Monday, August 1, 2011

The problem of 'mercy'

This post by John Piper at Desiring God is good.

I've heard other people rephrase the 'problem of suffering' like this before - the real perplexity of the universe is that God shows mercy.

Any thoughts on this perplexity? And is it really something we should focus on?

Why Does the Truth of Hell Rise to Watershed Significance?

August 1, 2011 | by: John Piper | Category: Commentary

“If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:15).

“Just and true are your ways, O King of the nations!” (Revelation 15:3).

“My eyes flow with rivers of tears because of the destruction of the daughter of my people” (Lamentations 3:48).

If God is not bound to save anyone from hell, he is not bound to save anyone from suffering. If God would be just to sentence all of us to hell because of sin, then he is just when any of us experience suffering that is less than hell on earth. If all of us deserve hell, that is the main “problem of evil,” not cancer and tsunamis. Compared to hell, the horrors (unspeakable horrors) of this world are short and moderate.

If that sounds like an overstatement to you, it’s not because God hasn’t seen your suffering, but, perhaps, because you haven’t seen God’s hell.

This is one of the main reasons why the biblical teaching on hell rises from time to time as a watershed doctrine. Included in the truth of God’s justice in throwing people into hell (“throw” is the biblical word), are implications for God’s justice in all suffering.

One implication: None of us ever experience suffering more severe than we deserve. If we are not in hell at this moment, we are experiencing massive mercy.

Loud love is calling us from heaven. O that we may have ears to hear:

“Do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.” (Romans 2:4–5)

Instead embrace Christ as your God-given substitute:

“Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18).

Christ endured hell for all who own him as their Life.


    This theology makes God sound rather like a psychotic tyrant. I had thought *I* was the one arguing for the christian god's moral bankruptcy...

  2. FEARGOD (ME) -
    :D I don't think you get this one either Paul!

  3. Think about this spectrum of 'sin':

    1) At one end, someone asked by a drunkard on the street if he has any spare change. The guy tells a 'white lie' - "No, sorry, I don't."
    2) At the other end, someone lies directly to the President of the USA about financial issues.

    The first act deserves some reprimand, but it might seem minor. The second act seems to deserve a lot of reprimand, and it seems a lot more serious. Why?

    Well I'd love to hear people's discussions, but here's my take on it:

    The more a person's character and role has been (and will be) central to the ideal functioning of society, the greater an offense against them should be taken seriously.
    There are many reasons for this, but one reason related directly back to their role in maintaining society. Their very desire and ability to maintain society REQUIRES that they stamp out and make an example of any influence to destroy society. Any attempt and maligning their character or opposing their role IS such an influence.
    Therefore, the more a person's character and role is linked to the ideal functioning of society, the more they are constrained to destroy and make an example of any influence in society against their character and role.

    Now for some bold claims. Bear with me - IF these claims are true, than this theology actually works ;)

    The distance between the President and the drunkard is laughable compared to the distance between Christ and humanity, in terms of the centrality of their character and role to the past, present, and future satisfaction of humanity. Christ is the ONLY source of true and lasting satisfaction (all other sources will ultimately fail or disappoint, or point toward Christ as a GREATER source of happiness).

    Not only that, but our sin against Him is greater than we can imagine, considering His character. We totally ignore Him, run from Him, twist His character and motivations, fight for his enemies and against him, and take pride in all of this - and shut any realization of these things down before they can even leave our subconscious. We seem to delight in deliberately making every effort to prove to ourselves and others that HE is not the ultimate source of happiness, but OTHER things are (when in fact, the ultimate destination of these things apart from the grace of God is our despair).

    So follow that spectrum - drunkard, President, God. God is the ultimate President and satisfaction for humanity. Thus, in His mercy, Hell MUST be a correspondingly ultimate destruction and example-making tool. It MUST pale in comparison to anything else, because God pales in comparison to anything else.

  4. And yet despite our resistance - God (currently) CONTINUES to work consistently to offer Himself to us.

    The infinite distance between our current experience and Hell (and believe me, that distance is infinite, even for those experiencing unspeakable physical, emotional, or emotional torture at the moment) is evidence of the infinite mercy of God. Any satisfaction (or lack of suffering) we CAN find in anything is due to God being in the mix in mercy. He is working to bring us the perfect mix of satisfaction and longing, to draw us to Himself - the real ultimate source of life, satisfaction, and happiness. Why does he persist so long against rebellion? Surely such apparent impotence is not doing what He ought - it is causing people to laugh more, and rebel more! He isn't destroying sin or making an example of it!

    But wait, He has - Christ is the ultimate example against sin. Christ is the reasons God can be merciful for as long as He likes, without maligning His own character. Christ showed that sin - seeing satisfaction anywhere but in Christ - was infinitely disgusting. Christ showed that an infinite payment was required for this, an infinite example. He Himself was that infinite payment, that infinite example. The glorious God - who along brings anything good into this world - humbled Himself to our level. From heaven to the sewers, where the inevitable happened and He was crucified by the very sin he was paying for.

    Christ enabled God to be as merciful as He likes without defaming His character. And He is being merciful for the time being, as long as you are not in hell. How will you respond?

  5. Paul, it doesn't read like you have much of a concept of justice for wrongs.

    Excellent post FG.

    God is not unfair, He is more than fair. If He were fair, we would not be here having these discussions.

    Praise God! for His mercy on us who have repeatedly done wrong!

  6. DP: on the contrary, it is my appreciation for justice that causes me to reject this monstrous doctrine. When John Piper makes his claims about justice, like this:
    "One implication: None of us ever experience suffering more severe than we deserve. If we are not in hell at this moment, we are experiencing massive mercy."

    what he claims logically entails that every woman who has been raped, every child that has been molested deserves what happened to them and much much more besides.
    The sentiment is utterly monstrous. I would even go so far as to call it "totally depraved"...

    Josh, here you have highlighted exactly why if the Christian God did exist, he would not be a god worthy of worship.

  7. Paul, IF what I have said is true, the conclusions you make actually run against logic.

    Whether we like it or not, God in His love MUST make an example of anything which rejects Him (since he is the ultimate happiness for humanity). Because of Christ, God is free to be merciful in the same way that a parent can be merciful. This may mean using discipline as a form of mercy.

    I have contended that God is currently showing mercy to humanity, not judging. Thus (although we all deserve worse than rape), the rape itself cannot be an act of 'justice' from God's perspective. This would be 'partial justice' and 'partial mercy' at once, rather than fully expressing either. Rather, this era is an era of 'full mercy' (thanks to Christ), and 'full judgement' is reserved for later.

    EVERYTHING God does and allows in this life are not judgement, but are designed to draw people to Himself. Both satisfaction and suffering are designed for this end, which is the best possible end.

  8. Clarification :) - I do believe God acts in 'judgement' in a sense in this life. However, the judgements He performs are always aimed at mercy - for others in general, but also for the people themselves if they aren't hardened 'beyond repair' (this would be the 'merciful discipline' I was talking about earlier). Real judgement (in the sense of deserved punishment) is reserved for Hell.

  9. So you basically agree that "what he claims logically entails that every woman who has been raped, every child that has been molested deserves what happened to them and much much more besides." (by declaring that "we all deserve worse than rape"). Got it.

  10. These people still maintain some happiness and/or lack of suffering in their lives. Why? Because God is holding them back from hell for the time being. He is giving them as much happiness as is safe for them to have - any more would ultimately drive them away from Him and toward ultimate despair, worse than they currently have.

    Rest assured it IS entirely possible to have a much higher view of morality and empathy and brothers love, etc, than you will ever have - while still maintaining a cognitively resonant view of God like this. So the problem is not with this view of God or our abhorrence of evil or our love for people. Its with your willingness to seek the cognitive resonance between all this.

    Its all very well to say you don't like something. But could you explain either 1) why you are unwilling to seek this cognitive resonance, or 2) why you disagree that we all deserve hell.

  11. Oh dear, me and my grammar - "Hell MUST make every other suffering pale in comparison, because God makes anything else which can be considered 'good' pale in comparison."

  12. Paul, would you change your mind about the "justification" of a lady who is raped if she was actually a murderer and associated with crime?

    If so, you merely are creating your own goal posts for what is moral and right.

    It is not merely God who is executing judgement here on earth but we are executing judgement on ourselves by our own actions. It is what we mean by "actions" that we disagree with. Unless you propose that we should all be free to do what we want without consequence. I doubt that.

    We live in world that harbours both good and evil by result of man's will. It is a world of consequence. Ladies are raped by bad men. Children are abused by bad parents. Men are killed in war. People are filled with greed. Why? Because we chose to create a world we live in like this, It is a consequence of our decisions as mankind.

    Regarding morals. For a start, where do you draft your concept between a straight or a crooked line?
    Before you call God crooked, you must have an idea of a straight line?

  13. Thanks DP, that's another important aspect to this argument.

    This life is an age of 'mercy', where all things are intended to bring God's people to Himself. Part of this process is allowing a degree of 'free will' amongst humanity, whereby the process of autonomously choosing our own goals, standards, sources of satisfaction, etc, is demonstrated for the evil it really it.

    Hence a rape, while horrendously evil in its own right, can be seen as a mercy of God in several ways - with His intent being for people to find Him as the delight He is. Not only is it part of the intricate journey that God is actively leading this person through, it is a natural consequence of the our 'free will' sin being allowed to manifest itself a little - just enough for God's merciful purposes.

  14. "Paul, would you change your mind about the "justification" of a lady who is raped if she was actually a murderer and associated with crime?"

    No, I happen to think torture and rape are not acceptable methods of punishing criminals. I am disturbed that you and Josh appear to dispute that.

    Moreover, you are attempting to water down the issue which is the blanket condemnation of all human beings -not only rapists and murderers but actually rape victims apparently deserve fates worse than being raped, according to you. You may also have noticed that neither you or Josh chose to tackle the unpleasant topic of molested children somehow deserving their fates - and your gleeful explanations that entail that such children would actually deserve fates unimaginably worse still.
    The idea that I would ever have to explain to another human being how truly horrific this idea is leaves me speechless.

  15. "Its all very well to say you don't like something. But could you explain either 1) why you are unwilling to seek this cognitive resonance, or 2) why you disagree that we all deserve hell."

    I have merely provided a few counterexamples that highlight how deeply adverse to reality your ethical speculations are.  You speak of cognitive resonance as though it's somehow my responsibility to try to close the gaping, pustulent abscesses in your proposed ethical system.  In case you think my language is strident, I would remind you that you are defending rape (and worse) for every man woman and child that has ever lived on this planet.

    Let me put it in such fashion: if finding yourself defending the rape (and worse) of every human being that has ever lived doesn't cause you to pause and reconsider that perhaps your ethical system is deeply, deeply sick, then what else possibly could inspire you to reexamine your model? (or your 'paradigms' as Josh so loves to put it)
    In your Calvinist quest for shoe-horning this vicious and barbaric bronze-age morality into some amount of internal consistency, you have had to sacrifice your humanity and your conscience, to condemn those around you to such unimaginable suffering and you have had to mutilate and invert the concepts of  justice and love and mercy until they no longer have any value.

    Perhaps John Piper should spend less time 'Desiring God' and more time sniffing what he has been shoveling, and perhaps so should you.

  16. You didn't answer my questions or DPs questions. But you raise some good points that should be addressed nonetheless :) I am genuinely interested in your answers to our questions though...

    No one is defending rape or child molestation. No one is saying that rape and child molestation are acceptable ways for us to punish fellow human criminals (BTW, this is the limit of ethics - our own responsibilities). In fact I have specifically said that these things happen in this life NOT because they are deserved in any way - this is not the age of judgement, but of mercy. Also be careful about judging the state of our souls, especially based on exaggerative and extreme interpretations of what we post.

    We are saying that just because you can't see mercy doesn't mean it is not there. You are smart enough to know this intuitively. It is intended as a comfort, and it is a huge comfort to many who are undergoing immensely more suffering than you ever have. And it can be a comfort for anyone, including yourself, if it is understood properly.

    Part of the point of this age (before the judgement of God) is to allow the fullest expression of evil and its natural consequences so that God and his glory will be seen for the delight it is. Thus from an Arminianism perspective, God passively also allows these events to occur to demonstrate the natural course of human 'free will' apart from God - this is a mercy because it draws people to Him.

    However God is able to do all these things, in a way where He does not lose any control at all, but rather the forces of evil (i.e. human 'free will', 'Satan', tsunamis and other results from the curse) are unwilling servants in the hands of God to directly minister His mercy to individuals. From a Calvinistic perspective, God actively allowed these events to occur ONLY BECAUSE it really was the most merciful thing to do for his people. There are a thousand reasons this might work out to be so in due course, and I expect you to be capable of thinking up a few yourself.

    In Hell, people WILL NOT be responding to suffering by drawing near to God and finding their ultimate satisfaction there. The point of suffering in Hell is not mercy, and so it is infinitely worse than anything experienced in this life.

    The topic of children is difficult. The question of whether 'innocent' children go to hell is not directly addressed by scripture - many (including myself) believe God's grace covers them. This makes the comparison of suffering in this life and suffering in hell meaningless for them - but it does not take away the fact that their suffering in this life is the most merciful thing possible for them.

    The question still remains - why has God initiated an age of mercy in this life, where even the agents of evil are forced to serve his loving purposes? Especially considering my earlier posts...

  17. Another recent post by Desiring God which deals with suffering again, for all those who will actually take the advice offered here:

    Unfortunately its written in old-style English, so some sentences require a second glance :D

    I can only think of one alteration I would make. He says that 'God desires my good, not my ease'. I think this is misleading. i think God desires you good which INCLUDES your ultimate ease and real happiness. Its just that this might only be possible through temporary LACK of ease (yes, even a lifetime is temporary compared to eternity).

  18. Hey again Paul,

    Yes I reiterate with Josh that you failed to answer our questions... anyway, on to what you chose to address.

    No, I happen to think torture and rape are not acceptable methods of punishing criminals. I am disturbed that you and Josh appear to dispute that.

    Not sure if Josh would agree with me so don't lump him in with me :)

    Let me put it this way. If I were a judge, I would not condemn a murderer to "be-raped" as their punishment. However should I put them in a "prison" of sorts where criminals also dwelt, should this person get raped there by other criminals it wouldn't be direct "punishment", it wouldn't be my fault. It would be more, indirect punishment. As the saying goes, this person would have to lie in the bed they made... as we all do. We have done wrong also and stuffed up this once perfect world and made a bed for ourselves to live in. But in His mercy he has opened up a way out of my/our mess (consequences) and offered this way to you/me.

    So I would like to distinguish between consequence and punishment. The same thing, and yet can be quite different.

    I think you fail to see everyone as people who have done evil. For example you imply the person getting raped is "innocent".

    A couple of questions:
    About the rapist in your illustration earlier (not the victim). What should his punishment be and why?
    Is there one punishment for all sins in your eyes or are there different levels of punishment?
    and why?

  19. I quite like the way Romans 1 describes mankind's situation.

    18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, 19 because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. 20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, 21 because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Professing to be wise, they became fools, 23 and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things.
    24 Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves, 25 who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.
    26 For this reason God gave them up to vile passions. For even their women exchanged the natural use for what is against nature. 27 Likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust for one another, men with men committing what is shameful, and receiving in themselves the penalty of their error which was due.
    28 And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a debased mind, to do those things which are not fitting; 29 being filled with all unrighteousness, sexual immorality,[c] wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, evil-mindedness; they are whisperers, 30 backbiters, haters of God, violent, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, 31 undiscerning, untrustworthy, unloving, unforgiving,[d] unmerciful; 32 who, knowing the righteous judgment of God, that those who practice such things are deserving of death, not only do the same but also approve of those who practice them.

  20. I do agree with you DP ;) - its basically what I called the passive 'Arminianism' perspective of God's merciful purposes for suffering in this life. Thanks for expanding a lot more on that.

    Romans 1 seems to focus on the purpose of such suffering being judgmental. However a little later in the book it is explained as the kindness and patience of God which is intended to lead us to repentance, and that wrath is actually not being experienced here, but being 'stored up'. Also, Paul talks about God 'giving people over' to evil elsewhere in the Bible - but it is referred to with a redemptive purpose.

    The only way that suffering in this life is judgmental, is that it 1) it drives individual people to express the states of their hearts, and 2) demonstrates the true nature of humanity's 'free will' in general (by allowing a small taste of it and its natural consequences). While these are both actually forms of mercy, if this mercy is consistently refused it can form the basis of future judgement (in the ways mentioned above).