Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Set Up to Fail? Reflections on Creation and the Fall (Article I)

Preliminary Note: This will be a series of a few articles, as the topic is too broad to deal with at once.  People wondering why I didn't address topic X in this first article should wait until I finish the rest before claiming I ignored the issue.

This article is devoted to establish the framework of the Christian belief of the nature of God, the nature of creation, and the view of the fall.  The idea of why God created us in this way will be addressed further on in this series.

Please note that being an article and not a textbook, this article must necessarily be simplified, and should not be considered the definitive and final word on the subject. Just because I draw conclusion X on the subject does not mean I reject other conclusions the Catholic Church brings forward.

Note on Linguistics: Some readers may note I make reference to man and he.  This is not due to chauvinism, but rather because the term "man" reflects the Latin humanis (person) and not viri (male).  The English language is more limited than Latin in expressing itself.  In terms of philosophy and theology, "man" refers to male and female both, while the use of male or female would be used to speak of a certain gender.


Awhile back, an atheist visitor to my site asked if I would write about whether God set man up to fail.  Unfortunately the individual never clarified what was meant by this so I needed to go search for the topic on line [So, if this individual is reading this, my apologies if if I didn't answer your specific concerns here].  The question is a valid one I think, though the answer is never merely a direct rebuttal.  Rather it requires a set up of what we as Christians believe as a starting point.

The Premises of the Challenge

Scanning various atheistic sites and challenges posted on Christian sites, the basic premise seems to be as follows (this isn't a syllogism by the way, so I won't be evaluating this part as if it were.  I'm just laying out the points the objection makes):

  1. God is all knowing and all powerful and all good
  2. God Created Adam and Eve
  3. God Created the Tree of Good and Evil
  4. Because He was all knowing, He must have known that Adam and Eve would have eaten the fruit of the tree.
  5. Therefore God set man up to fail.
  6. Therefore He either isn't all knowing, all powerful or all good

I hope this is a fair recreation of the objection.

Now, I would unconditionally agree with points 1-3.  I would conditionally agree with point 4 (my problem is with the post hoc fallacy it assumes).  I would reject point 5, and because of that, point 6 would remain unproven.

The Preliminaries to the Case

However, before we get to the argument, we need to understand how the Christian understands God, omnipotence, omniscience and being pure good.

First lets look at that which God is.  Non Christians and atheists may disagree with these things.  However, if one wants to understand the Christian view of the fall, one needs to understand how we view the God who created everything.  This is of course a very simplified and truncated view.  For fuller details, one can consult St. Thomas Aquinas' Summa Contra Gentiles.

  1. God is Eternal.  He is not a very old being.  God is outside of time itself.  Time came to be when God began creation of the universe we know.  Whether one holds to Young Earth Creationism or to evolution, the theist holds that before the beginning of creation, there was no time, but God still existed.  This is why we call God Eternal.  He isn't going to change His mind some time in the future about good and evil, or on how gravity and light functions.  Thus He is unchanging.
    1. Because of this, it would be error to think of there being a difference between the God of the Old Testament and that of the New Testament.
  2. God is All Knowing (Omniscient).  Despite claims from people like Vox Day, God is not surprised or unaware of what goes on in the universe.  Some Christians who know God is not evil will try to meet the challenge of evil in the world by denying omniscience so they don't have to deny He is all powerful or All Good.  Theologically this is nonsense however.  A God who is not all knowing is therefore limited and therefore not all powerful.  God does not learn something new about His world, us or morality.
  3. God is All Powerful (Omnipotent). Nothing happens against the direct will of God.  If He wills that event X will happen, it cannot be thwarted.  God will not be defeated.  Nor will what He decrees fail to happen as He decrees it to be.
    1. This is not the same thing as sin being against what God requires of us.  Below we will look at free will of man, which is in fact what the issue is really about.
  4. God Is Perfect and Perfectly Good.  This is necessarily a trait of an all powerful God to lack nothing in His own nature.  This is because evil is not a positive force in itself.  With the exception of the mentally deranged, nobody chooses to do evil solely on the grounds it is evil, but because there is a good end which one chooses to achieve in a way which is harmful or unjust to oneself or others.  If God could choose to do evil, he would be choosing something less good, which would deny the other traits of God.  [That is: Either He did not know it was wrong, or He did not have the ability to do good]
    1. Dawkins' claim of omniscience and omnipotence being in contradiction is also theologically nonsense.  Dawkins' claim, paraphrased, is that because God is all knowing, He can't change His mind.  Because He can't change His mind, He can't be all powerful.  Theologians reject this on the grounds that because God is all knowing, He already knows the best solution for the situation at hand.  Changing one's mind would be to go from a worse to a better or from a better to a worse.  Both would be a sign of imperfection in God.
  5. God is Fully Present Everywhere (Omnipresent).  Unlike pantheism, God is not all things nor in all things as a sort of a mist or presence that is spread out partly here, partly in Russia and so on.  That would make Him dependent on matter.  Rather it is the case that God is fully present everywhere without limits.  He is always fully present, and not merely partially present.

To sum up, we can knock down the idea that God is merely a more advanced form of sentient being.  God is not a being who is more knowledgeable than us.  He is the fullness of knowledge.  God is not merely a being who is more powerful than us.  He is the fullness of power.  He is not merely more moral than us.  His nature reflects what is good, and that which goes against His nature is evil.

So any view which looks at God as merely a "greater person" is looking at God in the wrong way, and if he or she judges God from this assumption, the judgment comes from a flawed assumption.

The Nature of Evil

Evil is visualized in a dualistic vision to be a positive force, and sometimes this view of evil leads to a distorted view of God, creation and what is good.  Christians do not accept this view of evil however.  We do not think that evil is a positive force, but is a lack or a misapplication of a good God has given us.

For example, a person who is valorous, but lacks compassion may do brave things, but this bravery will most likely lead to acts of cruelty in war because he lacks the ability to understand the suffering of others.  This would be one type of evil.

Another type of evil would be choosing to suppress something which a person possesses at the wrong time.  The idea of seeking to improve the prosperity of a nation one rules is generally a good thing.  However, if this desire comes at the expense of depriving other nations of their own prosperity, freedom or life, it is generally considered evil.  Hence there is a difference between a nation which seeks to improve its infrastructure and creates mutually beneficial trade with neighbors on one hand and the invasion of Poland in 1939 for Lebensraum.

Because of this, we do not see the Devil as an evil being who was created evil by God.  The devil is not some sort of evil God.  Rather, we consider him a rebellious being, who because of a willful choice to use the gifts God had given Him, put Himself in rebellion with God.

As I mentioned above, nobody chooses evil because they want to do evil (unless the person is extremely disordered), but because they see a good they want while lacking the discipline to seek it in context of what is right or else want what they see as a good at the expense of others.

God and Creation

Now some readers may grumble that I am over 1000 words into this article and have not addressed the Fall yet.  Quite true.  However, before we can understand the relation of God and man, we must show how we understand God and things which are false before we can understand why God created the universe He did.

Principles of Creation

Now, when we recognize that God is eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, perfect, perfectly good and omnipresent this sets some boundaries to the understanding of Creation:

  1. The Creation of the Universe was not by chance
  2. It was created as God willed it to exist
  3. It was not created haphazardly
  4. Nothing which exists came to be without God willing it to exist.
  5. God cares about His creation
  6. What He created was GOOD.

These are important things to remember.  Denial of any of these points would be considered heretical.

If one comes to look at Creation from the view of unguided evolution, there are points which are often assumed which the Christian does not believe.  Such as, one may assume the view of God as the divine clockmaker who sets the pendulum into motion and then left it alone.  Or one may assume that God merely started evolution with no idea what the end result would be.  Or, one might be tempted to take a dualistic view which holds matter is evil and spirit is good.

These are views foreign to Christianity, and any attempt to view Creation or the Fall by these views will be a view which is not Christian.

The Creation of Humanity

With the principles above we can also apply to the nature of the human person.  Man was not a product of chance.  Man was created in the nature God intended him to have.  Man was not created through a slapdash work, but was the pinnacle of His creation.  God cares about man and created Him to be good.

Now, one of the common misconceptions is that some think of Adam and Eve as the stereotypical "cave men" who were extremely primitive and limited in knowledge.  Christians would reject this view.  We would believe that when God created man, he possessed the state of natural grace and being free of sin.  Adam and Eve were not inferior to us as cave men.  They were not merely our equals in the sense of having the same concupiscence we have.  They were created as God intended them to be, free of sin and possessing mastery over their emotions and passions.

The Fall of Man

It is when we consider this, that we can see what the Fall meant.  It was not, as Phillip Pullman has said in his wretched (both in the theological and literary sense) Dark Materials books, a "fall upward."  Adam and Eve possessed the knowledge of good, and had the grace to resist the temptations the devil offered them.

Man was not forced to sin.  Nor were Adam and Eve deceived into disobeying God without realizing it.  Rather, the devil appealed to their pride arguing that God was holding them back from something good:

1 Now the serpent was the most cunning of all the animals that the LORD God had made. The serpent asked the woman, “Did God really tell you not to eat from any of the trees in the garden?”

2 The woman answered the serpent: “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden;

3 it is only about the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden that God said, ‘You shall not eat it or even touch it, lest you die.’”

4 But the serpent said to the woman: “You certainly will not die!

5 No, God knows well that the moment you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods who know what is good and what is bad.” (Gen 3:1-5)

The temptation was to become equal to God, instead of recognizing that God is superior in power and knowledge.  The "knowledge" of what was good and evil was not the theoretical knowledge as some have claimed.  Adam and Eve had knowledge of what was good, and one could deduce what was evil through recognizing what departed from this good.  Rather, this "knowledge" was nothing more than the practical experience from doing evil.  It's like the arguments today that to understand the evils of drugs, we have to have first tried drugs, pure nonsense which assumes that experiential knowledge is the only form of knowledge which exists.

The devil's seduction of Adam and Eve was an appeal to their pride, encouraging them to think of themselves as being the equal of God, and being able to be independent of God.

The result of this (God's punishment) is not God arbitrarily taking away from man things He had given Adam and Eve.  Rather, the sin of Adam and Eve caused the break in the relationship with God and His creation.  God is telling them "Because you have done this…" X will happen.

Man has chosen to make himself God's equal, which is an impossible thing.  In choosing such a path, and rejecting God, man has chosen a path which makes him subject to the evil he has knowledge of.  It is important that this was not inevitable or fated.  Adam and Eve were free to refuse the devil's offer.  They specifically chose against God's will, knowing it was against God's will and having the ability to choose God's will.

Conclusion: The Subject for the Next Article

Now that we have set this framework, we can move on to the main part of the "God set man up to fail" argument, which seems to be "why did God make man this way?"  To answer this, we need to understand what God intended man to be, and remember that God still intends for us to become.

Of course, what He intends for us to become is not something we can do on our own.  We can lower ourselves into a well under our own power.  This does not mean we can raise ourselves up from what we got ourselves into.

At the risk of getting ahead of myself, this is ultimately why we need Christ as Savior who can deliver us, and why God needed to become man.  It is impossible for a man who has broken the relationship with God to restore it under his own power.  It takes God to restore the relationship which man has broken, though it requires man to repay what He has broken.  This is also why Christians must believe no other religion can save.  No founder of any other religion can do what Christ did.  Other religions have a glimmering of the truth in recognizing that evil exists, and/or recognizing that the Divine exists.  They do not have within them the salvific act which Christ performed for us.

So next time, a look into why God made us as He did in terms of free will.

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