“A question at once arises. Is it still God speaking when a liar or a blasphemer speaks? In one sense almost yes. Apart from God he could not speak at all; there are no words not derived from the Word; no acts not derived from Him who is Actus purus…Of course I’m not saying like Niebühr that evil is inherent in finitude. That would identify the creation with the fall and make God the author of evil.” CS Lewis, Letters to Malcolm
These notes of mine are not dogmatic proclamations of what must be, nor are they attempts to repeat the thoughts of other thinkers simply because they were thought by those who came before me. They are, rather, a conscious attempt to understand that reality we call “God.” The only way I know how to do that is to assimilate an idea into my mind, saturate myself with that idea, and thus hold it up constantly against Experience. I have as yet found no system, no synthesis, no ultimate explanation that sits completely comfortable with Experience. Always there arises some painful inconsistency, some shrieking discord, between the two – System and Experience.
This post seeks to explore the (intolerable?) tensions between the idea of God’s timelessness (which I have recently defended) and also his morally praiseworthy attributes, in particular his love. The main problem seems to be that if God is outside of time and Pure Act, then his relationship to the creation is one in which he totally determines all that exists, even the free acts of his creatures. Since he cannot be acted on by the creation itself, he must therefore be purely active, purely decisive and determining, regarding what goes on in creation. Thus all that exists, down to the most minute detail, sits exactly as it does in the space-time continuum by God’s causal and determining power. This certainly preserves God’s sovereignty and transcendence. A God who is outside of space-time and determines every atom and free will within it certainly will not lose points in either of those departments.
But what do you make of God’s love on this model? Especially, what do you make of his relationship towards the damned? Now the classic theologians like Aquinas and Calvin said that God loves the damned, even though they exist only to be eternally punished and reprobated. Aquinas held that the distinction of things in the universe and the creation of the damned in particular existed for the “good ordering of the universe.” He believed that “the good ordering of the universe would not be perfect if only one grade of goodness were found in things.” Among these other grades of goodness are the damned, who exist simply to satisfy the predeterminate requirements of the universal order. As he says, “the order of the universe requires that things sometimes can, and do, fail.”
What this really amounts to is that certain people are reprobated because God desires to show justice, wrath and punishment because a universe with justice, wrath, and punishment (and therefore also sin) is better than one without these things. Thus from before the foundation of the world God’s desire was to manifest these various attributes. These attributes needed to be manifested. Therefore there had to be rational creatures to be objects of wrath.
To thus use a rational creature for oneself and one’s own glory – how is that possibly loving? Does this not directly contradict St. Paul who says that “love seeks not its own?” So many more questions come up at this point it is hard to know where to begin. Are we really required to think that “wrath” and “justice” are essential attributes of God’s inner being? Even in human cases we think a person who is above such feelings is better than one who delights in them. If God has to display wrath in order to show who he really is, what does that say about his nature? Is not a more perfect God one which can freely forgive and need not create vessels of destruction?
And what again about God’s love? If God creates vessels of destruction simply to vent his anger and displeasure upon them, does it not follow that he does not love them? Indeed that he positively hates such beings (but hasn’t he created them to be hated)? And if he hates these beings, is it not true that he is not doing all that he can to save them? In fact isn’t it true that he is positively ensuring, and delighting in the very fact of, their eternal anguish and destruction?
When I consider the idea that God is outside of time and actively causing all that exists and I see the consequence that this entails, I do not know how to square this idea with a Perfect Being who is love. It seems to me wrong – it grates against all my intuitive notions of goodness to believe – that God could select a certain group of people to infallibly and irresistibly save and also select another group to infallibly and irresistibly damn. In such a case God evidently has the power to irresistibly save all, yet he does not. He must therefore not want to. He must therefore delight in damnation. And if this is so then in some sense he delight in the sin which leads to such a state, for damnation presupposes sin and evil which could not occur without them. How then can anything – the most wicked case of child rape or extracted torture – be in any sense displeasing to God? He is the only causal agent that has any real say so in the course of world history in the end.
Many will throw up a smoke screen here and say that God simply “permits” evil. But if God is outside of time actively causing and creating all that exists, in what sense is his “permission” even possible? There are no other forces, no outside wills, that he is up against. Absolutely all of reality is the way that it is by his direct and intentional decision. How then is he not the cause of evil just as much as he is the cause of good and of everything else?
This is really just the Calvinist-Arminian debate. Do you think God has the power to save everyone? If he does have the power, then why doesn’t he use it to save everyone? Calvinists will say it is because he gets glory out of damning people to Hell (who could not be other than he has determined them to be). Yet if this is true it cannot be the case that God loves everyone, at least not in any sense that we understand the word. (What human would you find praiseworthy, let alone “loving,” who created a child simply in order to damn it?) On the other hand if you believe that God does love everyone, it follows that he cannot necessarily save everyone, for there are some who are, or at least may be, lost. God does will that people may be possibly damned, but more than that he wills that people freely imitate his own goodness by submitting to him and loving others as Jesus did. If they are unwilling to do this, he then consequently wills them to be lost. But notice this will is consequent, not on God’s pre-determining decree to make vessels of wrath who are fitted for certain destruction, but rather on the free will which God has granted to every creature. Thus God’s desire to save all is in fact equivalent to his desire for all to be freely united to him. A desire which, by his own omnipotence perhaps, he has vulnerably created in himself for the sake of the creation, and which may be frustrated by it.
St. Paul said his heart’s desire was that all of Israel would be saved. He even wished himself to be accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of those perishing. Surely St. Paul cannot be more loving than God? And surely his heart at that moment cannot be in opposition to God’s own will towards such people?
In other words the question is this. Which attribute is more easily, or rather more honorably, worshiped and loved – God’s absolute power or his love? If believing in a timeless God entails that one must also believe in a God who irresistibly determines that some people be damned for his own glory and pleasure, is not that model of God, however defensible philosophically, contrary to the God we see revealed in Christ? Furthermore, how is such a God consistent with a being we would call Good? How could such a being be described by John as Love, and in whom “is no darkness at all”?
Is there a way to reconcile God’s timelessness and Pure Action with his desire to save all? Such a notion would seem to require a robust view of human freedom. But is that possible if God causes and determines everything? It seems to me there may be such a theory, though we will have to more carefully explore what we mean by God’s Causation, Determination, and Knowledge.