All sins shall be forgiven unto the sons of men, and blasphemies wherewith soever they shall blaspheme.
-- Mark 3:28
|As strong as can be, and as smart as can be, and . . .|
By "Supergod," I mean the fanciful being for whom the more familiar philosophy-class shorthand is "Omni-God" -- this latter prefix referring to the various polysyllabic epithets with which this imaginary deity has been decorated: omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, and all the rest. Supergod is the subject of what has come to be called "classical theism" (i.e., Christianized Hellenistic philosophy), and he can be defined by the following characteristics:
- He knows everything.
- He is able to do anything that is logically possible.
- He and his motives are entirely good.
- Absolutely everything that exists, except Supergod himself, was created by Supergod out of nothing at all.
Supergod and the Bad
The idea of Supergod can be succinctly refuted by what is traditionally called the "Problem of Evil" -- or, since evil has a rather narrower meaning now than it did when that term was coined, the Problem of Bad. Briefly:
- If everything had been created from nothing by Supergod, then everything would be good.
- But some things are bad.
- Therefore, everything was not created from nothing by Supergod.
1. Evil has no positive existence but is simply the absence of good.
First of all, this is very obviously false. If lying is the absence of truth-telling, then rocks are liars. If adultery is the absence of marital fidelity, then monks are adulterers. If murder is the absence of not-murdering-people, then -- okay, this is just getting stupid. Second, even if we grant the premise, the Problem of Bad (or, if you must, the Problem of the Absence of Good) remains. Whether we say Supergod created bad or merely failed to create sufficient good, the end result is the same: Some things are bad, and Supergod is responsible.
2. Suffering is an illusion.
No, it isn't.
3. Even God can only do things that are logically possible. Perhaps it is logically impossible for the universe to be less bad than it in fact is.
Do you believe in Heaven?
Sorry, that's fighting sophistry with sophistry, since belief in Heaven is logically independent of the Supergod premise. To play by the rules, then: Smallpox has been eradicated, showing that a world without smallpox is logically possible; but Supergod created a world with smallpox.
Certainly a world with less bad/suffering than the real world is logically possible. Is a world with no suffering at all logically possible? I think not, because it is human nature to have mutually contradictory desires, at least some of which must therefore be frustrated. Supergod, though, could have created humans with a different nature, one more amenable to absolutely perfect bliss.
4. Suffering builds character.
Agreed. But Supergod could have just created us with good character to begin with.
5. God can bring good out of evil.
Yes, but why should he choose that particular method of producing good? Supergod can make omelettes without breaking eggs.
6. Free will, which is good, entails the possibility of choosing badly.
First of all, lots of bad things, such as earthquakes, have nothing to do with anyone's free will. Second, free will is inconsistent with Supergod's omniscience, since he can't know with 100% certainty what we will do unless there is no chance of our doing otherwise. (If you somehow think omniscience is consistent with free will, then Supergod could have foreseen, before creating any given being, whether or not that being would ever choose to do anything bad -- and could have created only those who would not.) Third, good people consistently use their free will to choose good things, not bad things, and Supergod could have created us good. Jesus had free will, but was there ever any real chance that he might have chosen to be a serial killer rather than a Messiah? Supergod, however, apparently chose to create lots of people for whom choosing to become a serial killer was a real possibility.
7. We have no right to pass moral judgment on God.
Then where do you get off calling him "good"?
"Mere God" and the Bad
By "Mere God" I mean (with apologies to C. S. Lewis, who was after all in the Supergod camp) God as I believe he actually is, divested of all the childish superlatives with which the Supergod lot have bedecked him. His characteristics, as contrasted with those of Supergod, are as follows:
- He knows a great deal, vastly more than any of us, but not "everything." Specifically, he does not know in advance what any given free agent will choose to do in the future, because that is in principle unknowable. Does God know absolutely everything that is knowable? Perhaps, but I'm not about to assume that dogmatically.
- He is vastly more powerful than we can imagine, but there are limits to his power above and beyond those imposed by logic. (I suspect that these constraints are entirely moral in character and have to do with the need to respect the agency of other beings not created by God.)
- His motives are entirely good.
- He "created the world" in the sense that the cosmos as we know it has been to a very significant degree shaped by him, but he didn't make it out of nothing. Other beings with agency (free will) were not, and cannot be, created by him, because a free agent is by its nature an uncaused cause.
What about the argumentum ad smallpox? Humans eradicated smallpox, and even Mere God is vastly more powerful than us; therefore, he could have eradicated it. We can also assume that God could have prevented us from eradicating smallpox, and would have done so if smallpox had played some vital role in the divine plan. Therefore, it appears that God could have eradicated smallpox, had no compelling reason not to do so -- and yet chose not to. However, I think this sort of argument is fairly easy to deal with under the education model of suffering. Different learning experiences are needed by different people and at different times, so what was once vital may later become useless; and no one specific experience is likely to be necessary in an absolute sense, since many different experiences can provide similar learning opportunities.
Then why call him God?
It is widely taken for granted that Supergod is the only sort of God worth considering, and that anything short of belief in Supergod doesn't really count as theism. A common formulation of the Problem of Evil is, "If God is good, he wants to eliminate evil. If he is all-powerful, he is able to do so. If he is not good and all-powerful, then why call him God?"
This seems like a ridiculously narrow definition of theism. Do the defining characteristics of Supergod apply to Osiris? To Zeus? To Yahweh himself before the philosophers got their hands on him? Was everyone an atheist who lived before, or outside the cultural reach of, Greek philosophy?
God is good. Isn't that enough? Is a wholly good Being somehow not worth aligning oneself with just because he doesn't know the future in every detail or didn't create absolutely everything out of absolutely nothing? On the contrary, the knowledge that God didn't create this very flawed universe out of nothing is what makes it possible for honest people to call him good; and the free will that rules out perfect foreknowledge is what makes a meaningful relationship with God possible in the first place.
What is the reader to make of the epigraph from Mark at the beginning of this post, about how all blasphemies shall be forgiven? Is it not a tacit admission that this post is itself knowingly and intentionally blasphemous, and that it requires forgiveness?
Well, no. I do not believe that speaking the truth about God as I understand it is blasphemous. If I have criticized and even poked fun at the idea of Supergod, it is in the same spirit, and for the same reason, that Elijah and Isaiah attacked and ridiculed the those conceptions of God which they regarded as "idolatrous."
But I nevertheless think it is important to stress that God forgives blasphemy, because blasphemophobia -- the undue fear of incurring the wrath of God through lèse-majesté -- is a major impediment to thinking clearly and honestly about God. People who reflexively swallow the Supergod doctrine because they are afraid even to consider anything else, those who, for fear of risking eternal damnation, wish always to err on the side of saying God is more super rather than less -- well, I don't think they're doing themselves, or God, any favors.
Everything depends on which assumptions are regarded as the most fundamental. For me, the bottom line is that God is good and loving, and if such traditional doctrines as omnipotence and creatio ex nihilo clash with that, then so much the worse for those doctrines. Let God be true, but every man a liar.