I know — very presumptuous, and of course we know that His ways are not our ways. Still, thinking along these lines can be useful: It can show, for example, that some features of the universe and Christian belief are not as counterintuitive (to what we would expect of a God-created Christian universe) as they might first appear. And I’ll note that that can be useful evangelically.
1. Consider: As God, I would want there to be as much good as possible. And sometimes good can simply be manufactured (“created” is probably the better word here).
But sometimes good might hinge on the existence of, or at least the possibility of choosing to do, evil. In such cases, a universe with the greatest net good must contain, at least sometimes, some evil.
There are probably many analogies. Here is one: A successful business must take risks. It is possible to run a business taking no, or very few, risks; but it will not be as successful as a business in which risk is cheerfully taken. No one would say that this choice betrays a preference of the businessman for risk per se, or even an inability or powerlessness to avoid risk: No, it is simply that maximizing the company’s net value is understood to require some risk-taking.
Another analogy: No pain, no gain for the body, as the physical fitness gurus tell us. Or: No heroism unless death is possible (and perhaps this last is really not so much an analogy as an example).
2. Or consider this: Isn’t it odd to have so much hinge on an event in Palestine around A.D. 33?
Maybe not — that is, maybe as God this is what I would have done, too. After all, attaching significance to an historical event somewhere makes sense if we begin with the premise of people who live in a material world in which we want them to choose to follow God.
And if events are to be finite, why not just one, or at least have one be of surpassing importance?
And why not Palestine around A.D. 33? Geographically, it was the crossroads of the world (which, incidentally, might also explain in part why God chose the Jews). And Jesus’ time was right, too: Late enough where the good news could spread, but no so late that the reliability of historical records had become so strong as to eliminate the element of free choice in believing. (God might change the way he chooses to manifest Himself and the way He speaks to us as mankind and its technology change.). When I say, “Late enough where the good news could spread,” consider the Roman roads, and the Pax Romana, and a fair amount of commerce, and a couple of common languages (koine Greek and Latin); our pastor recently added that the diaspora and synagogues helped, too (Paul typically preached first in the local synagogue in his travels).
To be sure, it may be objected that this just explains why Christianity could become successful, not that it really is true — but my purpose here as much shield as sword, to counter a claim that a rational God would not have acted as he did.
3. Or consider: Is it odd to have so much — about His revelation, how He wants us to live, and so forth — hinge on a written book?
Again, maybe not. In the first place, of course, this is not the only way that He reveals Himself or His wishes. There are other indicia of His presence and His nature, and it can be argued (as per C.S. Lewis for example, and per Paul in Romans, for that matter) that our innate sense of right and wrong is divine in origin. And the biblical revelations were transmitted orally before (and in addition to) being written down.
But, in any event, written Scripture is a quite logical mechanism when you think about it. Unless God is to reveal Himself in every way to every generation, there would need to be some way for His message to be transmitted from one generation to the next. And it is only through words (oral or written) that this can be done. And written words are much more reliable.
4. Or consider, more fundamentally: Is it so unreasonable, not only for God to exist, but, if he does, for Him to want there to be love? And, if that makes sense, is it not reasonable for this love to need to be freely chosen by creatures in His own image?
Indeed, when you think about it, what could a god like our God want except for His created beings to love one another? He can make anything except that which is freely chosen, and what better thing to be freely chosen than love?
(The fact that such creatures may have as a stage something huge in comparison to their physical size is of course irrelevant — what does the physical size of things matter to God? — and it is hard for us to know how many such creatures God would want there to be.)
And is it not reasonable for God to want these creatures to love Him, too? Consider also how such love may be essential or at least useful to cultivating the creatures’ love of other beings. And wouldn’t it make sense for Him to give specific examples of things that should and shouldn’t be done to show our love for Him and for other beings?
And then, to advert again to an earlier point, is it reasonable for God to bring all this about by creating a world in which He would intervene in history as He has? In particular, for Him to have chosen a people to convey His Truth, then for Him to send us His Son to die for us so that people would know God’s love for them and thus that they should love Him and love one another?
It’s all very reasonable, when you think about it, and maybe if you or I were God we would do what He has done.
5. A similar thought experiment from a slightly different angle: If there is a God, wouldn’t you expect Him to be the sort of God we find in the Bible: monotheistic, powerful, mysterious (not completely understandable, but not opaque either), focused on people and how they behave, in the Middle East, at about this time (especially re Jesus), a combination of visible and invisible, and benevolent? Is it at all surprising that He might choose one people to focus on at the start, and isn’t the time and place of the people He did choose about what you would expect? And doesn’t the Christ story make sense, too, as something that God might bring about?
Maybe all this isn’t the only plausible scenario — though in some ways maybe it is — but it is certainly one plausible scenario.
6. Related point: It’s often fruitful to ask, Why did God do it this way?
For example, why did He not send His son to save us right after Adam or, say, at the time of the Abrahamic covenant or at the time He gave Moses the Decalogue? Perhaps because there had to be 2000 years of failure, more or less, before people could appreciate that that they just couldn’t be sinless on their own. The whole culture had to try, and fail, for a long time; and the whole culture had to learn this. That explanation reinforces what Paul frequently has to say in his letters about the impossibility of salvation through works without grace.
7. But, if you were God, why would you bifurcate people’s lives into what we call life and afterlife? Sure, it may be the case that God sees the bifurcation as less stark than we mortals do, but there’s no denying that — by the Bible’s own terms — there’s a big difference between now and the hereafter.
Well, first notice that it makes perfect sense for the infinitely long part of the bifurcation to involve love and celebration without any suffering at all, which is what we have in Heaven (I’ll discuss Hell below, no pun intended). Our time on earth is a short prologue to that, the purpose of which, as I’ll explain, is to prepare us to participate as fully as we can in Heaven’s love and celebration. It’s quite plausible that God would want there to be ongoing festival of love and faith and other virtues celebrated by creatures in His image, and that a festival like this cannot come about with giving those creatures some freedom first.
Because love and other virtues cannot be manufactured — virtue untested is not virtue at all, a junior high school teacher of mine used to say , and I think the same thing is true of virtue not freely chosen — it is necessary to have some period in which people have to choose love and faith and hope and so forth; I suppose you could have those choices on an ongoing basis after death, too (as envisioned by C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce), and perhaps that is a way to view Purgatory as well (while a Protestant, C.S. Lewis was rather open to the idea of Purgatory, by the way), but you wouldn’t have to organize things that way.
Now, if God is using the world somehow as a way and place to prepare us for eternal life, we are considering how He would do that, how the training would come about. Here’s a paragraph I like, and have quoted elsewhere on this site, from Peter Kreeft’s Back to Virtue (174):
We cannot see God until our heart is like an eagle instead of an owl, able to see the sun. Here is the point of life and of morality: to grow eagle’s eyes. Our lives are a process of growing the necessary organs for our destiny. That is the reason why God is such a stickler about morality, not because he wants to control our behavior, but because he wants us to become the kind of people who can see him and thus experience infinite joy. Love longs to spend itself, longs to give itself to a perfected beloved. We must learn to be holy to satisfy God’s desire, Love’s desire, to spend itself on us.
So this world is not a test, in my opinion, in the sense of God wanting to see who turns out to be worthy and who not. Rather, the world is to prepare and shape us. We can think about how we would want to prepare and shape people for the future — and indeed we do that all the time, as parents for our children. We tell and teach them what is right and wrong, of course, but we also recognize we can’t live their lives for them. What’s more, part of what parents have to do is let their children learn some things for themselves, and sometimes that has to be done the hard way. And so God has told us what is right and what is wrong, through Scripture and by what is hard-wired into our hearts, and we have to develop that sense and how to follow it here on earth. If we refuse to do that, then we are unworthy of Heaven; indeed, maybe we wouldn’t even like it.
Note that it is apparently not possible to become prepared in the way God requires without faith. Part of this might be practical (atheists are less likely to accept the importance of loving each other — The Virtue of Selfishness, as one famous atheist titled one of her books) and part definitional (one can’t love God if one doesn’t know Him).
8. But why Hell? That is, why would God create a Hell?
Scripture makes pretty clear that some of us, I’m afraid, will go to Hell, where things will be most unpleasant and the unpleasantness will last forever. Again, why as God would you choose to do this?
One answer is that those who go to Hell do so essentially voluntarily and are staying there essentially voluntarily, as a result of their own stubbornness or vanity or some other character flaw. They reject God and His demands for how we are to live, and so they must exist without Him, and that turns out to be an unpleasant experience. That is the scenario that C.S. Lewis suggests and elaborates on in The Great Divorce.
There’s certainly something to that, and it’s reassuring to know that the doors to Hell, which Lewis says are locked from the inside, can be unlocked by the sinner at any time. But is that entirely consistent with the description of Hell in Scripture, where there seems to be no way out even for the damned who regrets his choices — and wouldn’t a lot of them? Cf. Jesus’ account of the evil rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16: 19-31).
In this world we use punishment partly as a deterrent to bad behavior; does that make sense here? Certainly up to a point, but eternal damnation at first blush seems harsher than necessary. Maybe, though anything less than eternal suffering may tempt a lot more people to bet the wrong way on Pascal’s Wager.
The other reasons classically given for secular punishment, by the way, are incapacitation (surely inapplicable here), rehabilitation (which sounds like Purgatory, but again that makes sense only if it’s not eternal, and as a Protestant I have say the Scriptural basis for that is dubious — and note that Catholics have a permanent Hell, too), and retribution (again, even if we apply it here, eternal damnation seems unduly harsh).
Well, we don’t know the percentage of people who go to Hell, or how bad deep down inside they are, and whether they could plausibly be treated to a lesser sentence in light of their nature. It doesn’t seem out of the question that some people might qualify for eternal torment.
A couple of final points: If someone says, “Well, I can’t believe that God would punish people forever like that,” one response is, “Why take that chance?” And it would seem very odd for someone to say, “That seems to me so unfair that therefore I will not believe in God.” That means that the person is saying that a part of Scripture — which, after all, might always have been misunderstood or even inaccurate — is enough to cause him to change his wager: most dubious.
So, in sum, there’s nothing surprising about God having the characteristics He is revealed to have in Scripture, nor is it irrational for Him to create a universe in which good or evil can be chosen, as well as beings in His image to love Him and each other; to work first through a particular people and to intervene in history at the particular times and places that He did; for there to be Heaven and Hell; and for Him to memorialize all this in Scripture.