Monday, August 29, 2011

Best of All Possible Worlds

I ran across an interview done on Justin Taylor's website back in 2008 with John Frame. I respect John Frame and his work immensely, though I often disagree with him. In the interview he was asked about the notion that this world is 'the best of all possible worlds'. Here's the exchange:

Why do you argue that it is merely possible that this is the best of all possible worlds?

People sometimes say that God must make the best possible world because he himself is perfect. So they think that although evil exists now, this is nevertheless the best world God could have made. That is one traditional attempt to solve the problem of evil.

I disagree, however. Genesis 1:31 says that God made everything good, but not perfect. “Perfect” would mean not only good, but also incapable of becoming evil. Clearly God did not choose to make that kind of world. In that sense, the new Heavens and the new Earth (Rev. 21:1) will be a better world than this one, for that world will be confirmed in goodness, incapable of becoming evil. So the world in which we presently live is not the best possible world. God is free to make a world that is imperfect in some respects.

Could God have made a better world than this one? Certainly. He could have made what we call the “new Heavens and new Earth” right back at the beginning. Why, then, did he choose not to do so? I don’t know. That is essentially the problem of evil. I think there are some biblical ways of addressing the problem, but I don’t think we will have a completely satisfying resolution of the problem during our present life.

Here's on of those times I disagree with Frame - I think this is the best of all possible worlds given God's goals. Obviously the world isn't perfect, at least not in the sense that it's without taint, without flaw, incapable of evil. In that sense, I'd agree with Frame. Who wouldn't? But, it is perfect in the sense that it perfectly accomplishes it's telos - it is the perfect means to the perfect end, namely, God's glory.

It certainly has been tainted by our sin, but doesn't our sin have a role to play in God's overarching plan to see his glory maximized? Certainly. Without sin there would be no need for grace, mercy, compassion and hence no appreciation of them. Without sin there would be no need for redemption, no need for a slain lamb, who was, after all, slain before the foundation of the world. Without sin we would not be witnesses to the awesome wisdom of God as displayed on the cross. (Please note, I'm not at all intending to call sin good. Best the read this in light of Joseph's words to his brothers - we meant it for evil, God meant it for good. Also look to Paul in Romans 6:1-4 & Romans 9:19-24). Read again the wonderful verses of Eph. 1:7-10:

"In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God's grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment —to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ."

Given that God is a wise God, an omnipotent God, and a good God, it seems inevitable to me that we would affirm this is the best of all possible worlds. Wisdom is, to quote Tozer, that philisophical powerhouse, "Wisdom, among other things, is the ability to devise perfect ends and to achieve those ends by the most perfect means."

Does Scripture directly teach that this is the best of all possible worlds? No. Does it teach it indirectly by asserting God's wisdom, by reminding us that God does what God pleases, by holding up for worship a God who is sovereign and omnipotent? I think it does. Seeing this as the best of all possible worlds certainly requires a shift in viewpoint - we must see it against the backdrop of God's eternal and inviolable purposes. Only then can we see it's ultimate perfection.


Mateo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mateo said...

Have you read Candide? Voltaire attributes to Liebniz the view that this is the best of all possible worlds, and the play itself is largely a satire against the view. Voltaire was, of course, an atheist, but I think he's right on this one--it's hard to call this the best of all possible worlds without either radically attenuating either the concept of "best" or or of "evil." For atheists and orthodox Christians like, that's a hard step to take.

I think it makes sense to conclude from God's wisdom and omnipotence that he intends to create the best of all possible worlds, but I'm not sure it makes sense to speak as if he's already done it. Indeed, it's not clear what purpose there would be for sanctification if things were as sanctified as they could get. If they're not as sanctified as they can get, then how could this be the best of all possible worlds?

Perhaps it would be better to say that he's making the best of all possible worlds out of the materials of this world and grace.

(Deleted the first, incomplete comment)

Dan Waugh said...

I haven't read Liebniz or Voltaire's critique, though from what I know Liebniz' approach was far different than my own. He posits God as kind of an 'optimizer' of good in the good/evil equation. This world is the best because God maximized the ratio of good vs. evil.
My understanding is different. Evil exists, and is properly called evil (or sin or wickedness, as Joseph and Paul refer to it). On the other hand, the sin in the world is a part of God's big plan by which his glory is maximized. Is he guilty of authoring sin? No. It's immediate cause is man's inordinate desires, but God stands behind even sin in such a way that it's a part of his plan, though he remains blameless.
Certainly the New Heavens and New Earth will be better in the sense that there won't be sin, degradation, etc. But, this world is a part of God's perfect plan to bring about that again, it's be best means to the best goal.
What are our other options? Was God not able to make a better world? Did God not want to make a better world? I don't want to answer yes to any of those. My conclusion then is that given God's goals and evaluative criteria (both of which are vastly different than humanities - Dr. Pangloss' evaluation of the world reflects humanities goals/criteria, not God's), this is the best of all possible worlds.

Mateo said...

The sticking point for me is that that posits a God that is not merely capable of working out good from sin (c.f. the example of Joseph and his brothers, like you noted), but dependent upon sin to create the best world. To my mind, that's at least as limiting as saying God could not have made a better or could have chosen to, but didn't. To conclude that God and fallen humanity alike rely on "necessary evil" is, I think, a bridge too far. Felix culpa, indeed.

Ultimately I don't think we have to pick either option, thankfully. Depending on where one falls on the hard/soft determinism/compatiblism spectrum, a few different ways of framing and resolving this issue. This is where I think our approaches meet (if they were ever really all that different)--God has the best end in mind, and the world we have, alongside his response to it, is certainly the best method possible for achieving the best world. In other words, allowing humans a degree of independent moral agency is necessary for the best possible world, but it also allowed for infinitely many suboptimal worlds, including ours. God's grace allows him to tolerate it (and us) temporarily despite its imperfection while he engages in the process of redemption. It's a little like baking--bread isn't bread until it's done baking. Before that, it's just dough.

At any rate, this is a great topic--I've been reading up on Calvinist and Arminian approaches to evil lately, so this is a very timely read for me!

Dan Waugh said...

I know we talked briefly on Sunday, but in case anyone else is following the comments...
I don't think my position makes God dependent on sin ontologically. It does make his plan to glorify himself dependent upon sin. I don't know how to get around that, especially in light of passages like Acts 2:23; 4:28; Eph. 1:9-11. Also, Rev. 13:8 (depending on translation, but either way it's relevant I think to the discussion).
We are dipping our toes into the really old debate between infralapsarians and supralapsarians. Want to read a short summary on that, here's one by Frame himself. Again, don't think it's a huge matter, and one in which we shouldn't be dogmatic about.