Monday, July 11, 2011

Canterbury Letters to Geneva George (12): Is Evil Necessary?

Below is the twelfth installment in the series I'm publishing on behalf of a friend entitled "Canterbury Letters to Geneva George." Before reading and responding with comments, please be sure to read my introduction and the author's introduction to this series at the first posting entitled "Canterbury Letters to Geneva George (1): The Via Media." And also read the other postings in the "Canterbury Letters to Geneva George" series here.

Dear Geneva George,

I’m glad to learn that we are in substantial agreement on the issues I raised last week. I was especially heartened to learn that you are considering using Common Worship: Times and Seasons with your family. Do let me know what you decide to give up for Lent next year.

Something must be wrong if you and I are actually agreeing with each other for a change! On that positive note, it is probably time to turn to something more controversial, namely your sermon on divine justice.

You said in the sermon that without evil we could never appreciate goodness by contrast. When I first heard you say that I was shocked, but as I began reading around the issue I found that Saint Augustine advocated a similar position, having written that

... if all had remained condemned to the punishment entailed by just condemnation, then God's merciful grace would not have been seen at work in anyone, on the other hand, if all had been transferred from darkness to light, the truth of God's vengeance would not have been made evident.

If we adopt this position then we are forced to believe that God's love, grace, goodness, etc. are only intelligible in a world marred by evil. On a purely practical level this doesn't make sense. Consider, I don't need to go down to the local dump and gaze upon the garbage there in order to appreciate the beauties of our town’s nature reserve. I don't need to feed on putrefied fruit and rotting bread for breakfast in order to enjoy a bowl of strawberries and cream for lunch! Similarly, I’m sure that the members of the Blessed Trinity were fully capable of appreciating each other’s love prior to the advent of evil.

I’ll be straight with you, George, I was rather disturbed by your comment that God leaves some people in their sins in order to demonstrate His justice. I looked up the passage you referenced from The Works of Jonathan Edwards, and I’d like to quote from it because it seems to encapsulate the basic problem inherent in the position that you and many other reformed thinkers have adopted on this issue:

“It is a proper and excellent thing for infinite glory to shine forth; and for the same reason, it is proper that the shining forth of God’s glory should be complete; that is, that all parts of his glory should shine forth, that every beauty should be proportionably effulgent, that the beholder may have a proper notion of God. It is not proper that one glory should be exceedingly manifested, and another not at all. ...

"Thus it is necessary, that God’s awful majesty, his authority and dreadful greatness, justice, and holiness, should be manifested. But this could not be, unless sin and punishment had been decreed; so that the shining forth of God’s glory would be very imperfect, both because these parts of divine glory would not shine forth as the others do, and also the glory of his goodness, love, and holiness would be faint without them; nay, they could scarcely shine forth at all.

"If it were not right that God should decree and permit and punish sin, there could be no manifestation of God’s holiness in hatred of sin, or in showing any preference, in his providence, of godliness before it. There would be no manifestation of God’s grace or true goodness, if there was no sin to be pardoned, no misery to be saved from. How much happiness soever he bestowed, his goodness would not be so much prized and admired. ...

"So evil is necessary, in order to the highest happiness of the creature, and the completeness of that communication of God, for which he made the world; because the creature’s happiness consists in the knowledge of God, and the sense of his love. And if the knowledge of him be imperfect, the happiness of the creature must be proportionably imperfect.”

I have always been uneasy with that type of reasoning since it seems to implicate that there are unrealized potencies within the godhead. Consider that the Triune God is completely self-sufficient and doesn't need to have evil to demonstrate His character any more than He needed to create the world, let alone redeem it, to demonstrate His personality. (Saint Augustine makes this latter point lucidly in his Enchiridion on Faith, Hope and Love). God could have left our first parents in a state of bondage, He could have chosen for less or more people to be redeemed, He could have chosen not to create at all. The only things God cannot do are those things which contradict His nature.

The implication of saying that if God didn’t have a group of people to be angry with for all eternity that one whole side of his character (namely His hatred of sin) would not be able to be demonstrated and expressed, is essentially to say that God requires an opposite in order for Him to be good, or at least for such goodness to be fully actualized or manifested. A corollary of this is that throughout all eternity, the goodness and justice inherent in the blessed Trinity was always incomplete. On the other hand, if the members of the Trinity are completely self-sufficient and could fully appreciate their own justice independent of creation, then presumably it would also be possible for God’s redeemed and glorified children to appreciate God’s goodness and justice apart from the existence of evil, unless you can first produce an a priori argument to the contrary (which, of course, neither you nor Jonathan Edwards have done).

Consider further, if evil is necessary in order for God's goodness to be manifested, and if the manifestation of such goodness is a crucial part of what it means for God to be Lord (since otherwise God’s hatred of sin couldn’t find an outlet), then it follows that creation is necessary in order for God to be Lord since creation is itself a precondition to evil. In that case, God would not be Lord prior to creation. Ergo, creation is not an overflow of God’s abundance but something that was necessary in order to realize a certain aspect of His character. This lands us uncomfortably close to what some Arians have proposed. I have met Arians who said that in order for God to be Lord, He must eternally be Lord over something; ergo, the Son must be eternally subordinate to the authority of God the Father.

In your sermon you referenced John Piper’s work Desiring God and The Pleasures of God, Piper seems to go even further than Edwards, suggesting that the pain, evil and the misery of some are a necessary pre-condition for the ever-increasing enjoyment of the saints. This seems to leave us with a kind of dualism since it makes goodness eternally dependent on evil. Again, if taken to its logical consequence, this would entail that evil must be just as eternal as the blessed Trinity.

Using your own analogy of the potter, I want you to try to imagine a certain scenario. There is a potter who labors continually until he has created a number of excellently wrought vessels of great beauty and delicacy. But he is not satisfied with that - he must also construct a second class of vessels in order to smash them into a hundred bits. This proves to everyone that he has strength. Now if I correctly understand what you are saying, God is like this potter and must have two classes of people, one group on which to demonstrate His love and mercy, and another group on which to demonstrate His wrath and hatred of sin. But in the end doesn’t this amount to saying that God hates sin so much that He wanted it to enter His creation eternally so that He could always be punishing it? But consider carefully what this actually means. It means that it is precisely because His hatred of sin is so great that He must create it and that it must go on existing eternally in those subjects He is punishing (for to say that they cease being evil is akin to the universalism you reject). According to such a theory, if God had chosen to prevent the existence of evil in the first place this would have been a worse state of affairs then the endless perpetuation of evil in an everlasting hell since there would then have been no way for us to know that God is just. Hence, what it amounts to saying is that God hates evil so much that He must ensure its eternal existence. Even my eight year old would be able to see the absurdity in such a position.

Suffice to say, the idea that a cosmic torture chamber is necessary in order for God to actualize otherwise unrealized potencies in His character, is an idea I find most disturbing. Your sermon notes gave a link to some of Douglas Wilson’s articles. I looked up the posts and Pastor Wilson makes essentially the same error, saying:

"In a world without sin, two of God's most glorious attributes—His justice and His mercy—would go undisplayed. This, obviously, would be horrible." (Westminster Three: Of God''s Eternal Decree)

“In a world without sin and evil, at least two attributes of God would have gone unrevealed and unmanifested, those attributes being wrath and mercy. Since this is obviously intolerable, God determined to direct our affairs the way that He did.” (Mercy As Transferred Glory)

Now evil exists, so there must be some explanation for it that does not compromise the attributes of God, seeing as terms like goodness, justice and love can have no meaning apart from God. However, if what I wrote above is correct, then the explanation given by you, Augustine, Jonathan Edwards and Pastor Wilson must be false. But even apart from the falsity of that explanation, there is another more practical difficulty raised by such theories.

Consider: what these theories amount to is essentially that God has two sides of His character, a side that delights to show mercy and a side that delights in punishing sin. Both these sides need to be expressed. By redeeming the elect, God’s love and mercy are demonstrated. But lest the Father’s wrath be completely pacified and we forget how much He hates sin, He needs to have another group on which His hatred of sin can be expressed. Now if this is true then I would struggle with knowing how to have a positive relationship with such a God. I am reminded of how the Greek writer Xenophon recorded that he had been assisted by Zeus in his capacity as the god of safety and god of kings but had then fallen foul of Zeus in his capacity as god of propitiation. Similarly, the God presented by the aforementioned argument has two sets of self-contained attributes that must both be expressed in order for God to be completely Himself – attributes which are antithetical to each other. Our task is presumably to get on the side of God that needs to express love and be thankful that we aren’t a target of the side of Him that needs to express His hatred of sin, just as Xenophon had to get on Zeus’s side as god of safety and not god of propitiation. Now here’s the problem: I can go through the motions of worshiping such a God and I can try to be on His good side and I can recognize that however things appear He must be good since phrases like goodness, justice and love have no meaning apart from God as the ultimate standard, yet on a purely existential level I don’t know how to love such a God or to feel anything other than horror when contemplating Him. That doesn’t make such an idea false, but it does render it problematic on a purely existential level for me.

Psalm 5:4 declares in no uncertain terms that God does not take pleasure in wickedness. Why then does He allow evil? I am not God, so I do not presume to know the answer to this question. I also do not presume to know why He chooses to leave some people in their sins. It is a mystery, and I can only say that God must have a morally sufficient reason for everything He chooses to do or not do. I can even say that evil somehow furthers God’s glory because everything furthers His glory in some way. But that is as far as I’m willing to go because that’s as far as the Bible goes. We should leave these matters with God’s mysterious council instead of trying to plumb the depths of the decrees and turning God into a cosmic sadist as a result.

Okay, I got a bit carried away there. I guess that means it’s time to stop.


Canterbury Chris

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