Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Did God Create Some Humans to be Damned? Part 1

Over the next several weeks I will be publishing here installments of a paper I wrote on behalf of my fellow elders in my church.  In it I attempted to provide some perspective on the thorny question of how sin can exist in a world created by a good God.  Notice I said perspective and not answer because many brilliant man and woman have preceded me, are alive today, and will arise in the future with far better minds than I possess, who nevertheless won't be able to definitively answer this question.  Alas, I would much rather take the high road and continue to have us consider what it means to be dwellers in God's kingdom, in Christ, but I cannot seem to evade these difficult theological questions; such is one of the challenges that goes with the territory.  The following paper will likely not satisfy anyone; the scholars among you will find it poorly attested, and the rest of you will find it too heady.  Please don't give up on it, though; because the exercise will be good for all our brains and hopefully cause us to wrestle with--perhaps for the first time--what we believe and why.  BONSAI!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


In order to give an answer to the question, “If God knew some would reject Him and yet created them, anyway, doesn’t that mean he created them for damnation?” I must first list the seven presuppositions undergirding my thinking.

1) Because God is Good whatever He wills is Good; God’s will always flows out of His inherent Goodness.  One reason we can be certain we can trust God to be faithful to His promises is because His Goodness is His very nature.  It is as the Psalmist confidently trusts:

He restores my strength.
He leads me down the right paths
for the sake of his reputation. (Ps. 23:3)

The presupposition opposing this is held by the so-called High-Calvinists.  It states, “Whatever God wills is good because He willed it.”  This supposition, also called voluntarism, was perfected—if not invented— in the 13th century by Duns Scotus, who firmly asserted that for God to be God, God must be absolutely free.  And voluntarism became the foundation of Reformed theology.  For example, in, Bondage of the Will, Luther states,

God is that Being, for whose will no cause or reason is to be assigned, as a rule or standard by which it acts, seeing that, nothing is superior or equal to it, but it is itself the rule of all things.  For if it acted by any rule or standard, or from any cause or reason, it would no longer be the will of God.[i]

One of the main problems I have with voluntarism is if it were true, it would leave us doubting God’s faithfulness to His promises.  If His will is only a pure expression of His free, unbridled power and not His goodness, then God could change His mind, if He so chose, in order to demonstrate His power.

2) God will not act in contradiction of His Goodness; God is God.

3) God is relational.  The whole Biblical narrative attests to this fact, but a particularly poignant demonstration of the relational nature of God is found in Matthew 23:37,

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those who are sent to you! How often I have longed to gather your children together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you would have none of it!” [NET]

We also know God is relational because of the eternal relationship of the three Persons of the Trinity.  And this relationship is bonded together by love; for God is love.

4) There is a right order that both defines and is defined by love; God is holy. The inscrutable Divine nature  is Goodness, which is love and holiness in perfect tension, where by tension is meant that if either side—love or holiness—is diminished, or eliminated, both sides are lost.  That Goodness can be defined by the tension of love and holiness is supported by Micah 6:8.  Probably the most explicit statement of the tension of love and holiness is found in Ephesians 1:4,

For he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world that we may be holy and unblemished in his sight in love. [NET]

But the love/holiness tension is ubiquitous throughout the Scriptures[ii], and usually stated in terms of mercy and justice (see below).

5) God’s love does not want to be contained.  But because of its nature, love can be contained by one rejecting it.

6) Therefore,  righteous relationships, by definition, are when love is freely chosen and shared through translation—not as a transaction—between the lovers in  the perfect tension of love and holiness.  Love is not a matter of deal making or coercion, but freely giving and freely receiving and receiving in order to freely give again.

7) God is sovereign over His sovereignty; although, this is really a restatement of Presupposition 2 (above).

God’s Purpose in Creation

Next, before we can properly address the thesis question of this paper, we must establish what we know about God’s purpose in creation.  God created the physical world—the cosmos—to be joined with the spiritual world—heaven-- to become God’s dominion—the kingdom of God.
Heaven is My throne, and the earth My footstool.”

Love was both the motivation and the purpose of creating the kingdom of God.  His kingdom is a place of righteous relationships, where by righteous relationship I mean one set apart from all other types of relationships because it is grounded, empowered, and driven by love in perfect tension with holiness.  Thus, God created beings with whom He could dwell, and therefore they—God and created beings--could dwell together in righteous relationships:

Surely your goodness and faithfulness will pursue me all my days,
and I will live in the Lord’s house for the rest of my life (Ps. 23:6). [NET]

Putting it another way, God created beings capable of sharing His Divine nature (II Peter 1:3,4).  By necessity, then, God created these beings in His image (Genesis 1:27).  Such creatures could reflect God’s image back to God, which means God’s love flows between God and the creatures and back to God freely in the perfect tension of love and holiness.

Because of the righteous relationship between God and His image bearers, there can be, consequentially, righteous relationships between the image bearers.  This truth is behind the two commandments summing up the Law and Prophets (i.e., the entire Scriptural narrative) and Jesus’ careful ordering of them:

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. The second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37, 38).’” [NET]

It is through these righteous relationships—God and His image bearers, and between His image bearers—human beings fulfill their task as God’s regents over the cosmos:

When I look up at the heavens, which your fingers made, and see the moon and the stars, which you set in place, Of what importance is the human race, that you should notice them?
Of what importance is mankind, that you should pay attention to them, and make them a little less than the heavenly beings? You grant mankind honor and majesty; you appoint them to rule over your creation; you have placed everything under their authority, including all the sheep and cattle, as well as the wild animals, the birds in the sky, the fish in the sea
and everything that moves through the currents of the seas. O Lord, our Lord, how magnificent is your reputation throughout the earth (Psalm 8:3-9)! [NET]

And as the Psalmist so beautifully concludes, God’s kingdom—His Dominion of righteous relationships—is established in His Goodness: God’s reputation.

[i] Martin Luther, Bondage of the Will.  Kindle Books, Loc. No. 2501.
[ii] E.g., Gal. 5:13-26; Col. 3:12-14;I Pet. 1:22-25;I Thes. 4:1-12; Ps. 25:8

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Dr. Z

When I was in fifth grade my parents went away for the weekend leaving me with the next door neighbors.  When they returned home my mother asked me how it had gone and what did I end up doing.  I told her I went to a movie.  "Oh?" she said, "Which one?" "Doctor Zhivago," I proudly answered.  My mother was livid.

I've read Pasternak's novel three times since those formative years, and seen the movie countless more times.  Tonight I screened Dr. Z for my daughter and my wife.  My daughter liked it, but didn't like the ending; my wife still loathes the film, and I suspect she always will. I don't blame her, really; one can only like a few of the characters in the tale, such as Tonya, her mother, and father, and perhaps a handful of others; all of whom have limited air time.  I typically don't like stories where I can't like a main character; so I should agree with my wife on this one.  But I don't, and I will explain why in a minute.

In college I took two history courses as part of my humanities requirement: Russian History, and Soviet history.  They were both taught by a professor who had defected from the Soviet Union with his parents and siblings after WWII.  His lectures were riveting; he made history, not just Russian history come alive with his anecdotes, perspectives, and analyses.  He also smoked these jet-black Russian cigars while he lectured; actually, he inhaled them as I and the rest of his students looked on aghast.

There are two things relevant to the present discussion I would like to relate from those Russian history lectures.  Firstly, he told us how maybe only 20% of the Soviet population actually believed what was published in the newspaper, Pravda.  This was quite ironic, of course, because Pravda means truth.  There was nothing the Russian people could do about it at that point, being under Brezhnev's thumb. My professor went on to say about 70% of Americans believed what they read in American newspapers.  And for 1977 this was a reasonable position for people to take because by and large American journalism was trustworthy then.

Secondly, when our professor had been called to Washington to assist our diplomats with visitors from the Soviet Union, some young professors from Colorado College stood in for him.  They spoke glibly about all the arguments they had had with our professor as they extolled the virtues of Bolshevism.  They as much as said our professor was quite naive in his repudiation of communism.  I thought at the time these guys, who had probably grown up in upper middle class homes and attended Harvard or some other Ivy League school, had a lot of nerve to challenge our professor who had actually lived under the Soviet system.  But even though the communist systems have proven themselves to be political and economic failures, after butchering millions upon millions of people in the bargain, I still know some who believe communism is a viable social option.  And if given the chance, they would embrace communism with open arms.

This is why I like Doctor Zhivago so much.

The critics might be right in downgrading Dr. Z for its over-inflated romanticism, but they miss the point.  It is a fairly accurate and true depiction of a society in self-destruction.  It is a slice of history.  And all history needs to be seen--whether dramatized or not-- lest we forget and live through it again.

Dr. Z is a cautionary tale.  It warns us of at least two factors that play into destroying a society.  The first is the cold indifference of those who have resources towards those who do not.  When I watch the dragoons slaughter the poor peaceful demonstrators near the beginning of the story, I think how those wealthy who looked on from their lavish parties in their ivory palaces instead of interceding to bring justice, brought certain irreversible calamity to both themselves and those poor people--that is, those who had it in their power to make positive changes to Russia, for the benefit of all, didn't, and so left the door open for the opportunists.

The second warning from this great epic, then, is how easily wolves in sheep's clothing can infiltrate a flock of complacent sheep.  When Evgrav, Yuri Zhivago's Bolshevik brother, spoke how the Bolsheviks would win when the boots of the Russian soldiers finally wore out in WWI, he told the truth.  But the truth was not that they would usher in a system in which everyone would prosper and live as brothers, as the Bolshevik propaganda spewed in Pravda and elsewhere, rather a small group of opportunists would take advantage of a bad situation to wrest power and wealth for themselves at the expense of everyone else.  And they accomplished this by publishing a steady stream of lies through control of the press and the liberal use of mob tactics.  And the people let the thugs lead the people to the slaughter house--like the Morlocks did the Eloi in H.G. Wells' Time Machine--because the initial subtle incursions by the thugs didn't immediately and intimately affect most of the people, while the rest remained afraid or in desperate want.

Unlike the 1970s, the American press is no longer trustworthy.  There have been too many distortions of the facts by the press exposed in recent days to believe otherwise.  And it is when you see a cockroach, you need to start worrying about an infestation.  Yet the American public has been largely silent to these glaring breaches of trust.  Why?  I'll let you answer that question.

The press or certain political figures might challenge me at this juncture in the same way the Bolshevik commissar did Yuri when Yuri rebuked him for not admitting there was typhus and starvation in the city: "Why is it so important to you that I admit it?"  And I would answer along with Yuri, "Because it is so."

Jesus teaches us that it is truth that sets us free.  We haven't been getting much truth lately. But what is even more frightening is we don't seem to care.

We need to watch stories such as Dr. Z, even if we don't particularly like them or the characters in them, because they remind us of what has happened before and therefore awaken us to what might be happening now.  As has been said many times, if we don't learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013


Recently, my daughter found herself in a difficult situation.  I felt sorry for her because I know how important it is to her not to hurt people's feelings, especially people closest to her.  But there she was, like in the old song, stuck in the middle again.  My daughter, even though a teenager, has already traveled extensively, so someone innocently asked her what her favorite place to visit is.  Immediately, before she could breathe, loved ones started lobbying for their favorite destinations.  They were pleasant enough in this, but the threat of disappointment should she not choose their first choice was certainly palpable.  We still don't know her opinion, and I suspect we might never know it.

Even though C.S. Lewis is no science fiction writer of the caliber of say, Isaac Asimov, it amazes me of how little air-time is given to Lewis' so-called space trilogy.  I personally feel it is a brilliant and quite unique contribution to the genre.  The third book, That Hideous Strength, is a terrifying tour de force; I have never read a book that so powerfully and chillingly portrays the battle of good versus evil as does this piece.  It starts out slowly, but gradually picks up speed off the heat of your blood.  As horrific That Hideous Strength is, the second book, Perelandra, is philosophical.

In Perelandra, the protagonist of the trilogy is transported to the planet Venus, where he finds a second garden of Eden untouched by rebellion.  He has the chance to speak with the Eve figure to help her hold to the right path.  The conflict arises when a second visitor invades the world, seeking to sow corruption.  The ensuing three-way conversation is a potent discourse on the daunting questions of existence, purpose, and meaning.  The reader easily gets dragged into the debate, and for this reason, of the three books, Perelandra takes the longest to read.

Now, what does all this have to do with my poor daughter's dilemma?  One issue raised in Perelandra is that of making comparisons.  Let's eves drop (no pun intended) into the conversation between the protagonist, Ransom (whom she calls Piebald) and the Lady, in progress...

"What you made me see," answered the Lady, "is as plain as the sky, but I never saw it before.  Yet it has happened every day.  One goes into the forest to pick food and already the thought of one fruit rather than another has grown up in one's mind.  Then, it may be, one finds a different fruit and not the fruit one thought of.  One joy was expected and another is given.  But this I had never noticed before--that the very moment of the finding there is in the mind a kind of thrusting back, or setting aside.  The picture of the fruit you have not found is still, for a moment before you.  And if you wished--if it were possible to wish--you could keep it there.  You could send your soul after the good you had expected, instead of turning it to the good you had got.  You could refuse the real good; you could make the real fruit taste insipid by thinking of the other....  And this, O' Piebald, is the glory and wonder you have made me see; that it is I, I myself, who turn from the good expected to the given good.  Out of my own heart I do it.  One can conceive a heart which did not: which clung to the good it had first thought of and turned the good which was given it into no good." [Perelandra, Collier Books: 1944, pp.68,69.]

When we live our lives making constant comparisons, we cheat ourselves.  And whether or not we may realize it, this embezzlement of one's self by one's self will eventually lead to a bitterness that, in turn, becomes a covetousness.  It is a disposition that drives us to steal: in the case of my daughter, the good and the joy of her own experiences.  And should this theft go unchallenged, it will lead in some cases to a wholesale robbery of the person's identity and purpose.  As I have said before, forced assimilation is a consummate evil.

Such is only the beginning of the woes engendered by covetousness.  Other transgressions such as murder, adultery, bigotry, elitism, hatred, and so on, all grow from the root of covetousness.  Saint Paul said the love of money is the root of all evil.  I would suggest the love of money stems from covetousness that arises from the fear basic to a discontented heart.  And where does this discontentment come from?: all too often, the intoxication of making comparisons.

Of course, most of us have fond memories of some happy place of our past; we might favorably compare it against everything else we've experienced.  There is nothing wrong with this.  But it is a thin ice to tread.  As the Lady of Perelandra suggested, it takes an act of will to not let those past glories rob us of the present ones.  It perhaps takes even greater self-control to celebrate the glories of others and avoid fettering others to one's own glories, and so take from them.

The simple and wondrous truth is our God and Creator offers us an infinite kingdom not a limited one. As breathtaking standing at the entrance to this great kingdom might me, God would not keep us there. Instead, He leads us forward on an eternal journey of discovery, where every new good is followed by another, and each good is the best good.  It is the real Perelandra, where one cannot find the verb, compare, in the dictionary; because to revel in the present is to live, but to compare against the past is to wither and die.