God’s Love

I recently finished a section on faith & reason in my Introduction to Philosophy class. As per tradition, I included a discussion of the problem of evil and used David Hume‘s writings on the subject. Condensing down his argument, he contends that we cannot reasonably infer the existence of an all powerful, all knowing and supremely benevolent being from the nature of the world. After all, there seems to be a significant tension between all the evil in the world and the existence of such a perfect being. Hume does note that the existence of evil is consistent with God having the qualities commonly attributed to Him, but he thinks that this is not what we would expect.

Reflecting a bit on this, I think that Hume is correct on both points. After all, inferring that a perfect being exists based on the available empirical evidence seems like quite a leap. This would be like looking at a student’s tests and papers, seeing an average grade of D and inferring that despite all the evidence, the student really is an A student. While I have had students make such a claim (that they are A students, despite the lack of A grades), this is hardly good reasoning.

In regards to the second point, Hume does seem to be correct that the evil of the world is consistent with God being good and so on. After all, being good is consistent with being a bit rough. To use another teaching analogy, being a morally good professor is consistent with giving the students challenging and difficult assignments. It is also consistent with applying failing grades when such grades are earned. Naturally, a student who fails or dislikes the work will not see these things as good, but she would be wrong about this. Of course, the analogy does have some weak points. After all, I do not smite my students with random diseases, nor do I tolerate violence in my classroom. However, I do smite them with paper assignments and I do tolerate active discussions in which students sometimes strongly criticize one another. So, perhaps God is good, but he runs a very tough classroom.

Of course, many people hold that God is not just good. God is also supposed to be, on some accounts, a loving God. This raises the question of whether the available evidence can be reconciled with this claim.

While goodness is consistent with being a bit rough and also consistent with being objective, love seems to be different. While it is said that people hurt the ones they love, this seems to be a claim about what people do and not what love is really about. Love seems to involve a special concern for someone else and a desire to not only do well by that person, but also to be rather biased in his favor. As such, there is a difference in the behavior of a person who loves someone else as opposed to how that person would act towards someone he did not love.

To make the discussion a bit more concrete, I’ll use my own fall and surgery as an example. Back in March, I had a ladder go out from under me, thus dropping me about eight feet. My left foot hit the ladder and this tore my quadriceps tendon. While a good person watching me about to be hurt would have tried to help me, it could be consistent with a person’s goodness to let me fall. After all, doing so would certainly teach me to be more careful about ladders and such in the future. To use yet another teaching analogy, this could be seen as failing a student for making the bad choice of cheating-that will teach her. Likewise, my bad choice of getting on a ladder during a storm taught me to never do that again.

However, someone who loves me would not have let me fall, if she could have prevented it. After all, someone who loves me would not want me to suffer such an injury and have to endure such a long and painful recovery. Suppose, for example, someone who professed to love me was standing by the ladder and she saw it slipping. If she did nothing to try to stop it and just watched me fall, I would be inclined to say that she did not love me.

Obviously, if God exists, then He was aware of the ladder slipping and could have easily prevented this. However, He let it slip and hence let me fall. That hardly seems to be a sign of love. As such, if God exists, then I can be fairly sure that He does not love me.

Naturally, someone could counter by arguing that if being good is compatible with being a bit rough, then so  is love. After all, a parent who loves his children will let them endure the discomfort of getting their vaccines so as to keep them safe. A person might, also out of love, allow someone he loves to learn a lesson the hard way, knowing that is the only way the person will learn. And, of course, love hurts. So, perhaps it is consistent with God’s love that he allows us to fall, get terrible diseases, murder, be murdered, rape, be raped and so on. However, it certainly is a strange sort of love. I’m certainly glad my friends and family do not love me that way.

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  1. If we conceptualise God to be a being of infinite omnipotence, to the extent that everything that IS possible is within God’s capacity to effect, then we can accept that the entire spectrum of earthly phenomena – ‘positive’ and ‘negative’- is in fact evidence of that omnipotence; a flexing of God-muscle, if you will. This would mean that God’s love is not pure to the nth degree of goodness, but a variform beast that is capable of assuming infinite degrees of intensity, with an infinitude of applications. We are now in a conceptual framework that can reconcile the seemingly apparent wanton carelessness with which God administers to earth and its inhabitants, with the nature of his/her/its love.

    God’s love extends infinitely in both directions: For e.g., a negative increment of God’s love may be characterised by humans as ‘bad’, but really is just a difference of degrees – a positional shift to the left.

    God may also have an entirely different concept of love to humans: love to God may be the equivalent of giving full rein to the possibility of all eventualities; so to impose restrictions on the unfolding of earthly events would be considered ‘evil’ from God’s perspective.

    And of course there’s the free will argument: God loves humans so much that he has given them free will to manifest/direct their own destinies. God created substance and the laws of physics; and humans provide the creative input.

  2. An interesting argument, Mike: I’m inclined to agree with your premises, and at least your final conclusion (that, if God does love us, it’s a strange sort of love). One thing I believe missing from your account of God’s love is the idea of the prodigal son.

    From my understanding of God’s relationship with us (at least according to Christians) is that it’s not unlike the relationship between a father and a son when the son is just becoming an adult: I don’t think we’d say the father doesn’t love his son when he lets him go out into the world on his own and make his own decisions. In many ways, the son likely wants to live his life without the father’s interference, however benevolent that interference might be. But a good father will always try to help his son in ways that’ll benefit the son in the long term if the son only asks.

    Of course, then it becomes a question of whether God does enough, as the metaphorical father, when we ask Him for help. I wonder if that’s more like the difference between a father complying with a demand for more money when the son is broke, and a father ignoring that demand and instead helping the son learn how to control his own finances on his own.

  3. You might also be interested in Victor Reppert’s take on this subject: http://dangerousidea.blogspot.com/2009/07/arminianism-and-tough-love.html especially his contention that God’s love doesn’t necessary imply an individual love.

  4. I am not sure the “rough classroom” analogy holds.

    Educational assignments can be passed or failed, and they require some degree of volition on the part of the student. It is impossible to think of a newborn who dies of spinal muscular atrophy as having been given an assignment, unless we stretch the notion of “assignment” beyond recognition.

    You might claim that such horrible deaths are not “assignments,” but that they are learning experiences all the same. The suggestion would be that one’s ability to be happy in the afterlife depends, in some cases, on one’s having suffered tremendously in this one, regardless of whether or not one suffered willingly.

    One could try to justify horrible diseases on those grounds. (Anything can be justified by appeal to the unknown.) However, to my knowledge, Christianity does not claim that one’s ability to appreciate heaven depends upon one’s having suffered on earth.

  5. @ Mudlark

    “If we conceptualise God to be a being of infinite omnipotence, to the extent that everything that IS possible is within God’s capacity to effect, then we can accept that the entire spectrum of earthly phenomena … is in fact evidence of that omnipotence;”

    If the “entire spectrum of earthly phenomena” is evidence for your god, is it possible to even consider there being evidence against Her? As Popper said: “a theory that explains everything, explains nothing.” I believe that we must first be able to at least contemplate a counter-theory, even if it does not hold, to ground our foundation for the premise we administer. Thus, stating that “every … earthly phenomena” is evidence for your god’s existence is simply unhelpful for the discussion in whether he exists or not. I see this as poor reasoning.

    “We are now in a conceptual framework that can reconcile…” Etc. Or we could dismiss the whole loving god image and simply face the world head on, without the need for abstract concepts that would not aid us or have shown no sign of love. Because even as you say “God may also have an entirely different concept of love to humans” – if that is the case, why even speak of god’s love? How can we even consider it, if her love is say torturing kittens (see Euthyphro’s dilemma).

    @ Mark Trapp

    Ignoring the prodigal son, I have asked numerous Christians this – how do you reconcile natural disasters, plagues and viruses that cause the very young to suffer and then die? As I see it, either you have to say god is beyond human conception, even in terms of love which then shuts down the conversation as I indicated to Mudlark – or you have to say that we have a sinful nature of some kind (which is another argument altogether). Or perhaps something else?

    @ Jason Streitfeld

    “Anything can be justified by appeal to the unknown.” Well said.

    Oh and good article Prof. Labossiere.

  6. Maybe we’re wrong about what’s evil. Maybe God is infinitely good, but we have a mistaken idea of what is good. For the purposes of this argument I assume the concept of good and evil, as presented in the Bible, has nothing to do with good and evil from God’s perspective. In any case, what evidence is there that the Bible is the word of God, assuming that there is a God? Why should one believe that Moses and Jesus (or Mohammed) had a direct line to God? Why should we assume that God’s caring about us is what is good from God’s point of view?

  7. Hi Mike,
    One of your many groupies checking in.
    I realize this is a non sequitor, but since we’re on a god bent I thought either you or someone else might answer a question I’ve wondered about for a while. What’s the religious consensus on why god bothered making us?

  8. @ Tauriq Moosa

    I understand that you think the problem of our sinful nature is another argument altogether, but it is inexorably tied to how Christians view the problem of pain. And I’m not sure why previous Christians were unable to answer you on the problem of pain, but it should be pretty clear for Christians as to why we live in an imperfect (or even hostile world): Original Sin. Whether or not you buy that there was an Adam and Eve and an actual temptation, Christians believe all people are, by nature, prone to sin and suffering and only through God sacrificing Himself can we be saved.

    Most Christians believe that because God gave us free will, it’s up to us to decide whether or not we want God’s mercy or help, and that mercy and help is manifested in the covenant of eternal life: if you turn to God, no matter how bad it is now, He’s going to let you into the Kingdom of Heaven and you won’t experience permanent death. That He doesn’t do anything now can be interpreted as one of two things: a limit on His omnipotence or that the suffering experienced in this life is inconsequential to the rewards of the next.

    To the former, I think there’s an implicit attribute being assigned when those talk of God and the problem of pain: omnipotence, that I’m not sure is consistent with at least Christian doctrine or the other attributes of God. If God is infinitely just, does He have the power to do something unjust? Does God have the power to do nonsense (that is, logical contradictions)? If He’s infinitely good, does he have the power to do something bad? Christians, at least, are likely to remove the attribute of omnipotence when push comes to shove, but that seems to be sacrosanct in other circles that discuss God’s properties. This inevitably leads to one argument about two different entities.

  9. The evil and suffering in this world warrant not Christian belief, but rather anti-christian belief — in a malignant deity. A much more sensible accommodation of the horror transpiring every moment of sentient existence.

  10. Tauriq Moosa,

    ‘…is it possible to even consider there being evidence against Her [God]?’ — It is not empirically possible to disprove the existence of anything, however insanely improbable.

    ‘…If the “entire spectrum of earthly phenomena” is evidence for your god…’ — actually, I posited the idea that the entire spectrum of earthly phenomena is evidence of God’s infinite omnipotence, not evidence of God’s existence; thus we have a helpful explanation for why ‘evil’ exists, despite God’s infinite goodness (which is only one facet of his/her/its multiplicity).

  11. Is a god by definition, supposed to be perfect? Can we conceive of a fallible god?

    Or, perhaps god’s omnipotence, perfection, or infinite goodness is a potentiality–not given to lesser beings–which is not necessarily exercised in every minutiae of earthly life. After all, just because your car has the capacity to do 250km/hr, doesn’t mean you’ll want to exercise that potential every time you drive your car. I don’t know…maybe God finds it tiresome to be omnipotent and goodly 24/7…give God a break for —-sake! Maybe omnipotence needs refueling every 3rd starving child. Who knows?

  12. michael reidy

    As this discussion revolves around the Judeo-Christian-Islamic concept of a deity it needs to be pointed out how little theodicy affects the mind of the average believer. This is so because there is interposed between the Absolute and the individual believer another like himself that he can relate to such as a prophet, incarnation, saint, etc. These figures persuade the faithful of the value of suffering demonstrating in their own lives its purifying and redemptive effects.

    At the upper reaches of Christian speculation you have the concept of evil as privatio boni:

  13. Mike,

    Thanks for this post, but I’m not sure that you have it the right way round.

    I find it extremely difficult to watch others suffer, especially if there is something easy I could do to prevent or relieve it. For this reason I am unlikely to tolerate another’s suffering simply in the name of goodness, but perhaps for love I will.

    If I meet someone who is selfish and demanding, and asks something of me that will cost me very little, I will most likely give it to them, to relieve whatever immediate need they have. However, if I care a lot for that person I am much more likely to withhold from them to help teach them patience or something. It is obviously important in such situations to test ones motives very carefully.

    Love means you are much more invested in the long term welfare of the individual, and you will be more prepared to watch that person suffer (if it is achieving something) or to look mean.

    Furthermore, you conclude, that if God loves us then it is a strange sort of love. Perhaps, it is an extreme situation, and God’s love demands that he takes unusual measures.

  14. Hi. This was a great article. Very fair, and I was pleased that you didn’t illegitimately infer from Hume that there is therefore no God just because natural theology doesn’t unambiguously teach his character.

    I’m not one to quote verses and run, but I don’t want to get embroiled in this discussion, as interesting as it is. I thought that this passage was relevant to some of your thinking in the above.

    Thanks again for your thoughtful post.

    Hebrews 12:5-13 “And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons: “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.” [Prov. 3:11,12] Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live! Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees! “Make level paths for your feet,” [Prov. 4:26] so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed. Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no-one will see the Lord.”

  15. Mudlark,

    Good points. God’s love could be consistent with a tough world, provided that “love” is defined the right way. Of course, the free will option only applies to things that we do to ourselves. What nature does to us (disease, disaster, and so on) and what is forced on us by others would not seem to fall under free will. Except, of course, for cases in which people made the decisions that lead to their dire fates (like deciding to live near a volcano).

  16. Mark,
    Excellent points. I do agree that love is consistent with letting someone you love take some hard knocks. But, love also seems to require stepping in when those knocks become to much to bear. Naturally, it could be argued that God shows his love in the form of a great afterlife. If so, I feel a bit sorry for God-all his kids come home to “live” with Him. 🙂

  17. Jason,

    I am inclined to agree. I can see some things in life as being like “tough assignments.” For example, I can (if I work a bit at it), see my quadriceps tendon tear as a valuable lesson that taught me a great deal about myself and those around me. But, as you indicate, it is hard to see how a newborn who dies has learned anything (unless it is that life is a cruel thing).

    Some folks do buy into the notion of redemptive suffering. Also, some folks claim that those in Heaven will enjoy their blessed state more because of the suffering of those in Hell. See, for example, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God

  18. Leibniz tries to handle natural disasters by arguing that God is limited by necessity (in the logical sense of the term). God, on his view, creates the best of all possible worlds, but even the best world is still imperfect (a perfect world is impossible, because a perfect being would be God, and there can only be one God…and Leibniz wanted to avoid pantheism). So, natural disasters and all that are just the way things must be. Of course, Voltaire took some rather hard shots at Leibniz, as did Hume.

  19. Darth Vader,

    Say, didn’t you get redeemed back to the light side? 🙂

    While it is tempting to infer an evil deity, I’d be more inclined to infer either a neutral one (after all, there is a great deal that is beautiful, pleasant and nice) or perhaps a pantheon of mixed deities in competition with each other. Or, no deity at all.

  20. Mudlark,

    All depends on what is meant by “perfect.” That is a tricky term. Take part of it, for example, the omnipotence claim. Does that mean God can do anything, even the impossible? Or does this mean that God can just do anything that is possible? I recall having a conversation about this with a student when I was a TA. She insisted that God had to be able to do the impossible or He would not be all powerful. I thought that being able to do anything possible was quite powerful enough. Now, if God can only do what is possible, He would still seem to be all powerful (He can do anything that can be done), but still would face some limits.

  21. Kyle,

    The odds are that I don’t. I’m like that. 🙂

    You do raise an interesting point. As I noted in another reply, perhaps God’s love seems a bit tough now, but perhaps his true love is revealed in an afterlife. Of course, there is the problem of trying to establish that there is such an afterlife. After all, if someone treated me badly and still claimed she loved me because I would be treated well when (if) we got married, then I’d have serious concerns about this alleged love.

  22. Jordan,

    Good point. Hume is careful to note that his argument does not prove there is no God, but some folks take him to be doing just that. I try to render unto Hume what he is owed, and all that. 🙂

  23. Mike,

    ‘All depends on what is meant by “perfect.” That is a tricky term. Take part of it, for example, the omnipotence claim. Does that mean God can do anything, even the impossible? Or does this mean that God can just do anything that is possible?’

    If we take omnipotence to mean ‘capable of everything’ then this automatically extinguishes the dichotomy between possible and impossible — all becomes subsumed under pure possibility; thus nothing is impossible. Impossibility becomes a defunct term — it simply does not exist for God.

  24. Chris Stannard

    If we accept that god’s agenda is for an eternity that we know little about and that our finite mortal experience is something like a training ground for this eternity, our suffering during our brief span, if seen in the context of this eternity, may be trival in god’s cost/benefit analysis. It could be seen as analgous to allowing one’s children freedom within certain boundaries in order for them to learn independence. A parent must strike a balance between being over-protective and libertarian. Although this mortal existence seems to be everything to us it may well be part of the rules of the game that we are kept in uncertainty with a disproportionate reguard to life’s pains and pleasures to make the experience more effective.

  25. I haven’t read any of the other comments, so I’m just going off of Mike’s post.

    What is evil anyway? Is it not simply the privation of good, with no substantial existence of its own? Can it go the other way as well? Perhaps evil is seen as bad (whatever that means) because we are incredibly egocentric. It pains ME. Things don’t work out for ME/US. Etc. We could also talk about God being a simple placeholder or a “noble-lie.” From a Christian perspective, the love part probably comes from the alleged fact that a person a whole heck of a lot like us suffered, was crucified, and died for our sins in order that we may be forgiven. Of course, that’s where the faith part comes in…

  26. michael reidy

    What is, is possible. Being underwrites possibility. Now so far most of the discussion has been at the instrumental level of being. God is proposed as an entity that might or might not have done something to limit suffering or to abolish it altogether. God would then be a divinity that busied himself on the plane of the contingent, fixing things. While this is ok as a starter concept it is a relatively unsophisticated and unsatisfactory view. Early in the bible God self ‘defines’ as ‘He who is’ and this is regarded as the core of the mystery. God is the fullness of being and without him nothing would exist not from the point of view of the lack of an initial setter into motion or creator in some past eon but now at this very moment.

    I am aware that this mode of thinking needs a feel for the nature of contingency which requires a metaphysical insight. Not everyone can or does achieve this and for this reason I think that proofs of the existence of God that claims this as apodeictic are awry.

  27. How provincial you all are.

    What about the reports of the rest of the Great Tradition. The Sacred Texts of which are now all freely available to anyone with an internet connection.

    Please check out these references instead.




    Plus a reference on the best of the best on the Ancient Reality Teachings.


  28. Taking God as analagous to a human moral being leads us straight into God as having and exercising a capacity for out and out cruelty beyond any human capacity for such and a corresponding indifference for moral care, concern and love. This may be edged with “good but tough”, but as Mikes intro indicates, he dont seem all that nice a guy. But we temper/interpret his “judgements” from our anthropocentric viewpoint, lacking, as we necessarily do , his viewpoint. This is a lack that seems to haemmorage the very notions of both love and moral concern. Only if we leave the world as a purely contingent set of processes (as Mike Reidy indicates)- for to interfere with those to meet out moral retribution with a seeming unrelated set of desiderata, would would end the relative certainity that the contingent world and its physical processes give us. The more we know about the worlds contingency the less we need to postulate them as signs of Gods moral mood. Tectonic plates move and there is an earthquake, rather than God makes the earth to tremble because of some wrongdoing.
    All that either shrinks Gods power or makes it more of a personal source. But then some will say that turns us into our own source of the God within and then god (small g) becomes a projection. Then, some will say confusion reigns without Gods word, if there is only gods words, or rather the words that we individually regard as having a moral certaintity – namely our own and “God” provides nothing.
    We dont want to say that and plunge into some existential angst over our being alone. We much prefer to be part of some system of moral certaintity; though whether there is such a domain only God can know. If only we could access his domain in his terms, but what would that be. Some would say through prayer and contemplation. Wittgenstein proclaims that of which we cannot speak, we must pass over in silence, and it is silence that often demarcates the cores of many “searches”, through many aspects of Mysticism and Buddhism and the silence of the Quakers.
    It does not follow that a silence is simply an absence, many silences in music contribute to a structure that without those silences would be a cacophony; though whether music provides an insight into morality without words is a tale for another day

  29. How do you assume to know what something tastes like without ever having tasted it? God is all powerful, he is very capable of the impossible. How have we come to be? Who formed the earth then? The earth is the ONLY inhabitable place for us humans, you think that happened by chance? by luck? you think we are here without reason? Are we just here to be born to die? is there nothing inside you asking you why you are here, is there not more to your life? God is our father, he is a gentle god, he gave us free-will, he wont force us to bend to his will, he can only guide us but if we shut him out or deny him,how can he then have a say in our lives? why does the non-believer always blame god when things go wrong but when things are good, where are his praises? He is not evil, he is pure love, he forgives us time and time again. When us christians talk to non-believers, you would swear we are trying to make you swallow poison, when all we trying to do is share his love,how can loving one another be such a hard task to perform. I just dont get it, here is a God bending over backwards for us, someone that endured the pain of the world for us and we cant even give him the time of day. In the end, we all have our own crosses to bear, we all will have to answer for something. I am a sinner by nature but because of him, because of our lord, I am able to strive to be a better person and to place my trust in his hands, knowing theres nobody in this world more capable than he, to protect me and guide me

  30. If you want to know if God exists, why not go to the source direct? If you really want to have a fair opinion on this subject, ask God, go down on your knees and really let yourself go, pray earnestly, he’ll see if your heart is true. A 5 minute prayer isnt going to cut it. It’s like going to gym for 5 minutes and then expecting results!

  31. This has been a very interesting discussion.
    The way I see things is; If you see the world and life as a game and use everyone around you as game pieces then that is what you will do, but if you believe that you will have to answer for everything you have done in this experience that you have been given to deal with then you will be more circumspect in you approach to others. Surely we are here to learn to get along despite everything we experience whether good or bad?
    Eternity is a very long time to be fighting and bickering.

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