Is This the Best Possible World?

If the classical formulation of the Divine Attributes as exemplified by Thomas Aquinas or, in a less systematic way, Augustine is true, and God is indeed immutable and atemporal, then the following statement must be true:

Either this is the best possible universe God could have created, or God chose to create a world with more suffering and evil than it had to have.

Does it have to happen that way?
               Does it have to happen that way?

We can argue for this fairly simply. Christian scripture states that God had a purpose for creating the universe. If that purpose could have been achieved by creating a world with less suffering and evil than the one which actually exists, that would mean that God chose to create a universe with more suffering and evil than was necessary to achieve His purposes. One cannot respond to this that “He must have had a reason that we don’t know about”, because whatever that reason is, the same question could be asked: “Could there have been a universe with less suffering which fulfilled that reason?”

Eventually, if we hold this view, we must come to say that there was no possible way that there could have been less suffering & evil in the universe. Because if there was, and God did not create this other possible universe, then it would mean that God intentionally created a universe with more evil & suffering than was necessary, for no reason whatsoever.

Now, Scripture reveals some sweeping claims about the purpose of the universe:

“For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever! Amen.” Romans 11:36.

Ultimately, the universe is made for God’s glory and His pleasure, some add that God’s sharing the divine love is the central plan of creation. Taking either or both of these, what I have said above is still unacceptable.

Do we really believe, despite all the language of scripture indicating that the world is in disorder and in many ways plainly against God’s character and goodness61, that God could not have created a world where less evil happened and where His purposes were still accomplished? Well, if we believe that God foreknows, or foreordains all things, we really have no other choice. He saw every single detail of it coming (or “sees it eternally”), and had (or “eternally has”) total control over the path that He set in motion.

These are the conclusions.

Two fixed points for Christians should be that 1. God’s love is prima facie equal towards all humans he has created, and 2. God truly wants for every single human being to enter into a restored relationship with Him. I’m not just repeating the “God hates the sin but loves the sinner” mantra. I don’t even know if that’s always true without qualification. But, I believe that the scriptural witness stands clearly in favor of Christ’s death on the cross as being a redemptive act for all people. Here is a sample of the witness in favor of those fixed points.

“34 Then Peter started speaking: “I now truly understand that God does not show favoritism in dealing with people, 35 but in every nation the person who fears him and does what is right is welcomed before him.” Acts 10:34

“17 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, mighty, and awesome God who is unbiased and takes no bribe, 18 who justly treats the orphan and widow, and who loves resident foreigners, giving them food and clothing. 19 So you must love the resident foreigner because you were foreigners in the land of Egypt.” Deuteronomy 10:17-19

“7 Respect the Lord and make careful decisions, for the Lord our God disapproves of injustice, partiality, and bribery.” 2 Chronicles 19:7

“16 For this is the way God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world should be saved through him.” John 3:16-17

“21 But if the wicked person turns from all the sin he has committed and observes all my statutes and does what is just and right, he will surely live; he will not die. 22 None of the sins he has committed will be held against him; because of the righteousness he has done, he will live. 23 Do I actually delight in the death of the wicked, declares the sovereign Lord? Do I not prefer that he turn from his wicked conduct and live? …

31Throw away all your sins you have committed and fashion yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why should you die, O house of Israel? 32 For I take no delight in the death of anyone, declares the sovereign Lord. Repent and live!” Ezekiel 18:21-23, 31-32

“10 “And you, son of man, say to the house of Israel, ‘This is what you have said: “Our rebellious acts and our sins have caught up with us, and we are wasting away because of them. How then can we live?” 11 Say to them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but prefer that the wicked change his behavior and live. Turn back, turn back from your evil deeds! Why should you die, O house of Israel?’ Ezekiel 33:10-11

“1 First of all, then, I urge that requests, prayers, intercessions, and thanks be offered on behalf of all people… 3 Such prayer for all is good and welcomed before God our Savior, 4 since he wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. 5 For there is one God and one intermediary between God and humanity, Christ Jesus, himself human, 6 who gave himself as a ransom for all, revealing God’s purpose at his appointed time.” 1 Timothy 2:1, 3-6

“8 For “physical exercise has some value, but godliness is valuable in every way. It holds promise for the present life and for the life to come.” 9 This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance. 10 In fact this is why we work hard and struggle, because we have set our hope on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of believers.” I Timothy 4:8-10

“3 Above all, understand this: In the last days blatant scoffers will come, being propelled by their own evil urges 4 and saying, “Where is his promised return? For ever since our ancestors died, all things have continued as they were from the beginning of creation…8 Now, dear friends, do not let this one thing escape your notice, that a single day is like a thousand years with the Lord and a thousand years are like a single day. 9 The Lord is not slow concerning his promise, as some regard slowness, but is being patient toward you, because he does not wish for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.”
2 Peter 3:3-4, 8-9

“1 My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous One, and he himself is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for our sins but also for the whole world” 1 John 2:1-2

These verses attest unilaterally that God does not desire the eternal death of any human being. How, in light of these passages, is that earlier conclusion tenable?

What I have seen keeping us from taking these statements of scripture as unqualified and univocal, as would be most natural, are one of two things. One is simply a theological commitment to something like atemporality and immutability, which imply that God must know all human choices “before” (or eternally) they occur in time, and thus obviously God cannot really desire things which He has “decreed” or “eternally foreknown” would not happen. Rather, this interpretation would say, those passages above are general valuations of things that God would see as good, but that He’s chosen not to accomplish. I think that this explanation is in the end totally unwarranted, unnecessary, and ultimately casts doubt on our view of God. I am using my language here of course, but to believe that God did not decide to do something (e.g. save all humans), or things, which not only we see as good, but that He Himself has said He wants (e.g. Ez. 33:11, and others above) is to believe that God’s character is not one of complete goodness. To avoid this conclusion, again we would have to resort to the one earlier:

Either this is the best possible universe God could have created, or God chose to create a world with more suffering and evil than it had to have.

The second hindrance to Christians taking the verses above as “univocal”, or literal, when they use the pronouns “all”,  “none”, “the whole world”, etc., are other scriptures that seem to indicate that God has in fact decided which individuals will be saved and who will not, so the scriptures that describe God’s desire for all to be saved “cannot” be univocal. This sort of foresight also seems to extend to the crucifixion of Christ, as though God had planned for Adam to sin and thus planned that Christ would have to come and die, and that all sins which have occurred, must have occurred. If we recall, this would also imply that the way the world is, though it’s not “the way it’s supposed to be” in a moral sense, actually is “the way it’s supposed to be”, in the sense that God created the world with full-inerrant knowledge that this is the way the world would play out. Though I cannot treat all of these verses in depth, I want to offer some different ways of looking at the most frequently cited passages for this belief in the next post.

An observation on “Gospel”

Some time ago I spent a few days doing a small “word study” on “gospel”, just looking for where the word was used in scripture and what it meant in those places. I was motivated to do this because many of my understandings about salvation have been shifting, further and further away from a “legal view” in which the good news of God is primarily about my forgiveness, and in which the news stops at Christ’s death for my sins.

Now, this is an observation, not a robust explanation or argument, but one passage in particular stuck out to me during this word study:

After Jesus called the twelve togetherhe gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, 9:2 and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal the sick….Then they departed and went throughout the villagesproclaiming the good news and healing people everywhere. Luke 9:1-2, 6 (NETbible.org, emphasis mine)

The word for “proclaiming the good news” is  ευαγγελιζο, and the same verb is used also in:
Acts 8:12, 8:35, 10:36, 11:20, 14:7, 14:21, 16:10, and several other places in Acts.

The intriguing part to me is that Jesus is said to have sent the disciples out, and they are said to have proclaimed the good news, but Jesus had not yet died, nor did any of them even know that he was the Son of God. It is later in this chapter that Peter states that Jesus is the “Christ of God”, not even “Son of God”.

Obviously, a word can mean different things in different places. But, I think that many Christians would read Luke 9:1-6 and assume the words “proclaiming the gospel” mean the same thing they do later in the New Testament, when some of the same disciples are doing the same thing. To me, this is an indication that while Christ’s death and resurrection re-framed the apostles’ understanding of God’s mission, the fact that the good news could be proclaimed prior to Christ’s saving work on the cross means we should be able to understand his mission within a larger context, and that this larger context is most fundamental to the Gospel. Jesus said:

The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is nearRepent and believe the gospel!

Jesus gave us a pretty clear indication of what the gospel is all about, “the kingdom of God is near”. It seems even less likely that Jesus would have been referring to his own atoning work here with the word gospelThe apostles were preaching the gospel before Christ was resurrected, because it was obvious to them that Jesus was ushering in a new kingdom by his very life and miracles, and they had faith in God, that the old order of sin and death was passing away. While we now must speak about Christ’s death and resurrection when telling people the good news, we must be careful not to forget that this good news is the overarching reality that God’s kingdom is near, among us, within us. Our confidence of this is rooted in the reality of Christ’s death, resurrection, and the Holy Spirit living in us.