Wednesday, 1 October 2014

The power of the self-damned to hurt God - the greatest temptation of evil?

There is a strong tradition in mainstream Christian theology, deriving ultimately from Platonic philosophy, that because of the perfection of God and the absolute happiness of the blessed in Heaven - therefore God and the blessed look upon the existence of Hell and the sufferings of the damned as 'a good thing' - and their joy is not in the slightest degree impaired by the continued existence of unrepentant evil, pain and misery.

I regard this idea as pernicious nonsense - and a gross under-estimation of the temptations of evil - despite that the view is articulated by some of my very favourite, most loved and most revered theological mentors such as CS Lewis and Thomas Traherne.

It is truly monstrous to suppose that Heavenly perfection is unimpaired by the existence of evil, and that indeed Heaven-dwellers contemplate the misery of those who reject God with satisfaction - and the fault lies in giving priority to an abstract, absolutist, 'mathematical' concept of perfection derived from Platonic philosophy and cramming Christianity into this philosophical strait-jacket.

Philosophy really has no place to be thus usurping revealed Christian theology, and philosophy should firmly be shown the door when it leads to such an horrific reductio ad absurdum.


Another factor leading to this absurd conclusion is that classical theologians want the Satan and the damned to have no power over God - their view of God is so absolute and infinite that it is inconceivable to them that any individual created being could have the power to disturb divine equanimity - and from this they infer that, in effect, God doesn't care about the damned (because if He was to care, then that would impair His perfection).

However, this is precisely to miss the temptation of evil - in which the deepest motivation is precisely to harm God, to cause God pain and sorrow.


This is a common attitude here on earth: people inflict suffering upon themselves in order to harm other people.

At the most extreme, some suicides are motivated primarily by this form of hatred - a man kills himself in order to try and ruin the life of his girlfriend - "That will show her how much she has hurt me!".

And in general, many a person will 'cut off his nose to spite his face' - or take a 'dog in the manger' attitude.

That is, the dog lies in the manger where he is uncomfortable and cannot eat the hay - but does it because it stops the cows from eating. The dog makes himself miserable from pleasure at contemplating the irritation of the cows.

(Getting pleasure at the anger, distress and hurt of other people is called 'winding people up' in Britain, and is a favourite pastime of teenagers and comedians - and generally approved-of in the mass media, especially when the victims are regarded as undeserving of sympathy). 


I suspect, indeed, that although this seems like a petty and rather trivial kind of motivation and behaviour, that it may be one of the very gravest of all sins.

Be that as it may - it must be acknowledged that it works. The dog in the manger really is annoying to the cows; and the hatred-motivated suicide really often does cause misery to survivors, perhaps lifelong misery.

And when Satan (brightest of angels) rejected God's gift of happiness and descended into a pit of pride, hatred and eternal suffering - he really did cause God sorrow - and perhaps that sorrow is eternal.

To acknowledge the reality of God's sorrow is the only way we can comprehend God as infinitely loving; and this is much more important for us (as Christians) to understand than the scope of God's power.


And this power to hurt God is given to even the humbles, weakest and apparently most insignificant of Men - this power which is intoxicating to Pride: the power to use our own, self-inflicted suffering to 'get back' at God, to wound Him, to 'show Him what He has done to me...'.

It is the power of the hate-filled suicide, and it is a real power, and a very real temptation: the temptation to destroy oneself for the pleasure (and it is a real pleasure) of defying and hurting the creator of the universe, our Heavenly Father.

Even such puny creatures as ourselves can do this thing - it is within our ability - and it will give an everlasting satisfaction which (for some people) more than compensates for everlasting misery.


(This attitude is perfectly explicit in such anti-heroes as Milton's Satan, Mozart/ Da Ponte's Don Giovanni, or the later philosophy of Nietzsche: an exultation in pride accompanied by an open-eyed embracing of the consequent misery: the assertion that it is 'worth it' to live miserably in despite of, in defiance of, God: the arrogance of one who will 'pay the price' to 'be himself' and not what God wants him to be.) 


Damnation really is a choice, and there really is something to be said for it in terms of this dread-full, pride-full defiance. This is what must be renounced in order to be saved - and it should not be too surprising (even though a matter of endless sorrow) that some Men and Angels do choose evil, with all that entails.

It seems like a terrible bargain in every way - and it is - but sometimes, for some people, pride is stronger that anything else - even at the cost of permanent misery.



Bruce B. said...

Jesus wept.

Cui Pertinebit said...

"And the third angel followed them, saying with a loud voice: If any man shall adore the beast and his image and receive his character in his forehead or in his hand, he also shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is mingled with pure wine in the cup of his wrath: and shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the sight of the holy angels and in the sight of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torments, shall ascend up for ever and ever..."

Far from being saddened by the torment of the wicked, it seems that seeing them in torment is actually almost a pleasant or fitting thing, here. People send themselves to hell; it is not the will of God that any man should perish, but that he should repent and live. I think we can also agree that those who engage in sin harm not only themselves, but others around them. One of the ways they do this, is by causing sorrow to people who love them, who have to watch what they are doing to themselves.

To say that the just will forever be sad in some degree because of those who have chosen hell for themselves, is to give the wicked a permanent and unending power over the good. The Church has always recognized, rather, that there will be such a clarity of vision and such an understanding of the perfect justice and goodness of God's judgments in the end, and in how everything has been brought to a conclusion, that the natural *temporal* sympathy of the good for the wicked will fade as their sympathy is aligned wholly and perfectly with the eternal and just judgments of God. For some, mostly saints, this may begin well before temporal death.

God, of course, is all-sufficient and perfect. It is His desire that man commune with Him in love... but it is inconceivable that a man's failure to do so can actually wound God. As humans, we have difficulty imagining this, because, for us, to love something means necessarily to be distressed when that love is rejected... and so it seems to us that God must not "really" love mankind, if He is not going to be upset by man's distress and rejection. But this comes from our limitations - limitations which God does not share. Mormons and Christians have very different ideas of God - I know Mormons believe in a God of "body, parts and passions," essentially a man like us. But Christians believe that God is immaterial, eternal, unchanging. He does not change from happy to sad, angry to pleased, though we speak in such anthropomorphic ways sometimes in order to accommodate more abstract realities to our understanding.

Bruce Charlton said...

@CP - Well, there you go! You have provided an example of what I was critiquing in my post - so readers can make up their own minds about what is a validly Christian view, and what is Christianity after it has been violently squeezed-through a narrow and distorting philosophical tube.

Adam G. said...

You have never written anything truer.

(At the same time, I have some sympathy with Cui P. I must be insane.)

I don't think there is any way of viewing the Atonement that doesn't admit that we, at least collectively, have the power to hurt God.

I once wrote that the Fall was in effect our holding ourselves hostage to coerce God, like Satan tempting Christ to throw himself off the temple roof.

Bruce Charlton said...

Thanks Adam! - The trigger was reading the end of this. I love Traherne, as you know, but...

They that would not upon earth see their wants from all Eternity, shall in Hell see their treasures to all Eternity: Wants here may be seen and enjoyed, enjoyments there shall be seen, but wanted. Wants here may be blessings; there they shall be curses. Here they may be fountains of pleasure and thanksgiving, there they will be fountains of woe and blasphemy. No misery is greater than that of wanting in the midst of enjoyments, of seeing, and desiring yet never possessing. Of beholding others happy, being seen by them ourselves in misery. They that look into Hell here may avoid it hereafter. They that refuse to look into Hell upon earth, to consider the manner of the torments of the damned, shall be forced in Hell, to see all the earth, and remember the felicities which they had when they were living. Hell itself is a part of God's Kingdom, to wit His prison. It is fitly mentioned in the enjoyment of the world. And is itself by the happy enjoyed, as a part of the world.

Leo said...

I opened a book by Terryl Givens at a bookstore recently and came across this thought: we suppose that we cannot look upon the face of God without divine aid and dispensation because we cannot bear to see the glory. But what if we cannot have that vision because we cannot yet bear to see the pain?

Wm Jas said...

"I suspect, indeed, that although this seems like a petty and rather trivial kind of motivation and behaviour, that it may be one of the very gravest of all sins."

This is precisely what I was taught as a child -- that taking pleasure in the unhappiness of others was the most quintessentially Satanic of all sins.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Leo - I owe a lot to TG.

agellius said...

Adam writes, "I don't think there is any way of viewing the Atonement that doesn't admit that we, at least collectively, have the power to hurt God."

There again is where the two natures come in.

agellius said...

I have an idea that all sadness comes from the failure to realize that EVERYTHING will come out right in the end. Thus Paul, "For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us." Rom. 8:18.

God the Father was not saddened by the sight of Christ on the Cross, because he sees the big picture. It's sort of like someone working to attain a goal, and having to work extremely hard indeed, and neglect his family for a time, and feel like he's losing his mind, but in the end attaining such a good result that he would do it all over again.

If one of his friends saw him while he was suffering he might feel sad for him. But both of them, in looking back on it will not regret that he suffered, because they see what resulted from it.

God sees things happening not one moment at a time, but the whole at once; just as he sees the whole world rather than seeing it one section at a time as we do. Time is a dimension like length, breadth and depth, and just as we can see the entire length and breadth of a ruler all at once, God can see the length, breadth, depth and the entire lifespan of all of creation, such that he knows the end result of it -- which end result is GOOD, otherwise he would not have done it in the first place.

It seems to me that imagining God as feeling sadness forever due to the suffering of the damned, misses the whole picture, and also assumes that God misses the whole picture.

Nicholas Fulford said...

Cui points out the horror that is the wrathful Christian God. This scripture drives more thinking people away from Christianity than any other. For what act of finite man justifies an endless and unspeakable agony?

There is no scale of punishment to deed, but any sin from the slightest to the magnitude of a Hitler, Mao or Stalin receives the same punishment, and if one of the aforementioned repented on their deathbed, he would be free of hell; whereas if Gandhi died without accepting Christ he would burn for eternity,

How is there any semblance of justice in this?

There is none.

Justice demands proportionality of punishment to crime and even admits of such things as diminished responsibility, and the necessity of a guilty mind for guilt to exist. Is a man with a 40 IQ held to the same standard of knowing as a man with 160 IQ?

Before man no, before God yes.

Is a man who jaywalks subject to the same punishment as a murderer?

Before man no, but before God being unrepentant of even the most minor offence is counted as of equal gravity with the most grave - as Christ alone is the bridge between God and man.

And the third angel followed them, saying with a loud voice: If any man shall adore the beast and his image and receive his character in his forehead or in his hand, he also shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is mingled with pure wine in the cup of his wrath: and shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the sight of the holy angels and in the sight of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torments, shall ascend up for ever and ever...

A greater stumbling block does not exist in the Christian scriptures than the total lack of congruency between this scripture and any concept of justice.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Ag - We should never allow philosophy to violate the Prime Directive: God is our Loving Father. Most people misunderstand philosophy most of the time- but it is easy to understand a loving Father.

SO what does God feel when he sees his beloved, sinless Son on the Cross. Does He feel sad? OF COURSE!

To say God does not feel sad because (incomprehensible philosophy about Time) is monstrous, distorting, and fundamentally un-Christian.

@NF - The same applies to the interpretation of specific verses from the Bible - especially when these are embedded in extraordinarily hard-to-understand symbolism.

The overall message of Christianity from the Gospels is clear enough for a normal child of eight - so we should assume that we have misunderstood the specific verse (or that there is something wrong with that specific verse) - after all scripture is not self-explaining; and we need Saints, Prophets or at least very deeply religious people to explain the cruxes.

There is no domain of human discourse which lacks obvious or apparent inconsistency and contradiction when it is pulled apart and cross checked a thousand different ways (certainly none of the sciences) - if this or any other specific passage is a stumbling block in contradiction to the overall clear message, then it should not be.

(Mormons allow that the Bible as we have it has errors - and so does the Book of Mormon - even though these are the *most* perfect of books. Most perfect (not absolutely, mathematically, infinitely perfect) seems like a healthy and sensible attitude - so long as it is not used as an excuse to do what you want in contradiction to doctrine - which it isn't. The living Prophets are the bottom line for interpretation - but even they are explicitly not perfect, not infallible. It really is possible to be common-sensical and yet strong about such matters - if one allows oneself!)

Leo said...

Let us suppose one of my sons died tragically and painfully performing some heroic deed that benefited many others. Would I feel sad? Of course. Would I feel comforted by the good that came from that deed? Of course. We can properly feel a sweep of emotions, even seemingly contradictory emotions. We cannot now bear or fully understand what that sweep might be like on a cosmic scale.

Leo said...

Yes, Latter-day Saints take some of the imagery in Revelations as, well, imagery. We do not believe that hell as commonly understood is literally infinite in time. As for the end of those who persist in satanic rebellion, we believe no mortal truly knows it, but the images are not at all pretty.

agellius said...

Bruce writes, "Most people misunderstand philosophy most of the time- but it is easy to understand a loving Father."

And yet maybe there is more to him:

'For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD.' Is. 55:8.

'For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.' 1 Cor. 1:25.

'God thunders wondrously with his voice; he does great things that we cannot comprehend.' Job 37:5

Adam G. said...

More, but not less. A God incapable of feeling sorrow is a God incapable of feeling love, which would make him less than us, not incomprehensibly greater than we are.

alexi de sadesky said...


Your quotes seem to support Bruce's idea.

A child does not hold the same thoughts of his father. He might be interested in cowboys and indians while, his father is interested in philosophy and mathematics. And just because the child does not comprehend mathematics now doesn't mean he wont further down the road.

Similarly, the father can do all these neat tricks. He can ride a two wheeled bicycle and throw a baseball a great distance and hold his breath under water for a long stretch. These are rather simple things, but in the mind of the child they may be wondrous.

Wesley Dean said...

There is great explanation of this in Orson Scott Card's novel Earthborn, where a women has a vision of the tree of life. When she takes a bite of the fruit, she experiences the love God has for all of His children, including the ones who have rejected Him and the happiness He offered them. His sorrow for them, the ones He can never forget, is a part of the taste of the fruit, the bitterness that makes the sweet all the sweeter.

Cui Pertinebit said...

Well, what you call "philosophy," I just call common sense. To say that the wicked will always be allowed to impede the perfect happiness of the just - and even God! - is to allow the wicked to *permanently* hold the universe - and, moreover, the universe' Creator! - hostage.

It simply must be the case that, once all accounts are settled, God and the just are capable of getting down to the business of joy, and leaving the incurably miserable to their misery. And they must realize that it is proper and right - and therefore, a cause for gladness - that those who wish to inflict their misery on others, be quarantined and stripped of their power to do this. Otherwise we must believe that, in the end, there is no truly unadulterated joy, any pure bliss, and undisturbed peace; the wicked shall have forever inflicted themselves upon us. I actually find your view to be much more cruel and, though you may be proud of its lack of philosophy, I would criticize it for having allowed an emotional impulse to prevent a more profound thought process from occurring - one which realizes that allowing the wicked to make others unhappy forever, is to make the wicked the true masters of the universe.

And to be clear, the just will not take pleasure in the unhappiness of others, because that would be Satanic. They will take pleasure in the just judgments of God; the justice of the torment is what pleases them, not the fact that they delight in torment for its own sake. How barbaric a thought! As to the justice of the eternal damnation of the wicked, see above. Given the criticism that I have altered Christianity via philosophy, it seems to me that folk are remarkably prepared to allow their emotional hunches, their first reactions, their primary insights, etc., to override the clear teaching of Scripture: that God damns the wicked, they are tormented in His presence forever, and yet He and the blessed seem perfectly content. Rather than explain that away, have faith in the Scriptures and allow them to point your way through the emotional misgivings about so hard a doctrine. If you do that, I have confidence that you'll see the wisdom of what I said above.

Bruce Charlton said...

@CP - I think those of the saved who wish for perfect, static bliss untainted by any sorrow will be given what they wish - and be absorbed-into the goodness of God, and lose personhood - can 'opt out' of the necessarily dynamic, hence imperfect, joy of divine relationships. I don't think that God or Jesus Christ will impose their friendship on the saved. But mostly Heaven will have work to do, wrongs still to right, and infinite creativity (which is moving from, as it were, lesser to greater perfections)

agellius said...

Adam writes, "A God incapable of feeling sorrow is a God incapable of feeling love, which would make him less than us, not incomprehensibly greater than we are."

If that's so, then by the same token, is being vulnerable to physical pain better than being impervious to it? I can understand why God made us to feel physical pain. But if you told me that God also experiences physical pain, and that he would be inferior if he didn't, that would be much harder to understand.

(If being incapable of sorrow implies being incapable of love, what does being incapable of physical pain imply?)

Bruce Charlton said...

@ag - I'm not sure whether there is a real distinction between physical and mental suffering - in medicine the two are pretty entwined.

Pain has a function, which is (roughly) to prevent injury. If the resurrected body cannot be injured, there would be no need for pain.

Essentially, this doesn't seem like a good analogy! It is easy to imagine love without physical pain, but I don't think love can really be imagined that is not empathic, and empathy entails experiencing pain.

But to turn it the other way around - why don't you just accept the obvious fact that God our loving Father, as revealed in scripture, experiences sorrow? Why try to deny the obvious - merely because of some philosophical theory?

A god who really is impassive is indeed the god of the other big monotheism - and such a God has a very different quality from ours. Why would a Christian want that kind of God?

agellius said...


I don't concede the proposition that to love, one must feel empathy and therefore sadness. This argument seems to be based on two premises: (1) that love is a feeling, and (2) that love in God must be the same as love in us, neither of which I grant absolutely.

You have already conceded that despite having a physical body, God nevertheless feels no physical pain. How can this be? Physical human bodies always feel pain, unless they're defective. The answer is that this is a special kind of body, one that has gone through some process by which it has become indestructible and impervious to injury and therefore pain. So, in some ways God's body is not like our body. Therefore despite our experience, having a human body does not always accompany susceptibility to pain.

Why then must it follow that because God loves, he must also feel sadness? Merely from the fact that in our experience love is always susceptible to sadness? Why can't God's experience of love differ from ours in some ways, just as his experience of having a body, if he has one, might differ from ours?

Bruce asks, "why don't you just accept the obvious fact that God our loving Father, as revealed in scripture, experiences sorrow?"

In short, because I don't believe that scripture is a matter of private interpretation.

Leo said...

Not just the other big monotheism. Such a God would be a God "without body, parts, or passions." Where have we read that before?

Bruce Charlton said...

@ag - I wholly accept that there are philosophical work-arounds which have enabled people I respect and revere as much as Traherene amd CS Lewis to square this particular circle. So you are in the best of company!

But what is the reason for all this fine spun logic, these wheels within wheels? Merely a picture (or concept) of the philosophers' God which is compatible with that inherited from Greek and Roman philosophy!

But Christians are - at least nowadays - under no obligation to squeeze the personal God of the Bible into an already existing mould derived from the intellectual elite of the early years of the church.

It is perfectly possible, indeed natural and logical, for a mainstream Christian to read the Bible and get from it the kind of God I am describing - it is not possible to read the Bible and get the philosophical, paradoxical, physics-type God which the mainstream Christian denominations try to insist upon: He comes from somewhere else other than scripture.

However, I must concede that this is probably another of those reasons why God found it necessary to found a new Christian church with the CJCLDS - it was in part simply to restore what should have been obvious, but was now obscure (the other reasons were to clarify long-running ambiguities - for example about salvation and pre-mortal life, and also to add to revelation some new revelations - e.g. with the BoM - and new structures)

ajb said...

"If the resurrected body cannot be injured, there would be no need for pain."

Is this right? As you said, pain is designed to avoid injury. Pain, when functioning properly, is a useful part of an organism that does things. It is difficult to conceive of a body that cannot be injured (how can a body eat and drink but not be injured?), but much easier to conceive of a body that is very good at repairing itself. In such a body, pain might be one of the systems used to minimize injury, and hence reduce the inconvenience of having to repair oneself unnecessarily.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ajb - I haven't given the subject much thought, because it does not concern me. I was only making the point that 'even if' the resurrected body could not feel pain, empathic sorrow would still be an intrinsic part of love.