Why Does God Permit Pleasure?
What is the solution to the problem of pleasure? Suppose there was no revelation from God, and we only knew that there is a holy God, and we had some familiarity with the history of our race. What conclusion would we reach when we contemplate the problem of pleasure? One does not need the Bible to know that we are a morally culpable race, and that there is a holy God. When we ponder the problem of pleasure, what would we think is the solution?
Is God Fattening Us For Slaughter?
It seems to me there are only two possibilities that could very well occur to us. One is that God is fattening the sheep for slaughter. That is, men are obviously wicked and God is even more obviously holy. God must be angry with us, and our troubled consciences confirm it. A moment’s reflection would tell us that we do not receive adequate punishment in this world for our sins. Even though we are hardened and calloused, and some of us have seared consciences, the generality of people know full well that we have not been dealt with adequately by an infinitely holy God, who we know must exist. We know that we are not getting away with anything that He is not permitting us to get away with. We know He is an infinitely powerful God, who could take us in hand at any moment. We are equally aware of the fact that He is not doing so. So we wonder, as we tremble, whether He is simply allowing us to go on until we are fat enough for His divine slaughter. It is an awesome thought, to be sure, but an inevitable one when we put one and one together: that is, the holiness of God and the sinfulness of man.
We know there has to be a judgment coming. We also know that our judgment will be according to our sins. We recognize the gradations of sins among ourselves and in our own law courts. We are aware that sin against God must be infinitely more dreadful than any crime we commit against one another. We try to fit our punishment to the crime, for justice demands it, and we know that infinite justice must do the same thing. We know that we are adding up sins every day we live, which becomes less and less excusable as we have more and more experience and knowledge about God and the moral law. (If we are learning less and less, we are aware of the fact that that itself is a blameworthy thing.) We should be learning more and more, and that would make us more and more aware that we are becoming guiltier and guiltier. We obviously are built to learn from experience. If the more experience we have the less we learn, the more blameworthy we realize that we are.
We are infuriating the deity more and more. If He is a just and holy being, as we are led to believe, we are simply asking for it. Some criminals are so powerful that they can say to people whom they have marked out for death, “You’re dead.” They are not boasting; they have so much underworld power that they can liquidate most people they set their minds to remove. It is a dreadfully wicked power; but what power do they have except that which comes ultimately from the One who made them and sustains them, and without whose power they would not have any life, not to mention power, of their own?
There is no possibility of escaping God. Sometimes people get new identities and manage to escape the hitmen of the underworld. But who is ever going to escape God? Certainly not these criminals who have the audacity to say to innocent human beings, ‘‘You’re dead.’’ But not only they; they are just gross offenders. We are more sophisticated and refined ones. The more refined we are, the more aware we are that our sin can very well be more heinous than that of these crass professional criminals. No crime escapes the all-searching mind of the omniscient God.
The only reason we are getting away with it at the moment is that the Judge of heaven and earth has not seen fit to call us to account at this particular moment. We know we cannot escape. We know that we are only angering Him more and more with each passing day. We know that He, therefore, is permitting us to add sin to sin and become worthier and worthier of judgment, and so be certain recipients of an ever more terrible wrath.
We ask ourselves, “Is God letting us get away with it so that, when our time is up, we will have accumulated enough sin to merit the wrath He has in store for us?” That is frightening, but no thoughtful person can deny its possibility. We see cattle grazing in the meadows and know that the farmer is feeding them for one ultimate purpose, namely to take them to market. Why are we sinners prospering?
Is God Waiting To Be Merciful?
The second thing that could occur to us as we ponder a God who is infinitely angry with us, yet not only withholding His infinite wrath, but actually showing us tokens of divine favor is this: He really loves us and wants us to turn away from our sins. If He passed final judgment now, we would have no such opportunity; that would be the end of time for us. He has sufficient provocation to do so; that we recognize. We have sinned enough to deserve His infinite wrath at any moment, but we do not receive it. We have an opportunity, therefore, to turn away from our sin and to turn to God. Instead of continuing to offend Him, we can plead for forgiveness and seek to please Him. While there is yet life, that is possible.
We are talking now as if there were no Bible, as if God had never revealed His purposes to us. As a mere guess, we could entertain the hope that God is sparing us now not to fatten us for the slaughter, but to save us from the slaughter.
Of course, He would have to be merciful. All He has to be to account for our judgment is holy and powerful. We know He is holy. We know He is powerful. To account for our being spared with the possibility of being saved from His wrath, He would have to be merciful.
Do we have any ground for hoping (other than the sheerest possibility) that He is a merciful God? There is nothing to stop us from hoping that He is. Since we know that we live on borrowed time and do not deserve a second more, we cannot help hoping that He may be sparing us in order to save us. We do not know that. We can prove from the existence of the world that He is all-powerful. We can prove from the way in which it is put together that He is all-wise. We can prove from our conscience that He is all-holy. What do we have to support the idea that He may also be merciful?
Mercy even with us is an optional virtue; we do not have to be merciful. We usually admire people who are, but we do not say that people must be so. We say everybody must be just. We say, for example, an employer, if he agrees to pay a certain wage, must pay that particular wage. If he does not pay it, then he is unjust and is liable to a lawsuit. All our contracts are based on the integrity and honesty and justice of people with whom we do business. They are actually subject to trials and imprisonment and even execution if they violate their duty of man to man. What about mercy among men? We love it. We admire it. We encourage it. We sometimes practice it. But we do not say mercy is obligatory.
Let us go back to that employer who must pay the worker what he has promised he would for an honest day’s work. Does he have an obligation to give him a Christmas present? No. Does he have an obligation to pay his hospital bill? Not unless he has made it a part of his contract. Does he have an obligation to visit his employee when he is sick? No. That is not a part of any contract. Does he have to entertain his workers at his own home with his own family, or be friendly to them beyond his actual obligations? The answer is always “No.” A worker may very well appreciate such actions when done by an employer, but he cannot demand them. He cannot fault the employer if he does not give them.
As a professor for thirty years, I had an obligation to teach my courses adequately, to grade students fairly, and to give them a proper basis for passing their examinations in accordance with their abilities. I could be faulted if I did not do those things, or even be reported to the president and the board, and ultimately fired if I failed to deliver on these obligations. Did I have an obligation to help a student outside of class? to give him extra hours? to spend time with him before examinations? and after the examinations to point out his mistakes and see if he could correct them so that the next time he would do better? No, none of those things was necessary. Some of us professors would do those things. No student could ever demand them. He had an obligation to be grateful for them if we gave them to him. On the other hand, our basic responsibilities were required, and a student could expect them, and we were reprehensible if we did not deliver. He did not have to thank us for them.
So we see, even in human affairs, that mercy is desirable. It is never, however, obligatory. We admire it when present. We do not censure for its absence.
If this is true even of human affairs, we can see immediately that God does not have to be merciful. He gave us life and conscience. He gave us intelligence to meet our obligations, and He has a right to hold us responsible for using them. He has no further obligation to forgive us if we do not. We say that the Judge of all the earth cannot do wrong, but we cannot say that the Judge of all the earth must be merciful.
As a matter of fact, and this is a frightening thought, there are grounds for thinking that God could not be merciful. If God were merciful, that would upset the balances of justice. If, as a professor, I had become compassionate with poor students and given them C’s instead of F’s, what an injustice that would be to the students who earned their C’s. And students who earned F’s would consider them of no significance. I would be an arbitrary professor who gave grades as I pleased. While I could not be just and give an A student a C, nevertheless I could be merciful and give a C student an A or an F student a C. The whole grading system would collapse. Good work and bad work would be indistinguishable.
Or, compare a judge who hears a case, but is allowed to exhibit mercy. He sees an individual who has committed a simple murder, but he feels compassionate toward him and sees fit to pardon him. He is a merciful judge and so that murderer goes free, but justice goes a-begging. We could never tolerate such behavior in a teacher, and certainly not in a judge. Our whole social fabric would be torn apart if mercy were allowed to make justice of no effect. Justice is obligatory; mercy is not. If mercy, which is optional, actually ruined justice, which is mandatory, mercy could not be permitted.
But thank God there is a place in human affairs where mercy may legitimately exist and not violate justice. If a judge, for example, after passing a proper and fair judgment on a criminal, does everything in his power to alleviate the suffering of the criminal’s family and correct the behavior of that criminal, going far beyond the call of duty and doing something that is not necessary, that certainly would not harm justice. On the contrary, it would accentuate justice. This man would be an inflexibly righteous judge who never allowed mercy to cloud his judgment at the bench; but he would at the same time be a merciful person who, outside the courtroom and at a point where it never infringed on the justice of any of his sentences, went out of his way to be helpful to those whom justice condemned.
So we could begin to hope again. God could be merciful if He could be merciful in a way that did not violate His justice. His justice must be inflexible. Though God is merciful, He cannot throw the scales of justice out of balance.
How could God ever find a way that He could be merciful to us sinners and at the same time be just? Sins must be punished. How can we be punished and, at the same time, be the beneficiaries of divine mercy?
Take the analogy of the teacher and his student. The professor has first of all to be just, and the student flunks the course. He has to flunk the course; then the teacher can be merciful afterwards, going out of his way to help the student understand the course and prepare him so that, when he repeats the course, he will be able to meet the demands and pass it successfully, perhaps even well.
Apply that analogy to God. God has to punish us for our sins. That must be done, just as the F must be given by the professor. But an F by a professor is something which can be overcome. It is, after all, a temporal punishment, and it can be temporally corrected. Sins against God are of infinite enormity. When God punishes us for our sins, that means infinite wrath. If one goes under the unending wrath of God, how can mercy possibly help? The student with an F has a hope in this world. The person who goes into the next world under God’s wrath has no hope.
This venture into speculative theology leaves us despairing, with a just God whose justice cannot be compromised. Therefore, He must punish us for our sins ultimately. That answers the problem of pleasure.
We have solved the problem of pleasure, a grim solution but a sound one. We are allowed to “enjoy” ourselves while the wrath of God remains over us only until He is ready to pour it out upon us. God is not mocked. Sinners are not really prospering. What is pleasure now turns out to be only a time of gathering an ever greater bundle of sticks for the sinner’s own burning. ‘‘Whatever a man sows that shall he reap.” The law of karma means an endless cycle of torments without any hope of nirvana. The Hindu religion senses this, but is afraid to say it. Most other religions sense it too, but try to whistle in the dark.
To be continued...
Excerpted from Primitive Theology by John H. Gerstner.