Thursday, 14 March 2013

Why does God do things in such roundabout and indirect ways?


I have often found it difficult to understand why God constructed such a long-term, elaborate, and apparently unreliable means of salvation - involving hundreds or thousands of years of Jewish history, the failed experiment which preceded The Flood, a new experiment characterized by numerous trials and lapses, a sequence of persecuted and sometimes ambiguous prophets; culminating in the necessity for a trailblazer in John the Baptist and a small scale, mobile, oral ministry of Jesus Christ.

Indeed, perhaps the hardest thing to understand is that the prolonged and apparently contingent sequence of the incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ was necessary in order to allow humans to be saved.

One would suppose that an omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent God could do things in a much more direct fashion.

At least, so it seems to me.


That the narrative of the Bible was necessary seems to entail at least two constraints on God's activities: the free will or agency of humans (and angels), and the autonomy of mortal life on earth.

1. God either will not or cannot circumvent free agency, so everything must be done via and around uncontrollable human choices.

2. The earth and its life is autonomous from God at least to the extent that the evil free choices of humans (and angels) can neither be prevented nor 'removed from the system' (or, at least, not without destroying the earth and killing everybody on it and starting again).


But if God will not allow himself to overcome these constraints, then God cannot be what we could understand as a wholly-loving God - because the consequences of these constraints are just too horrible.


(God might make earth as an adventure playground to train humans in choices - with the possibility of falling off the apparatus and getting shaken up or lumps and bumps; but it would be a sadistic God insofar as humans can understand these matters who placed poisoned sharpened spikes under the climbing apparatus, and populated the playground with bullies who enjoyed pushing weaker kids onto the spikes - and furthermore this God made the kids so they had a vast capacity for experiencing pain and suffering.)


If God chose to make the earth as it is, then God is incomprehensible, and we must simply submit to His will.

And only if God cannot do any better than He does in terms of pain and suffering, could He be wholly loving in a way which we can understand.


Everything falls-into-place (it seems to me) if we acknowledge that God cannot overcome the free will of Men and Angels; and is limited in His capacity and modes of influence on the earth and mortal life.

In other words, Men and Angels just have free will or agency as an intrinsic property; and God has no alternative but to work-with-this fact.


So God's hopes and plans can be thwarted, or at least significantly delayed, in detail and in essentials (on earth, in mortal life, at a particular point in time) by the choices of Men, and the actions of fallen Angels.

At some points, things may get so bad that God can only scrap the experiment as a failure, and start-all-over-again - as happened with The Flood - and He cannot ensure that the experiment works-out in exactly the way He hopes. 


From this perspective the large narrative of the Bible becomes easily comprehensible as the history of a wholly loving but (although immensely powerful) limited God always doing his best in face of the intrinsic realities of the situation: including the free agency of other entities; and as a consequence, autonomous evil.

This kind of God is a real loving Father, and like earthly loving Fathers will always do his utmost for His children: but what he can do at any specific time and place is limited by the scope and nature of his power, and by circumstances. 


In other words, I think Christians are faced by a clear choice.

Since we can make no sense of an omnipotent God who does not behave in what we understand as a wholly loving fashion, we must choose between either:

1. an omnipotent God (who cannot be, in any meaningful way, understood as our Father - in other words not the Christian concept of God, but in fact the God of Christianity's greatest rival);


2. a wholly-loving God-our-Heavenly-Father - who is of immense power, but certainly not omnipotent.


So, why does God do things in such roundabout and indirect ways?

Because God has to do things that way. 


(The extreme natural hazards of earthly life - volcanoes, earthquakes, tidal waves, burning heat and freezing cold etc - which themselves can cause vast human suffering; are likewise explicable in terms of the ultimate intractability of matter, and a God located within the totality of the world including within Time. God made and shaped the earth and everything on it from matter, over a certain timescale; but as matter is autonomous from God (not created by God) He was constrained in the extent to which He could shape it.)



Peter said...

Heresies have often developed as a form of theodicy. In most instances, the intellectual act of the heretic has been to separate the goodness of God from his power or historical manifestation. This is certainly the case in the gnostic heresies described by Irenaeous. Although these particular heresies are defined by their method, the application of reason to the scriptures in an effort to find hidden knowledge, they are also unified by a common belief.
All such sects limit the God of the Old Testament in someway. His power may be limited, in which case the deity is unable to perform certain acts. His knowledge may be limited, which we see in depictions of the so-called demiurge who is unaware that he is not the creator. Also, his goodness itself may be limited. In this last case, the deity of the gnostic and Jesus is seen as a different one than that of the Old Testament. Very often, the Old Testament God is even depicted or understood as downright evil.
A passage from Coulton's Inquisition and Liberty suggests the universality of this belief among heretics in that it was present among the Cathari of Southern France of the thirteenth century who believed the “visible world is created not by God but by the Devil.” One Cathari, Pierre Garcias, said, encapsulating the idea: “If I could hold that God who, among a thousand men He hath created, saved one and damned all the rest, I would rend him and tear him, tooth and nail, as a traitor; I defy Him as a false traitor and would spit in his face.”
Yet despite the commonality of such beliefs, they are not the only way the question has been approached. Rather than elevate man and denigrate God, Calvin took exactly the opposite approach with his emphasis on the doctrines of man's election and his absolute depravity. In this case, the damnation and misery of man is assumed while God's goodness is the anomaly - but an acceptable one. For instance, reading that a man ought not grow angry, lest he be guilty of murder, the Calvinist will realize that we are not all murderers out of any strength of moral character, but only out of weakness. That we do not kill when angry is not because we are good but because we are weak and limited. The question then becomes not, “Why has God allowed the world to become so bad?” but “Why has he not allowed us to make it so much worse?”

Bruce Charlton said...

@P - I don't see anything you have written which goes against my conclusion that the alternative to a wholly Good but limited God is either incomprehensible, or not-wholly Good (not Christian), or implicitly denies free agency (or renders free will an incomprehensible mystery - as with Calvinism).

The Continental Op said...

"Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?" God to Job and his advisors. Job 38:1

He goes on to explain in chapters 38-41 that, if Job were God, he would be fit to get the answer. But the answers Job seeks are incomprehensible to him.

"Who is he that hideth counsel without knowledge? therefore have I uttered that I understood not; things too wonderful for me, which I knew not." Job 42:3.

So why should God try to explain things that are incomprehensible to us? We'd wreck anything he said to make it "work."

Embrace the mystery.

ajb said...

Perhaps a way to understand omnipotence is to say something like

"With God, all things are possible, given that we allow them to happen, take action when He guides us, and so on."

I think that is largely the *point* of the Christian idea that God is 'omnipotent', in terms of a practical, everyday sense.

Kristor said...

Yes to all you have written; but I would add three additional points of clarification, which I believe to be implicit therein.

First, God's power is not less than it might possibly be. He is not less than he could be. He has all the power that a being can have, including power to create and to destroy. But he does not have power to do things that cannot logically be done, or even coherently conceived; such as, e.g., the power to create a square circle – or, likewise, to create creatures that are truly autonomous but not free to err, and thus to suffer. So, while we might wish that God had made a world where creatures such as we could live without possibility of suffering, that wish is not rational, in the sense that it is a wish for something that is impossible in principle. It is like a wish that we might be able to eat our cake and still have it to eat later.

Second, God cannot unmake anything he has made, or undo anything his creatures have done, or forget anything he has known about the things his creatures have done. A fact is a fact forever. So, he can wipe away all tears from our eyes, or give us amnesia, but cannot remove the fact of our suffering from our past, cannot make it so that we have not suffered what we have in fact suffered.

Third, the anteprimordial matter of Creation, being as yet unconditioned by any Divine fiat, is wholly chaotic, and thus wholly inactual. It is not stuff, but the possibility of stuff.

Bonald said...

Well, if the world exists independent of God, and He neither creates the things in it nor establishes their natures, why posit His existence at all? And even if He does exist and is just a part of the world rather than being "above" it, if He's just a giant space alien with magical powers, why should we owe Him any obedience? Why should His existence or will be any concern to us at all? Atheism seems more reasonable than this limited God.

Bruce Charlton said...

@COp - I'm sorry, but - although clearly correct in an ultimate sense - I don't think it is good enough for a Christian to preach submission to the incomprehensible will of God (even if we do label it mystery!). If submission to the IWoG is what is wanted, there is a much more successful alternative religion which offers it in spades.

@ajb - I think this breaks down in extreme situations, such as deliberate torture of children.

@Kristor - But why the poisoned spikes? And why make humans with such capacity for pain and suffering? These are not matters of logical entailment,

For an omnipotent God, ordinary commen sense tells us that these things could very easily have been different (and better) - the world could have been a tough but non-tormenting adventure playground - humans could have had much lower-level regulators set to limit the degree of their pain and suffering.

"anteprimordial matter of Creation is not stuff, but the possibility of stuff." It depends what you mean. Are you talking metaphysics (hylomorphic dualism) or physics?

And do you actually believe in antiprimordial matter - what about creation from nothing? That is what you have argued in the past.

On the model I am arguing there is no such thing as creation from nothing, because - as well as being incomprehensible to common sense - that concept is not necessary for a limited God.

AlexT said...

God could make us love him witha ll our hearts, but it wouldn't be the real thing since it wasn't freely chosen. He wants us to love him and choose him of our own accord, and that means that some of us won't. He simply has to accept that.
That is what gives the lives of the saints such potency for me. They suffered pain, humiliation, and death by choice out of love for Him. Even more incredibly, this implies that the hierarchies of angels and even the persons of the trinity remain who and what they are by their own freely made choices. I find this very comforting. The sacrifice of Jesus was not done as payment, but as a freely chosen act of love and generosity. This makes it infinitely more powerful than an omnipotent god making the world do what he wants. Instead he asks it to do what is right, and is prepared to suffer the sting of rejection. The rejection of a loved one is painful, and an all powerful god is willing to suffer it from his creation purely out of love. Don't know about you, but that gives me goosebumps.

AlexT said...

"For an omnipotent God, ordinary commen sense tells us that these things could very easily have been different (and better) - the world could have been a tough but non-tormenting adventure playground - humans could have had much lower-level regulators set to limit the degree of their pain and suffering."

The potential suffering is proportional to the potential reward. If God is offering you the chance to be God-like than the alternative has to be the opposite, demonhood (if that's a word). Some people choose to join the demons. If you didn't have the possibility of hell, then what is the point of heaven? What did Jesus suffer and die for? What is he saving us from?

Bruce B. said...

Regarding free will I assume that God could have made us as creatures governed by determinism but then we wouldn’t have been created in His image and wouldn’t be loveable creatures. Nor would we be capable of loving.
I can’t find the reference, but the CCC discusses how God is outside of time, so that he can allow free will in his creatures and yet formulate his plans based on our free choices.
I think these two ideas need to be assimilated into your thinking on this topic.

Arakawa said...


I have considered adopting various views along the line of Calvinism or 'extra ecclesiam nulla salus' or that sort of thing. My answer to them (besides the fundamentally symmetric nature of the claims made by various denominations regarding their own exclusiveness), as always, is that the temptation such things engender to harden one's heart against the enemies of the doctrine is almost-overwhelming, and so interferes with the highest commandments of the New Testament. Of course, there are always Calvinists who can successfully resist the temptation, but that accomplishment must be reckoned in itself amazing.

And, when convincing others, it is not easy to move people to a consciousness of their own depravity by denouncing their innermost thoughts and all their prior conceptions of the Good, while yourself cowering in the safety of a One True Doctrine.

So far I've found two positions on the depravity and doom of mankind that strike me as actually sane:

• The positions of a few Church Fathers and Saints of Orthodoxy, who knew and confessed their own iniquity before God and did not undertake to speculate on God's plans for the others, even for the unbelievers; only they cultivated in themselves hope about the matter, and knew despair itself to be an occasion for sin and temptation. These holy men move us to fear and trembling by leading us to ask, quite naturally, if even the saints feel conscious of their own deepest guilt and iniquity, then how much worse are we, ourselves? By their very refusal to denounce, the holy men deliver to us God's deepest condemnation.

• George Macdonald's heretical Universalism, which was formulated specifically in reaction to Calvinism. I would file it away as a fascinating but probably false heresy, if it was not the first (and so far only) account of God which helped me to understand how the wrath of the Old Testament and the mercy of the New were inseparable. Indeed, to be saved in Calvinism, with its claim of man's utterly depraved condition, the elect would have to be spared the same wrath and accounting of their innermost souls that Macdonald considers absolutely necessary for their (and anyone else's) salvation.

I would add that if the world were entirely depraved, it would not only not be worth saving, it would not be worth for God to waste his wrath on. Nor did the Old Testament God pour out the most horrific punishments and torments of all upon Israel (even removing the obstacles of their iniquity, so that later His wrath might be all the more awful), except out of a very particular love for His chosen people.

(From that perspective, the Cathari and similar Gnostics seem to me wholly irrelevant to this discussion. They make me think of those children who fear to take their medicine, and assume that all the arrangements of the sick-bed are just a vast conspiracy by the evil doctors and nurses who've imprisoned them in conditions of unjust bed rest, and just want them to taste bitter things because they are meanies. That's basically what the whole denunciation of Old Testament God as evil boils down to.)

The Continental Op said...

The need for a solution--your scientific mind at work--may well bring you to grief. Peter is right--many heresies emerge from theodicy, and smart people really want to take a crack at it, and many have shipwrecked their faith thusly.

I know many people who don't lose any sleep over the mystery. I sure don't. They trust in Christ, who came here in the flesh, enduring the cross, to save us.

Just because you have a hard time with the mystery doesn't mean everyone does. I think you are projecting. Being very smart is a curse sometimes.

ajb said...


I don't understand your response. Perhaps I can rephrase: 'omnipotence' is a theological notion which, properly understood, is built up out of Christian experiences of how the world works. Basically, it is noticing that, when we enter into a right relationship with God, things happen that would seem impossible otherwise. Furthermore, there seems no inherit limit on what God can do in such situations, hence 'omnipotence'. It's only when you start with a notion of omnipotence which is of this abstract, theological sort that you get the sorts of problems you are describing.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Bonald - Surely there is a middle ground between the philosophical concept of omnipotence - which is not scriptural (although it can be read into scripture) - and which is strictly incomprehensible - and no God at all.

What I am saying is that when we read the Bible in the way most people in the world would read it, this is surely the God we see - we see God; but we see that God seemingly has to do things indirectly.

My point is that a lot of these problems come from shoehorning Christianity into philosophy; which is possible (at the cost of incomprehensibility), but not necessary.

@AT - "The potential suffering is proportional to the potential reward."

But this could be used to justify the most horrendous imaginable deliberate long term *but preventable* torment.

AlexT said...

"But this could be used to justify the most horrendous imaginable deliberate long term *but preventable* torment."

True, but the torment isn't God's doing, it is our own. God doesn't tempt us to evil, satan does. As hard as it may be to accept, people choose hell, often willingly.

You also objected to the quotations from the book of Job, saying that accepting the incoprehensible will of God isn't good enough for a Christian. Agreed, but God isn't saying to Job "stop asking questions because i said so", he's saying "don't ask questions about things you don't and can't understand. Trust me for now, and one day you will understand". This is what a Father says to his children. Not what a tyrant says to his subjects.

Matthew C. said...


You will not fully understand this while you are still within the matrix of time and space.

So I would recommend that you do not allow this question to fester in you. You do not need the answer to this to have faith and trust in Him.

I believe that more of this will be revealed to you in this lifetime, if you are willing to not "kick against the pricks".

Bruce Charlton said...

Readers perhaps need to understand that this post is not motivated by any kind of personal crisis! One motivation is that I have found myself unable to answer some very simple questions in a way which struck me as both honest and an answer.

I'm am not seeking perfect comprehension! But I seem to recognize hand waving on this issue.

Since I am a recent Christian, I remember well how flimsy and evasive seemed Christians on many of these matters; and yet I have found myself hard-pressed to come up with anything better using mainstream Christian concepts of God.

I think this is because the 'official' Christian God is a God of the Philosophers *primarily* - and He is un-usable by most people most of the time: unusable because unreal.

(Believers in practice have a very different God in mind than this official God.)

For example, many commenters are trying to pick on easy to refute problems while evading the hard arguments I made.

I don't see anyone trying to explain the spikes in the playground and human capacity for suffering aspects - these are *quantitative* arguments.

Some above are making facile arguments as if I was suggesting that the world ought to be without any pain and suffering - I am talking about the degree and duration of suffering.

This line of thinking about how a limited God solves these problems comes, as I mentioned before, from Sterling McMurrin's Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion which made me realize that the Mormon concept of God apparently solves these questions which I had found intractable - and without doing any violence to scripture but rather taking it simply as it reads but *without* trying to bring scripture into harmony with Greek Philosophy.

(This is what Agellius needs to read - I can't spend all my days attempting to re-explain what McMurrin has stated so well from much greater depth of knowledge!)

Another source was Charles Williams essay What the Cross Means to Me - which several people regard as his greatest work. The points I make in this post are almost entirely drawn from Williams essay.

So, this line of thinking is driven by the fact that the problem of pain is a major obstacle to Christian apologetics - and I do not believe that any of the mainstream responses to this question are satisfactory. Bu post-McMurrin I think that the problem is an artifact of the injections into Christianity of unnecessary philosophical abstractions.

Now, this concept of a non-omnipotent God may lead to a response like Bonald's that unless God is omnipotent then such a God is worthless.

But that is not a fact of human nature - most gods for most people through most of history have been distinctly non-omnipotent (not least because there were many of them).

And that none is greater than God does not in any way entail anything like omnipotence.

Also, I am not being clever about this - I am not clever. I am being, if anything, deliberately dumb - in the sense that I am trying not to accept as an explanation anything which I could not explain honestly to a six year old.

In all this I am guided by the supreme metaphor of God the Father - we should stick to this like glue, because that God is our Father is something which is as sure and scriptural as anything gets - we need to work much harder to preserve this metaphor because it is the Christians best friend in apologetics as well as life.

Kristor said...

“But why the poisoned spikes? And why make humans with such capacity for pain and suffering? These are not matters of logical entailment.

For an omnipotent God, ordinary common sense tells us that these things could very easily have been different (and better) - the world could have been a tough but non-tormenting adventure playground - humans could have had much lower-level regulators set to limit the degree of their pain and suffering.”

But *could* these things have been better, really? Common sense is well and good, but after all it tells us that a light ball should fall more slowly than a heavy ball of the same diameter. It can’t be relied upon uncritically.

God is the source of all good. How could he possibly set things up so that cutting yourself off from the source of all good – all good whatsoever – was anything other than agony? We could of course wonder why things had to be set up so that the innocent victims of evil men and angels should feel so much pain. But if things had been set up so that, say, having your fingers wrenched off one by one were not really so bad, why then it would not be really that wicked for us to go around wrenching each others’ fingers off. The evil of an act is an objective moral fact – from God’s perspective, and, ergo, in very truth. And this means that the pain arising from that evil act is logically given by the evil thereof.

I’ll try to illustrate by a spatial analogy. Say that you withdrew one light year away from the sun. It follows that the light you would then receive from the sun would be far less intense than if you had remained right at the sun’s surface, or on the surface of Earth. So with being evil, which alienates you from the source of all goodness. And the evil of evil acts perpetrated upon the innocent lies precisely in the fact that they impose upon their victims a privation of good; they hurt their victims by pushing them away from the Sun of Righteousness.

Kristor said...

As to anteprimordial matter, I was speaking metaphysically. Physics by definition can deal only with things that are already created. In speaking of uncreated things, we are necessarily speaking metaphysically.

Anteprimordial matter being chaotic, and therefore inactual, it is precisely no thing. A thing must be somehow ordered to be a thing in the first place.

But then, anteprimordial matter has no ontological status; it is a logical counter, nothing more, serving the role in our discourse of the equivalent term, “the opposite of everything that is or could possibly be.” Anteprimordial matter cannot possibly come to pass in any state of affairs, not least because, God being eternal, there is no way that anything whatsoever could be “ante” his prime ordination, which is coterminous with his being and essence.

Anteprimordial matter could not, then, have existed apart from God. But this means that, “before” the creation of time, “when” there existed nothing other than God, the anteprimordial matter “was” an aspect of God himself. To be precise, anteprimordial matter is the power of creation and destruction implicit in God’s omnipotence.

The doctrine of creatio ex nihilo is concerned to make clear that in forming the world, God does not need to work with some recalcitrant undefined stuff that is different, disparate, and independent of him, and has its own inherent nature, which therefore limits what God can do with it, but on the contrary that prior to his creative act there is no such stuff, no raw material substrate of creaturely being apart from God himself. God is the substrate of our being. This is all captured in Paul’s dictum that, “in [Christ] we live, and move, and have our being.”

The only limit on God is God himself, who is eternally the Logos by which we understand what is logically possible and what is not. The eternal Logos could not have been other than it is; this is part of what is meant by calling it eternal, and its eternality is what makes it the Logos. If the Logos could change, then it would no longer be the Logos, properly speaking, but nothing more than a mere set of conventions or habits local to some period in the life of some neighbourhood. And this would make it contingent, which would mean that it was not God.

Matthew C. said...


I think the readers here mostly recognize that the "limited" God you are talking about here is heretical.

For my part, I don't care about "heresy" per se. I simply think the limited God you are describing is not capable of sustaining your faith and worship over the long haul (and also happens to be untrue) and that is what concerns me.

I am quite sure that God is NOT limited, I will try to put together a worthwhile and useful response to this idea (which you have been touching on, off and on, for a while now).

Bruce Charlton said...

@Kristor - Leaving aside your second comment - consider the passage: "God is the source of all good...that the pain arising from that evil act is logically given by the evil thereof. "

I'm afraid this argument about the proportionality of pain to degree of evil strikes me as plain wrong (unless we posit hidden evils, but then how would we know?

Surely you don't believe that the extremity of human suffering is necessary as a deterrent? We don't live our lives on that basis. Mild deterrents work on many people, but other people are immune to any deterrent.

But I guess these things are beyond argument.

My point about the functionally needless degree and duration and location of suffering seems self-evident; but if it does not strike other people as such then there is no more to be said about it.

Agellius said...

I accept the reality of human suffering in this life without argument or complaint, precisely because I believe God is omnipotent and omniscient. If that's what God is, then I dare not question the way he made things. I try to understand it, and unlike you I find the conventional arguments mostly adequate. The part I find hard to explain and understand, is that of natural suffering -- illness, natural disasters, accidents -- as opposed to suffering inflicted by some people upon others. Nevertheless, if that's the way He saw fit to make things, then so be it.

Your alternative, that God is subject to the laws of the universe rather than their creator and lord, lead to other intransigent problems. For example, where do the universe and its laws come from? What is the source of morals and why are they obligatory? Is there a God above our God who is the Real God, who actually did make the universe and everything in it (and who is therefore to blame for the suffering that exists in our world)?

I don't find persuasive the arguments that Christian doctrine was changed to fit the categories of Greek philosophy. I understand there was controversy in the early Church over whether to take what was good from classical culture and put it to the service of Christ; or to jettison all of it. And the Church, on the whole, decided to do the former. After all if Christ is the Logos, then whatever was good in classical culture belongs to Christ. I think Greek forms and terminology were used because they proved useful and suitable to what was trying to be explained.

In any event, it is impossible to formulate theology without any reference whatsoever to the forms and means of communication and understanding that are intrinsic to the culture in which people find themselves living. Surely even Joseph Smith's ideas and formulations owe something to the culture in which he was raised.

Bruce Charlton said...

@MC - What is at issue is whether God IS limited, or whether God is not limited but always-acts-asif-he-is-limited.

There is no way of knowing empirically which is the case - it is a metaphysical issue.

But the different metaphysical answers have different implications to how we conceptualize God - as primarily as abstract entity, or as primarily our Father.

"the limited God you are describing is not capable of sustaining your faith and worship over the long haul" - that is an empirical prediction, which has been abundantly refuted.

But this is one example of a very general issue which comes up again and again, now and throughout history - which is that intellectuals tend to focus on abstractions while the faithful may have utterly different things in mind.

Alan Roebuck said...

The most important element is missing from this discussion so far: Scripture.

The Christian position on any subject begins with what the Bible says, and Scripture is the highest authority on every subject about which it speaks because it is God speaking.

If, therefore, Scripture says that God declares the end before the beginning (Isaiah 46:10), or that nothing is too hard for God (Jeremiah 32:17), or that God chose us before the creation of the world (Ephesians 1:4), or that none whom the Father gives to Christ shall be lost (John 6:39), then the Christian is to believe it.

It is relatively easy to generate objections, for it is impossible fully to understand exactly how such things are possible. But the Christian is called and commanded to have faith, that is, to trust God.

You may never find answers to your objections that you find fully satisfying. Faith includes perseverance in trust despite disappointments and difficulties. It is not a sin to desire better understanding and the resolution of difficulties. It is a sin to allow the difficulties to cause you to doubt what is clearly revealed in Scripture.

Kristor said...

No, I don’t believe that the correlation of evil with pain is necessary as a deterrent. The deterrent effect of pain is certainly real, but it is secondary; deterrence is, i.e., not the reason evil is painful, is not a design feature that could have been otherwise. Evil is not made to be painful in order to deter us from doing it. Rather, evil *just is* painful. You can’t get evil without pain. And so, evil being inherently painful, the degree of pain we suffer is commensurate to the degree of evil to which we are subject. To the extent that something is evil, it is painful. Not all the pain of evil is felt immediately by the sinner, of course. Indeed, most of that pain is inflicted on other creatures of his world. Still, for every “unit” of evil, there is some proportionate “unit” of pain.

And this painfulness of evil is necessary; it is entailed logically in the nature of evil. The pain we suffer is a measure of our alienation from the source of all goodness. Pain is what it is like to be subject to evil and alienated from the Good. It is the subjective aspect of objective evil, the qualium of evil; it is how evil feels, in just the way that our experience of vision is the subjective qualium of the light that we see.

Some of our pain is our own fault, and some is inflicted upon us by others. The pain we suffer at the hands of others is a measure of the wickedness of their deeds.

Why couldn’t God recalibrate things, so that evil of degree x that we now experience as painful to the degree y was instead experienced to the degree y – z? Say, per impossibile, that he had, so that the maximum pain we ever experienced was, oh, 50% of whatever the maximum agony is for us now. It would then still be the case that the range of pain we could suffer would feel to us like the full spectrum of pain, and we would look upon the worst agony we could then suffer – which God would know, as we did not, was only 50% as horrible as the worst pain we might have felt if he had not intervened – as the worst pain imaginable. And we would be in the same boat we are in right now. You’d be wondering the same wonder: why didn’t God make separation from him nicer than it is?

He just can’t, anymore than he could make the number 2 less dual than it is, or make 1 less singular.

Dona said...

Omnipotence does not imply G-d has the power to do the logically impossible (or need not). It is logically impossible to make (force) someone to freely love you. If G-d makes free creatures with real free will it may only be in such a world as ours with overwhelming pain and suffering (from our limited perspective) that the most ppl will freely come to G-d. So it is a 'constraint' bit not necessarily of omnipotence rather of logical necessity. The problem is we are in no position to judge whether the amount and extent of evil/suffering is gratuitous or not with absolute confidence.

I can say that looking at the decadent west where are pains are mostly trifles compared to most of human history having a 'pain free' life does not win G-d any additional followers.

Donald said...

Omnipotence does not imply G-d has the power to do the logically impossible (or need not). It is logically impossible to make (force) someone to freely love you. If G-d makes free creatures with real free will it may only be in such a world as ours with overwhelming pain and suffering (from our limited perspective) that the most ppl will freely come to G-d. So it is a 'constraint' bit not necessarily of omnipotence rather of logical necessity. The problem is we are in no position to judge whether the amount and extent of evil/suffering is gratuitous or not with absolute confidence.

I can say that looking at the decadent west where are pains are mostly trifles compared to most of human history having a 'pain free' life does not win G-d any additional followers.

Peter said...

@ Bruce - I was suggesting that a wholly Good but not limited God may become more comprehensible when you take into account man's badness and what is meant by it. Understanding man's evil is necessary to understanding God's goodness.

@ Arakara - “On convincing others” One does not assume one's safety based on any doctrine nor even assume safety at all. Only on God's whim is one saved.
- The “position of a few Church fathers and Saints of Orthodox.” In the Way of the Pilgrim book, the pilgrim is told to confess his “hate for God” among other things. Yet, by the judgment of the world a man who spends his days in constant prayer and reading of religious texts would be seen as having great love for God.

Matthew C. said...

"the limited God you are describing is not capable of sustaining your faith and worship over the long haul" - that is an empirical prediction, which has been abundantly refuted.

When I use the word "your" I am referring to YOU, Bruce Charlton, creative thoughtful high-IQ academic scientist in particular, not whether others can believe in such a limited God.

Of course I could be wrong, but I see in your recent struggles with the question of pain -- things I worry about. Your faith in Christ inspired me to repent my own apostacy, and if you ever were to lose your faith it would sadden me greatly. I have some writing I am working on describing exactly WHY I do not believe God is limited and when it is ready I'll get back to you on this subject.

Arakawa said...


My apologies. In attempting to speak about the impressions of other people, I committed only the monstrous flippancy of generalizing from my own experiences, to guess why other people I knew never seemed to take the Gospel as good news.

That said, your use of the word 'whim' reflects handily, I think, the difference between how you seem to understand God and how I assume Him to be. (So any argument I hear about God winds up having to address that assumption - even if to try to refute it - for me to find it reasonable.)

The question of doctrine is always, ultimately, in how well it teaches us to trust the will of our Lord and Saviour, that he puts those in Hell who are best off in Hell and those in Heaven who are best off in Heaven; nor does he work on a "whim" as you say but according to the will of His Father in Heaven, and there is no evil thing that He does not will to cast out into the uttermost darkness, nor any good thing that He does not will to be saved, whether through Heaven or through hell-fire; for all that is good proceeds of the Father, and He cannot willingly cast out a good thing from salvation, any more than He can annihilate Himself. That is my basic assumption.

And this necessarily creates mystery upon mystery; and we can try to understand it with our puny intellect, as Charlton tries to do by pondering a limitation to God's power (so He might will some things and be forced to do otherwise), or Macdonald tried to do by stipulating a purifying quality to hellfire, or I was tempted to do on my own at one point by contemplating a composite and separable soul, or an eternal creative act out of a separate and recalcitrant Chaos; or we can say that we are too depraved to even judge what is good from what is merely chaff for the burning, so much that seems to us good is in fact worthless, as the Calvinists seem to me to imply; or we can try to live with the mysteries unresolved.

Different people may be tempted to different responses, as per the above list. I think I have to admit that my soul is probably not wide enough to appreciate the validity for some people of the perspective of man's utter depravity.

Matthew C. said...

The question of doctrine is always, ultimately, in how well it teaches us to trust the will of our Lord and Saviour, that he puts those in Hell who are best off in Hell and those in Heaven who are best off in Heaven;

Lewis (and Charlton) are right, God doesn't put anyone into hell. Hell is a spiritual condition of someone's own being, in this life and in the next.

Arakawa said...


That is a reasonable position (especially with CS Lewis' "Heaven and/or Hell work backwards into life, so at the end the person finds they have always been in one or the other" -- I think that gets at a very important but inarticulable point of metaphysics).

However, I observe that people on Earth are not aware of definitely being in either state, whereas presumably the damned in Hell are well aware of their condition (although CS Lewis imagines otherwise for the purposes of The Great Divorce). So whether the actual action by God is positive action (condemnation to Hell) or negative refusal to act (refusal to keep people out of hell / forcibly effect salvation), one can say that it must be a benefit. In the latter case, one can say that God does not permit people to long remain deluded about their own condition; from which we can infer that to be in Hell and know it is (most likely) better for the damned in some way than to be in Hell and deny it.

(The 'most likely' again refers to the unlikely possibility imagined by CS Lewis that the damned sink into a deluded state of subhumanity. Obviously, God alone knows which actual judgment on the damned is more merciful, and He will perform the better judgment.)

Again, out of all the theologians I've read, I know only George Macdonald to have tried coherently to explain why conscious and extreme torments in Hell are not only a necessary possibility, but point to a just and loving God, but the entirety of his view is heretical. (Though, on a second look, the question of whether his view actually amounted to Universalism, instead of just suggesting it very strongly, was ambiguous enough that CS Lewis was able to use him as a mouthpiece in The Great Divorce.)