Monday, February 6, 2012

The World We Would Expect

Our surprising universe.
Christians tend to take it for granted that our universe is itself strong evidence for classical theism. But this belief is deeply misguided, as we can demonstrate with a simple thought experiment. If we start from scratch without any partiality toward the world we actually live in, what sort of world would we expect God to create? If we assume that God is a triune, omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, omnipresent, timeless, eternal, unchanging, loving, just, personal, perfect creator, what can we predict about his creation?

No World At All?
Given God's perfection, we wouldn't really expect him to create a world at all. One wouldn't expect a perfect being to be lacking in any respect, so there would simply be no need to create anything. Theologians actually tend to agree on this point: they're quite insistent that God is completely self-sufficient and has no actual need of his creation.

So their ingenious solution is to point to another of God's attributes: love. Love requires an object, and although the three persons of the Trinity supposedly serve this purpose for one another, apologist Ralph Wagener asserts that God wanted his "abundant love" to "extend...beyond the trinity to others." In response, Horia Plugaru contends that "God was indeed motivated by need in creating the universe" because without fallible beings, God would be unable to maximize his love through the greatest form of loving act: self-sacrifice. This would mean that contra the claims of apologists, God would be in some sense imperfect.

Frankly, I'm not sure whether I buy either Wagener's defense or Plugaru's counter. But for the sake of argument, let's assume that God would create fallible beings and move on from there.

A World Made for Us
So then, what would a world made for us look like? First of all, since Christians believe that both God and humans are essentially spiritual, one would expect the world God creates to be spiritual as well. There's no particular reason to think that God would create a world composed of a fundamentally different kind of "stuff," a collection of physical particles that interact according to some seemingly arbitrary set of laws. A purely spiritual realm would be not only simpler, but also far superior in some aspects: for example, there would be no physical brains to cause irrational decisions and mental illness.

Furthermore, if God values humanity, there's no clear reason for him to create us using a long and inefficient process of galaxy formation and natural selection—in that sense, at least, the young earth creationists have it exactly right. And insofar as a spiritual realm would still have use for concepts like "space," one would also expect a world appropriate for our size—as opposed to the almost inconceivable vastness of the physical realm, most of which is completely beyond our reach or even our observation. It should also be a deeply livable place—as opposed to the one we subsist in, as land animals on a planet covered 70% by water, in a universe filled with dark matter, black holes and the vacuum of space.

Pictured at center right: us.
A World of Love
Since God is assumed to be perfectly good, the world should be completely free of unnecessary evil. We also shouldn't expect any flaws in God's personality, such as vanity, bloodlust or an out-of-control temper. If we're ever deserving of punishment, that punishment should fit the crime: no indiscriminate mass slaughters. And since God is meant to be perfectly just, humans should be treated equally: there's no excuse for divine endorsement of slavery, misogyny, homophobia or one particular favored group of people.

We should expect not only equal treatment, but equal and open access to the divine. There's a common but erroneous idea that if God revealed himself to us, it would somehow rob us of the ability to freely follow him. The obvious counterexample comes from none other than Satan himself, who, despite being quite intimately acquainted with God, supposedly led a third of the angels in rebellion against him. So in the world we would expect, God is easily detectable by all of his creation—and we would know exactly what (if anything) he wants from us.

What would we expect the nature of our relationship with God to be like? Apparently we're the objects of his perfect love, although what that entails isn't totally clear. One thing I would never predict from a perfect, transcendent and loving being, though, is a demand for burnt offerings and worship. Those practices lie squarely in the domain of the weak, petty, self-absorbed tribal gods created by ancient, barbaric societies. Would God expect us to reciprocate his love? Perhaps, but to punish us if we don't seems to miss the point of "perfect love" entirely.

God's sense of justice might well lead him to reward and punish us, but these judgments would have nothing to do with belief or requited love. There's also no reason to expect that God would use perfection as the standard by which he judges us. It would be much more reasonable for him to judge us based on whether our actions tend to help or harm others—within the scope of our limited abilities. Again, the punishment should fit the crime, and we wouldn't expect even the most evil crimes to be worthy of endless suffering. Nor is there a particular need for a system of discrete lives and afterlives: one continuous, ongoing phase of life should suffice. And even if we assume that our lives are eternal by default, we shouldn't assume that eternal life is mandatory. If after a few quadrillion years we grow weary of our existence, we'd be well within our rights to self-terminate.

Our Surprising World
Here, then, is what we can say about the world we might predict given only the traits of the classical Christian God to work off of. If we even expect such a God to create a world of fallible people at all, we would expect that world to be...
  • Spiritual and not physical
  • Young, with life formed via special creation
  • Of appropriate size and content
  • Free from all unnecessary evil
And we would expect God himself to...
  • Treat everyone equally
  • Make his existence and his expectations of us evident
  • Be free of character flaws
  • Not demand sacrifices, worship or love
  • Give us a single, optional life
  • Reward or punish us based on actions, not belief
  • Reward or punish in proportion with those actions
What a strange and surprising result! As it turns out, our predictions about the world don't correspond to reality, and our predictions about God don't correspond to what we find in the Bible.

How do we explain this massive disconnect between hypothesis and results? Well, it's possible that God has good reasons for not doing all the things we expect him to, reasons that are just too complicated for us to comprehend. But possible is not the same as probable, and the idea that this would be true for every single one of the above points is improbable in the extreme.

Another possibility, one that seems much more likely, is that our predictions were based on false premises. Either God just isn't there, or he isn't the loving, personal omnibeing that Christians claim him to be. When we take a step back and figure out what kind of world we would expect of God, it turns out to be so radically different from the one we live in that it strongly implies he—or at least this version of him—does not exist.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting thoughts. If you can look without biased eyes, it is very strange that the (alleged) most important entity in existence chooses to be undetectable by us but nonetheless demands our belief and worship based on stories in a story book written by we don't know whom.