Tuesday 4 February 2014

Why must God test us? Because our will is free


For many modern people the hardest part of the Bible is often the story of Abraham being told by God to sacrifice Isaac, obeying, then God stopping the procedure only when it was clear that Abraham really would kill Isaac in response to God's command.

This is a complex scene, which includes the element of prefiguring Christ's sacrifice; but I think one aspect that creates horror among modern people is that they assume God already knew what Abraham would do - therefore the scene becomes one of gratuitous psychological torture.

The notion that God is supposedly omniscient - in particular that God already knows everything that is going to happen in the future, is a piece of unnecessary Classical philosophy which has been unwisely built-into mainstream Christianity, and which deeply confuses people's understanding of the Bible.

Really, this is quite straightforward: God needs to test Abraham because God does not know whether or not Abraham will obey.

God does not know in advance the outcome of his test, for the very simply reason that Abraham is a free agent: he has free will, he really can and does choose what to do.

Therefore, the only way that God can know that Abraham is faithful is to observe him over time, and especially to observe Abraham's response to trials and tests. 

This is one fundamental reason why our mortal life is necessarily - to some extent - a trial. (It is not, of course, the only reason for trails - because some and perhaps most trials come from evil forces, while others are consequences of the natural world).

How we respond to trials - and also how we respond to the temptations of luxury and pleasure - is something God needs to know in order to know us, and to measure our faith; and there is no short-cut to this knowledge: we must endure these trials.



Matthew C. said...

I disagree with you about whether or not God is Omniscient (and what that even means) but I agree with you that choice is real and unforced and critically important.

It's what we are here for, and yet we flee in terror from it.

Adam Greenwood said...

How we respond is also something we need to know.

I read a novel once where a suicide left a note that only read "I found out who I am."

Commodore said...

You seem to be giving a rather short shrift to the Reform viewpoint, there, which is that God knows Abraham's actions, heart, and the outcome and that he put Abraham through this trial for Abraham's sanctification and betterment (also as a metaphor for Christ, etc, etc). God wields a knife and cuts us. You say it is to test us as an experimenter, else He'd clearly be sadistic torturer. I say it's because He is a surgeon.

Sylvie D. Rousseau said...

I am under the impression that you are saying God would test Abraham, or the angels, or anyone else, in order to "know" what they would do in response. I should rather think that whatever trials are imposed on us free-willed creatures are in order that we figure for ourselves what we will choose and the consequences. The question of God's omniscience is not relevant to this problem: the truth that God, not being in time, of course knows what we will choose has nothing at all to do with our response.

But it has everything to do with Redemption. Redemption takes place in eternity, through a series of events brought to us in time, but it is not confined in time otherwise it would not be efficient. False reasoning about time and eternity entails denial of God's omniscience, then his omnipotence, then his eternity, then his personal being. We are left with the only alternative to Christian religion, pantheism, where everything (pantheism proper) or anything (polytheism), or Man (most forms of atheism) is god.

Bookslinger said...

@BC, have to disagree wtih you here.

LDS doctrine is pretty clear that God does have exhaustive foreknowledge. One common phrase "He sees the end from the beginning" has often been quoted by LDS leaders at least since Brigham Young.

To make sure bystanders parse that correctly, it does not mean "He sees the end distinct from the beginning" it means more like "He sees the end while standing at the beginning."

Adam G touched on the higher reason: God wanted _Abraham_ to know by giving him the opportunity to realize that he was capable of doing _anything_.

Further light is shed by Paul, in Hebrews 11:17-19. According to Paul, Abraham believed that God would raise Isaac from the dead in order to fulfill His (God's) promise that Abraham would have seed (innumerable) through Isaac. Actually, it's a logical deduction. The promise of innumerable posterity _through Isaac_ had already been made to Abraham. Isaac had not had children by that time. God wanted Abraham to kill Isaac. So...if Isaac was going to have children, God would have to bring him back to life first.

I'm not sure how Paul knew or believed that was Abraham's thoughts or reasons. It may have been a logical deduction on Paul's part. It may have been in Old Testament writings that were extant at the time of Paul but are now lost. It may have been mere oral tradition. Or Paul may have known it by revelation.

But yeah, God does know. One of the purposes of mortal life is to teach _us_ what we really want, and what we are capable of.

God already sees into and knows the contents of our heart. He is the perfect Judge.

I have further ideas, speculation on my part, that God was preparing Abraham for his own exaltation. After all, if you're going to grow up to be like Heavenly Father, and become a god some day, and if we humans (those who do receive that blessing) repeat the pattern (as per Joseph Smith's King Follett discourse) your first-born spirit-child is going to have to atone for the sins of the rest of your spirit-children during their mortal existence; and you, as their father, will have to allow it, nay, ordain it; the Lamb slain from before the foundation of the world.

I think Abraham knew more than we are giving him credit for.

I have no idea was Isaac was thinking.

Bruce Charlton said...

To commenters - If you are happy with your explanations then I have nothing to say!

But if I need to explain or justify the episode of A and I, I find these other explanations sound hollow in my own ears, they do not 'ring true', they lack psychological realism - I would not be inclined to believe them if somebody else was telling *me*.

Indeed, I think we need to be able to explain these things without doing what sound too much like verbal conjuring tricks with abstract concepts such as time and eternity.

If will is free and choice is undetermined then it is impossible that anybody could know in advance what the result will be. Simple as that. Concepts of fore-knowledge or omniscience must be fitted around that.

So far as we humans are concerned, in our relation to reality, free will is far more important to hold clear in our minds, to believe with our hearts and act upon; than philosophical explanations regarding the precise extent and nature of God's powers.

MC said...

A missionary companion of mine told me of an interesting way of reading the story that strikes me as plausible:

As Abraham and Isaac ascend the mountain, Isaac asks where the lamb for a sacrifice is. Abraham answers, "My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering." At one level, this may be seen as a deception to get Isaac to go along with the plan, i.e., "God will provide a lamb and you're it." It is also traditionally seen as a prophecy or at least a literary foreshadowing of Christ.

But an alternate way of looking at that statement is that Abraham had faith at some level that the Lord would provide an alternate sacrifice before Abraham had to really go through with it. And of course, that is what eventually happened. While the text clearly shows that Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac,* Abraham's faith that God would provide a substitute sacrifice (if indeed he so believed) would prove that he understood the nature of God as a loving father who may test our faith but will not ultimately act cruelly toward us.

Again, it's just a theory. But I like theories that, even if they drain some stark drama out of the story, make more sense when measured against the fatherly love God has for us.

*It is implicit that Isaac was a willing sacrifice, given that a man his father's age could hardly have completed the sacrifice of a grown man such as Isaac unwillingly.

George said...

I have to admit, I don't get it. Is it natural to place ourselves in the stories? In Abraham's place, wouldn't you assume you had gone insane or it was a trick by the devil? Murder is a mortal sin, and even contemplating taking the life of a loved family member seems very wrong.

Bruce Charlton said...

@G - In Abraham's place? Would *I* assume?...

Yes, but that is the point surely.

Have *we* spoken with Jehovah - creator of the world? Have we experienced major miracles and been the subject of extraordinary prophecies? Were we chosen by God from all men to found Israel?

If all *this* had happened to us - we would be 'insane' *not* to obey.

But, either way, this episode was not about Abraham being taught something, in my opinion (whether or what Abraham learned from the experience was contingent) but about God testing him; to discover whether he was faithful and suitable.

Interestingly, my ESV (English Standard Version) study Bible (which is a very literal modern translation by conservative, Reformed evangelicals - eg Southern Baptists and Calvinists and some evangelical Anglicans including JM Packer) has the phrase 'God tested Abraham' and the note apparently agrees with my interpretation - although I don't suppose the translators would agree with my emphasis on God not foreknowing the result of the test.

(The Authorized Version has it that 'God did tempt Abraham' - which I presume meant, in context, much the same thing as 'test'.)

Sylvie D. Rousseau said...

...it is impossible that anybody could know in advance what the result will be.

Well, God is just not "anybody". We cannot know or understand him at all if we lend more truth to our feelings or imaginings, or private revelations, than to Revelation as handed down to us by the Apostolic Succession and Magisterium. Different, greater feelings and imaginings are given with orthodox faith, but faith has nothing to do with them and they are not to be trusted anyway if they contradict either Revelation or right reason.

Bookslinger said...

BG wrote:
"So far as we humans are concerned, in our relation to reality, free will is far more important to hold clear in our minds, to believe with our hearts and act upon; than philosophical explanations regarding the precise extent and nature of God's powers."

Exactly. This is the proper priority. However, once we have set that as a top priority, I suppose that we may be allowed to fill some free-time with philosophical and metaphysical speculations. ;-)

BC also wrote: "If will is free and choice is undetermined then it is impossible that anybody could know in advance what the result will be. Simple as that. Concepts of fore-knowledge or omniscience must be fitted around that."

There's where you go wrong, and you either submit to a false premise, or misunderstand the nature of higher dimensions of time.

I think Will is free in all dimensions of time and space. But knowledge of future choices can exist in higher dimensions where time (as we see it here) is a _sub_-dimension.

In other words, in some higher dimensions (in, say, string theory or the multi-verse theory) past, present and future are all one eternal "now".

Just as we, in 3-dimensional space, can look "down" upon a two-dimensional drawing and see _all_ of it at a glance, so can a being in a higher physical dimension look "down" upon our 3-dimensional planet and see all particles of it at once. (Search for "Flatland" on Youtube and watch an explanation given by Carl Sagan.)

A two-dimensional creature living on a piece of paper would not be able to see into a closed room of an architectural drawing. But us 3-dimensional humans "miraculously" can look upon the drawing and see inside closed rooms. Our higher dimension gives us knowledge that the 2-dimensional creatures don't have. And when we speak to them, the 2-dimensional creatures can't tell where the voice is coming from. And if we put our finger on the drawing, it appears to the 2-dimensional creatures as if it came out of nowhere.

Extend that analogy to a dimension of time in addition to a dimension of space.

Free will logically requires that the knowledge of our future choices _stays outside of_ our 3-dimensional space/time. However, it does not logically follow that knowledge of our future choices stay out of _higher dimensions_ of time.

This is one of the beauties of science, math, string theory, and multi-verse theory! There is now a scientific and logical basis to speculate how Heavenly Father obeys the laws of existence, yet is able to do what we would consider miraculous or "super"-natural from out viewpoint/standpoint.

Put another way: Suppose I have a chicken sandwich for lunch tomorrow Thursday Feb 6, 2014. The following are then true from every and any standpoint and at every and any time-point in a higher dimension of time: 1) I always did have a chicken sandwich Thursday Feb 6, 2014. 2) I always do have a chicken sandwich Thursday Feb 6, 2014. 3) I always will have a chicken sandwich Thursday Feb 6, 2014.

Yes, will is free. And in our space/time, neither you nor I know what your future choices will be. They are indeterminate as you say.

But from the standpoint/viewpoint of an exalted being, an "eternal" being who either resides in or has access to that higher dimension of both space _and_ time, you _already have_ made _every_ decision that you will ever make.

And for the test to be a true test, for will to be truely free, that knowlege must stay _out_ of our timeline or space/time or dimension.

Bookslinger said...

There was an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space 9 where Commander Sisko has a conversation with the worm-hole aliens, who live outside of time. Aside from Sagan's "Flatland" explanation, that one conversation finally made me understand that "eternal" does not equate exactly to "forever". "Eternal" is more like "outside of time, in a higher dimension."

Time, as we know it, only exists inside our little bubble-creation, our "universe." Before the bubble existed, there was no time. Outside the bubble presently, there is no time. After the bubble goes away (collapses) there is no time. When another bubble comes into "existence" time starts again, but only inside that bubble. Before the bubble, outside the bubble, and after the bubble is "eternity." Only exalted beings, such as Heavenly Father, can exist in "eternity." That is why they are called "Eternals."

Some thing, some part, of us is also "eternal". (Perhaps our "intelligence" which is the soul of the soul.) But our assembly, or assemblage, is temporal, and is only intact for the duration of the bubble, unless Heavenly Father exalts, blesses, or promotes, us to "eternal".

"Eternal death", as mentioned in the scriptures is perhaps what happens when that bubble goes away/collapses/resets.