Tuesday, 21 May 2013

A2 Religious Studies: God's Omnibenevolence

Omnibenevolence often conflicts with certain definitions of omnipotence and omniscience. For example, if God is all-powerful, he cannot be omnibenevolent, since he doesn't stop suffering. If God is all-knowing and all-powerful, he cannot be omnibenevolent, since suffering hasn't been stopped. Furthermore the inconsistent triad highlights the issue between the following three facts:

  1. Evil exists
  2. God is omnipotent
  3. God is omnibenevolent
The Christian understanding is that God is omnibenevolent in the Old and New Testaments. God is intrinsically loving; it is part of his nature and is not caused or influenced by humanity. 
  • This brings about the issue of how God can be loving if he is immutable, something I covered when discussing God's omnipotence. 
    • The most frequent response to this criticism is that God possessed love as a quality; he isn't responding to anything so he doesn't have to change. 
The analogy of the diamond is relevant here (as well as pretty much everywhere else); God is one thing, but can be interpreted in many different ways. God doesn't love people differently, people just interpret his intrinsic love differently. 

Even if we reject God's love, Christians would argue that God's love is still unconditional. God is like a parent in this way. But, like any loving parent, God doesn't spoil us; he doesn't always give us what we want.

In Hosea 11, God loves Israel as if its people were his children. When they turn their backs on God, however, it upsets him. So God asked Hosea to marry Gomer in order to show his love for Israel; but Gomer had cheated on Hosea. The Bible is all very Eastenders when you think about it. Gomer kept cheating on Hosea and Hosea kept forgiving her. God used this relationship to describe his relationship with Israel; they were worshipping other idols, but God kept forgiving them. This highlights God's omnibenevolent nature:

"Woe to them because they have strayed from me."

When people rebel against God, he often uses destruction to teach them a lesson - according to many, this act is loving.
  • This can be easily criticised - the destruction of whole towns and cities in the Bible doesn't seem too loving. Didn't God have any other ideas?
To be omnibenevolent, though, Christians stress that God has to punish people. God's love doesn't change, our responses change depending on how we approach God.

The fact that God suffers when he is rejected by the Israelites suggests that he is not impassible. This also links to Aquinas's view on omnipotence - that God can only do what it is logically possible for a perfect God to do. This also links to the notion of an everlasting God; his knowledge changes as the future unfolds. 

Furthermore, certain Psalms place emphasis on the reliability of God's love.

Psalm 62 refers to God's "steadfast love"; love that is committed, reliable and trustworthy. 

Psalm 63 also refers to this:

"Your steadfast love is better than life, I will praise you."

Psalm 118 gives thanks to God for his eternal love.

In these Psalms, God's love seems reliable, trustworthy and unconditional. 
  • This contrasts with his destructive love in the story of Hosea - which love actually best describes God?
    • Christians may argue that the two examples are different because the people of Israel sinned, and punishing sin is part of being loving. God punished the people of Israel people he wanted them to be the best that they could be
      • But the Jews were also important to God, yet he didn't help them when millions died in the Holocaust - so how can God be truly loving? Was he not powerful enough or not loving enough? 
The resurrection of Christ is often seen as God's ultimate expression of agape love, because he forgives humanity's sins. This links to the view that God is everlasting, since he took on human form and entered our world to die for our sins.

John Stuart Mill openly criticised the idea of an omnibenevolent God, attacking the design argument in particular. Mill stated that God cannot be loving if he created a world where animals had to kill each other in order to survive. 

Aquinas, however, states that we cannot judge the seemingly unjust world around us, because we do not know God's 'master plan'. Events may seem to cause suffering, but there may be a greater outcome. This is similar to the belief of Peter Vardy. Immanuel Kant also argues that God's omnibenevolence is redeemed in heaven, and links this to his moral argument for the existence of God. Aquinas also said that God understands our suffering and can empathise with us; this links to the idea of God being everlasting.

Overall, it is widely accepted that in order to be loving, God has to:
  1. Change - he cannot be immutable
  2. Respond, empathise and interact
  3. Be with us and love us
  4. Feel pain to understand us - he cannot be impassible
Once again, this fits with the idea of an everlasting God. This also means that an omnibenevolent God surely cannot be timeless, since:
  1. A timeless God is immutable (Plato)
  2. He cannot respond to us or answer prayers
  3. He is outside our timeline
So is there a way of having a timeless and omnibenevolent God?

Descartes says that there is. Since God can do the logically impossible, he can be with us even if he is outside time. He is immutable but he can still love.

Boethius, however, who argues for a timeless God, states that God has uncausal knowledge. His knowledge makes the future necessary, which suggests that God cannot answer prayer - so he cannot be omnibenevolent. 

So if God is omnibenevolent, surely he must have limited omniscience? Because if he knows everything then he must know the future. And if God knows the future, how can he be omnibenevolent? 

This goes against Anselm's view that God is:

"That than which nothing greater can be conceived."

However, Aquinas argued that God can still be omnipotent, because he can do what is logically possible. Since a perfect God can answer prayer, Aquinas is sorted.

The traditional God of Christianity is as follows:
  1. Descartes's definition of omnipotent
  2. Omniscient in that he knows the past, present and future
  3. Timeless eternal nature
  4. Omnibenevolent
Although this mix may appear incoherent, it is still possible if God can do the logically impossible; what seems contradictory to us may not be so to God. 

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