God is all-knowing.
God is all-powerful.
God is holy.
These are truths that Christians have affirmed for centuries. But in a recent New York Times opinion piece, Peter Atterton addressed these tenants of the Christian faith and found them incompatible with logic.
In regards to God’s infinite power, Atterton wonders how God’s ability to create a perfect world can coexist with the reality that we do not live in one. He writes, “Indeed, if God is morally perfect, it is difficult to see why he wouldn’t have created such a world. So why didn’t He?”
Christians know to look in two different directions when confronted with this question. First, we look back to the garden. It is there where we find a perfect world. In fact, God ended each day’s work of creation by affirming its goodness (Genesis 1). This goodness, of course, collapsed with man’s sin. Skeptics will wonder if the world really was all that good if it had the potential for such a drastic fall. Christians have a longer view. We see that God brings ultimate good from temporary evils. Without the rebellion at the tree in the garden (Genesis 2:16-17; 3:1-19) there would be no tree on calvary on which we see the greatest demonstration of love the world has ever known (Romans 5:6-11).
The second direction in which Christians look is ahead to the tree of life (Revelation 22). At the return of Christ, Christians will finally and forever enjoy a perfect world. So here’s a quick answer to Atterton’s question as to why God didn’t create a perfect world.
And he will .
The professor then moves on to God’s infinite knowledge. It’s here that we find one of the more baffling aspects of Atterton’s argument.
There are some things that we know that, if they were also known to God, would automatically make Him a sinner, which of course is in contradiction with the concept of God. As the late American philosopher Michael Martin has already pointed out, if God knows all that is knowable, then God must know things that we do, like lust and envy. But one cannot know lust and envy unless one has experienced them. But to have had feelings of lust and envy is to have sinned, in which case God cannot be morally perfect.
In Atterton’s view, simply knowing about a sin would make God a sinner. This makes no sense. I know about terrorism. This doesn’t make me a terrorist. God’s moral purity is in no way at odds with his infinite knowledge. It is here that some would assert that the existence of evil makes God the author of evil and therefore morally corrupt. This too is shortsighted. Michael Horton says it best. “God’s permission of sin is not a mere acquiescence, but is a determination that ensures its defeat.” He continues, “God therefore can be considered neither the author of evil nor the passive spectator of evil. He only actively determines to permit evils that he has already, at great personal cost, determined to overcome for his greater glory and our ultimate good.” Think of the father who allows his infant daughter to endure great temporary pain from a doctor’s needle in order to bring about what is best for the child.
The thrust of Atterton’s argument is that either God knows what we know and is therefore a sinner or does not know what we know and is therefore limited in his knowledge. Atterton blends both options to create a third: God does not exist.
Therefore, God doesn’t know what it is like to be human. In that case He doesn’t know what we know. But if God doesn’t know what we know, God is not all knowing, and the concept of God is contradictory. God cannot be both omniscient and morally perfect. Hence, God could not exist.
It is here that Christians will immediately refer Atterton to Jesus. Jesus did know what it is like to be human. He was rejected (Mark 2:1-12). He was tired (John 4:6). He was hungry (Matthew 4:2). He was tempted (Matthew 4:3-11). And through it all, he remained pure.
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Hebrews 4:15 (ESV)
Jesus is the perfect God Man, fully human and fully divine. Any attempt to understand God apart from Jesus will always leave us with a God problem. Jesus is not a mere prophet. He is God. Christians subscribe to the Trinitarian view of God – that he is One divine being (Deuteronomy 6:4) made up of three equal, eternal, distinct persons (Matthew 28:19). So any attempt to understand God apart from Christ is futile.
Sadly, Atterton tries anyway.
(I shall here ignore the argument that God knows what it is like to be human through Christ, because the doctrine of the Incarnation presents us with its own formidable difficulties: Was Christ really and fully human? Did he have sinful desires that he was required to overcome when tempted by the devil? Can God die?)
Imagine if a friend told you that he doesn’t understand basketball. You, being a fan of the sport, begin your explanation by describing the importance of each player working together as a member of a team. But your friend cuts you off. “I don’t want to talk about the players. They don’t matter. I just don’t get basketball.” Your friend’s preconditions are severely limiting his ability to understand. The same is happening here.
In Christ, we see the perfect God Man.
In Christ, we see the only man to endure Satan’s temptation and remain sinless.
In Christ, we see how eternal life springs from a brutal death and a glorious resurrection.
Apart from Christ, we will never find the answers to our questions about the character of God. When we look to Christ, we will not find that the God of the Bible is incompatible with logic. We are likely to find that he is incompatible with our idea of who God should be.
God is holy.
He is not like us.
But he dwelt among us (Matthew 1:23).
And yes, when we take the time to look deeper at who God is as revealed in the Bible, we will often find our minds blown and our mouths left open.
We shouldn’t want it any other way.
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has ben his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen. Romans 11:33-36 (ESV)