Category: Nature of God |
Published on Saturday, 01 December 2012 17:47 |
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Nature of God
Starter: Richard Swinburne on the Nature of God http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xaYB3v_3De0
The three classic attributes of God include his omnipotence, omniscience and omnibenevolence. If we had to explain these three qualities to a stranger who’d never heard of God, how would we describe them? What evidence would we give for them? And do we understand the terms themselves?
For example, try translating these words from a famous hymn:
Immortal, invisible God only wise,
In light inaccessible hid from our eyes,
Most blessed, most glorious, the Ancient of Days,
Almighty, victorious, Thy great name we praise.
In this handout we contrast the traditional view (as defined by Aquinas and Augustine) with the modern view (as defined for example, by Charles Hartshorne and William Alston). We explore three questions:
Can God’s omnipotence be reconciled with the presence of both moral and natural evil?
Can God’s timelessness be reconciled with his activity in the world (eg miracles)?
Can God’s omnibenevolence (love) be reconciled with his justice, punishment and wrath?
These three terms, omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent raise philosophical problems, both of definition and of application.
We need to decide what they mean exactly, and see how the meanings change over time, as the definition of the terms influences the debate about their implications.
They appear to contradict each other.
They raise important questions for the nature of human freedom, accountability and responsibility.
Traditionally, Christians believe that the three parts (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) of the triune God share the same essence. God is essentially SELF-EXISTENT: God doesn’t depend on anything or anybody for his existence. There are two views of how God can be seen to be self-existent: Anselm argues God's existence can neither be derived from nothing nor from some other being. God's existence is self-derived; God's non-existence is impossible. Aquinas, in contrast, sees the statement, "God exists" as a self-evident truth, but humans cannot recognize this due to our limitations. God is known to us by his effects, and humans cannot know God's essence directly.
To Aristotle, God was the prime mover or first cause behind the origin of all things. Christians believe in the Jewish idea of an eternally existing God, whose name is YHWH or “I am who I am”. This God, too, is a first cause creator: “He created all things and without HIm was not anything made, that was made” (John 1). The question remains: what exactly is the relation between the invisible eternal God and the physical world existing in time?
Another word Augustine used to describe God is SIMPLE. Augustine tells us that “a nature is said to be simple on the grounds that it cannot lose any of the properties it possesses; that is, there is no distinction to be made between what that nature is and the properties that it has” (City of God ,ch10, IX). He means by this that God is unchangeable or IMMUTABLE and thus cannot lose or gain any characteristics. Aquinas spoke of God being simple as God signifies ‘being/existing’. By saying that God is ‘simple’ traditional philosophers are saying that:
God is God
I can break a horse down and describe its parts: head, shanks, neck etc. But I can’t physically describe God in this way. Aquinas argues that we can only talk about God’s nature (what God is) and God’s existence are the same thing because to talk of God is to talk of a being that exists.
For example, in the Ontological Argument Anselm claims that existence is a predicate of God (an essential part of the God description). We return to the question of whether existence is a predicate in the section on the ontological argument.
God is unchanging
Change implies a movement from being one thing to being another. In the traditional view (Fig. 1) because God is perfect, God lacks nothing and is not capable of changing into something else and at the same time remaining perfect. Change is seen as an IMPERFECTION. Only something unchanging can logically be the cause of the created world that changes. The reason for this claim is explained by Brian Davies (2003):
“If something changeable accounted for there being a world in which change occurs, it would be part of such a world and could not, therefore, account for it.”
Another way of putting this is to say that God has necessary existence, not contingent. NECESSARY existence means God does not change according to time or place, his character and nature are beyond change. Also, only a being above and beyond space and time can be responsible for creating things within space and time. The necessary simplicity of God gives our search for the divine its special appeal, as Nicholas Westeroff observes:
“The feeling, deep seated in much of human culture, that the flowing of events into the an irrecoverable and unchangeable past is a matter of deep regret. Our bright actions and shining moments do not long endure. The gnawing of time bites all. And our evil deeds can never be undone. They are forever to be regretted… regrets over the pervasive pattern of what transpires within time have led whole societies to place the divine outside of time – freed from the bondage of temporality”. (Wolterstorff (1975) ‘God Everlasting’)
Q. Can we reconcile the simplicity of God with his several attributes, such as love, power, justice and holiness?
Fig 1. The Difference between the Modern and Traditional views of God ￼
Omnipotence means all-powerful, and as an attribute of God it is summed up by his name EL SHADDAI (almighty) which is used seventy times in the Hebrew Bible. According to Thomas Aquinas, God’s power is linked to his will and knowledge :“power is not attributed to God as a thing different from His knowledge and will, but as the same thing expressed by a different concept, because power executes the command of the will and the advice of the intellect” (ST I Qxxv, a4).
In this way the attributes of God are interlinked. In addition God cannot do what is logically impossible or do anything not in line with his essential attributes (such as love and goodness). Omnipotence is thus limited by CHARACTER and by LOGIC.
Omnipotence is an ambiguous idea, used differently in the traditional view of God.
It can mean:
God has unlimited power - he can do anything including the logically impossible. This was Descartes’ view of God.
God has qualified power. He can’t break the laws designed by his own hand, such as the laws of logic. He can’t make 2+2 + 5. Hs power is thus self-limited; God lays down his own limitations.
Aquinas’ argument, expressed in point b., is an argument for consistency. God cannot be or do things inconsistent with his design (laws) or his character (his divine nature). One of the laws he cannot break is the law of free will. He can’t both give us free will and continually break that principle by unmaking it when we do wrong. Things that are intrinsically impossible are self-contradictory,
“Hence it is more precise to say that the intrinsically impossible is incapable of production than to say God cannot produce it” (Aquinas, ST I, xxv, a.3).
How do we define the intrinsically impossible? In two ways:
1. Anything which goes against God’s nature. God cannot sin. “to attribute to God the power to do evil is to attribute to him the power to have an attribute, perfect goodness, which is part of his very essence..God could no more cease to be perfectly good than a triangle could cease to have three angles” (William Rowe page 7). He cannot choose to do evil nor can his promises be broken. Although God could choose to extend my life on earth forever, he has ordered otherwise. If his decrees could be changed it would follow that his will was capricious (changed with circumstances) or his wisdom was imperfect (he changed his mind).
2. Anything which is logically incoherent, such as creating a round square. Aquinas would include “remaking the past” as it is contradictory to say that something that has happened has also not happened.
Can God create a stone too heavy for God to lift? This would involve limiting God’s omnipotence, so contradicts his essential attribute. “The proper solution to the puzzle is to say God cannot create a stone any more than he can do an evil deed” (Rowe page 7). Such a limitation to God’s power also extends to changing the past. using Aquinas’ distinction, God cannot create a stone too heavy to lift because this is logically inconsistent.
JL Mackie argues that beliefs about God’s omnipotence “are positively irrational, in that the several parts of the essential theological doctrine are inconsistent with one another”. Particularly there is no solution to the problem of evil: if God is all powerful and all loving, then suffering and evil logically should not exist. All attempts to solve this problem, says Mackie, fail. One such attempt has been the free will defence.
The Free will defence
Imagine as a parent you decide the way to help your child mature, grow and flourish is to give them freedom and independence, to learn by making decisions and by making mistakes. Having given them freedom, you then follow them when they go shopping to advise them on the colour of shoes they should buy, sit next tot hem in the nightclub to stop them drinking too much and create a fuss when they drive too fast. Not only would you go mad, but you would accuse them of not trusting you with freedom. By analogy this is the free will defence against the charge that an all-powerful God does not prevent harm and suffering.
Notice two things about this defence against the charge that God is not both omnipotent and all-loving.
1.It only applies to moral, not natural evil. It doesn’t explain tsunamis, viruses, hurricanes.
2. It doesn’t explain why God couldn’t have designed us with less tendency to be selfish and evil.
Augustine first put the problem this way:
“Where did evil come from? Or was there some evil matter of which He made and formed and ordered it, but left something in it which He did not convert into good? But why was this? Was He powerless to change the whole lump, so that no evil should remain in it, seeing that He is omnipotent? Lastly, why would He make anything at all of it, and not rather by the same omnipotency cause it not to be at all?” (Confessions Ch 5).
Free will is compatible with omnipotence
The free will defence is that the world and human beings had to be set up this way, and to then limit human freedom is a contradiction. Alvin Plantinga is one modern author who argues there is no incompatibility between free will and omnipotence: “The heart of the Free Will Defence is the claim that it is possible that God could not have created a universe containing moral good… without creating one that also contained moral evil. And if so, then it is possible that God has a good reason for creating a world containing evil”. (1989:30)
Plantinga argues that the world had to contain both good and evil:
“God is omnipotent, and it was not within His power to create a world containing moral good but no moral evil”. (1989:45)
The argument concludes like this:“A world containing creatures who are free to make moral choices (and freely perform more good than evil actions) is more valuable, all else being equal, than a world containing no free creatures at all. Now God can create free creatures, but He can’t cause or determine them to do only what is right. For if He does so, then they aren’t significantly free after all; they do not do what is right freely. To create creatures capable of moral good, therefore, He must create creatures capable of moral evil” (1989:31). The best conceivable world is one that we are experiencing now.
It’s an argument that Peter Vardy echoes this in pointing out that the traditional view of God’s omnipotence may be too exalted: “God is traditionally held to be omnipotent, yet if God can do everything why does He not abolish all the evil and suffering in the world? … The idea of God as a supreme power figure has been very important in Christian theology. It is not, however, a strictly biblical idea, rather it came from the Greek philosophic idea of God’s insurpassibility combined with the view of some early Church Fathers that God should not in any way be limited by lack of power … I want to argue that a much more restricted view of God’s omnipotence is required and that one of the major reasons that Christians have intellectual difficulties in believing in God in the face of the evil in the world is that they have a too exalted view of God’s power. God’s power is much more limited than is generally supposed and, far from this restricting God, it actually places Him in His proper place.” (The Puzzle of Evil).
Augustine: evil is not real, but the privation of goodness
Augustine’s defence of God’s omnipotence is to argue that evil does not exist as an independent thing and therefore the thing, evil, which God is accused of not removing, is in this sense “not real”. What is real is human choice to turn away from good. We call this argument “evil as privation of the good”.
To Augustine, God is identified with the Form of the Good. God, in virtue of being the most real and the most unified being, is also the perfect expression and standard of goodness. Goodness is part of God’s ESSENCE.
But there is nothing at the opposite end of the hierarchy which is purely evil. Indeed, there cannot be. If there were anything in Augustine's universe that was purely evil - so that it were not even in the slightest degree good - then, by the equation of good with being, that thing would not exist at all. In short, there is no such thing. There is no place on the hierarchy of reality for a principle of evil, a kind of "Form of the Evil" to match the Form of the Good.
Evil is therefore a PRIVATION OF GOOD.
“If there were no good in what is evil then the evil simply could not be since it can have no mode in which to exist, nor any source from which corruption springs..as corruption is nothing more than a deprivation of the good. Unless evils are parasitic on the good they are nothing at all”. Augustine
Evil is not like darkness whose opposite is light, but like shadows which are deprivation of light but depend on light to exist at all. Just as lying depends on an idea of truth, so evil depends on an idea of goodness. Evil has no independent existence. Evil just does not have certain good-making characteristics it should have.
So, on the free will issue, Augustine observed that evil could not be chosen because there is no evil thing to choose. By our free will we can only turn away from the good, that is from a greater good to a lesser good (in Augustine's hierarchy) since all things are good.
"For when the will abandons what is above itself, and turns to what is lower, it becomes evil--not because that is evil to which it turns, but because the turning itself is wicked." (City of God X11 ch6).
Evil, then, is the free act itself of choosing the lesser good. To Augustine the source of evil is in the free will of persons: "And I strained to perceive what I now heard, that free-will was the cause of our doing ill.” Evil was a "perversion of the will, turned aside from...God" to lesser things. Those lesser things are privations of goodness. By defining evil as privation of the good we absolve God of responsibility for creating evil.
Further: Augustine on evil as privation of the good
JL Mackie: God’s omnipotence seems to be lacking
J.L. Mackie and Antony Flew both argue that the potential to choose evil implies a limitation in God’s omnipotence: “If God has made men such that in their free choices they sometimes prefer what is good and sometimes what is evil, why could he not have made men such that they always freely choose the good?” asks Mackie. Couldn't God construct man's nature so that evil simply was not an option? Mackie argues that God’s failure to create the best possible version of human beings, those that bias towards good, is a sign that he is not omnipotent.
Mackie is right in one sense. God could have created such a world. Freedom in the larger sense (the ability to make choices) does not require freedom in the narrow sense (the ability to make moral choices).
A counter-argument, such as suggested by Plantinga above, is that a world without human freedom would be a second-best world. God not only wanted free creatures; He also wanted the greatest good possible. Plenitude--the highest good, the best of all possible worlds--requires more than just general freedom; it requires MORAL FREEDOM, and that necessarily entails the possibility of evil.
Since all that God made is good, which is essential to his omnipotence, even those things which appear evil only appear that way because of a limited context or perspective. Either we fail to see that evil doesn’t exist as a thing but only as a lack of good (Augustine’s point) or we recognise that when viewed as a whole, that which appears to be evil ultimately contributes to the greater good (the argument from free will).
Q. Can God’s omnipotence be reconciled with the continued existence of both moral and natural evil?
Summary Challenges and responses to the problem of Omnipotence and Evil
Can God create a stone too heavy for God to lift? Talk of God omnipotently making a stone that is too heavy for the omnipotent God to lift is incoherent and therefore meaningless. If something is omnipotently made unmovable then that is how the thing is and you do not lack any possible power if you cannot lift the stone as the stone by nature, omnipotently, is unmovable.
Omnipotence implies God could have created a better world, without Tsunamis and with free will with a bias towards good, not evil. Plantinga argues that it is impossible to set up the world in any other way - the world must include moral evil. And Hick, because the world is here to produce “soul-making”, argues other forms of suffering (eg natural evil” are necessary too.
Omniscience and time
The Psalmist writes “Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O Lord. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be” (Psalm 139: 4,16)
The claim that God knows everything, as the Psalmist implies, begs some questions. If God knows everything why doesn’t he stop me self-destructing by stepping out in front of a lorry? If God knows I am about to sin, by stealing something, why doesn’t God remove the thing that tempts me to steal? This is the problem of God’s foreknowledge.
To understand two ways of answering this we need first to explore two ideas of eternity.
God is eternal because he always exits and has existed within time. He has infinite existence within time - no beginning and no end. He is everlasting - the view of the eighteenth century theologian Samuel Clarke.
God is eternal because he exists outside time. His existence cannot be broken into temporal units like hours. God isn’t an endless stream of hours of existence, he is in another dimension outside of time.
Boethius, Anselm and Aquinas all believed God existed outside time and so was exempt from the fundamental law of time, he doesn’t exist in any particular place (space) or any particular time (now).
On this view, God is omniscient and human beings have free will; it does not matter that divine foreknowledge is incompatible with free human action, because God's omniscience does not imply predetermination (see, for example, Stump and Kretzmann, 1991). We can call this the compatibilist argument: God’s omniscience is compatible with free will.
Early discussions include ones by St Augustine (On Free Choice of the Will, Bk. III, ch. 3) and Boethius (The Consolation of Philosophy, Bk. V). They each considered an argument that may be represented as:
(1) If God has foreknowledge that I will do go to London, then it is necessary that I will do go to London.
(2) If it is necessary that I will do go to London, then I am not free.
It is controversial exactly what Augustine's response to this argument is. An influential interpretation has been given by Rowe (1964) and criticized by Hopkins (1977). An alternative interpretation has been defended by Wierenga (1989, 60–63).
In Consolations Of Philosophy, Boethius accepts the argument but denies that omniscience includes foreknowledge. Instead, God's perspective is that of eternity, that is, “the whole, simultaneous and perfect possession of unbounded life.” In other words, God sees everything that ever happens all at once, so he does not, strictly speaking, know things ahead of time. (For a more recent defence of this view, see (Stump and Kretzmann, 1981).)
Is foreknowledge a causal idea or is foreknowledge a description of future events that will happen in space and time?. Aquinas, identified a flaw in Boethius’ argument. Aquinas believes God exists in an eternal moment beyond time, but, according to Aquinas (Summa contra Gentiles, I, 67, 10), the first premise “God has foreknowledge” is ambiguous between “foreknowledge as predetemination” and “foreknowlege as description”.
By analogy, I know my child very well. I know he likes red shoes and hates curries. I take him to a shoeshop, and due to my understanding of his nature, I know he will order red shoes. I take him to a restaurant and I know he will not order a curry. Have I taken away his free will? Of course not. If I have perfect understanding of someone’s nature, I know how they will behave. Frederich Schleiermacher makes this very point: “In the same way, we estimate the intimacy between two persons by the foreknowledge one has of the actions of the other, without supposing that in either case, the one or the other's freedom is thereby endangered. So even the divine foreknowledge cannot endanger freedom”.
St. Augustine made this same point in De Libero Arbitrio. He said: “Unless I am mistaken, you would not directly compel the man to sin, though you knew beforehand that he was going to sin. Nor does your prescience in itself compel him to sin even though he was certainly going to sin, as we must assume if you have real prescience. So there is no contradiction here. Simply you know beforehand what another is going to do with his own will. Similarly God compels no man to sin, though he sees beforehand what he will do”.
Just because God knows a proposition “I will choose red shoes”, it does not follow that the proposition is a necessary truth (meaning it has to be true by definition); God knows contingent truths, as well. A contingent truth depends on circumstances as to whether it pans out that way and my own decision is part of those contingent circumstances. So Aquinas is a compatibilist who believes divine omniscience is compatible with human freedom - but he would restate the argument “If God knows I will go to London, it remains a contingent truth that I will go”.
Further: see Nelson Pike for a view against Augustine and Schleiermacher. http://commonsenseatheism.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/Pike-Divine-Omniscience-and-Voluntary-Action.pdf
Hartshorne’s view of limited omniscience
Charles Hartshorne sees God as having a peculiar kind of qualified omniscience. God's mind perfectly knows what is happening and has happened. It knows all about the present and the past. But, contrary to what both versions of the Traditional View hold, God does not know all about the future.
Hartshorne (1984) rejects complete divine knowledge of the future for two connected reasons:
(1) The future is not yet entirely determined, according to him; so how could anyone have complete knowledge of it?
(2) God's mind is not the ultimate source of all decisions: beings other than God, such as you and I, make choices independent of God's plans. (If we couldn't do this, Hartshorne believes, our actions would not be free and we would never be responsible for them.) Now, if God does not entirely make the future, He cannot be entirely sure what it will be.
Hartshorne argues that divine foreknowledge does not follow from omniscience unless it can be shown that divine foreknowledge is possible. But divine foreknowledge is not possible unless future events exist, as fully determinate, to be known. Hartshorne denies that future events exist in this sense (1960:604). More precisely:
“The future is irreducibly potential rather than actual, and this means in some degree, however slight, indeterminate rather than determinate. Becoming is the passage from incomplete definiteness to definiteness. It is creation” (MTG 30).
God is omniscient, on Hartshorne's view, but “omniscience” here refers to the divine ability to know everything that is knowable: past things that happened as already come to pass; present realities to the extent that they are knowable according to the laws of physics (eg, what is present may very well be the most recent past, given the speed of light); and future possibilities or probabilities as possibilities or probabilities. On the traditional conception of omniscience, however, God has knowledge of future possibilities or probabilities as things which have already occurred.
According to Hartshorne, this is not an example of supreme knowledge, but is rather an example of ignorance of the (at least partially) indeterminate character of the future.
Q. Can God’s timelessness (in the traditional view) be reconciled with his activity in the world (for example, miracles?).
An article by Donald Viney explores William Craig’s attack on Hartshorne’s view.
God’s judgment at the end of time is strongly suggested by Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats, the story of Dives and Lazarus and the revelation of God’s character in Exodus 34 “who will by no means spare the guilty’. In Jesus’ story the goats, who have not helped the least of all those in need, are destined to eternal fire reserved for the devil and his angels (Matthew 25). Somehow God’s attribute of love needs to be reconciled with the attribute of justice and holiness. But again some questions are raised by this idea.
1. Is the punishment fair? Is it proportionate to the crime?
2. Is love compatible with punishment?
3. Why does evil continue to exist?
The Bible suggests God rewards and punishes on the basis of God’s love and justice. Adam and Eve sinned against God and they were punished by exclusion from the garden, and the curses of toil for the mana and pain in childbirth for the woman. But not just for this man and woman - but every man and woman ever born, who had nothing to do with the original crime.
In the Book of Amos it is God’s love for his chosen people which singles them out for punishment. 'For you alone have I cared among all the nations of the world; therefore will I punish you for all your
iniquities' (Amos 3:2, NEB translation). Suffering is thus received as a token of God's special concern for Israel. Indeed, some Jewish theologians have come to understand the HOLOCAUST as God’s judgement on a world that has forgotten God.
Punishment as judgement on a chosen people
An example of how the idea of God’s judgement is used to explain the Holocaust, consider Elchanan Wasserman (1875-1941), one of the leading rabbis of the pre- war generation. His writings, speeches, life and martyrdom offer a paradigm of the orthodox theology of suffering. Wasserman visited the United States in 1938, and was there when the news of Kristallnacht arrived. He was dismayed by the lack of Torah learning and observance amongst the Jews he met in America, and there he completed, in Yiddish, his booklet 'In the footsteps of the Messiah', in which he predicts that dire destruction will come upon the Jewish people on account of its lack of faith and its laxity in the observance of God's commandments.
Gershon Greenberg, in a paper on Wasserman has summed up his view as: “Reform [of the authentic revealed tradition] is responsible. It, along with the suffering it evokes, is now pressing eastward. The response must be education to engender faith and Torah”. Wasserman blames religious and cultural assimilation and denunciation of Torah. The response called for is the same for both leaders. For some Rabbis, Torah and faith are means to endure the suffering, to turn the catastrophe back, and to bring redemption. Wasserman believes the catastrophe is the birth pain of the Messiah and man's role is to turn to God through Torah.
Similar views are nowadays commonplace in orthodox writing, and have even received popular expression, as in Benjamin Maza's With God's Fury Poured Out (1984). To understand the rabbis who spoke in this way it is necessary to know how deeply they felt the gulf between the ideal demanded by Torah and the reality of modem secular civilization.
'It is clear beyond all doubt that the blessed Holy One is the ruler of the universe, and we must accept the judgment with love'.
These words of the Hungarian Rabbi Ungar exactly express the simple faith of those who entered the gas chambers with Ani Ma'amin (the declaration of faith as formulated by Maimonides) or Shema Israel (Deut 6:4-9, declaring God's unity and the duty to love him and obey his commandments - it is read daily at the morning and evening services and forms part of the death bed confession) on their lips. What was happening defied their understanding, but their faith triumphed over evil and they were ready, in the traditional phrase, to 'sanctify the name of God' - kiddush Hashem. Hence it is normal amongst Jews to refer to those who perished under the Nazis as kedoshim, 'holy ones, saints'.
The concept of 'dying for kiddush Hashem' is analogous to that of martyrdom. It is applied to those killed because of their faith even where they had no choice. Its use is extended to those killed not because of their faith but, as in the Shoah, because of their 'race'.
Other Jewish thinkers have rejected this interpretation. For them, the holocaust was an act of evil people. Such people will always exist in a world that has been given genuine freedom. For them, God’s just punishment for wickedness is tempered in the Bible by God’s love and forgiveness.
In traditional Christian belief this punishment of death is inherited by every human being. But, importantly, God provides a way back through faith in Christ who died to take the punishment of Adam and Eve on our behalf “the righteous for the unrighteous to bring us to God” (I Peter 3:18), so that human beings are once more restored to a relationship with God. God is defined in the New Testament as unconditional love. God will not stop loving human beings whatever they do. So, God sends his only Son to take God’s own punishment, meant for us, on Himself so that in Christ all human beings may be redeemed. In the death of Jesus on the cross, “he was bruised for our sin” (Isaiah 53) and the punishment that was due to us was laid on him.
Should God, who is perfectly good and loving, punish anyone?
Love is a central attribute of God in both the Hebrew and Christian Bibles. In the Torah, God reveals himself as “abounding in love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6). The word hesed in Hebrew is translated loyalty, loving-kindness, mercy and occurs over 120 times in the Old Testament. The prime meaning is covenant love, a commitment which cannot be broken - it is an attitude rather than a feeling, an attitude which include a loyalty and unconditional commitment.
I the New Testament John announces boldly that “God so loved the world he gave his only Son that whoever believe in Him should not perish” (John 3:16). The letter of John proclaims “God is love”. Peter explains: “it is not God’s will that any should perish but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). Universalists believe everyone is saved irrespective of their beliefs. But traditionally Christians believe that God’s holiness demands justice - that sinners must be punished to show the gravity of sin. In the Hebrew Bible, Moses kills the people who worshipped the golden calf, and Elijah orders the slaughter of the prophets of Baal: in the New Testament, Jesus teaches eleven times of a hell like Gehenna, the place of everlasting fire for those who do not do the will of God and urges us to “fear Him who has the power to cast into Gehenna” (Luke 12:5).
God’s goodness seems to demand two things:
1. A person has the real freedom to choose to be wicked.
2. People are treated fairly; this would entail that people who are wicked are indeed punished and people who experience lives full of suffering for which they are not to blame are appropriately compensated, as in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) which echoes the parable of the sheep and the goats.
Kant argued that the rational moral law requires the postulate of God’s existence to ensure the correct proportioning of happiness to virtue (the SUMMUM BONUM). But this is arguably the weakest part of Kant’s moral philosophy and seemed to undermine his main point that moral action is done for its own sake without the need for an incentive in the afterlife.
Nevertheless, many Christian philosophers from Aquinas to Swinburne have argued that the goodness of God is nothing without the justice of God. The justice of God requires reward for the good and punishment for the wicked. Aquinas, for example, quotes Anselm in arguing “Justice, therefore, in God is sometimes spoken of as the fitting accompaniment of His goodness; sometimes as the reward of merit. Anselm touches on either view where he says (Prosolog. 10): "When Thou dost punish the wicked, it is just, since it agrees with their deserts; and when Thou dost spare the wicked it is also just; since it befits Thy goodness." (ST I Q21) However, Aquinas qualifies this by saying that God is passionless (he cannot feel in the sense that we do), and so is not motivated by a sense of pity but by the attribute of absolute goodness. “To sorrow, therefore, over the misery of others belongs not to God but it does most properly belong to Him to dispel that misery”. (St I Q21).
It is not that God sets out to punish people but that he gives people a choice. If they want punishment they can choose it by acting wickedly. Freedom, according to Swinburne, only makes sense if there are genuine consequences that follow from our choices. A loving God would not punish people out of spite. Punishment is a necessary feature of genuine freedom. God offers people a choice of good and evil. Those who choose evil are also choosing punishment because evil choices, like good choices, have genuine consequences.
However, Swinburne also believes that God takes into account bad circumstances which may influence us to do evil, such as poverty, lack of education, homelessness, or abusive parents.
“If there are any lives which nevertheless are on balance bad, God would be under an obligation to provide life after death for the individuals concerned in which they could be compensated for the bad states of this life, so that in this life and the next their lives overall would be good…Thus God treats us as individuals, each with her own vocation”. (Swinburne, Providence and the Problem of Evil)
Why does evil continue?
To many people it is not just the presence of moral and natural evil, but the scale of it. Over 40m people died as a consequence of Hitler’s plans for world domination; millions are ravaged by the AIDS virus which is still killing one third of babies born of AIDS infected parents; Tsunamis continue to wipe out towns and villages causing death and suffering on a huge scale. We consider this question in detail in the section on the problem of evil, but as already hinted by the brief discussion on holocaust theology, there are a number of different interpretations even of evil as monstrous as genocide.
Can God’s perfect love be reconciled with his perfect justice (and wrath and judgement?)?
CONCLUSION a radical change in the understanding of God’s nature
Modern theology has produced interpretations of God’s nature radically different for the traditional view of Aquinas and Augustine. Modern views see God as a complex being, within time, the suffering God of Barth and Bonhoeffer. Traditional views see God as simple, changeless, the God outside of time and impassive (without feeling). These modern re-interpretations change our conception of God, for example, by reducing his omnipotence and omniscience. The differences are summed up in the table below. Do they reject so much of the traditional idea of God, that we are being asked to believe in a different God altogether?
Hamilton C . Understanding Philosophy pages 206-14
Vardy, P. & Arliss, J. The thinker’s Guide to God chapter 7
Rowe, W Philosophy of Religion chapter 1
Extract: Boethius on eternity, Consolations V
'Eternity is the simultaneous and complete possession of infinite life. This will
appear more clearly if we compare it with temporal things. All that lives under the
conditions of time moves through the present from the past to the future; there is
nothing set in time which can at one moment grasp the whole space of its lifetime. It
cannot yet comprehend to-morrow; yesterday it has already lost. And in this life of today your life is no more than a changing, passing moment. And as Aristotle said
of the universe, so it is of all that is subject to time; though it never began to be, nor
will ever cease, and its life is co-extensive with the infinity of time, yet it is not such
as can be held to be eternal. For though it apprehends and grasps a space of infinite
lifetime, it does not embrace the whole simultaneously; it has not yet experienced the
future. What we should rightly call eternal is that which grasps and possesses wholly
and simultaneously the fulness of unending life, which lacks naught of the future, and
has lost naught of the fleeting past; and such an existence must be ever present in
itself to control and aid itself, and also must keep present with itself the infinity of
changing time. Therefore, people who hear that Plato thought that this universe had no
beginning of time and will have no end, are not right in thinking that in this way the created world is co-eternal with its creator. For to pass through unending life, the
attribute which Plato ascribes to the universe is one thing; but it is another thing to
grasp simultaneously the whole of unending life in the present; this is plainly a
peculiar property of the mind of God.
If Providence sees an event in its present, that thing must be, though it has
no necessity of its own nature. And God looks in His present upon those future things
which come to pass through free will. Therefore if these things be looked at from the
point of view of God's insight, they come to pass of necessity under the condition of
divine knowledge; if, on the other hand, they are viewed by themselves, they do not
lose the perfect freedom of their nature. Without doubt, then, all things that God
foreknows do come to pass, but some of them proceed from free will; and though they
result by coming into existence, yet they do not lose their own nature, because before
they came to pass they could also not have come to pass.