Sunday, May 10, 2015

Why create in order to destroy?

Athanasius writes in On the Incarnation, 6:

As, then, the creatures whom He had created reasonable, like the Word, were in fact perishing, and such noble works were on the road to ruin, what then was God, being Good, to do? Was He to let corruption and death have their way with them? In that case, what was the use of having made them in the beginning? Surely it would have been better never to have been created at all than, having been created, to be neglected and perish; and, besides that, such indifference to the ruin of His own work before His very eyes would argue not goodness in God but limitation, and that far more than if He had never created men at all. It was impossible, therefore, that God should leave man to be carried off by corruption, because it would be unfitting and unworthy of Himself.

This is an interesting argument. He is speaking of the state of post-lapsarian, pre-Christian humanity: the human creatures which God had made with rationality, with a bit of the Logos himself in them, were tending towards destruction and annihilation because of their turn from God towards sin. Importantly for Athanasius, God's goodness is fundamentally compromised by this situation if he doesn't intervene in some way. For him, it would be unworthy of God's goodness that he create human persons simply to see them destroyed. Why create them in the first place, if he is not going to see that they live as he designed them to do, knowing and enjoying him?

Therefore, Athanasius argues, God sends Christ to die for their sins, so that death could be destroyed through the sacrificial self-offering of the Logos incarnate. But we have to ask the same question of those persons who hold that human creatures will suffer eternal torment in hell, or else be annihilated after a limited period of punishment: why would God create those persons in the first place, if he knew that would be their end? It would have been better had he not created them at all, then to cretae them only to see them go to ruin.

Ilaria Ramelli, in The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis (Brill, 2013) suggests that Athanasius was possibly a universalist, and there are some good reasons to think so. One of them is the line of reasoning which he pursues in the passage I've quoted. If he weren't a universalist, the very principles to which he appeals in motivating the incarnation count against his theology, compromising his coherence as a thinker. So also, the same argument can be made against anyone who thinks that God's incarnation in Jesus was done out of God's goodness, that God's majesty and goodness are compromised by the destruction (whether deserved or not) of human creates made in his image, and yet God knowingly creates many persons who will either spend an eternity in hell or else be annihilated after some limited period of punishment.

Different theological traditions might try to address this issue in different ways. Someone of an Augustinian Reformed bent like Oliver Crisp might argue that God creates those persons who are damned in order that his justice may be demonstrated in the punishment of their sins. An Arminian like Jerry Walls might suppose, on the other hand, that the damned refuse to reconcile with God and effectively damn themselves.

In either case, however, the Athanasian principle about God's goodness has to be denied. For the Reformed person, it is not contrary to God's goodness that some human creatures made in his image be destroyed, since God intentionally brings this about. For the Arminian, it is likewise not incompatible with God's goodness, because he creates some persons who he knows will only be destroyed in the end, anyway. But whether these are plausible positions is something else altogether.

Goodness is the disposition to do good, to act in the benefit of others. Goodness does not reduce to a mere treatment of others in keeping with their merits, as Oliver Crisp seems to suggest in some of his papers. Consider the parallel between goodness and compassion in Ps 145.9: The LORD is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made. Likewise, the psalmist appeals to God's goodness in asking him not to treat him according to his merits: Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O LORD (Ps 25.7).

Consequently, the goodness of God, as a disposition to do good and to act to the benefit of others, is not satisfied with treating other persons according to their merits. It's not enough for God's goodness that people get what they deserve, if they are being harmed. Goodness disposes God against harming other persons, unless it be necessary for the time being. That is why the Scripture likewise teaches that the Lord will not reject forever. Although he causes grief, he will have according to the abundance of his steadfast love, for he does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone (Lam 3.31-33).

Whether it is the Augustinian Reformed supposition that God predestines the damnation of some persons, or else the Arminian position that God knowingly creates some persons who will end up damned or annihilated, it would seem that -- following Athanasius -- God's goodness is compromised in either case.