Sunday, June 1, 2014

PwG: God's regrets, God's Immutability, and the Genesis Story

Should the Genesis story be taken literally as an accurate telling of events? This is the second of an on-going series, examining the flaws in consistency, logic & theology that arise from a literal reading/interpretation of Genesis, as peddled by young earth creationists and others. For more information on the what's and why's of the series, go here.

One issue that proponents of literal interpretations of Genesis seem to miss, or bypass without any intellectually honest examination, is the conundrum arising from an all-knowing, unchanging God's regret at having created humanity. The story is often told as a tale of crime and punishment -- humanity sinned, therefore its divine creator destroyed all human life (but one family) and most animal life as retribution. And while that is part of it, that's not all of it.

Genesis 6:5 reads

The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and  that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled.
So the Lord said, “I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created—and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground—for I regret that I have made them.” But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.

Now, keep in mind that the same folks who peddle young earth creationism also believe that the god of the Bible is a an all-knowing, all-powerful deity. They also believe (as the Bible states) that he is unchanging:
It’s clear from verses such as these that God is immutable—His nature and character do not change. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8).
So what do they have to say about God's regrets?
God is grieving over disobedience and wickedness: a response that we should all have to sin. Again, this doesn’t indicate a change in His nature or character; in fact, it is His holy nature that demands this response of grief. As finite, created beings, we understand that there are consequences associated with our moral decisions. The Bible is quite clear on that matter (Galatians 6:7). Yet, the “relenting” of God is, in many cases, the voice of compassion and mercy from a longsuffering God extended to sinful creatures in need of grace.
God does not change. However, He can change how He chooses to respond to an individual or nation’s actions.
This is simply not an honest rebuttal to the point. Grief and regret can be and often are connected, but are different things. The text is pretty clear, regardless of translation, on this. They are connected -- the regret stems from grief -- but they are distinct emotions. The grief is for humanity's sins, the regret that he ever created humanity. By way of comparison, New American Standard reads
6 The Lord was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart.
7 The Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, from man to animals to creeping things and to birds of the sky; for I am sorry that I have made them.”  (Emphasis added)
King James states
6 And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart.
7 And the Lord said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them. (Emphasis added)
Regardless of translation, the import is pretty clear: God is grieved over the sins of mankind, and as a result he regrets/is sorry he made mankind at all. As a consequence of his regret, he will massacre "man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air". But God is not just grief stricken, and it is duplicitous to argue otherwise. He may have changed his mind about creating man as a result of grief, but it is nonetheless a change of mind. In the same way we might wonder why we've purchased a problem-prone vehicle after the fact, and sincerely repent having done so after it breaks down for the fifth time in a month, God (as the story goes) created a headstrong and disobedient people, and was filled with regret after they went astray -- and decided to wipe them out for good measure (and everything else, because, fuck it: everything's fair game in a divine rage tantrum). Except that, unlike the driver who falls for a slick sales pitch, God is supposed to be all-knowing.

Which brings up another interesting aspect. If God knows everything, and the Genesis story is literally true and happened as depicted in the Bible, his regret is absurd. He would have made mankind as-is, knowing exactly what we would do and when -- and how he would feel about it. If the driver above knew exactly when and where his car would break down, invested a great deal of money into it anyway, and, after what he knew from the first would happen occurred, then regretted his decision, we would say he was a moron. And we would certainly acknowledge that he had changed his mind: that he no longer viewed his foolish investment favorably. The point would be emphasized all the more if he went on a destructive rampage, deciding to destroy his vehicle (and every other that he encountered) as a result of regretting his purchase.

As a further point of curiosity, God is supposed to be all powerful -- which seems to indicate that he should have been able to find any number of alternative scenarios that would have been more to his liking (sparing him his sorrow and regret), because his power is unending. And, being all knowing, he would have known this: that, with his unlimited power, he could create a more palatable situation, where his regret would not be necessary.

It's worth pointing out that if God had truly made the best choice possible, he would know this (and, if not, what sort of "wise" "all-knowing" creature is he?). Therefore regret (not necessarily grief) would be rendered a contradictory emotion. In the same way that one grieves for an animal that must be put to sleep, but does not generally regret the decision knowing that it was the right thing to do, God's grief at mankind's waywardness would be a legitimate response, but his regret at creating them would not. It is an illogical response -- and while imperfect human beings can be allowed a moment of grief-stricken illogicality ("maybe if I had just waited another week...!"), it seems distinctly out of place in a perfect, all-knowing, all-wise divine being... So we come to this: if God's creation of mankind was not the best means of accomplishing what he wanted, he would have known from the beginning that it was a bad choice -- rendering this latent remorse idiotic.  If he had made the best choice, he would know this as well -- again, rendering the remorse futile. Either way you look at it, regret is absurd and illogical.

In summation, if the story is to be read as literal truth, God not only knew that the scenario would not play out how he wanted, but deliberately chose to create a people that would piss him off so badly he'd regret ever having made them in the first place; deliberately chose to create people who would piss him off so badly, in fact, that he'd want to kill every last one of them, and everything else besides; and, knowing with the absolute clarity that only an all-knowing creature could possibly boast what evil would happen and how regretful he would feel, did it anyway.

Put simply, regret is not, and cannot logically be, the sentiment of a perfect, all knowing, unchanging and all-wise being. It is, by its very nature, a change of heart. Sorrow at having performed some action is the result of imperfection, mistakes or perceived mistakes, a lack of foreknowledge, etc. It is almost always the outcome of information received or correctly weighted after the fact, and it is absolutely a re-evaluation of an initial position or action. It is an acknowledgement that you were -- or feel you were -- wrong to have done something in the manner it was done, that there would have been a better way to do it. To suggest that an all-knowing, all-powerful, wise and unchanging god actually repented, regretted or was sorry for creating humanity (or any other act), as a literal reading of Genesis does, is illogical and contradictory.

An all-powerful creature that chooses to perform an action knowing with absolute certainty that it will result in a mess so distasteful as to give rise to murderous regret over that action is not -- cannot be -- wise. Nor can such a murderous puppeteer be deemed merciful. And, perhaps most importantly of all, by definition he is not unchanging. Regret and steadfastness are mutually exclusive concepts. Regret is a change of mind, period. It is nonsense to suggest otherwise, and despite young earth creationists' attempts to brush over the contradiction, a literal reading of Genesis wreaks havoc on Biblical notions of God's wisdom, mercy, and immutability.

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