their actions? $\endgroup$
    – Deruijter
    Jul 28 at 12:26
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Gods have a different perspective

You're thinking too small scale, perhaps what the gods really care about isn't the immediate action, it's the net total of evil.

  • One person committing one very evil act, a massacre, has actually reduced the net total of evil by removing all the future day to day slightly evil acts of all those murdered people from the totals.
  • Perhaps they all died pure and innocent before the great corruption sent them all to hell and being slaughtered was the gods' gift to them to save them from their fate.
  • Perhaps they were all really evil and the massacre was the judgement of the gods.

Along with that calculation, a murdering conqueror might bring about centuries of peace, the long term view is that perhaps a lot fewer people died in horrible ways because of the actions of that one murdering army and the vast stable empire they left in their wake. After all, what have the Romans ever done for us?

Gods by definition see something more than the rest of us and should have a very different understanding of the value of any single individual life.

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Where there is Karma there is also Dharma

Since you bring up the Hindu idea of Karma, then you should look at how Hinduism already answers this question. While Western civilization is generally familiar with the Hindu belief in Karma, very few of us realize that Karma is relative to your Dharma. The Shrimad Bhagavad Gita describes Dharma as a person's duty in life as put forward by the gods. While modern Hinduism is heavily influenced by the Christian ideas of "universal good", older traditions focus much more heavily on the idea that each person is put on this world to fulfill a purpose, and that what is "good" is just doing what the gods planned for your life.

If the gods need you to be a peaceful farmer, then that is your Dharma. Your Karma means that you are rewarded for pursuing the life of a farmer, and punished for pursuing a life of violence. But, if the gods need you to be a warrior, then you are judged differently than the person born to be a farmer. If the warrior tries to live a peaceful life as a farmer, he is punished. His reward comes from being the warrior the gods want him to be.

Another important facet of Hinduism is the Trimurti: The 3 persona supreme deity of their faith is represented by Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver, and Shiva the Destroyer. In older forms of Hinduism, destruction is seen as equally good as Creation and Preservation, as it is the necessary final aspect of the circle of life.

So... what this means for your world is that some people are called to be destroyers.

From this perspective, your level 20 arch-enemy who is going around slaughtering people by the thousands is living in line with his Dharma because he was literally born to bring this destruction as a vital part of maintaining balance in the world. Since this is his calling, he actually has good Karma for doing "evil" things.

The reason divine justice exists is not to make people do what is right, but to make people preserve the balance in the world. If human free will led us all to be creators, then we would run out of resources. If we all chose to be preservers, then the world would stagnate. If we all chose destruction, then... well we would destroy ourselves. So divine justice is about maintaining the circle of life, not punishing certain acts.

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  • $\begingroup$ nicely explained $\endgroup$
    – Fattie
    Jul 30 at 15:04
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Tribulations of karma are divine retribution for bad things you've done (in Heaven's point of view)

One way to get away with being extremely evil, but dodge divine punishment, is if you base the judge's point of view on the individual's views on morality.

If you know you are being evil, you're evil. If you think what you're doing is good and selfless, it is so.

For example, if I were to rob a bank: I know robbing banks is wrong, I'm taking something that does not belong to me, therefore I'm being bad. However I try to justify my actions (I need the money to feed the kids at the orphanage I work at), I still know what I am doing is wrong. I get bad Karma, because I know I deserve it.

Another example: If I were to find fruit in the forest, but someone else finds it at the same time. I fight with the other person, emerge victorious, and claim my prized fruit. In the eye of the other person I am evil, I beat him up to get what I wanted. But in my own mind I'm the hero, I defended my claim and got what belongs to me by fighting off someone who wanted to steal it. I don't get bad Karma, because I don't think I deserve it, despite beating someone to a pulp.

If you stretch this theory to its extreme, you can get extremely evil beings who think what they are doing is right. Even better, you can get beings who aren't actually evil, but are regarded as such by everyone else because they don't agree with their methods.

For my final example I'll draw on a famous villain from a popular franchise. (spoilers ahead)

In the Marvel cinematic universe, Thanos is obviously the bad guy, he eradicates half of all life in the universe. This is why he needs to be stopped by the avengers, because killing is wrong. However if you look at it from his point of view, he is simply fighting a war. A war against a parasite which will in time deplete the resources in the universe and cause its own extinction. He is acting entirely selflessly, fighting for the greater good of the universe. Therefore he is confident he isn't being evil, and does not deserve bad karma.

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  • $\begingroup$ Someone ought to have told him that causing death and suffering and extinction in an attempt to prevent death and suffering and extinction is a logical non sequitur... "stretching the theory to the extreme" indeed. $\endgroup$
    – pygosceles
    Jul 30 at 20:27
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Well, they only get punished once they reach a certain level of power, right?

Who cares if you die at the end of a life full of plundering, extortion, slaving, tyranny, raping, looting, jaywalking, and generally enjoying yourself in an atrocious kind of way? While it's a rather unpleasant type of death, it doesn't really last that long - hell, they might survive.

These evil people will live an entire life of doing what they want (hypothetically speaking; I'm sure there are entities other than the gods, including normal people, who want to stop them), and all they have to pay for it is...dying at the end? Not much of a price, if you ask me, considering that everybody dies eventually.

Sure, they'll eventually die, but in the meantime they'll be quite powerful - up until they reach the arbitrary threshold at which they get hit by lightning.

If you want it to be a really heavy punishment, have their soul be annihilated after death or sent to eternal damnation, rather than passing on to an afterlife or being reincarnated.

Credit for the concept to The Order of the Stick.

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  • $\begingroup$ I think I should specify that it's multiple judgements. Each time you get stronger past a certain threshold, you are judged. Any self-respecting evildoer will want to get stronger, because how else will you step on the measly ants that dare look at you straight? $\endgroup$
    – Henry Shao
    Jul 28 at 1:09
  • $\begingroup$ Does the judgement get stronger each time? $\endgroup$
    – KEY_ABRADE
    Jul 28 at 1:13
  • $\begingroup$ Using an RPG system as an anology, the judgement is always 95% of your max HP give or take. Doing good will drop it down to give you a bigger buffer, and doing evil will raise it and lower your chance of survival. Not how it really goes, but it's an analogy. $\endgroup$
    – Henry Shao
    Jul 28 at 1:18
  • $\begingroup$ Is revival possible in-universe? $\endgroup$
    – KEY_ABRADE
    Jul 28 at 1:22
  • $\begingroup$ Revival is rarely possible by the truly powerful, but death from judgement is death bestowed by the highest authority of the world, so it's straight into the cycle of reincarnation for you. $\endgroup$
    – Henry Shao
    Jul 28 at 1:23
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There are multiple gods, and no god has jurisdiction over the followers of another god. (And every person follows some god, otherwise all gods have jurisdiction over them, which doesn't end well.) Your evildoers follow an evil god, who rewards (or at least, does not punish) them for their evil acts.

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Summary: Heaven punishes bad people directly. Why do powerful bad people survive to continue doing bad things when they should've died on their way to power?

The tribulation has typical cultivation benefits (e.g., burning away impurities). Both powerful bad people and powerful good people experience tough tribulations, but the benefits of surviving such a tribulation are that much greater.

Further, bad people generally use their sins to gain benefits which make it easier to become more powerful. Stealing resources is bad karma, but those resources can be used for self-improvement and for protection against tribulation. Of course relying on such resources results in a weak foundation, but the drawbacks of a weak foundation can be mitigated by doing even more evil stuff. This does mean there is less of a middle ground: Evil people have to commit more and more evil (specifically, theft and murder for the sake of power).

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Sins of the Many

A certain kind of despot lives because their most egregious crimes aren't just "their" crimes, they are the crimes of society at large. So ordering mass arrests/killings is BAD. Launching unjustified wars (in whatever sense your gods would deem war justified/unjustified) is BAD. But the ruler is not representing only themselves in such matters, they represent the state. So the state's overall "kharma" may allow a despot to survive lightning bolts. For instance, President-for-Life Stan orders the torture/execution of political rivals to "ensure the stability of the state." Stan gets bad kharma for that. Or he decides to go to war with minor country X because "F 'em, that's why!" BAD. BUT Stan gets a certain amount of good kharma for maintaining public roads, preventing crime, giving new mothers a stipend, educating children, etc and soforth. Even the worst dictators survive because they are "benefiting" SOMEBODY. That's what allows them to maintain their power. "Sure my enemies suffer, but my soldiers are well-rewarded for doing whatever I say." In your setting an evil dictator can't be a one-dimensional cartoon villain.

This would lead to some interesting choices by Evil Overlords. They can have their own private rape-villa (a-la Khaddafi) or go to war however they want as long as their nation is doing enough good. What "enough" is is up to the gods! It would make Holocaust-level scenarios near-impossible to justify, because presumably no amount of "good" a nation could do would offset the killing of millions of innocents for no reason. But it would certainly allow for Mussolini types who do great evil but hey, the trains run on time!

On a similar vein, the acknowledged leader of a country may, since they represent the country as a whole, be "beyond" what the gods consider a fair target for lightning strikes. Sure President-for-Life Stan is evil. But a lot of times the death of such a person de-stabilizes the whole society therefor making things even worse for the average citizen. (Think about the various african dictatorships that went to civil war when a long-standing strongman died/retired, or Russia immediately after the Tzar) So the gods may not punish a ruler because such punishment would also punish the citizenry as a whole.

Both of these would make rises to power more interesting, because of course if you're not "in charge" you could be cut down by the gods at any moment. At the least it would hugely centralize power. If your cabinet head for Secret Police is going to be hit by lightning every week nobody's gonna take the job! Eventually an evil overlord would have to take charge of so much "evil doing" that the system would be at a massive disadvantage vs "normal" or "good" regimes. Kind of like the saying that Hitler in charge of Germany was worth a million men to the allies, only moreso!

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Mutual succession

This may be too much into plot, and I know you said no "rules lawyering", but if the putative deities are interfering directly in physical events, they make themselves a rule of physics to be worked around.

If the "judgments" only come for those with a certain degree of power, the obvious choice is to do great evil to build an empire, then hand it all away and return to "obscurity" before the judgment comes. Perhaps spend it in an independent monastery, but one that you endowed well in the past.

After the period of vulnerability closes, the one you handed it to is ready to retire to seclusion for a time, and he will need someone to take over for him. No matter how evil he is, who better to trust with that power than someone who handed it to him before? He knows you can't keep it.

There are some countries with restrictions on multiple consecutive terms in office which may have developed similar relevant strategies.

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  • $\begingroup$ By power, I mean personal power (as in physical strength and magical prowess) rather than political or economic power. Although in this world, they often go hand in hand, but I digress... $\endgroup$
    – Henry Shao
    Jul 28 at 1:32
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Maybe they don't have the same definition of "evil" as humans? Maybe they don't define anything as evil. Maybe they created the world in such a way that an absolute evil act is impossible? That everything good causes a (possibly far-fetched) evil and vice-versa? A similar idea was proposed by Indian author Amish Tripathi in his novels. Just saying...

Or maybe, the Gods themselves are irresponsible(or perhaps even "evil"), like in Rick Riordan's World.

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  • $\begingroup$ I'll note that traditional cultivation stories do take this approach: The only "sin" in such stories is "defying the heavens" by cultivating. Specifically, cultivation counts as defying the heavens because cultivators have a longer-than-natural lifespan, with the eventual goal of becoming immortal. Of course, this means more powerful beings experience tougher tribulations, but also that more powerful beings are more capable of withstanding such tribulations (or even of turning the tribulation into a source of additional power). $\endgroup$
    – Brian
    Jul 28 at 19:15
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There's no escape

I think you have cornered yourself in an unescapable conundrum. While some people considered evil by some other people could escape this kind of judgement - you may hate a general for the battle where your parents were killed, but he did what he could to prevent unnecesary loss of life - the soldier that raped your sister, and enjoyed it, before stealing everything he found at your house is unlikely to escape punishment by the gods, if they are really god-like.

You have probably known that kind of people who mutes "sorry" just before going on doing the same harmful behaviour he supposedly has apologized for, but that wouldn't fly against an entity capable of seeing into the mind and soul of a person. Regret always come with a desire of not repeating those deeds again, in many cases even looking to redress the damage. So, only evil people who really, truly, deeply have repented of their past deeds and become "good" can avoid punishments. So, if judgements are lethal, or heavily crippling, only good people can become powerful. There are no escapes in this world you have created.

I offer three possible solutions:

  1. Gods aren't gods: while these supernatural entities have the ability to cast anyone, anywhere, anytime to their judgement, they are not omniscient. They can't really look into someone's soul and must hear their defence just like an ordinary jury would. So, a very good lawyer could get away with murder - or a good liar. This approach has another advantage to your excessively RPG-oriented system: why didn't they act before he got to level 8 if they knew he was evil from level 5?
  2. Gods don't harm: while the gods judge mortal and assign some punishment for their evil deeds, this punishment is never lethal or crippling (because they are gods of Goodness and harming creatures is not their thing). Think Tolkien: evil creatures lose their ability to appear beautiful, becoming nasty spooky creatures, but they are as powerful as before. Only, it is obvious what they are.
  3. Evil doesn't lift weights: Hitler wasn't a hulk. Neither was Charles Manson. As far as I know, they never killed anyone, personally. Make your story around normal people doing bad things. They don't need to be physically strong to do that. Make their strength being their number of followers. Not a big dragon, but an horde of goblins.
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Only followers of the gods get judged

The reward for passing the judgment is great and even if you fail, the chances of actually dying are minimal (for this you have to be an irredeemable b***** who the gods can no longer tolerate on the Earth).

However, atheists (by which I mean non-followers rather than unbelievers if it is a certainty that the gods do indeed exist) don't fall under their jurisdiction. They will never know the love and the power afforded by the gods, but they also won't face divine punishment.

It could be that atheists are shunned by the god-fearing folk who seem them as choosing to be atheist so they can get away with evil, so it is a dirty word amongst them: an atheist has to work pretty hard to prove to a follower that they aren't really evil (possibly carrying similar connotations to the word "witch") .

It could also be that when atheists die, that is the end. They won't get an eternal afterlife. This will give an incentive to follow the gods and therefore face the judgement. Facing the judgement and failing and suffering the punishment is preferable to the dishonourable death of an atheist.

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The difficulty of the trials and tribulations is increased but isn't a punishment.

Leading a karmically good life causes the trials for regret and guilt to be much lighter. The heavenly tribulations as a judgement are also softer as you have done very little wrong. It makes it easier to ascend to higher power but, you will likely have very little combat experience.

Leading a karmically bad life causes both trials and tribulations to be much harsher. There is a much higher chance of injury and being stalled. This can be overcome by willpower and endurance but, growing in strength is harder and often stalls as you need more time to recover from these events. However, they will often have much more combat experience and be stronger than similarly levelled counterparts.

The heavens determined that by allowing good people to grow faster, good will always rise to fight against evil and oppression and that slowing down the growth of evil is enough to not meddle more than necessary.

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These gods are really sloppy

The whole judgement and punishment thing as it actually works is royally half-assed. Sometimes it comes early. Sometimes it does not come. People who are evil get judged and should be found guilty but are not, because of administrative errors. Sometimes they level up as though they had done something good. Other good people are walloped down for no obvious reason. Maybe gods got the background documents mixed up on those two? Or not paying attention? Sometimes people get judged and level up 3 levels when it should just be one - drastically overpowered for where they should be. Sometimes animals are the recipients of judgements. One time it was a large plant, which levelled up after surviving the lightning.

There might be some careful and meticulous gods in the universe. These lightning bolt gods of judgement are not. The judgement system makes sense as laid out and maybe the entities that built it made it work. Whoever or whatever is running it now is barely competent.

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You need a Zoroastrian-like pantheon. In this dualistic system, there are both good/wholesome/righteous deities, and evil deities. Of course in Zoroastrianism, the good guys are expected to win eventually... but in the meantime, much evil can occur. In the real-world religion, it's (sort of) monotheistic (per side), in that the lesser deities are more similar to angels than deities to be worshiped in their own right.

Your system could have multiple deities (per side) if you wanted, and it could be somewhat imbalanced if you like with either the good guys having the upper hand or the bad. Calibrating that to match the level/amount/intensity of evil in your cosmos is well within your purview.

Evil characters who aren't smote immediately just have patrons who are shielding them from the consequences. For now. For as long as it's good strategy.

But maybe at some point the circumstances will change, and the devils will decide to spend their divine magic on more worthy antagonists. No one on the ground would even necessarily be aware of those changed circumstances either. Just BOOM! and suddenly a 10,000lb rock drops on them from the sky, or a freak tsunami washes them out into an ocean trench.

Conveniently, this also explains why "bad things happen to good people". There are devils out there, trying to ruin everything and drag the universe down into misery. The good guys manage to shield many, most of the time. But sometimes circumstances change and they can't be everywhere at once. Someone has to take one for the team.

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Evil people bankroll the religion

Religion is expensive. Gods need massive temples, priests need wages, and city officials need to be bribed to avoid introducing taxes on religion or auditing the religion.

Where does the church get these funds? Well some clean money is donated by believers at collection time to maintain the appearance of nice clean finances, but the real big donations are made in secret by the powerful evil.

The gods wont cut the hand that feeds them.

Because the gods have chosen the path of least total evil for us.

The gods know the consequences of smiting the evil doer, they know who will rise up in his place and they've graphed a decision tree of who to smite and have plotted human happiness, (or total belief strength, or collection plate funds, or whatever they care about) against their desicion tree.

Your world is on the path of least total evil, and our limited human understanding only sees the single state. We see the brutal genocide of millions, not realising that if it didn't happen thered be a genocide of billions later.

Basically this is the "dont assassinate Hitler" argument - he made so many mistakes that a better leader could've done more effective damage in his place.

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They Cheat

The Gods are not omnipotent. They are restricted in what they can do without breaking the world.

The judgement system was set up at the start of reality, and changing it will break the world in serious ways and make the Gods start over.

It turns out there the system can be cheated. Not rules lawyered -- the bad people don't "show up as good" -- but rather, they avoid their death by killing other people in exchange.

The divine judgement hits them with lightning, judges them, and ends with either their passing of the judgement, or the death of the lighting-struck. To cheat, what you do is ensure that when you are struck by lightning, someone else is also struck, and you kill them before you die. This blood sacrifice satisfies the judgement, which then ends.

This works best of the judgement is tied to some predictable event; imagine if the judgement always happens on the day of your birth, or at an equinox. The person who knows they are not worthy would set up a sacrificial chamber, connect themselves to the sacrifice, get struck, survive long enough to kill the sacrifice.

It might even require that the power of the life sacrificed match that of the being judged; to pull this off, you sacrifice many many lives in order to keep yourself going.

The judgement may even be one of the soul, not the body, and those who fail the judgement have their soul taken by the gods. The defence is to first steal others souls, then feed those into the judgement lightning bolt to protect your own.

This has the interesting effect of making passing judgement either require virtue, or vile acts of sacrifice, with little middle path possible.

There would be the 3rd path; the anti-hero who would be insufficiently virtuous themselves to survive judgement, but collects the souls of those even more evil than themselves, and sacrifices them to the judgement to continue on their quest.

The judgement could even be the culling. What if you only pass judgement if you are better than the majority of those judged? Like, the top 50% in virtue pass each judgement at each tier.

Then the walkers of the path of dark justice who find innocents -- truly virtuous people -- to sacrifice would artificially move the bar upwards, culling those on the other side from existing. The grey justice warriors, who collect dark justice souls in order to rebalance the scales, would thus increase the number of true justice souls who survive.

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Judgement comes at a fulfilling point

In the Book of Mormon, one of the principles taught is why God allows people to do horrible things. To put it simply, it's to prove the person. God gave people agency so they could choose, and their afterlife (their experience in the eternities) is based off of their choices.

Considering that protagonists in the cultivation genre can become gods, this becomes even more important. In this case, much as in my church's plan of salvation, Earth could be a proving ground, to determine who will ascend to godhood. After all, perhaps deities want company, or just someone else to run things once they're ready for retirement.

Assuming also that this deity is both just and merciful, perhaps even the father of the souls of this world, this would also explain why judgements are survivable. Much of the terrible judgements put upon Israel in the Bible (imo) were to bring people to God, to humble them or else awaken them to their folly so they can turn from it and repent.

In other words, justice is fulfilled, when it is time-when someone is "ripe for destruction," or when their evil choices have culminated to their fullness. However, given the above, this can only happen once someone has recieved survivable judgements, chances to 'wake up' and correct their course, and chose to squander those chances.

The result? Not only does the offender, who has refused chances to redeem themselves, die but they lose their chance to progress further in the afterlife and eventually ascend to godhood. Meanwhile, those who did bad things but redeemed themselves, truly changing for the better, instead continue on after death and eventually ascend to become deities themselves.

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  • $\begingroup$ This is the best answer, and the most logically satisfying. Answers that rely on "cheating" simply don't do justice and don't make sense. I would further suggest that this approach of postponed, cumulative and final judgment directly answers and is compatible with the OP's request for Trials of conscience and Tribulations of karma, whereas loophole-based answers are not at all compatible with this stipulation. Postponed final judgment is itself a trial of conscience: The person must have the faith to believe in the inevitability of final judgment. $\endgroup$
    – pygosceles
    Jul 30 at 20:04
  • $\begingroup$ Those evil persons who appear to be at the top today purchased their power at a tremendous cost of future judgment, which in many cases cannot now be fully avoided because it is so staggering. Furthermore these people are among the instruments supplying trials and tribulations to others, and to each other. They see each other as competitors, after all. Divine arbitrariness as alleged in the "top" answer is unsatisfactory because it precludes actual karma and actual justice, which is just another form of rule-bending, this time invoking the trite deus ex machina for pretended justification. $\endgroup$
    – pygosceles
    Jul 30 at 20:19
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The seeking of power by evil means is for a singular goal.

It can be achieved only by taking all the power from others until the temporal power is centered solely around yourself, all magic is yours, all mystical forces obey your will, yours alone.

Only then can you avoid the Holy Judgment which is imposed upon you, only then will the Gods have no sway, no dominion on your will upon death, for you will be:

Immortal.

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1. To serve as a reminder of why the punishment exists.

Without a tangible example of what suffering being evil causes, more people would question the necessity of a divine judgement.

2. To serve as a target for the faithful to prove their faith.

Now powerful good people can prove their loyalty not only with words, prayers and generally safe deeds, but by putting themselves in danger when confronting the evil. And less powerful good people can follow their example, by trying to re-educate (or eradicate) the evil before the time for judgement comes.

3. Because equally powerful evil being protects them (for a price).

4. Because they have demonstrated the strength of their spirit.

The strengthening of the spirit is the main goal. Imagine the world being a school in which good people are diligent hard-working students, and powerful evil-doers are brilliant but lazy kind. The punishment is an exam, where good people are given a free pass, because they have a good record through the term, and evil are actually required pass to the test.

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Fate

The Gods know the past, present and future as well. They may even be the ones designing what is meant to happen.

Evildoers have a role to play in the great epic battle between good and evil. If they just went Minority Report on every evildoer, there would be no epic story and no glory to the Gods through their champions.

Praise Ch'Tullu

The gods are not omnipotent. Another pantheon exists, an evil one, and the evildoers pray to that one. The Gods the heroes worship cannot judge the evildoers due to a technicality about jurisdiction.

In fact once you start worshipping the evil gods, you'd better set an orphanage on fire here and there if you don't want to be hit by a lightning bolt between your nads.

Puny gods

The Gods are actually puny. They pretend to be mighty but they have enough power to smite only a few people. In order to try and mold the world to their liking, they coerce some unlucky ones into being heroes. Goes like "well you are stronger and faster than the average human, so go save lives and punish evildoers OR ELSE".

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The Rules of the Oldest Gods and Orange-Blue morality

At the peak of power those rising up reach immortality and eventually some join the gods. They see but cannot touch many universes ruled by other gods beyond their reach.

In some universes the first being to reach the peak of power enforced their exact morality and values across all creation. But morality is not as simple as good and bad. Some moralities are strange.

So for example in universes ruled by an ascended vegetarian herbivore wild carnivores would find themselves struck by lethal tribulations for the "evil" of eating meat and non-herd animals struck for the sin of failing to stand by their herd.

Our universe is in some ways a young one and a lucky universe. The first deity looked out across the infinite multiverse and saw barren wastelands ruled by lone deities who spend eternity striking down insects for perceived moral sleights and worlds thrown out of balance by clumsy gods.

So instead of crushing all difference and enforcing their will and their personal morality upon this universe they decided to instead limit the gods who followed them from doing so, forcing deities to pay a price if they wish to strike down mere mortals or those far far weaker than themselves so that gods may meddle but not crush all beneath them.

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Evil People get Reincarnated as more Evil People

The gods want to lower the amount of evil in the universe. But they see no purpose to kill an evil person. The evil person just get reincarnated as an equally evil being. In the gods' timescale this reincarnation happens almost instantly. Hence the killing achieves nothing.

The purpose of the Judgement is not to kill, but to be highly unpleasant. Fear of a highly traumatic judgement is meant to dissuade evil people from coming to power, and powerful people from becoming evil.

Of course sometimes the cultivator does not survive the judgement, and both good and bad people die. The gods see this as a harmless side-effect. After all, due to reincarnation, death is temporary and does not change the amount of good or evil in the universe.

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Evil people found a way to cheat at the tribulations

They're evil, right? Why wouldn't they cheat? It doesn't have to be a super-effective method that lets them pass the tribulation 100% of the time; it just needs to tilt the odds a bit.

Possible methods for cheating include:

  • Siphoning soul-energy from someone else (preferably a good person) to bolster your own soul against the tribulation

  • Hiding a fragment of your soul (temporarily or permanently) in an external location (an inanimate object, a trusted friend, another dimension) to keep the tribulation from killing you outright

  • Making a deal with a demon/evil god for protection

  • Studying the language of the gods until you discover a fragment of your True Name, which gives you power over yourself

  • Countering the form of the tribulation directly (e.g. if the tribulation is a lightning bolt, you have a crazy lightning-rod contraption hidden under your jacket)

I'm sure there are other possibilities.

...and the gods haven't noticed

For these cheats to work, the gods need to be a bit lazy. Or set in their ways, or running on autopilot. They set up this system of trials and tribulations eons ago, and it's worked pretty well all this time, so they see no need to dig into the details. They may even take it as self-evident that anyone who passed the tribulation can't be too evil, because otherwise the tribulation would have killed them! Circular reasoning at its finest.

That's great for the tribulations, but what about the trials?

Like most answers, I've focused more on the "tribulations of karma" than the "trials of conscience". I figure that most "deeply evil" people are either literally incapable of feeling regret and guilt, or have massive talents of denial, justification, and rationalization. So they can get through the trials without much effort. It's the "half-evil" people who have the worst time with the trials, because they're less sure of themselves.

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It's possible that judging evildoers immediately for their wrongdoings will have negative long-term repercussions. Thus, maybe Heaven still executes judgements to bring about justice on all, but executes them with patience and foresight, delaying said judgement until a time where negative repercussions can be minimized? This might may make it appear temporarily like evildoers are strong and Heaven is weak, but eventually justice prevails.

Here's a parable from Matthew 13 that may help explain:

24 Another parable He put forth to them, saying: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field; 25 but while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat and went his way. 26 But when the grain had sprouted and produced a crop, then the tares also appeared. 27 So the servants of the owner came and said to him, ‘Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have tares?’ 28 He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The servants said to him, ‘Do you want us then to go and gather them up?’ 29 But he said, ‘No, lest while you gather up the tares you also uproot the wheat with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest, and at the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, “First gather together the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them, but gather the wheat into my barn.” ’ ”

..

36 Then Jesus sent the multitude away and went into the house. And His disciples came to Him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the tares of the field.”

37 He answered and said to them: “He who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. 38 The field is the world, the good seeds are the sons of the kingdom, but the tares are the sons of the wicked one. 39 The enemy who sowed them is the devil, the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are the angels. 40 Therefore as the tares are gathered and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of this age. 41 The Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and those who practice lawlessness, 42 and will cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears to hear, let him hear!

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Gods promised humans free will, while still providing guidance. Therefore, the Divine judgment is not a punishment system; is a warning system.

This judgment is not meant to kill you, is meant to show you how evil your deeds are, how far away are you from the "good" path - the more the pain you endure in the judgment, the more you need to do to attone for your sins. You can keep being evil for as long as you are willing to resist the punishment every so often.

This also means that, for some people, being evil is a sign of power: if you are an "evil person with power", you have endured a lot of pain and suffering - just as much as you caused, or even more; yet you are still willing to stand in your path, to show both humans and gods your strenght.

Of course, there's still the ultimate punishment, the one that comes after your mortal life finally comes to an end by its natural course...

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Heaven Was Naive

The why:

Heaven (or at least its designer) did not fully understand the psychology of its mortal creations/residents. The cultivation system was supposed to discourage wrongful behavior by making it more difficult for those with bad karma to ascend their tribulations - nothing shows heaven's displeasure quite like being fried by a thunderbolt.

The problem:

Heaven was naive/compassionate and didn't make their system restrictive enough. Instead of outright killing evildoers or making it impossible to benefit from actually committing wrongs, heaven merely added a scaling punishment to wrongdoing.

This relatively passive discouragement conflicts with the overt theme in these genres: the primary purpose of cultivation is to grow strong and better at cultivation. Faced with this, people might not even make the connection that worse karma = harsher tribulations, or if they do, some don't care because the most important thing is to exploit any means necessary to grow strong and pass tribulations and from a cost-benefit POV it's still more profitable to be an evil scumbag than a righteous cultivator.

Essentially the problem was that people were left free will AND a system that didn't properly encourage the desired results.

Why isn't the system changed?

Heaven might not be able to change the cultivation system once it's already been made, with countless trillions of souls inside.

Alternatively, it could have no idea how to design a proper system that only results in the good behavior it seeks (maybe free will is really important to them and they can't work past that).

Finally, Heaven could simply be too busy trying to hold the system together to actually make any changes or personally smite people.

The Chinese webnovel

"My Disciple Died Yet Again"

explores the theme quite well if you're looking for ideas, but knowing this is a bit of a spoiler.

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