Looking at the science to see if we can see God’s fingerprint in the world around us and studying the Old Testament to see if we can make sense of it is all very well, but if we cannot explain the undeniable horrors of this world then all is for naught. Was this world created for God’s pleasure? How could this world be pleasing to God? Is this world a punishment for original sin? Is it just to punish mankind for the sin of an unknown ancestor? The standard answers that Christians typically give to these questions are all unsatisfying. In my view, we simply must have some understanding of why the suffering of this world is essential if we are to love God with “all our heart and all our strength and all our mind”.
So what could this purpose be? The following section of A Rational Faith is the first portion of my attempt to answer this question. It is a long section and introduces us to some complicated concepts from game theory so you will want to take your time with it. You have been warned.
A Rational Faith Section 4.0 Speculations Concerning the Divine Plan
If God’s goal for mankind was that we live with him in eternal paradise, how would he go about achieving that goal? Is the goal of eternal paradise easy to achieve? Does eternal paradise merely require certain materialistic comforts? Or does paradise require something more? Does paradise require something of the people that live there? Or is anyone a fit denizen of paradise? What if human beings were selfish and self-centered by nature? What if this selfish and self-centered nature was the primary obstacle to the paradise that God wanted for us? How would God circumnavigate that obstacle? Could the answer to these questions tell us why the world is the way that it is?
In this section, therefore, we will examine the question, “What are the essential characteristics of an eternal paradise for human beings?” When we have examined this question, we will find that moral perfection is required for an eternal paradise. During our examination, we will see that human beings and our selfish and self-centered natures are the primary obstacles that stand in the way of eternal paradise. Only by perfecting humanity can God accomplish his goal of having mankind live with him in eternal paradise.
4.1 The Essentials of Paradise
Let us imagine that you were a god and you wanted to create a paradise for a human being that you loved. How would you go about it? Would you create white sandy beaches with crystal blue water? Would you create mountains perfect for skiing with just the right snow all year long? Would you create beautiful trees and sunsets perfect for hiking? Would you create food that was unbelievably tasty? Would you create beautiful coral reefs for snorkeling? Would you create fantastic wildlife that was a joy to observe? Would you create luxurious rooms where he or she could read or play or eat or sleep? Would you create a river of life so that the human being you created could live in health and youth forever? Would you do all of the above?
If you did all of the above and no more, your human being would die of boredom within a few years. You have neglected the most important ingredient of paradise. You have forgotten to create other people with whom your human being could interact. You have condemned your human being to an eternity of loneliness. “It is not good for the man to be alone.” (NIV Gen 2:18)
As social beings, other human beings are essential to human happiness. Materialistic pleasures are empty and hollow without other people with whom they can be shared. Learning this vital lesson, you then create a paradise complete with white sandy beaches. You have not forgotten the social dimension of the problem, but the only companions that were available were the inhabitants of a maximum security prison here on earth. You place your human being in your paradise with his new friends and you are done. Your human being will now live happily ever after. Right?
In order to see this truth from another perspective, let us imagine a different scenario. Let us imagine that you created a mediocre paradise without the white sandy beaches and the crystal blue water and the perfect skiing snow, but you were able to get your human being’s best friends and family and put them all together on your paradise. Which paradise would your human being prefer to live in forever? Which paradise would you prefer to live in forever?
As we can easily see, people are the key ingredient to any conceivable human paradise. If you are surrounded by people whose company you enjoy, then even mediocre amenities could result in a five star paradise. If, on the other hand, you are surrounded by people who you do not like, then even the best amenities possible would not make your stay a pleasant one. If God wants to create a paradise for human beings that he loves, then it is essential that it be filled with good people.
The obvious follow up question is what constitutes a “good person”? What kind of a human being is a fit occupant of eternal paradise? Can you pick random people off the street? Or does paradise require a certain kind of person? Would any child do before they reach a certain age but after that age only certain adults will do? These are deep philosophical issues over which humanity has been divided for a long time. Is it the environment that makes us the way we are? Or does human nature cause us to behave the way that we do?
Despite the obvious problems in society around us, human beings tend to think we are just fine and ready for paradise at any time. Other people might have problems that make them unfit for paradise, but our friends, our family and ourselves are “good people” who should go to heaven because we are so nice. We think this because we are made in the image of God and God’s beauty is mirrored in us. We know ourselves to have a potential for genuinely beautiful thoughts, emotions and actions. Surely if we were placed in a perfect environment and given the opportunity to develop to our full potential we would become truly wonderful people?
Flatly contradicting our lofty opinions of ourselves, the Bible is clear that human beings are not fit for paradise because of a problem that the Bible calls sin. Far from allowing us to flower into truly beautiful people doing truly beautiful things, a perfect environment would only demonstrate the essential depravity in human nature. The Bible is clear that we need the guidance of the “Prince of Peace” in order to have peace with one another. The Bible is equally clear that we need to die to ourselves and be reborn through the cross of Jesus Christ in order to experience God’s eternal paradise. “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (NIV Galatians 2:20)
But can we understand from a human perspective why this is necessary? Yes the Bible is clear about these things, but how can we understand what the Bible is saying when it contradicts our own beliefs about ourselves? Why does paradise require moral purity? Why are we unfit for paradise as we are?
While only a personal knowledge of the sin that is in your own life can lead you to the conclusion that what the Bible says is true, it is possible to demonstrate the meaning of God’s word so that it is at least plausible from a human perspective. In order to demonstrate this plausibility, let us consider three scenarios. The first will illustrate why moral perfection is necessary. The second will illustrate why paradise requires that we “die to ourselves”. The third will illustrate why God needs to be our moral compass and guide. Once we have reviewed these three scenarios, we will consider one final essential ingredient to eternal paradise.
4.2 The Need for Moral Purity
Let us say that there is a man who has abused his wife for the entire duration of their marriage. He dies and learns that he is to be barred from eternal paradise. He is furious about this and argues vehemently. “How could God be so unreasonable? I am good to my wife 99.99% of the time! And he says that I am not good enough? That is inexcusable! What kind of a barbarian is God?”
As convincing as this argument may seem at first glance, it is seriously flawed. Let us assume that the 99.99% figure is correct even though the wife is likely to think this number overly generous. With 24 hours in a day and 365 days in a year, that is 8760 hours per year. If you spent .01% of that time beating your wife, then that is 52 minutes a year. Now 52 minutes of beating a year is four 13 minute beatings a year. Over the course of a 40 year marriage, this is 160 beatings. How many beatings is this in eternity?
In my experience, people experiencing a single violent beating that lasts for 13 minutes are likely to be traumatized for their entire lives. In fact, men who are notorious wifebeaters only beat their wives a handful of times and the results are devastating. Is God so unreasonable to desire a purity level of greater than 99.99%? The necessity for moral purity, therefore, comes from two primary considerations. The first, as we can see from the example above, is that even a single incident can be tremendously injurious. The second is that injurious behavior breeds injurious behavior in a catastrophic feedback cycle.
Let us consider the wife-beater again. After the first time he snaps and beats his wife, what are the results? Is she happier than she was before? Is she more able to take the stresses of everyday living? No she is not. After she has been injured, she is more depressed than before and not as capable of bearing up to the burdens of her life. She is unable to be the mother their children need and cannot help out in the community at large. She begins to be less enthusiastic as a partner and less open in terms of communication. This can only worsen their relationship and cause additional stress on him after he has already demonstrated an inability to cope with the stress of his own life.
The vital point to understand is that the actions of other people make up the “environment” that secular humanists believe causes human violence and evil. If human beings are allowed to be morally impure, then the “environment” for the human beings around them is more negative causing them to be morally impure as well. Evil actions, therefore, create a negative environment which breeds other evil actions in a feedback cycle that will eventually get out of control. The way to break the feedback cycle of evil caused by human nature is for people to forgive and “turn the other cheek” while everyone strives for the moral purity that will choke out evil behavior.
The Christian view of hell that I picked up at church on Sundays seems to be that God won’t allow us into paradise if we are sinners because he is “holy” and cannot abide to witness sin. Though it is true that God loves his children and hates that which causes them harm, there is another important reason for this restriction. As we have seen above, moral purity is an essential ingredient to the human paradise that God is trying to create. Without moral purity, paradise would not be paradise and people would gradually become more evil as their surroundings became more evil. The only way to break this cycle of violence and evil is to accept God’s guidance. This means that we must “turn the other cheek” when others do something that is wrong and strive for the moral purity that will eliminate injury in the first place.
Unfortunately, human beings are incapable of “turning the other cheek” and being morally pure on their own. The only way that we can have the strength to “turn the other cheek” is to ask God for help through his Son Jesus Christ. The only way for us to be morally pure is with the help of the Holy Spirit indwelling us and giving us the ability to love our neighbors as ourselves. Without divine assistance, a community of human beings cannot live together over the long haul of eternity and everlasting paradise would be impossible.
4.3 The Need to Die to Ourselves
In complex social systems, individuals must sometimes sacrifice their own personal good for the benefit of the entire group. Though it is hard to see from a myopic, individual perspective, behavior done for short term individual gain often leads to effects that are detrimental not only to the group but also to the individual. In order to illustrate this, let us consider four friends who like to play board games.
Bob, Gary, Dave and Steve get together once a week to play board games. They have four games to choose from and each requires four players. Complicating the situation, each man has a different favorite game. Playing their favorite game is extremely enjoyable for each of the four friends, while playing one of the other games is less enjoyable. There is a fifth game that is a single-player game (Game E) that they all enjoy playing more than they enjoy playing their non-favorite four-player games. Setting this up in a matrix, we see that each man gets the following “happiness points” from the various games as follows:
So what should these friends do in order to have the most “happiness points”? If these four friends were smart, they would rotate which game they played and Steve, Dave and Gary would each get 32 happiness points per month while Bob would get 30 happiness points per month (because Bob doesn’t like Game B as much as the others do).
|Week 1 (Game A)||20||4||4||4|
|Week 2 (Game B)||2||20||4||4|
|Week 3 (Game C)||4||4||20||4|
|Week 4 (Game D)||4||4||4||20|
The problem here is that Bob is a selfish and self-centered sinner. He doesn’t like the rotation arrangement because he gets only 30 happiness points while everybody else gets 32. Instead of playing with his friends on nights when Game B is being played, Bob decides to stay home and get 5 happiness points playing Game E. If they substitute Game E for Game B in the rotation, then Bob, Gary and Steve all get 33 happiness points while Dave only gets 17.
|Week 1 (Game A)||20||4||4||4|
|Week 2 (Game E)||5||5||5||5|
|Week 3 (Game B)||4||4||20||4|
|Week 4 (Game C)||4||4||4||20|
Now Dave is unhappy because his happiness points are much less than everybody else’s. He announces that since they are not playing his favorite game anymore, he might as well stay home and play Game E all the time. Since the games cannot be played without four players, everybody winds up playing Game E every week.
|Week 1 (Game E)||5||5||5||5|
|Week 1 (Game E)||5||5||5||5|
|Week 1 (Game E)||5||5||5||5|
|Week 1 (Game E)||5||5||5||5|
If we consider the scenario above, we see that everybody did what was in their best interest at the time. Bob could increase his happiness in week 2 by more than a factor of 2! How could you ask Bob to be miserable on that night so that everyone could enjoy themselves? Once Dave’s favorite game wasn’t being played anymore, his happiness went down by almost 50%. How could anyone expect Dave to continue to play under those circumstances? All the actions made sense from the perspective of the individual, but the end result was that everyone’s happiness went down by about a third.
Now some people would argue that God is to blame in the above scenario. God should have created Bob, Dave, Gary and Steve so that each one enjoyed every game exactly as much as the others. But what if a vital element in enjoying the games was different styles of play? What if different styles of play led to different levels of enjoyment? What if making Bob, Dave, Gary and Steve all exactly the same was ruinous to the enjoyment that all of them got from the games? If that were the case, then the diversity that caused the problem was also the source of the happiness that the four friends enjoyed when they played together. The problem was inherent to the system and cannot be fixed by God.
The principle that we have illustrated with the above example is that it is sometimes necessary for an individual to sacrifice his or her own good for the good of the group. Paradoxically, sacrificing this individual good leads to enormous benefits for everyone including the individual. Unfortunately, as human beings we tend to be unwilling to sacrifice our own good for the good of everybody. We don’t want to be the “door mat” who always gets stepped on; the “nice guy” who always finishes last; the Christian sap who “turns the other cheek”. We optimize our actions for our own benefit and sacrifice the good of the group. This unwillingness to sacrifice our own good makes us unfit for paradise. God cannot make everyone happy unless each individual is willing to sacrifice their own short term benefit. If an individual is unwilling to make these sacrifices, that person will make everyone around them unhappy and the long term effect will be less happiness for everyone. Human beings, in short, must “die to themselves” and obey the will of God in order to be fit for paradise.
Now some people might argue that the above principle is only true in certain circumstances and that selfishness can sometimes lead to the greatest group happiness. “You had to choose the value of the happiness points very carefully in order to illustrate the principle that maximum happiness requires selflessness,” they would argue, “but selfishness can lead to just as much happiness as selflessness does if the happiness values are randomly chosen.” Though this might appear to be the case, this appearance is deceptive. The carefully selected happiness values were necessary in order to have each person’s happiness be roughly equal. This was done in order to appeal to our modern democratic sensibilities. For the general case of randomly selected happiness values, however, selflessness will be necessary to achieve maximum longterm group happiness unless the players don’t like multi-player games more than single player games. Demonstrating that this is the case, however, is an exercise left to the reader.
4.4 The Need for God’s Guidance
When human beings consider complex moral issues, they are generally unwilling to accept restrictions on their behavior. They simply will not believe that the longterm ramifications of their behavior could be catastrophic and seize on what they think are uncertainties in order to justify themselves before men and God. They are like polluters who dump tons of toxic chemicals into a river and deny responsibility for the birth defects that occur as a result. They are like emitters of greenhouse gases that will not admit the possibility that the longterm effects of this behavior will be disastrous. Their unwillingness to accept inconvenient truths when they are vouched for by God preclude them from eternal paradise.
In order to illustrate this phenomena, let us imagine Bob, Jerry, Joe, Theresa and Tina. God gives the gift of sex to Jerry and his partner Tina and to Joe and his partner Theresa. God then declares that all other sexual intimacy is to be avoided. As an alternative to the gift of sexuality, Bob is given the gift of music. He enjoys giving concerts and the other four enjoy listening to these concerts. Because Bob devotes so much time to his music, he would make a bad partner and God has therefore forbidden him to marry and not created him a partner.
So in God’s desired equilibrium, each person gets a different amount of “happiness points” for doing their monthly activities. Jerry and Joe and Tina and Theresa each get 25 happiness points per month, while Bob gets 20. Jerry, however, is not happy with this situation. He reasons that he can have a good deal more fun if he has sex with both Tina and Theresa. He goes to God and says, “God I disagree with the rule that says that I am only allowed to have sex with Tina. I want to have sex with Theresa also.” God responds, “I designed Bob in a very specific way and he cannot handle it if you have open sexuality in this way. Do as I have commanded you and obey my rules.”
Jerry, however, is an obstinate and self-centered sinner. He goes to Joe and Tina and Theresa and talks to them about the possibility of “free love” where they can all have as much unrestricted sex as they want. They all agree that it is a good idea and Joe suggests that they talk to God about it. Jerry tells Joe, “I already did and God says that Bob was not designed to be able to handle it.” Joe and Tina and Theresa are very upset. “You mean that we cannot have the unrestricted sex we all want because of Bob? Let’s go talk to him.”
Jerry, Joe, Theresa and Tina go to Bob to do some emotional arm-twisting. “God tells us that you would be upset if we had unrestricted sex! We had no idea that you were such a loser! Why do you have to hurt the rest of us by being so selfish? You should be more mature and sophisticated like us.” Bob is tremendously hurt and plays macho, “I never said that I didn’t want you to have unrestricted sex and it wouldn’t hurt me if you did! God is a liar and doesn’t know what he is talking about.” After this conversation, Jerry, Joe, Theresa and Tina then go to God and say, “We have talked to Bob and he is okay with our unrestricted sex so we are going to disobey your command.” The foursome then proceeds to have unrestricted sex and time passes.
Despite his earlier boast, Bob finds it harder and harder to avoid depression. For the first few thousand years everything seemed fine, but he is beginning to get tired of having 20 happiness points when everyone else has 40 per month. His music begins to suffer and his concerts get worse and eventually Jerry and Joe and Tina and Theresa stop coming. Bob is now really depressed as he is getting 0 happiness points per month and Jerry, Joe, Tina and Theresa are all getting 30. Another ten thousand years passes.
What eventually makes things unbearable for Bob is the way that he is being treated by Jerry and Joe. They have found that they enjoy making Bob the butt of their jokes. What started out as a single emotional arm-twisting session to get Bob to give them the permission they wanted has become a longterm mockery marathon. God has attempted to intervene, but they have found that it is titillating to mock God as well as Bob. The unrestricted sex that they thought they would never tire of has become boring and God’s plan to introduce new blessings has been derailed by their disobedience. To spice things up, they mock God and Bob and pat each other on the back. They tell each other how much better they are than stupid Bob and how much more open-minded they are than God.
After a few dozen millenia of this treatment, Bob comes to God and says, “This isn’t fair. You gave each of them the gift of having a partner and I could understand that and it didn’t bother me. Now, however, they are each far happier than me.” God responds to Bob, “You need to turn the other cheek and forgive this offense as I have forgiven them.” Bob says to God, “Well if they aren’t going to listen to you when you tell them not to swap partners, then I am not going to listen to you when you tell me to forgive.” Bob then takes a gun and shoots Jerry, Joe, Theresa and Tina.
Reading this simple example, some people would argue, “I don’t see why the human beings in this scenario were to blame. If God hadn’t created Bob or if God had created Bob a partner, nothing bad would have happened.” There are four basic responses to this argument.
The first response is that it is not appropriate for a human being to tell God what to do in this way. God is not our slave to dance to our tune or do that which we command him to do. He creates and sustains us and we really need to trust him when he gives us a gift and instructs us on how to use that gift. He is not holding back on us. He is not being capricious. He gave us the instructions so that the gift could be enjoyed to the maximum extent possible. It is simply not possible for us to understand the math involved in systems involving billions of human beings for trillions of years. Given this fact, we will not fully understand the reasons for his commands, but we must trust him that the instructions are necessary.
The second response is that God’s purpose in creating Bob would have made any necessary sacrifice worthwhile in the long run. What if Bob’s continuous focus on his music made his concerts more and more fun until they were eventually better than sex? What if God introduced the gift of dancing once Bob became good enough at playing the music? The short term actions of Jerry, Joe, Theresa and Tina preclude any increase in happiness that might occur over the longer term.
The third response is that it is hardly an enlightened attitude to exterminate Bob just because you don’t like the way he reacts to certain kinds of behavior. Saying that God shouldn’t create Bob because he stands in the way of the behavior that you want is selfish and self-centered in the extreme and this is hateful to God. Bob is made in the image of God and God loves Bob. Can one really blame God if he thinks that Jerry, Joe, Tina and Theresa should sacrifice a little short term gain so that Bob can exist and be happy?
The fourth response is that restricting God to creating systems where you can always do whatever you feel like is an extreme limitation on God’s creative power. How can God create a world where people are unaffected by the behavior of those around them? Even eternity would get boring if God was not allowed to create worlds that required that people be considerate of those around them. Imagine an amusement park where the designer was told, “The park must be designed so that no matter how stupid the people are in disobeying the rules no one can ever get hurt. We cannot, for example, have a roller coaster because some idiot might throw something at somebody else while the train is moving.” How much fun could you have in a park that was completely idiot proof?
The principle that we have illustrated with the above example is that it is necessary for God to be the one who determines what is correct behavior and not individual human beings. Human beings have “desperately wicked hearts” (Jeremiah 17:9) that cause us to make judgments that are favorable to the outcome we want. Only God can impartially determine the way that human beings should behave in the systems that he designs. God is not being arbitrary or capricious when he gives us rules. He is not restraining us to make us miserable. The commands he gives us are for our longterm benefit and if we do not trust God enough to accept this fact then we are unfit for eternal paradise.
4.5 The Necessity of Voluntary Submission
It would seem to go without saying, but the final essential ingredient of eternal human paradise is individual freedom. A person concerned that individuals could screw up their eternal lives if given the freedom to make their own decisions might argue that people should be compelled to live in paradise. “Why does God bother to give us freedom? Why doesn’t God just force us to live in the way that is best for our happiness? Why doesn’t God just tell us what to do and beat us up if we disobey?” A compulsory paradise, however, is inadequate in a number of ways.
The first reason that a compulsory paradise is inadequate is the “enforcer” role that God must assume in order to bring it about. What parent enjoys disciplining their children? Is the time-honored phrase, “this is going to hurt me more than it is going to hurt you” completely meaningless? Or does it reflect the underlying reality that parents genuinely hate to see their children suffer? A paradise where God was continually disciplining people for deviations from selflessness would not be any fun for God.
The second reason that a compulsory paradise with God as the “enforcer” is inadequate is that it wouldn’t even be paradise. Part of paradise is the absence of pain and mourning. If God must constantly rebuke, constantly scold, constantly discipline, is this really paradise? Paradise is only possible when God has given us the gift of eternal life and the gift of freedom from pain. If these gifts are given conditional upon our good behavior, however, then they are not really gifts. In this case “paradise” is merely a temporary illusion that will be taken away at a later time as required by disobedience. Fortunately, the paradise that God has in mind for us is vastly superior because it relies on the voluntary submission of our imperfect will to God’s perfect will.
Voluntary submission to God’s will, therefore, is the only solution to a profound dilemma. If, on the one hand, God makes the behavior required for paradise compulsory and uses violence to enforce these dictates, then he reduces his enjoyment of his creation and makes it less fun for us. If, on the other hand, God allows selfishness, then people will be less happy as illustrated in the three scenarios above. The only way to resolve this problem is voluntary submission. Human beings must learn to voluntarily submit themselves to the will of God in order to live in eternal paradise.
for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable. (NIV Romans 11:29)
If therefore ye have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches? (Luke 16:11)
4.6 Summary of the Essentials for Paradise
Given what we have discussed above, what are the essential characteristics of an eternal paradise for human beings? Human beings must be morally pure because even “minor” incidents can be tremendously traumatic and because impurity has a tendency to breed impurity with catastrophic long term effects. Human beings must die to themselves and do things that are not immediately beneficial in order to experience the greatest possible happiness over the long term. Human beings must rely on God’s judgment in order to determine the best course of action because they are incapable of understanding the ramifications of their actions without divine guidance. Without these essential ingredients, human beings are not capable of living in paradise. No matter how beautiful the white sandy beach might be, the human beings at that beach will eventually make each other miserable over the long haul of eternity. The only way to correct this problem is to emulate the perfect character of Jesus Christ through voluntary submission of human will to the divine will.
Now, of course, in the real world things are vastly more complex than in these highly simplified illustrations. If you read the headlines, however, you can see that they are filled with people doing things to satisfy their own desires with no concern for the wellbeing of others. Abortions done to avoid inconvenience for the parents, extra-marital sex done for short term pleasure, theft done in order to experience a high from illegal narcotics. All of these things are daily occurrences. You will also find people rationalizing their behavior in the most deplorable ways. “Every child should be a loved child and I am not ready for that responsibility right now.” “It is none of your business what goes on between two consenting adults.” “If it feels good it has to be right.” The evidence is clear for those who will look to see. Eternal paradise is impossible unless human beings are willing to behave selflessly according to the direction of a wise and loving God.
Though I have taken only a brief look at these issues, there is an entire branch of economics dedicated to looking at problems similar to those above. Many people have heard of Game Theory and the Nash Equilibrium because of the movie A Beautiful Mind. The above examples can all be thought of in these terms. If you do not feel that these arguments are fleshed out enough, then I urge you to consider the many mathematical studies of social systems that have been conducted by economists. You will find that the human inability to see beyond our own narrow self-interest is a recurring problem in economics and politics.