Theology: May 2008 Archives

Consider the following passage:

He then said to me: "Son of man, go now to the house of Israel and speak my words to them. You are not being sent to a people of obscure speech and difficult language, but to the house of Israel -- not to many peoples of obscure speech and difficult language, whose words you cannot understand. Surely if I had sent you to them, they would have listened to you. But the house of Israel is not willing to listen to you because they are not willing to listen to me, for the whole house of Israel is hardened and obstinate. But I will make you as unyielding and hardened as they are. I will make your forehead like the hardest stone, harder than flint. Do not be afraid of them or terrified by them, though they are a rebellious house." [Ezekiel 2:4-9, NIV]

When I read through the book of Ezekiel a little while back, several things struck me about this passage:

1. God seems to indicate that Ezekiel's message would have received a better response if he'd been preaching it to people who didn't even understand the words he was saying. That's a pretty serious hardening of the heart, if anyone who doesn't even understand the message being said will give a better response than Israel would.

2. It seems like an interesting example of God's knowledge of what people would do in some non-actual scenario. Jesus says something similar about how Sodom and Gomorrah would have responded had they seen the miracles Jesus performed. In both cases it's a strong statement against God's people's unwillingness to believe. In both cases, if it's meant literally (rather than sarcastic exaggeration), it's an example of God knowing how people would respond if things had been different, indeed of something pretty unexpected that God seems to be saying would have happened if things were otherwise.

3. There's such a clear statement of Israel's unwillingness to listen to God. It doesn't say afterward that they didn't believe. It doesn't say simultaneously that they aren't believing but might. It says before he's preached anything that they are not willing to listen. The kind of hardening that's true of them is not the sort where it's unclear what will result. God is telling Ezekiel now that they're not going to respond favorably and not to fear. This does seem to suggest a pretty strong view of God's understanding of how people will respond to something.

4. There's still an acknowledgment that some will listen. Earlier in 2:7, and later in 3:11, God tells Ezekiel that his task is the same whether they listen or not. It doesn't say that some will nonetheless listen, even if most don't. It doesn't say that there's a chance they might listen, and God doesn't know for sure. This would have been a perfect opportunity to say either. What is says is to preach the message regardless of their response. Their response is irrelevant to whether Ezekiel preaches. I have a feeling open theists would want to read this statement as leaving the wiggle room they need for there being no guarantee of God's prediction being true. But I don't see that. I see God saying that they won't believe and that Ezekiel should preach no matter how they respond, not saying that anyone might or will respond favorably.

Regret in Heaven

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Jollyblogger weighs in on an interesting debate between John Piper and Phil Gons over whether there's regret over sin in heaven. David sides with Gons. I'm going to have to go with Piper on this one. As I said in my comment there,

So does God literally forget our sin? I know the verse that says he'll forget our sins, but is that literally true? Does God cease to be omniscient in the new creation? I doubt it. So if God can remember our sin and still be in perfect restoration of all good, then why can't the same be true of us?

I remember loving Miroslav Volf's Exclusion and Embrace for most of the first few chapters. The first thing that really threw me was his suggestion that we wouldn't remember anything bad from our earthly lives in the new creation. Why would God deceive us? Isn't only the truth in God and not lies? Even people like me who think lying can be ok in extreme circumstances in a fallen world don't think lying is ok in a perfect, restored community, and yet this is a suggestion of exactly that. I think I'm with Piper on this. [Links added]

The Bible speaks of God regretting certain things he does. One way to take this is in the open theistic way, wherein God couldn't manage to figure out what was going to happen once he did something, and then when it happened he wished he'd done otherwise than the bone-headed move he'd made, but it was too late to turn back. Another is to take all talk of regret as anthropomorphisms, and since God has no emotions at all it's just describing the way God behaves. God does things that seem to us as if God has regret. It's consistent with the way the Bible speaks of God's plans just to say that God does regret but not in a way that involves wishing he'd done otherwise.

It's actually quite easy to find cases where that's true. If there really are only two options, and each one involves something bad, then I might choose one simply because the combination of goods and bads in that option is better than the combination in the other option. That's too simplistic to compare to the decision-making that goes on in selecting which world to create, but most plausible answers to the problem of evil involve something like this. There are bad things in the universe. If you think about them in isolation from everything else, they are bad, and they deserve regret. There's something unfortunate about them. Yet when seen in the light of the whole, they occupy a place in tGod's overall plan of providence that means they're contributing toward the perfection of God's work in overseeing how creation has developed and is moving toward its culmination. At the micro-level, they are unfortunate and deserve regret. At the macro-level, they are perfect and deserve joy.

My suggestion is that this is how God sees evil. If God is temporal, this is how God sees evil now, but it's also how he'll see it once everything is restored. If he's atemporal, how he sees things is always how he sees things. Either way, it doesn't seem problematic for God to regret if it's regret about things in their intrinsic nature, which is entirely true in terms of the micro-level. Yet such regret is bad if it's absent from the macro-level joy in all that is good in God's overall plan of providence. So there's no reason to think human beings, once much more (perhaps fully aware) of the fullness of that plan, won't feel regret. I think there's every reason to think we'll have the same kind of regret I take the Bible to be speaking of God having.

Punishment and Suffering

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When debating topics like Atonement and Hell, I've run across the following argument: an essential part of punishment is conscious suffering. That seems...wrong to me. To all of Jeremy's readers out there, I have two questions: 1) is this a common belief? 2) do you agree that punishment requires conscious suffering?

Two things to consider: A) Is it impossible to punish someone in a coma? B) Is the death penalty not a punishment at all if it is performed painlessly?

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