My last post discussed an unusual twist on a familiar challenge to the “goodness” of God. Analogizing to a parent allowing hardened criminals into his home, the skeptic asked why God would allow Satan – the ultimate deceiver – to have access to His “children” in the Garden. The implicit emotional impact of an analogy such as this must be recognized, but the challenge nonetheless remains. How can Christians make sense of temptation, and of the freedom the “tempter-in-chief” has been given?
In considering the question of temptation, two possibilities appear: God could have created beings that He shielded from temptation. Such beings would remain “good” but their goodness would be programmed and not the product of free will. Love that is programmed, however, is not really love at all; it may on the outside appear like love, but love without choice is meaningless. The second possibility is for God to create free-will beings capable of true love. But to do so, they must also be capable of not loving; they must be subject to the temptation to reject God, because absent any such temptation, they would in fact be in the first category – good, and “loving,” but only because they are following their programming. There is no middle ground; God could not do both – not because God lacks power – but because doing both is essentially a contradiction. It’s like asking God to create a circle with four equal sides. The very question betrays the questioner’s lack of conceptual understanding of what free will and love are.
Let’s consider some basic definitions. Temptation, in the more specific religious sense, is a desire or craving to do wrong. Some things are wrong in and of themselves in a way that we all intuitively realize but perhaps would have difficulty explaining. “Malum in se” is the way it is expressed in Latin; murder and rape are classic examples of such wrongs. By contrast, some things are “malum prohibitum” – wrong not because they are inherently evil but because they are prohibited by law or by consensus. Taking game out of season or driving 50 in a 35 mph zone are examples. But these are earthly concepts. Why should anything be wrong, even things that we say are somehow wrong “inherently?” The answer to the question lies within these ancient legal descriptions. Created beings recognize that their creator sets the rules – He embedded them into the nature of things. Some things He prohibits, some things He specifically commands, and the rest remain in the category of neither prohibited nor commanded; this vast middle category is left for society and for government to define and enforce, for the common good.
What was the basic temptation in the Garden? Was God a crazed arborist who was concerned about the health of a particular tree? Was he worried that Adam and Eve would suffer indigestion if they partook of the “forbidden fruit?” Or was He encapsulating in His prohibition the very basic rule that lies at the root of the human condition: “there cannot be two Gods, and I will not share my authority – my ‘god-ness’ – with you. Are you willing to abide by this and to freely enter into relationship with me? But be aware: this requires that you obey my commands.”
Each of us knows the answer to this question. We may complain that we were not given a choice; after all, we “inherited” this “sin nature,” didn’t we? But we know at our core that this nature is not forced upon us against our will. We did not inherit a craving for odd or distasteful things, or for being altruistic and self-sacrificing. No, if we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that each of us, to some degree or other, wants to throw off the shackles of creature-ness – with its frailty and limitations – and step into God’s role. We crave autonomy and power, over ourselves, our environment, and others. That’s why songs like “I Did It My Way” resonate so much with us. In fact, we go so far as to put God himself “in the dock,” demanding that He account for the many perceived “wrongs” of which He stands accused by modern man.
Yes, God knew that we would sin in this way. He knew that this sin nature would eventually require that He separate Himself from some of His creation. So, let’s consider for a moment His options. If He prevented this most basic craving – the desire for total autonomy – to enter our thought processes, how could anyone conclude that they are “free?” Keep in mind that we are not discussing here trivial or irrational desires – this one is central to the very concept of freedom. If he allowed this most basic temptation, but prevented anyone from ever triggering it so that it would always lay dormant, then, again, we could not call ourselves “free.” If he allowed some “lesser tempters” to trigger this desire, once again there would be a limit on the freedom of the choice. So, in the end, He allows the ultimate “tempter” to take his best shot. Not because He wants us to fall but because He wants our choice – and our love – to be genuine, and the product of free will. Sadly, for many, as the 17th century poet Milton penned, “it is better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven.”
This, then, is the basis of true freedom. A basic choice that goes to the heart of man, and to the root of the most important question there is: how will I relate to my maker? Will I turn toward Him with bended knee, willing to recognize and embrace His kingship? Or will I stick my finger in his eye, kicking and screaming the lyrics to “My Way?” If I choose to respond to Him on His terms, He will do the necessary work to make relationship with Him possible; if by contrast I reject Him, well, what more is there to be said?
My next post will consider how a choice of this magnitude – with such dire consequences – could ever be considered part of a loving act of a loving Creator.
Posted by Al Serrato