Monday, May 25, 2009

Does God Always Get What God Wants?

The question may sound odd. Jarring, even. Our default sensibilities react sternly against the idea. Doesn't God, the all-powerful, all-knowing one deserving of all superlatives, always get his way? For many, great comfort lies in the belief that nothing happens outside God's plan. Every fallen sparrow was scripted. Thus every war, disease, (seemingly) untimely death, job loss, divorce, is part of God's intended plan. But for some, this view of God and God's "will" is less than satisfying. Does God really "want" cancer, genocide, and rape? If He does not want it, but yet it exists, it seems God does not always get what God wants. We could imagine two scenarios: (1) God won't prevent (all) evil and suffering because he can't or (2) God can't prevent (all) evil and suffering because he won't. The first option emphasizes God's limitations in the face of the complexities in the universe he decided to create. His hands are tied. Nancy Eiseland, in her beautifully challenging book, The Disabled God, argues for something like this option. She cannot relate to a God who could prevent all physical disabilities, by a wave of the magic wand, as it were, but simply chooses not to. The second option emphasizes God's unwillingness to intervene at every point, because of some greater good that he wants to ultimately actualize. In this perspective, God could prevent any evil or instantiation of suffering, by a simple exercise of divine power. Either option one chooses, it seems that God doesn't always get what God wants, in a sense, because the world is not yet what it should be.

In another sense, however, we can say that God decided to create this particular kind of world--a world in which sentient beings (demonic and human) are free--free to love or free to hate. Free to be thankful or free to be miserly. Free to rejoice with and for others, or free to plot and scheme against them. It's also a world in which the natural world is free--thus humans are not protected against tragedy, disease and trouble. God decided to create this kind of world, knowing what the consequences would be. And yet, we can say in another sense that in particular instances of evil and suffering and tragedy, God does not always get what God wants.

One day, when Christ returns, the Kingdom arrives in full, and the "new heavens and the new earth" supervene human history, we trust that God will have what God wants. But even then it's not so simple, because if a dimension of existence remains eternally in mis-relation to God (Hell), will God have what God wants? Not according to 2 Peter 3:9, which tells us that God desires no one to perish, but for all to come to eternal life.


Scott Strand said...

Kyle, great question. As I think the first about this I have reflected on one of the examples. The people in Hell. God does not want them there as 2 Peter states, but does not God need them there to be true to Himself? Is this a question of want verse need? What does God want or what does God need? There's an interesting thought, What does God need?

Sports Dave said...

Not exactly germane to the rest of your post, but the title reminded me of a recent sermon from Bp Will Willimon: "Heaven: Where God Gets What God Wants."

Alex said...
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Alex said...
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Alex said...
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Alex said...

Sorry for the multiple deletions, the html was giving me grief. Now for the anti-climactic conclusion:

Kyle says:
"if a dimension of existence remains eternally in mis-relation to God (Hell), will God have what God wants?"

Not in that case, but mind the "if."

Kyle A. Roberts said...

Scott, your question is an interesting one: Does God "need" people in Hell to be "true to Himself?" The first question would be, does that view fall under the "God can't because he won't" or "God won't because he can't"? In other words, is the necessity piece a function of metaphysics/ontology or volition/will? The second response that I would give to that is it sounds rather odd to say that God "needs people in Hell"! First off, to be true in any way, shape or form to the classic expressions of God, one would hesitate to say that God "needs" anything, much less the eternal punishment of the ungodly. We know that God is able to forgive the ungodly without being untrue to himself--"while we were still sinners" (Rom 5:6-7). I prefer to think of Hell as the eternal continuation of an option for God's creatures to willingly reject their creator and the redemption he offers..

Alex said...

Kyle says:
"I prefer to think of Hell as the eternal continuation of an option for God's creatures to willingly reject their creator and the redemption he offers."

I've always enjoyed this solution myself, but I see a number of problems with it. For one, it creates trouble for the total and exhaustive victory of God. If, even upon the final establishment of God's kingdom, there remains some corner of the cosmos where some (most?) of God's creatures persist in their rebellion, how much sense does it make for Paul to speak of God being "all in all" (1 Cor 15:28). Such a state of unredemptive "being" (which we must call it) seems utterly pointless and very much out of character for a God of love who, as the ground of all being, must be responsible for their continued existence. If, on the other hand, we allow some redemptive possibility, then the matter changes dramatically.

To complicate matters, metaphysics of time have a tendency to be left as unaddressed background assumptions in these sorts of conversations. Does "new creation" entail "new time?" If so, are the unrepentant resurrected along with those in Christ? Do they experience everlasting time, or a sort of disembodied eternality? These matters make my head spin, so I will continue to leave them unaddressed.

In any case, if we are going to be laying our cards out, I may as well reciprocate. I'm personally not convinced by eternal conscious torment. I think the exegetical warrant for this conclusion is extremely thin and is usually read back into the texts.

Depending on the day, I oscillate between some form of annihilationism or perhaps even universalism. My own thoughts follow from what I can make God's justice as interpreted through his self-giving love. I see justice as closely tied to truth (Lk 12:3). I believe the judgment will be the "bringing to light" of the truth of our being. We do our best to make this occur every time we speak of a just punishment as make the perpetrator "face up to what they have done." I'm tempted to think that our judgment will be God's way of doing just that. There will be no need for any external "punishment," we will simply bare the punishment of being allowed to feel the truth of ourselves from God's perspective. Since facing our sin is a necessary condition for repentance, the judgement is fundamentally geared towards this end. In this way truth, justice and love move forward towards redemption.

A question that comes to mind from this deals with the ambiguity of our being. We exist in a complex state of good and evil and we meet our end still trapped in our complexity. To my mind, judgement deals with this question of "how shall we be transformed, since the perishable cannot inhabit imperishable?" Yet, are there some who so closely identify their being with those elements of self that are fundamentally oriented against God that to destroy those elements would be to utterly destroy the person? What would become of them when exposed to the unquenchable fire of God's truth that is love? Here the copious biblical language of destruction, perishing etc. seem to be the only appropriate symbols.

All that said, I would have to say my core intuition is that God must redeem all that is possible to be redeemed (even to the degree that such things may be enmeshed within horribly sinful people). All that is not able to be redeemed would then simply return to the non-being from which it came.

Is there a glimmer of sense in any of that?

Kyle A. Roberts said...

Alex, thanks for your comments. But now I'm confused! You earlier pressed me on my "if," pursuing my reticence to make final assertions regarding final things! Now you propose annihilationism or universalism, because of the complications hell poses to the complete and inexhaustible victory of God. I empathize with your point. And I agree that it seems problematic to have everything that is redeemable not actually redeemed, in the end. However, if free will is irrevocable, then perhaps some people will be irredeemable. I'm not sure that the continued existence of a dimension in which sentient beings have turned away from God constitutes a blight on God's ultimate victory. Finally, however, I do think it is a Christian intuition to "hope" that hell will one day be empty. As Barth suggests, despite all the evidence to the contrary, perhaps God will rescind that final threat. In fact, Barth suggests that we should not only hope for it, but should pray for it!

Alex said...

Hey Kyle,
"But now I'm confused!" Heh, I have a tendency to bring about this condition. Must continue to work on that. My earlier "iffy" comment was simply a somewhat snobbish way of pointing out there may be another way of looking at the matter without getting my hands dirty by actually engaging the question. My more lengthy comment was then me throwing caution to the wind while unpacking some of my concerns. Of course these are all couched in the same "iffy" realm as your own thoughts, but of course we mustn't let that stop us.

You say that you agree that it seems problematic to have everything that is redeemable not actually redeemed in the end. But then you offer that perhaps if free will is irrevocable (and I think it must be), then maybe some people will be irredeemable.

To this I would simply agree. Although, if some people are irredeemable, then they are not in the category of things that are redeemable, and thus they are outside my worry.

You say: "I'm not sure that the continued existence of a dimension in which sentient beings have turned away from God constitutes a blight on God's ultimate victory."

Only if we couch God's ultimate victory within notions of God as self-giving love do I see this idea as a blight on God's ultimate victory (since, in human terms, rounding up the enemy after the battle may actually be a sure sign of ultimate victory!) If there is a category of people who are so completely depraved that no redemption is possible, and if it is possible for God to know this, then it does not seem to make any sense at all for self-giving love to demand the continued being (in whatever state of malaise or torment) of these people.

I don't think it works to say (as I think Erickson does) that perhaps humanity's existence itself is irrevocable. It makes sense to say that free will is irrevocable as there is a contradiction of logic in suggesting that it is not, but there is no contradiction to say that God can put (or allow) an end to one's being. Thus, God's omnipotence (if indeed power is needed) ought to provide the means and his love the motivation that these tortured souls cease to be.

(Perhaps one way to muddy these waters would be to ponder the ontological status of ideas. On an idealist account, it may be that God cannot forget this category of people and it is from being held in the mind of God that we derive our being. In this way annihilation would be impossible. ...but this raises other questions that I won't pursue here)