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...and the Meaning of Moral Free Will

As truthseekers, whenever we encounter someone who has a contradictory understanding, we want to learn which is the better belief, to admit when we are wrong, and to change our opinion.  As people-lovers we want to share our knowledge with other truthseekers, so that we may fellowship (2TM 4:3-4, 1JN 1:3).  In Lesson 1, I began my credo or “ideography” (record of what I believe) by explaining two “watershed decisions” that might affect our eternal destiny for good or evil.  I hope it was evident why I think we ought—or it is more logical—to believe in morality, in God as its Rationale or UMI and in the NT Jesus as uniquely qualified to be the paradigm theophany.  However, for the benefit of readers who remain open-minded atheist and non-christian truthseekers, I will explain my solutions to four problematic issues related to faith in the reality of “the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God” (1TM 1:17).  
 
 

            I.  The first issue is the concept of God Himself.  According to the Bible, God created everything else that exists (GN 1:1, JR 10:16, JN 1:1-3), including the ability by volitional beings (souls) to choose to rebel against His Lordship (GN 2:16, DT 30:19).  Our finite minds cannot comprehend how God does this (IS 40:28).  However, neither are we able to understand why the universe exists without God (JN 3:8).  Theistic and atheistic cosmologies are both mind-boggling!  Just as atheists believe that somehow the world always existed and somewhat intelligent beings evolved, so theists believe that for some reason the eternal Intelligence or Spirit of God created and pervades the physical universe, including the brains of those who freely will to spit in His face (RM 5:6-8)!  (What God was doing before the creation of time/space is as inconceivable as nothing.  As Immanuel Kant indicated:  we humans do not have the mental categories or ability to imagine alternative or supernatural reality, which may be why the NT does not describe immortality and hell in detail.  Cf. 1CR 15:35-44 and MT 24:51 & 25:30, 41 & 46, respectively.)

 

Four terms are used to describe (but not explain or "box in") the supernatural power of God:  omnipotent (almighty), omniscient (all-knowing/ intelligent), omnipresent (everywhere), and omnitemporal (eternal).  “Natural laws” actually are ongoing supernatural operations of God (RM 1:20).  If the NT is not too good to be true, then the Lord of the universe is neither dictatorial nor distant, but rather relates to humanity.  Although we cannot comprehend the infinite God completely, it must be supposed that we can do so sufficiently in order to achieve the type of relationship God desires to have with humanity (JN 14:9-25).

 

1.  God’s omnipotence means that He can do everything except “disown Himself” or not be God (2TM 2:13).  It does NOT mean that God can perform logical absurdities such as creating a rock too large for Him to move.  Omnipotence or sovereignty also means that human moral free will (MFW) has limits with regard to how it can contradict God's will.  God provides morally competent humans the ability to resist His intentional will and plan of salvation within limits, (such as the time limit that will end with death and judgment per HB 9:27), which is called His permissive will. 

            2.  The Bible teaches that God’s omnipotence correlates with omniscience, including knowledge of people’s thoughts (PS 94:11, MT 12:25) and the foreknowledge of events (ACTS 2:23, RM 8:29, 11:2, 1PT 1:2).  Some people think that God even knows what a person will be/do before that person exists (JR 1:5).  If this view is correct (which I find incomprehensible a la Kant), it must be maintained that God’s foreknowledge does not predetermine a person’s spiritual choice regarding the satisfaction of God’s requirement for salvation or else moral responsibility would be abrogated.  (I find it simpler to think that God merely tweaks the river of history occasionally to keep if flowing in the direction he intends but allows the fish to swim as they wish.  Surely this universe is not a replay of a history that has already happened or some sort of fake "Milgram" experiment!)  Again, God’s power is equivalent to his knowledge (and other “omni-attributes”).  Jeremiah wrote that “God made the earth by his power; he founded the world by his wisdom.” (JR 10:12)  Many NT passages refer to God as the source of true wisdom (e.g., ACTS 6:3, 1CR 1:25, CL 2:2-3, JM 1:5).  God’s infinitely superior knowledge is extolled in Romans 11:33-34 (echoing IS 40:13-14) and Daniel 2:20-23.

 

            3.  The Bible connects omnipotence with omnitemporality in Revelation 1:18:  “I am the Apha and the Omega, says the Lord God, who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.”  Romans 1:20 refers to God’s “eternal power”, and Jeremiah 10:10&16 names God “the Lord Almighty”, who is true, living and eternal.

 

4.  Psalm 139:7-8 indicates that God’s power implies omnipresence.  God transcends spatial existence while being immanent in all points of space.  (Other scriptural support for this view includes 1KG 8:27, IS 66:1, JR 23:33, ACTS 17:27-28 and EPH 4:6.) 

 

God’s superiority over His creation must be viewed as a matter of degree or quantitatively in order to preserve the continuity between God and humanity that would be requisite for communication (like the need for a common language and culture cited in Lesson 1).  However, the Bible teaches that God also differs from creatures in kind or qualitatively, so that attaining equality with Deity is impossible (IS 55:9, EPH 3:19).  We can be like God (GN 3:3), and we can become one with the Son of God (JN 17:21-23), but we cannot become God.

 

In addition to the omni-attributes, the NT describes God as having the moral attributes of love, truth and justness or righteousness.  God is love and true love comes from God (1JN 4:7-21, RM 5:5), so volitional creatures or souls can love only by reflecting, imitating or cooperating with the Creator’s love.  Although the Bible speaks of God hating Esau (ML 1:3) and other evil people (HS 9:15), Jesus’ teaching of love for enemies (MT 5:44) reveals that God loves all creatures including Satan but hates their sinful choices.  It seems logical to assume that the all-loving God would create the best possible world or one in which the greatest percentage of persons may attain ultimate joy (1TM 2:3-4, 2PT 3:9).  God may have created all possible kinds of worlds simultaneously:  the world of dead matter, the world of living plants, the world of intelligent animals, and the world of morally accountable souls/humans.

 

Second, the Bible teaches that God is truth (JN 1:17, 8:40, 15:26, 17:17), so all truth is from God and manifests God's Spirit.  If any atheists are truthseekers, then they are not far from the kingdom of God (MK 12:34, 2THS 2:10, JN 18:37), because Jesus promised that those who seek will find (LK 11:9&13).  Of course, if the truth is that there is no God or heaven, then what we believe is no more significant than the ideology of a rock or some other evolved collection of atoms (ECC 3:20)!  (:^(

 

The Bible also teaches that God is just or righteous (RM 3:25-26, 9:14, 2THS 1:6).  This doctrine is called theodicy.  It means that we should be careful lest our explanations of God’s will seem unloving or unfair.  If a person cannot explain how a loving God could order the execution of babies (JSH 6:17, 8:2), then possibly He did not do so.  Some atheists have a negative or even demonic conception of God, which may be caused or reinforced by the words and deeds of those who claim to be theists (RM 2:24, 2PT 2:2).  I would not want to believe in such a God, either.  Rather than reject a caricature of God, an atheist should imagine the most perfect, loving and just God that he/she can, and choose to disbelieve in that benevolent Being, if good reason to do so can be found.

          

Belief in a God of love, truth and justness affects how a person interprets the Bible, which is called “hermeneutics”.  My hermeneutic is explained in Lesson 11, but at this point let me summarize it by saying that I believe a person should triangulate from two key NT teachings in order to arrive at a correct understanding of God's Word and problematic OT statements:  1. God loves and wants to save everyone (1TM 2:3-4); Christ died to show God's love and the possible salvation of all (RM 5:6-8) including His enemies (ungodly, atheist, anti-Christ).  2. God is just (2THS 1:6a, cf. RM 3:25-26 & 9:14, DT 32:4, PS 36:6, LK 11:42, RV 15:3).  All explanations of reality and interpretations of Scripture must conform to this certitude:  “The Lord is righteous in all his ways, and holy in all his works.” (PS 145:17)  It would be better not to attempt an explanation of God’s Word than to state one that impugns God’s justice and love for all people (JL 2:13, JN 3:16).  Even the wrath of God is an expression of His love.  Hebrews 12:4-11 offers the clue for harmonizing these two themes.  This passage indicates that divine wrath during earthly existence is intended as discipline:  to teach people to repent of their hatefulness or faithlessness (PR 3:12, IS 33:14-15 RV 3:19) before they die, after which divine wrath will be experienced as just consequence without the opportunity for repentance.

Applying the triangulation technique to the reported execution of babies during the conquest of Canaan mentioned previously, it seems probable that God’s plan of salvation for humanity required the inhabitants to permit the Israelite immigration (JSH 9:24-26) and justified the destruction of those who opposed God’s will (DT 9:4-6).  However, if a righteous explanation for actions such as the killing of children cannot be found, then it should be considered as historical or descriptive of what occurred rather than as pedagogical or prescriptive of how people should behave.

   

Of course, because God is loving and just, He does not tempt, trick, confuse or otherwise contribute to anyone’s sinfulness.  On the contrary, God must be doing all that He can do without abrogating justice or volition to influence people not to be deceived and become self-condemned (JM 1:13-17, TIT 3:11, IS 45:19).  This realization should steer us away from the problematic opinion (a la Augustine via John Calvin) that God predestines most people for hell and lead us to affirm free will as a paradoxical fact (DT 30:19).  It is paradoxical, because it affirms both that God is sovereign and that God chooses not to control all psychological/moral thinking, because absolute determinism, even if it resulted in universal salvation, would nullify human responsibility and personality, making the biblical revelation irrelevant and absurd, which implicitly assumes that God enables humans to have moral free will (MFW).

 

            II.  This leads us to consider a second problematic issue:  reconciling God’s power and love with the fact of evil and its consequence.  A person might think that God would not permit evil, suffering and hell to exist.  Even many theists wonder why God would permit these negatives.  Determinists or people who are mystified by evil and repulsed by its punishment do not realize that the essential aspect of being a human rather than a robot or subhuman creature is MFW, which is what enables a person to experience love and meaning.  This is what makes us different from animals, whose behavior is governed mainly by instinct.  This is what it means to be created in God’s image.  God could not force people to return His love without abrogating their humanity.  If God were to zap ungodly souls, it would be tantamount to forcing conversions at gunpoint, which would not be free and genuine.  If God were to prevent people from behaving hatefully, then He would need to prevent them from thinking evilly, which would make human souls programmed automatons.  If God were to prove Himself to skeptics by means of a miracle, they might believe for awhile and then as their memories of the experience began to fade they would probably think that God had died and revert to their former doubt.

 

           Thus, God designed reality so that His presence is less than compelling, so that even Jesus (God the Son) on the cross cried out “My God [the Father], why have you forsaken [taken God the Spirit from] me?” (MT 27:46, PS 51:11)  This phenomenon is sometimes called "distanciation", because we experience God as distant from us and "unknown" (ACTS 17:23), even though He is close or immanent, "for in Him we live and move and have our being" (ACTS 17:28).  God’s normative means of conversion is persuasion rather than coercion (MT 12:39, 24:24, 1CR 1:22-23).  This is seen very clearly in Jesus’ lament over the obstinacy of Jerusalem (MT 23:37).  Two unusual theophanies or deniable miracles included when God appeared to Moses (in a burning bush per EX 3:2-6), whom God wanted to establish the Jewish lineage for the Messiah (OT), and to Saul/Paul (as Jesus in ACTS 9:3-6), whom God chose to establish the church of Christ (NT).  Jesus taught (in MT 24:23-24) that our faith should not be based on miracles but rather motivated by love for God (MT 22:37).

 

            MFW only exists when there is the possibility of choosing between two qualitatively opposite moral options that we call good and evil.  These options are opposites because of essentially different consequences for choosing them.  Choosing good results in blessing, life and heaven; and choosing evil results in cursing, death and hell (DT 30:19).  This is why hell as well as heaven exist.  It is the just consequence for choosing evil rather than God.  The Spirit of God is good:  love, peace and joy (GL 5:22-23).  Therefore, whoever rejects the Lord is spiritually separated from Him (IS 59:2) and thereby chooses the evil or satanic spirit of hatred, strife and misery and reaps the just consequence called “hell” in the next life (GL 6:7-9, HB 9:27-28).  These options were presented by Moses to the Israelites (DT 30:19), and Jesus referred to this fundamental choice in terms of a fish or egg versus a snake or scorpion (LK 11:11-13).
 

God created theoretical evil or the possibility of rejecting Him as an option that actualizes free human personality.  As such it is necessary and even good (GN 1:31).  Of course, it was wrong for Satan (1JN 3:8) and humanity (RM 5:12) to make evil actual by choosing to Sin or reject Faith in God’s Lordship.  God loves a cheerful giver (2CR 9:7), which means He desires people to cooperate with Him happily because of love and gratitude for His grace rather than to cower before Him because of fear of hell.  Love must be evoked; it cannot be coerced.  And when souls sin or do NOT choose to love God freely, it is perfectly just (loving and logical) for them to reap the appropriate consequence (GL 6:7-9), which is called “hell”.  Why people choose atheism is a mystery, described by Isaiah, which is cited by Jesus (in MT 13:14-15):  You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.  For this people’s heart has become calloused.”

 

Thus, evil people punish/torture themselves by experiencing delayed karma, just as those who experience appropriate justice during this earthly existence also punish themselves or reap what they have sown and send themselves to jail.  This view makes souls responsible for breaking the rules rather than blaming evil on the judges (or Judge) who enforce the rules.  The purpose of earthly punishment is to promote repentance, but the reason for retribution in hell is to attain justice.  It is difficult to imagine, but somehow even someone as evil as Hitler will receive perfect justice, perhaps experiencing the agony of the millions of deaths he caused, in accordance with the principal of “eye for eye”.  On the other hand, souls in heaven retain freedom to reject God, which Satan and his minions are indicated to have exercised (in LK 10:18, MT 25:41, JUDE v.6, cf. EZK 28:15-19).  However, the decision made freely on earth (because of distanciation) is confirmed rather than negated or nullified by attaining proof and vindication in heaven.


            III.  A third common problematic issue involves the doctrine of the Trinity.  The OT Shema (DT 6:4) teaches that God is one, and the NT also affirms that there is one God (EPH 4:6, 1TM 2:5).  However, the NT teaches that God relates to believers in three ways simultaneously:  as the Father, as the Son and as the Holy Spirit (1x1x1=1).  The Father/Parenthood of God is indicated in Jesus’ model prayer (MT 6:9), throughout the Gospel of John (3:35, 5:17-18, etc.), and in the epistles of Paul (RM 4:11, 8:15, PHP 2:11).  God the Father and Christ’s Sonship are discussed in Hebrews 1:1-4.  The Son of God also is mentioned by John (JN 1:14, 3:16, etc.) and by Paul (RM 1:4, GL 2:20, 1THS 1:10).  The Holy Spirit is mentioned in three successive chapters in John (JN 14:26, 15:26, 16:13), frequently in the book of Acts (ACTS 1:5, 2:4, 9:17, 13:2, 19:2), and in many of Paul’s letters (RM 8:4-26, 1CR 6:19, EPH 4:30) as well as in some of the other epistles (2PT 1:21, JUDE 20).

Apparently, Christians failed to explain to Mohammed (c. 610) how God is able to relate to Himself and to creation as a Triunity, and so the prophet's teaching stressed that there is one God and implied that the Christian gospel is false.  It might have been helpful for him and others who stumble at NT doctrines to discern which aspect of the triune God is the subject of various biblical statements.  These aspects or “persons” may be distinguished by role:  God the Father as creator or initiator (GN 1:1), God the Son as Messiah or mediator (1TM 2:5), and God the Spirit as indweller (RM 5:5).  For example, 1 John 4:7 says love comes from (is initiated by) God (the Father), Galatians 5:22 says that love is a fruit of the (indwelling) Spirit, and Ephesians 3:18 speaks of the (mediating) love of Christ (RM 5:8, EPH 2:18).

 

We can denote these distinctions by the use of three prepositions:  God the Father is over all creation (EPH 4:6), God the Son is Immanuel or with humanity (MT 1:23), and the Holy Spirit is within all believers (EPH 1:13).  A single passage that comes closest to indicating this distinction is Ephesians 3:14-19, in which Paul prays to the Father that through His Spirit of love Christ would dwell in believers’ hearts (also see 1CR 8:6).  When the Bible uses masculine words for God, it should be understood that only God the Son is human and had a sexual orientation while on earth.  GN 1:26-27 states that both male and female were created in God’s image, referring not to androgyny but to personality, and Jesus said (in MT 19:11-12) that there is no marriage and thus no need for sexuality in heaven.  The preincarnate Christ is described in Proverbs as the Wisdom/Logos of God.

 

Actually, since the creation also manifests God (RM 1:20), in a sense God may be viewed as a “Quadity”.  As Paul told the Athenians (ACTS 17:28), “In Him we live and move and have our being.”  God as Creation is throughout physical reality (called “panentheism”).  However, since this mode of revelation is impersonal, it has been de-emphasized by most Christian denominations.

 

            IV.  The fourth and final problematic issue concerning the concept of God that I will address in this lesson is the freedom of God.  Can God be evil?  Is God the Father able to change His will, is God the Son free to sin, and could God the Holy Spirit become demonic?  Is it possible for God to be tricky?

 

If God cannot do what He has decreed to be evil, then He would not be as free as volitional creatures, and there would be no basis for praising His holiness.  Paul (in RM 9:16-21) upholds the freedom of God to love or hate as He chooses.  Just as God created physical laws such as gravity, so He created moral laws such as love everyone and determined a plan of salvation involving the atoning death of Messiah to win our redemption from hell.  The cliche "might makes right" is true; it is because God is almighty that only He can determine what is right ultimately.  There is no superdivine authority that determines God; God is self-determined.  The only basis humans have for evaluating whether God is just is understanding how God's acts and judgments are consistent with the moral principles He has ordained for those created in His image (RM 3:22-26).

 

God's decision to be all-loving is rational, because God is pleased by doing good for creatures, but it is free because God could have chosen to anoint Satan to embody evil logic/lies rather than Jesus to manifest love and truth (JN 1:14, PHP 2:9-11), and this earthly existence would be hell (RV 19:11-13, 20:7-10 & 21:6-8).  If God were ever to change His mind, it would mean that morality is ultimately arbitrary and ultimate reality would indeed be a farce!  (Although, as stated previously in part I with regard to Kantian mental categories, we are unable to imagine an alternative physical or moral universe in detail.)  This is why we should not take God and divine love for granted.  Instead, we should be eternally grateful that God has decreed loving to be right, and He promises never to change (ML 3:6).  Let us praise God in the spirit of Psalm 66:1:  "Shout with joy to God, all the earth!  Sing to the glory of his name;  Offer him glory and praise!"

 

           Let me summarize the pieces of the puzzle we call reality that have been connected so far.  The first part is the set of three unavoidable beliefs (cited in Lesson 1):  belief in reality, belief in human subjectivity, and belief that souls may comprehend reality and communicate truth sufficiently (if not perfectly).  To these were added what I believe are the best (most logical) answers to two watershed questions:  belief that life has meaning or a basis for morality, and belief that God is the foundation for meaning and morality, embodied in Jesus of Nazareth as the visible Lord of human history.  In this lesson were added answers to four problematic questions concerning God:  His attributes, how He relates to humanity, why He permits evil/hell, and whether He is free.


           
Why would anyone choose to believe otherwise or to deny this solution?  Perhaps it is because they demand that God prove Himself to them by means of a miracle (MT 12:39, 1CR 1:22).  However, apparently God does not want to nullify faith (MFW) or to abrogate the essence of humanness by performing miracles (MT 24:24 & JN 20:29).  Skeptics may one day (at the eschaton per RV 20:15) wish they had admitted the possibility that God has ordained this mortal life on earth for the purpose of people proving to Him who is worthy of (qualified for) eternal life in heaven (RM 2:5-8 & 2CR 13:5).  And, if 
the Supreme Being is loving (1JN 4:7-8)—if  God created the cosmos because He wanted to bless its human inhabitants with eternal life (JN 3:16), and if He “wants all men [humanity] to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1TM 2:4)—then surely this means that God is not tricky in communicating His will to them/us.  Thus, I am struck by a prayer of Jesus in Matthew 11:25 and His statement in Matthew 18:3, which indicate that God’s requirement for salvation (GRFS) is simple enough for a child (young soul) to comprehend, and I am thankful.  When I seek this word from God, I find love, and I am joyful.  Jesus stated (in MT 22:37-40) that the entire biblical revelation may be summarized by the commandments to love the Lord, oneself and one’s fellow human beings including enemies.  (Also see 1JN 4:7.)  GRFS, which is the central theme in the Christian mosaic of beliefs, is discussed in more detail in the next lesson.