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Perplexing Questions

How the new view can address questions that have perplexed Christian thinking and theology for some time.

Is God Selfish?

This question perplexed people like Hannah Whitall Smith in the mid 1800s, as well as many others. She put it quite well in her book The Unselfishness of God:

"while I had rejoiced in the salvation for myself that I had discovered, I had been secretly beset from time to time with a torturing feeling that, after all, it was rather a selfish salva­tion, both for Him and for me. How could a good God enjoy Himself in Heaven, knowing all the while that a large proportion of the beings He had Himself created were doomed to eternal misery, unless He were a selfish God? ... I still had often felt as if after all the God I worshipped was a selfish God, who cared more for His own comfort and His own glory than He did for the poor suffering beings He had made. " [chapter 23]

Though she believed what the Bible told her about God being love, she felt deep down that he did not match up to her ideal notion of love. This has been a thorny problem for many, though many express it in different ways.

HWS's Answer

HWS's answer was that

"I had always thought of Him as loving, but now I found out that He was far more than lov­ing; -- He was love, love embodied and ingrained. I saw that He was, as it were, made out of love, so that in the very nature of things He could not do anything contrary to love. Not that He would not do it, but actually could not, because love was the very essence of His being. I saw that the law of love, like the law of gravitation, is inevitable in its working, and that God is, if I may say so, under this law, and cannot help obeying it."

Likewise, she saw that God, as Creator and Owner of all things, had 'duties' of ownership as well as rights. "The duties of ownership blazed with a tremendous illumination. Not its rights, of which I had hitherto chiefly thought, but its duties, the things ownership necessarily demands of every owner. ... so our Creator, by the laws of common morality, is compelled to take proper care of the creatures He has created, and must be held responsible for their well-being."

This could solve the problem for HWS, so that

"Every doubting question was answered, and I was filled with an illimitable delight in the thought of having been created by such an unselfish God. ... I saw that God was good, not religiously good only, but really and actually good in the truest sense of that word, and that a good Creator was of course bound to make everything go right with the creatures He had created. And the fact that nothing was hid from His eyes, which had once been so alarming, now began to seem the most delightful fact in the whole universe, because it made it certain that He knew all about us, and would therefore be able to do His best for us. My own feelings as a mother, which had heretofore seemed to war with what I had believed of God, now came into perfect harmony. ... Since I had this sight of the mother-heart of God, I have never been able to feel the slightest anxiety for any of His children; and by His children I do not mean only the good ones, but I mean the bad ones just as much. "

Many would find it unsatisfactory to posit that God is 'under law' -- the laws of love and of ownership - even if it is a law of his own nature. It is clear that HWS did not conceive of God being under law in the way we are, but the very wording could lead to confusion, to a diminution of the One to Whom we relate to something not unlike a doting grandfather, and to a rather Platonic positing of abstract laws as superior to God, which could lead to no ends of problems.

Redefining Love

Another attempt to wrestle with this question requires a redefinition of what 'love' means: our 'merely human' notion of love is misleading, and we should define love in terms of God rather than the other way round. While this answer helps us avoid the notion of God as a doting grandfather, it is unsatisfactory because it makes love unreliable and esoteric. I don't believe in esoteric knowledge. HWS disliked such attempts even more, as "libel on His love or His unselfishness", and I agree with her there.

C.S. Lewis' Attempt

A rather better attempt is that by C.S. Lewis in The Great Divorce, where inhabitants of Hell make a journey to visit Heaven, and are given the opportunity to stay there - on one condition: that they be willing to give up their self-centredness, resentments and the like. One managed to give these up after a struggle, but the rest did not. So it is not God who makes his creatures suffer in Hell, but themselves. Perhaps God himself hurts for all eternity at the stubbornness which makes his beloved creatures suffer - though CSL indicates a way out of this conundrum in one person who persists in putting on a tradedian mask for so long that eventually the mask consumes the soul, which is then no more.

A New Approach

However, all these attempts at an answer presuppose that the only eternally significant relationship we have is with God himself, a direct, one-to-one, between each creature and its Creator. And that, I believe, is why we have had such difficulty with this question. The presupposition leads us to assume that God's love is in spite of his justice, and vice versa.

We need not make that presupposition. If the primary, eternally significant relationship is that whereby God commissions each of us to bless others, such that all is interconnected, then, as the section on 'Justice as Love' explains, "Suppose I do something that harms other things. Because God loves those other things, he is sad, and perhaps even angry with me." My self-centredness and resentment harms the rest of creation. So, in condemning me, God is by no means selfish. On the contrary, he is anything but selfish, since he would hurt eternally because I would be suffering.

This is a completely different approach. We have taken a lot of space to discuss various attempts to address the supposed selfishness of God, and only a little space to show how this different approach works. This is often the way with truth: the truth, once understood, is simple, while all attempts to approach the question by other routes all end up rather tortuous.

Is Sin Good?

According to many Scriptures, our reality is: the heavens and earth were created, we turned away from God (sinned: 'fall'), God entered the world in human form (Jesus Christ), God will bring in a new heavens and earth. In the new heavens and earth, not only will there be no sin, no tears. Moreover, it will be fuller, richer than this one. The new heavens and earth is 'higher' and 'better' than the current one, in which we shall see 'face to face' rather than 'through a glass darkly', and in which our 'resurrection bodies' are superior, just as Jesus' was.

A conventional view: The new heavens and earth are a way to get rid of the existing, corrupted one. But this gives a problem.

Question: Suppose we had never sinned (turned away from God). Would God still bring in a new heavens and earth? If so, why? The existing reality would not have been corrupted, so there is no need for it. But if not ... it means that precisely because we sinned our end state is better than it would have been had we not sinned.

This implies that sin is ultimately good, because it causes a higher state to be brought in. Ridiculous!

(Of course, many will rightly dismiss that as fruitless speculation. However there are some who are troubled by this question, so we will look at it. The Apostle Paul seems to have been troubled by a similar question expressed in his letter to the Romans, but argued that sin is still bad.)

This New View might offer a way to avoid this ridiculous idea. It holds that reality is designed for joy and that the current one is a prelude to the one that is to come, with continuity between them. So this 'higher' state would have happened whether or not we sinned. Thus sin cannot be seen as ultimately good.

To Whom Does the Law Apply? And How?

Should the Sabbath be kept by all humankind, or only by the Jews (and possibly Christians)? On one hand we find in Exodus 31:16,17, "The people of Israel are to keep this day as a sign of the covenant. It is a permanent sign between the people of Israel and me, because I, the LORD, made heaven and earth in six days, and on the seventh day I stopped working and rested." This suggests that only the Jews are required to keep the Sabbath. On the other hand, the Sabbath was instituted at the creation, before the people of Israel had been separated from other peoples. There were arguments in the early church over whether Christians were bound by the Sabbath Law. It has been suggested that the idea of resting every seventh day is one of the most valuable gifts to humankind from the Jewish faith.

How to observe it? On one hand, we find early in Israel's separate existence that one man was punished with death for what appears to us a very minor transgression of the Sabbath Law, suggesting the importance and severity of that Law. On the other hand, Jesus 'worked' on the Sabbath by healing people and allowed his disciples to 'work' by de=husking corn to eat, and remarked "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath!"

Similar questions may be raised over many laws found in the Bible, both Old and New Testaments. A famous one is the stoning of people found engaging in homosexual practice and adultery. Another is Paul's suggestion that women should cover their heads during worship while men should not. Then there are less contentious ones like putting a parapet round the roof for safety reasons. Question is: assuming we don't just reject the laws out of hand, do they apply to us, and in what way?

The new view can help us work this out, with the following principles:

New View does not tell us (what* the outcome of such out-workings will be, but it tells us that we must make the effort together to work them out with humility. And we must neither reject nor slavishly follow the expressions of God's law that we find in OT and NT.

When Non-Christians do Good?

When non-Christians do good, is God pleased? For those, like myself, with a clear belief in the difference between those who are God's people and those who are not (which, to evangelical Christians means, real Christians and non-Christians) this is a perplexing question.

For years I believed, or at least wondered if I ought to believe, that the good that non-Christians do is of no value at all, and may in fact be an evil. It is of no value because no amount of good we do can earn a person their salvation (acceptance with God). It may be an evil because (a) to acknowledge real, meaningful good in non-Christians detracts from the need for Christ's saving work, (b) it can also detract from God's glory in being the only ultimate source of good in the world (some get round this by means of the doctrine of 'common grace', but I don't find that convincing), and (c) the good done by non-Christians might be counterfeit good done by he who sometimes masquerades as an 'angel of light', namely the Devil, and hence such good is actually worse than open evil because it "deceives even the elect if that were possible". During the 1980s I found many Christians treated the green movement like this, as counterfeit (devil-inspired) appearance of good, and hence to be resisted and fought against most strongly (see my early attempt to tackle this in Response to the New Age, Part II - Greenery.)

But such views did not really convince me, and especially the last seemed to be diabolical and perverse, because it amounted to calling evil, good and good, evil. Scripture does acknowledge that those who are not God's people can do real good that is of value. While we might theorize that these are special cases, and that somehow God acts in special ways in such cases, they are not presented in Scripture in that way. They are presented as real good. Jesus acknowledged the unexpected faith of the Roman commander. Deep down, it seemed to me, God does value the good that is done by those who are not his people.

But if that is so, does it not detract from the need for Christ's saving work (which I do believe in)? This new view finds it does not. The cosmic plan of God is that reality should rejoice. So any good that contributes to that is to be welcomed, whether produced by Christians or non-Christians.

But what about seeming-good? Do not a lot of people seem to do good, but with ulterior motives or hidden agendas? That is so, but the important thing is inner attitude of heart, not whether it is produced by a Christian or non-Christian. And God, not we, are the judges of people's hearts.

God is not proud. he is author of good, but gives his creatures the dignity of also being authors of good. Especially those who are specifically 'in his image': human beings. I have recently had a good non-Christian friend die; see my reflections on this.

These pages present 'New View' theology. Comments, queries welcome.

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Copyright (c) Andrew Basden 2008-4, but you may copy this page as long as every copy includes this full copyright notice, and the copying is not for financial gain.

Created: 28 September 2008. Last updated: 12 November 2008 'sin good'. 28 December 2008 law. 6-7 January 2009 good non-Christians. 9 May 2010 removed -. 5 November 2012 spelling correction.