I was struck the other day about the death of the famed Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal. I was stuck not so much at the surprise that he had died (he was 96) but I wondered for a bit about how a religious belief in the afterlife matches up with pursuing criminal justice on earth.
There's a famous drasha about the story in the Torah when Joseph takes Shimon as hostage and puts him in prison for the duration of the time that it takes the rest of the brother to go back to Cana'an and bring back Benjamin. The reason why such imprisonment was justified was that since Shimon (along with Levi) had done such a wicked deed in annihilating Shechem he was due a big comeuppance by the time he got to the afterlife. The punishment in the afterlife is ten times worse than anything on Earth, so, in effect, Jospeh was doing him a favor by punishing him before then with a comparitively lighter prison stay.
Ok great, but then a question comes to mind. If punishing people during their lifetimes is a lighter sentence then they would get in the afterlife, why should we pursue justice on Earth at all? Is kindness to criminals what's on our mind when going after them? Furthermore, any human justice system must be inferior to the perfect justice system of God, so why do we even make the effort if it'll all be evened out sooner or later.
Hell, taking it one step further, I had heard it said (and have seen this as the moral of quite a few Jewish stories) that any suffering in our time on Earth is actually a positive thing since it either a) takes the place of worse punishment in the afterlife (as mentioned above) and/or b) increases or pleasure in Olam Haba through purifying us in the here and now thus meriting us for greater reward.
So why doesn't it follow from that that our regular lives ought to be as painful and uncomfortable as possible since then our reward in Heaven will be assured? Hell, torture the righteous and pamper the evil because then God's justice equations will really balance 'em out good.
And, to note, this type of thinking is not just rhetorical, but has been put into practice many times in history. Ever heard the phrase "Kill 'em all and let God sort them out?" Religious massacres of many stripes have been indiscriminate in their killings of whole towns, heretics and faithful alike, since in the afterlife all the tallies will be balanced out for each. There's no real crime in murder since the good ones are just going to Heaven, right? How could that be bad?
The moral nature of the afterlife was posited because of the theological need that a just God would have since perfect justice is not found on Earth. Since God exists and He is perfectly just, yet justice is not found on Earth, therefore there must be an afterlife where justice is served. Great. But is seems to me that it is the dream of the afterlife which can often lead to diminished justice and moral considerations in present life.
If everything is eventually evened out, one can never actually do any harm to another. Sure, a crime might hurt you in the afterlife, so you may fear reprisal, but nothing you do to others really hurts them. Stealing a person's car, beating a guy in the street, murdering a hobo, whatever, the victims are only hurt in _this_ life and they'll get it all back plus more when they reach Heaven.
The lack of an afterlife may imply the unfortunate conclusion that oftentimes people do get away with doing wrong, but it also encourages us to enforce our own system of justice as imperfect as it may be. I think it can also encourage us to be _more_ moral since when we hurt others, it is not the case that the others receive proper compensation later on. I'd much rather see a public being moral for the sake of empathetic caring and not due to the carrot and stick methodology of an unwitnessed overlord.