March 27, 2012

I get mail . . . about earthquakes

Filed under: Philosophy,The New Atheism,Theodicy — William Witt @ 7:08 am
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In response to my post entitled “Why God Does Not Prevent Earthquakes or Tsunamis,” I received some questions from “Rob.” Here’s my somewhat lengthy response.

Rob,

Thanks for your comment.  The above is a blog post, and is by necessity concise.  I could not address every possible question or concern, and some things were implied more than stated, or, I assumed could be concluded reasonably in what I wrote above.  To your questions:

1) Do you think this same sort of destruction of being is both possible and inevitable in the new heavens and new earth, which will be just as contingent as the first heavens and earth? If you don’t think this will be the case, why?

1) By definition, anything that is contingent is subject to the possibility of non-being.  In fact, in a created universe, everything is intrinsically subject to the possibility of non-being at any given moment.  The traditional Christian doctrine of creation is that if God were to cease the act of creation at any given moment, the entire universe would “blink out” like a light bulb.  Even angels, who are “naturally” immortal, because immaterial, are dependent on God’s continuing power to exist at all. (Angels are “naturally” immortal, because they are pure minds.  Not being composed of physical parts, they cannot die should their parts be destroyed. Nonetheless, should God cease to create them, they would cease existing.)

Of course, any universally broad statement like “destruction of being is both possible and inevitable” also has to be understood in light of other premises implicit in the very definition of contingency that would include an “unless.”  Since all contingent being depends on God for its initial and continuing existence (by definition), the inevitability of destruction contains an assumed “all other factors being the same” or “unless” God wills otherwise.  All contingent being always has the possibility of non-being, but, since all contingent being is given by God, there is nothing to prevent God’s continuing to give being.  So, in the new heavens and the new earth, destruction of being is certainly intrinsically possible, since God alone is the source of creation, and could, if he willed, cease to create.  However, destruction of being is not inevitable, if God decides either to preserve intrinsically destructible beings from harm, or to create beings in such a way that that they have an intrinsically natural immortality (something like the angels).  Both possibilities are logically possible.  What God will do is up to him.

2) If God could have created a world without these possibilities in the first place (which must be true if there is going to be a new heavens and new earth where there is no more pain and there are no more tears), why did he not go ahead with that in the first place?

You are correct that God “could have” created such a possibility in the first place.  But it is only your assumption is that he didn’t.  Our knowledge of what God has done in the universe is restricted to what he has done in the universe (or rather portion of the universe) we actually live in.  The traditional Christian doctrine is that human beings are not the only rational creatures.  Angels, for example, are “naturally” immortal.  For all we know, God might well have created universes where other intelligent creatures exist who have something like the “naturally” immortal resurrection bodies of the new creation, something like Tolkien’s “elves.”  Who knows?

However, it should also be clear that I was not addressing in my initial points what God “might have done” or “could have done,” but what he actually “has done.”  My claim is that the goodness of God is not inconsistent with the world in which we actually exist, a world in which earthquakes and tsunamis actually exist.

As I stated: “It is likely the case that a planet like earth could not be the kind of planet that could support intelligent life like human beings if it were not also the kind of planet that has tectonic plates.”

I perhaps should have qualified “like earth as we know it (and not how God could have created it in his infinite power)” and “like human beings as we know them (and not how God could have created them in his infinite power”), but I assumed that was obvious.  A planet that did not have tectonic places would not be a “planet like earth.”  Moreover, the “human beings” I was referring to are “human beings” like us, like we are now.  I don’t know whether a new creation and a new earth would have tectonic plates, but the kinds of human beings it would contain would certainly be different than the kind we are now.

There is an inherent logical inconsistency when a person complains that there should be no earthquakes or tsunamis.  The person who makes that claim almost certainly owes his or her existence to living on a planet in which there are necessarily tectonic plates, which, when they shift, necessarily cause earthquakes.  To wish there were no such things as earthquakes is almost certainly to wish that I were not here to complain about the existence of earthquakes. So the “nonsensical” implied “within the possible conditions for this actual universe in which human beings like us can actually live.”

And, of course, it is also the case that the traditional Christian position is that God did create something like such a universe (with no human pain, death, or tears). The historic Christian position is that human death is a consequence of sin. (As I stated above, the Christian claim is that the problem of evil has a moral, not ontological solution.) If human beings had never sinned, would there have still been earthquakes and tsunamis?  Presumably. What would have happened if there had been an earthquake in a morally perfect world?  I don’t know.  Perhaps there would have been an infallible earthquake alert system.

I jest, but only because we are talking about a non-existing possibility.  In the world in which we exist, people do bad things, and there are earthquakes.  Again, the question is not about what God “might have done,” but rather whether there is any incompatibility between the goodness of God and the existence of earthquakes in the world in which we (sinners) actually exist.

But some possible answers to your question might include:

a) God likes variety.  Thomas Aquinas suggests that creation ranges from purely immaterial substances (God and angels) to purely material substances (minerals).  In between are non-rational living material substances (plants and animals), and in between them are rational material (bodily)  substances — human beings.  But those “in between” rational material (embodied) substances happen to live on planets and the normal way in which those planets come into existence includes tectonic plates, and thus the very real possibility of earthquakes.

b) The decision to create human beings in a contingent and potentially destructible universe was a decision by God to create creatures that could be “historical.”  Again, relying on Aquinas, Thomas argues that, as immaterial creatures, angels intuitively and completely know and will whatever they know and will.  Angels do not rationate.  They simply know.  Angels do not consider.  They simply choose.  Accordingly, the very first decision each angel makes is either to love God before self or to love self before God.  And this decision is permanent and irrevocable. Thus, it is not that fallen angels do not repent.  Rather, they cannot repent.

To the contrary, because human beings are embodied creatures, their knowledge and choices are mediated through physical created objects.  Humans do not know God directly and immediately as the Chief Good, but rather know directly only created goods.  Humans can know God only as the giver of goods, but do not (apart from revelation) know him directly.  Human choices are always between various higher and lower goods, and take place over time.  In the choice of higher and lower goods, humans develop virtues (or vices) and formed virtue produces character.  Ultimately, it is human orientation toward God as Chief Good that enables human choices of lesser goods, but human beings can always choose lesser goods in preference to God as their Chief Good and final end.  For human beings, unlike angels, both salvation and damnation are processes, a kind of pilgrimage that takes place over time.  But life as pilgrimage in this sense is something that can only take place for embodied creatures.  But — such embodiment by its nature is subject to the possibility of destruction and death, unless God acts to preserve contingent being from destruction.

Because human beings will and know “historically” (over time), redemption also must take place over time, and so God redeems human beings through a historical process of redemption that begins with Israel and comes to fruition in the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  But, because human beings are historical, redemption is also possible — in a way that it was not for angels.

In the new creation, human beings will for the first time see God directly “face to face,” and will no longer come to know God through the mediation of fellow creatures.  However, once this immediate knowledge takes place, “history” will end.  Human beings will no longer live in “pilgrimage” but will be finally  fixed in their choice of Good or Evil, like the angels.

The above is entirely Aquinas’s speculation, but I find it plausible.

Another possibility is:

c) We don’t know.  My number 5) in my initial post, combined with my 15) means that God is free, he can create a number of universes, any of them will be good, and, again, there can be no possible best.

In this case your ‘no best possible world,’ response doesn’t make much sense, because it seems that Christianity is interested in two worlds, one in which sin and death exist, and one in which they don’t. It doesn’t matter that the latter world isn’t the best possible world, or that God could continue to improve this world eternally (which presumably He will in the eschaton) – what makes the question sensible is the fact that we can delineate between two such possible, contingent worlds. The question remains why God chose to create the first kind.

It is not exactly the case that Christians believe in “two worlds,” like a Platonic distinction between this world of matter and another world of disembodied spirits.  Rather, Christians believe there is one world that has two stages. The current stage is something like a “dress rehearsal” for the real play that is going to follow.  During the “dress rehearsal,” human beings practice their parts (they live out their lives, the live and die “natural deaths”)  At some point, the Director steps in and says, “Dress rehearsal is over.  This is the real thing.”  There is a direct correlation between “dress rehearsal” and the new creation which is the “actual play.”

I think that fiction has often done a better job of portraying the relation between the “dress rehearsal” and the “actual play” than has theology or literature, perhaps because fiction writers have less constricted imaginations.  Dante and C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce are two of my favorite examples here.

Of course, God could simply have omitted the “dress rehearsal,” but then, we’d have to make sure we got our parts absolutely right the first time. Because, if Thomas is right, when we see God “face to face,” there is no opportunity for second choices, not because God does not allow them, but because they are not possible. “History” is only possible in a contingent universe in which we don’t have immediate awareness or intuition of God. The kind of world we live in now. Where there are earthquakes.

1 Comment »

  1. Dear Mr. Witt,

    I just want to say thank you for your blog, especially this subject. Often I have been beset by many of my skeptic friends as to why God did not make this world like he would make the next (in glorification). Just want to say you have given me great insight and I thank you for it. Furthermore, this part:

    “The decision to create human beings in a contingent and potentially destructible universe was a decision by God to create creatures that could be “historical.” Again, relying on Aquinas, Thomas argues that, as immaterial creatures, angels intuitively and completely know and will whatever they know and will. Angels do not rationate. They simply know. Angels do not consider. They simply choose. Accordingly, the very first decision each angel makes is either to love God before self or to love self before God. And this decision is permanent and irrevocable. Thus, it is not that fallen angels do not repent. Rather, they cannot repent.”

    Is quite enjoyable! Never really thought about it. Thank you and God bless.

    - In Christ,
    Daniel Palomino

    Comment by Daniel Palomino — May 29, 2012 @ 11:52 pm

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