Benevolent Theodicy: the Logical Necessity of Eternal Progression

June 14, 2004 | 15 comments
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Few Mormon doctrines cause traditional Christians more consternation than the belief in mankind’s potential to become like God. This is of course the reason the authors of the most famous anti-Mormon work chose for their title The God Makers. But hacks who deliberately produce fraudulent anti-Mormon screeds aren’t the only ones to be offended by our unique doctrine. Without exception, every thoughtful Christian with whom I’ve discussed the issue similarly believes our doctrine to be blasphemous (though they are circumspect in telling me so).

But the Benevolent Theodicy, as I have called it, shows that they are wrong.

Far from being blasphemous, the doctrine of eternal progression necessarily follows from God’s omnipotence and omnibenevolence. To deny eternal progression, critics must argue either the traditional Christian belief of God’s omnipotence or God’s omnibenevolence to be false.

The Benevolent Theodicy:

1. God is omnibenevolent — He wants us to be as He is.
2. God is omnipotent — He can make us as He is.
3. Therefore, because God is perfect, we too shall be.

In other words, gentle Christian friend, does God not love me enough to make me as He is, or is God not capable of making me as He is?

And can anyone count it blasphemy for believing that God is even a more Mighty and an Awesome God than they do?

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15 Responses to Benevolent Theodicy: the Logical Necessity of Eternal Progression

  1. Kaimi on June 14, 2004 at 1:13 am

    Matt,

    It’s cute, and punchy. I don’t know if I can buy it, though. My main concern is, how do you prevent this logic from leading to the Nehorian heresy? (See also “2 Ne 28).

  2. Matt Evans on June 14, 2004 at 9:30 am

    Hi Kaimi,

    My argument is built within the traditional Christian theology, which holds a more robust view of God’s omnipotence.

    Because Mormons believe that God obeys eternal laws, we believe his power to only be omnipotent within the constraints of those laws. For example, he cannot save sinners without Christ’s atonement. The atonement was necessary precisely because our salvation was not possible, even to God, without it. And because of eternal laws we do not comprehend, even with the atonement God is unable to save those who knowingly refuse Christ’s sacrifice.

    I should also add that I haven’t presented the Benevolent Theodicy to any deep Christian thinkers, just to those who ‘preach’ at the Hill Cumorah Pageant. They really didn’t like this dilemma.

  3. danithew on June 14, 2004 at 10:18 am

    I’m not sure about the omnibenevolent argument, simply because many would say that God is unique and has a unique station and that no one will ever be able to be like Him. From that kind of logic, it simply wouldn’t be proper for (former) mortals to attain that kind of stature. As I read this though, a certain Biblical verse comes to mind, that has a pretty powerful message about the station the valiant righteous will attain:

    Revelation 3:21
    To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne.

    It would be interesting to read non-Mormon Christian commentaries on this verse to see what they say about its meaning.

  4. Kaimi on June 14, 2004 at 10:29 am

    By the way, I used a similar argument to (more or less) good effect on my mission, when critics complained that there could be no new scripture.

    Me: Are you saying that God _can’t_ give us new scripture?
    Them: Umm
    Me: God is all powerful, he can create entire worlds, he can create us, and if he wants to, he can create new scripture. And who are we to tell God he needs to “shut up”?

    It’s a pretty effective argument. It is hard to admit the existence of an omnipotent God, and deny that the Book of Mormon could ever exist.

    Of course, that just moves us from “could never exist” to “yes, it could exist, but it doesn’t.” Still, that’s a step forward.

  5. Mark Butler on June 14, 2004 at 12:56 pm

    I would add to axiom two as follows:

    He can make us as he is [if [and only if] we let him].

  6. Taylor on June 14, 2004 at 1:37 pm

    Matt, I’m am not sure this works. You can’t have both omnibenevolence and omnipotence because of the problem of evil. This argument creates far more problems than you hope to solve. Also, I am not sure why God’s benevolence necessitates that we become like him. Finally, as Mark rightly notes, we don’t really beleive God is omnipotent because we beleive that we are free agents (D&C 93).

  7. lyle on June 14, 2004 at 1:44 pm

    taylor:
    1. why does the problem of evil get in the way. Seems unfair for you to can Matt’s argument both ways; i.e. “doesn’t work cuz of theodicy” _AND_ “doesn’t work cuz of agency.”

    2. re: becoming more like God.
    a. maybe Matt is doing like kaimi did; creating a “possible” argument.
    b. your objection re: not necessarily do we become like God only follows if you reject the literal relationship between Parent/Child.

  8. clarkgoble on June 14, 2004 at 6:22 pm

    It’s an interesting take. However I wonder if it works in the ontological framework in which the Trinity is conceived? For instance God can take man’s nature through Christ, but can man truly take God’s nature in a logically consistent fashion? The reason for the difficulty is the doctrine of creation ex nihlo. It seems God is a necessary being while we are created beings. How can you make something created become uncreated and be logically consistent? I don’t think you can, except in a purely metaphorical sense.

    I suspect that divide is the big reason they find us so blashphemous. It is that we deny what is a fairly significant doctrine: creation ex nihlo Of course I admit I also find this very approach to philosophy and theology deeply problematic. (All this speak of necessary beings, contingent beings, essential nature and accidental natures) I’ve been enjoying reading a recent philosophy of religion blog. (I don’t remember the link – it’s on my blog) But I find myself doubting the whole approach.

    If I were to look for the fundamental problem, it would almost certainly be the conception of creation we find in most Christian theology since the time the philosophers got coverted… (grin) Indeed, when you get right down to it, the problem we have with the notion of the Trinity really hinges on that act of creation and the fundamental ontological divide between
    creature and creator.

  9. chris goble on June 14, 2004 at 7:07 pm

    One of the problems I see people having with our eternal progression and the perfection of God is that eventually both God and us will be on the same level. I think this discounts the fact that God’s making us perfect may also change who he is. In this sense, nothing is ever finished. Everything is changing. We can never truly be like God, because the minute he goes to make us like him, he changes.

    Perhaps it is similar to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. The more precise you know momentum, the more fuzzy measures of the position become.

  10. Geoff B on June 14, 2004 at 7:52 pm

    Frankly I have never been able to understand the mainsteam “Christian” objection to the LDS doctrine that men can eventually perfect ourselves to become like God. Doesn’t Jesus ask us to do that in the Sermon on the Mount? Doesn’t CS Lewis say that men are machines made by a specific maker whose goal is to turn those machines into versions of Himself? C.S. Lewis’s entire argument is that men are made by their maker to only be happy pursuing perfection and becoming more like God. And Lewis’ argument comes from a careful reading of the Bible and is widely accepted by most Christians.

  11. Kingsley on June 14, 2004 at 8:08 pm

    Lewis was decidedly fuzzy when it came to the practical application of his machine imagery. He admits this when he says he doesn’t have the first idea of what a literal bodily resurrection means. I’m sure he’d have recoiled in horror at the LDS idea of embodied gods (little g, a la Prof. Robinson) becoming just like God (also embodied), meaning they can create & rule just like Him & so forth. I used Lewis (I think The Weight of Glory) to defend King Follet on my mission once & was savagely trounced by a minister/Lewis scholar. Like Chesterton, his cosmology sounds remarkably LDS in places, but what they’re doing is using accessible imagery to describe less accessible “orthodox” ideas.

  12. Aaron Brown on June 14, 2004 at 10:27 pm

    Taylor said:
    “I am not sure why God’s benevolence necessitates that we become like him.”

    This, it seems to me, is the point. I’m with you on your omnipotency arguments, Matt, but please define “omnibenevolence” and explain why it entails what you think it entails.

    Aaron B

  13. Matt Evans on June 15, 2004 at 12:28 am

    Hi Taylor and Aaron,

    If God is perfect, then as he works upon us he necessarily makes us more like him. Because he is omnibenevolent, he will never stop working for us so long as we are able to benefit from it. This is the content of the term ‘eternal progression.’

    I agree with those who mentioned agency: by giving us our agency and promising not to interfere with it, God has (or at least appears to have) constrained his power. Admitting agency to the formula solves the Nehor problem, as Kaimi called it, by showing that God cannot save those who choose not to follow him.

    Taylor — are there problems that the Benevolent Theodicy raises that are not solved by recognizing agency?

  14. Taylor on June 15, 2004 at 11:46 am

    Matt, it is not that your argument doesn’t work, it is just that it is based on a lot of assumptions that aren’t logically necessary. For instance, your definition of perfection is a very Mormon definition and includes the concept of eternal progression, which is not accepted by most Christians. The traditional understanding of perfection in classical philosophical theism describes particular characteristics of God essential to his nature, such as knowlege, power, etc.
    Also, as lyle notes, the argument only works if you beleive the assumption that we are the same species as God. If we could identify the “perfect” horse, we wouldn’t say that that horse’s perfection made him like God. The perfection of a quality is relative to its nature in traditional theology. So even if someone granted that in the heavenly sphere righteous humans became “perfect” through God’s benevolence, since humans are not the same species as God, there is no logical reason that they would become “like” God in the way that Mormons mean it.

    “I agree with those who mentioned agency: by giving us our agency and promising not to interfere with it, God has (or at least appears to have) constrained his power. Admitting agency to the formula solves the Nehor problem,…” How exactly do you intend to “admit agency to the formula”? It seems that the moment you do so, you deny God’s omnipotence. There are compatibalist arguments out there, but I find them unpersuasive for LDS because the scriptures seem to explicitly deny them. D&C 93, especially v30-32, essentially say that God didn’t “give us” agency, we always had it. Therefore, he hasn’t “constrained” his omnipotence, as you put it, because he never had that power in the first place.

    I am just not sure that our best route is reverting to scholastic theology of logical necessity regarding God. These arguments have not only failed for most philosophers, but I think that as LDS our assumptions are so different that they don’t really work for us.

  15. Matt Evans on June 17, 2004 at 10:30 am

    Hi Taylor,

    My argument doesn’t *assume* eternal progression, it shows that eternal progression is logically necessary if we assume God to be omnibenevolent and omnipotent. God is perfect in knowledge and power, and if he is omnibenevolent and omnipotent, he will necessarily help those he loves increase in knowledge and power.

    As for the perfect horse, I agree that if we’re limiting the word perfect to an adjective, then “a perfect horse” simply means “a horse that has the qualities of a horse, perfectly”. But there are other times when we can also say “a perfect man” where we don’t mean “a man that has the qualities of a man, perfectly” but a corporeal incarnation of something that is metaphysically perfect. It is this metaphysical sense of perfect that people speak of God being perfect — not only is there no way that God could be a better God, there is no way that anything of any nature could surpass God in any characteristic. The traditional definitions of God are all appealing to a metaphysical perfection, and then attributing that characteristic to God, and not the other way around. No one defines God as being a perfect city-burner, for example, even though if they were using God to define perfect, and not perfect to define God, then city-burning would have to be a facet of perfection.

    Now this metaphysically perfect God commands that we do everything we can to make other people better, and he does the same himself because he is omnibenevolent. He will therefore help us be metaphysically perfect, too. Not merely “perfect men”, like a “perfect horse”, but “men who are metaphysically perfect.”

    Regarding agency, in Moses 4:3 God says that Satan sought “to destroy the agency of man, which I, the Lord God, have given him”, so I’ve always believed agency to be contingent on God’s will. D&C 93:29-33 doesn’t specifically say that our agency is eternal, though I admit it can be read that way, but v30 makes it sound as though agency, like truth, is independent in the sphere in which “God places it” — making it contingent on God.

    In any event, the Benevolent Theodicy is supposed to use traditional Christian assumptions about God’s benevolence and power, and not depend on modern revelation. I’m trying to persuade those who reject the PofGP and the D&C that by their own theology, God is obligated to share his knowledge and power, and to show them that their offense at our doctrine of eternal progression only exposes flaws in God’s love or ability.