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God, Evil, and Metaphor

Distinctions that have an impact on how one reads statements regarding God willing evil in Scripture

Jimmy Akin

What does the Bible mean when it says that God repented? Or not to grieve the Holy Spirit? Or that God is angry? Or that he wills evil to someone?

These ideas are perplexing because they seem inconsistent with what we know about God and heaven. If God knows everything, why would he need to repent? If heaven is pure beatitude, how can someone there be angry, grieved, or crying? If God is all-good, how can he will evil?

The starting point for understanding the answers is recognizing a basic fact about God: He’s really, really different than we are-a point stressed in Scripture (Num. 23:19, 1 Sam 15:29, Is 55:9).

Metaphor

Because God is so different, he uses accommodated language to help us understand what he is like. This language involves metaphor, because the human language and mind are not able to capture what God is.

The nature of a metaphor is that it speaks of one thing as if it is another and, in so doing, expresses a truth. For example, if I said, “General Longstreet was a lion,” I would mean something like “General Longstreet was a fierce and effective commander in battle.” I would not mean that he had four feet, claws, and fangs.

A key to understanding metaphorical language is identifying the points of similarity and dissimilarity between the metaphor and what it refers to. This is especially important when God is involved. The Catechism stresses, “God transcends all creatures. We must therefore continually purify our language of everything in it that is limited, image-bound, or imperfect, if we are not to confuse our image of God-‘the inexpressible, the incomprehensible, the invisible, the ung.aspable’-with our human representations” (CCC 42).

Scriptural language about God tends to be anthropomorphic; that is, it speaks of God as if he were human. Failure to g.asp that these statements involve metaphor can lead to theological error and even heresy.

This is the case when Mormons note that God is described in the Bible as having a face (Ps. 27:8), hands (Ps. 8:6), arms (Ex. 15:16), and feet (Is. 66:1) and conclude that he therefore has a physical body-and in fact is simply “an exalted man.”

One may point out that Scripture also describes God as having wings (Ps. 91:4)-which Mormons do not hold to be literally true. This means if they’re honest they must recognize the presence of metaphor in Scripture when applied to God, depriving the various body-part passages of being serviceable proof-texts.

The best protection against failure to recognize metaphorical statements about God is an understanding of the nature and attributes of God as they have been worked out by Catholic theology. This makes it easier to “unpack” the various metaphors that are used concerning God and his actions-to figure out what they are and aren’t saying.

God’s Attributes

The First Vatican Council proclaimed: “The holy, Catholic, apostolic and Roman Church believes and acknowledges that there is one true and living God, creator and lord of heaven and earth, omnipotent, eternal, immeasurable, incomprehensible, infinite in will, understanding, and every perfection.

“Since he is one, singular, completely simple and immutable spiritual substance, he must be declared to be in reality and in essence, distinct from the world, supremely happy in himself and from himself, and inexpressibly loftier than anything besides himself which either exists or can be imagined” (De Fide Catolica 1).

Several divine attributes named here are relevant to the metaphors we are considering.

When the Church says that God is infinite in every perfection, it means that he has every possible perfection to a limitless degree. Every great-making quality is something that God possesses. He could not possibly be any greater than he is. Part of his perfection is absolute simplicity, immutability, eternity, and beatitude.

Simplicity is the attribute of not being composed of parts. When the Church proclaims God’s simplicity, it means that God is entirely free from any composition, whether physical or metaphysical. Unlike us, he is not a composition of body and soul, act and potency, essence and existence, or substance and accident. He is metaphysically simple.

As a result, he is also immutable; that is, he cannot change in any respect. If he could change then it would imply that God is not pure act but that he is a composition of act and potentiality-since he would have the potential of changing, of acquiring and losing properties.

Because God is unchanging, he is therefore eternal. By this the Church does not mean that God has unlimited extension through time but is outside of time altogether. If he were extended through time, his existence could be divided into temporal parts, and he would lack the perfection of simplicity.

Finally, God’s possession of every perfection includes perfect beatitude. This is what Vatican I means when it says that God is “supremely happy in himself and from himself.” God does not need the world or anything in it to be perfectly happy. Therefore he created it “not with the intention of increasing his happiness, nor indeed of obtaining happiness” (ibid.). He already has infinite happiness in himself and because of his own perfection.

With this grounding in the nature of God, we can go on to interpret the metaphoric and anthropomorphic statements concerning God in Scripture.

Divine Suffering

A key to recognizing metaphor is the idea of divine suffering. Because of God’s infinite perfection, he is incapable of suffering. Lacking a physical body, he cannot have physical pain. Possessing perfect beatitude, he has no mental pain.

This is the Church’s historic and present teaching. John Paul II makes it clear that suffering is something “which we cannot attribute to God as God-except in an anthropomorphic metaphorical way whereby we speak of his suffering, regrets, et cetera” (General Audience, Oct. 19, 1988).

Even the sufferings of Christ in his human nature do not disturb the beatitude of the Godhead: “As the Word, a divine Person, he [Christ] confers an infinite value on his suffering and death, which thus falls within the mysterious ambit of the human-divine reality, and touches, without affecting, the infinite glory and bliss of the Trinity” (ibid.).

Whenever one encounters a statement that would suggest that God suffers in himself, rather than through the Passion of the Incarnate Christ, one is reading a metaphorical statement.

For example, Isaiah speaks of the sufferings of God’s people and says “in all their affliction he was afflicted” (Is. 63:9a). Since this passage attributes suffering to God and its context does not indicate that we are talking about the Incarnation but about the history of Israel in general, we know it must be a metaphor.

Once this is recognized, it remains to determine its meaning. The starting point is to ask what would be meant if the same thing were said of a human being, then seek to determine which elements of thatcould be true of God as well. Anything precluded by his nature must be precluded from the meaning from the meaning of the metaphor. This gives us a sense of what is probably meant by the metaphor, but we must still look to the context of the passage to see if any additional light is shed on what the metaphor is meant to convey.

Applying this to the example just cited, if I were to tell you that “in all your afflictions, I was afflicted, too,” I likely would mean something like the following: I was fully aware of your sufferings and how much they pained you. I cared about you, and the knowledge of your sufferings caused me pain as well. It may have even moved me to some sort of action.

Except for the part about being personally pained, all of this may apply to God. The affirmation that in all Israel’s affliction God also was afflicted likely means that he was fully aware of Israel’s sufferings and how intense they were, that he loved Israel, and that he may have been moved to action in connection with the sufferings.

The latter is confirmed by the context, which immediately goes on to state, “And the angel of his presence saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old” (Is. 63:9b).

Divine Grief

A particular form of suffering that is ascribed in Scripture to God is grief. For example, we read that God’s people “rebelled and grieved his Holy Spirit” (Is. 63:10a; cf. Eph. 4:30).

This is also a metaphor. John Paul II remarks, “In his [Isaiah’s] anthropomorphic description, the attribution to God’s spirit of the sadness caused by the abandonment of the people conforms to human psychology” (General Audience, February 21, 1990).

If we seek to interpret this metaphor, we come up with something similar to the example above. If I say that someone has grieved me by their actions, I mean that I feel the pain of sadness because I know someone has done something wrong that I feel acutely, usually because I had some kind of hope that now will be unfulfilled (as when a parent is sad because he hoped a child would make better choices than he did). I may even be prompted by this grief to take action of some sort.

Much of this carries over to the metaphor of divine grief. While God is not capable of literally feeling the pain of sadness, he is minutely aware of it when people do things that are wrong and thereby frustrate what God (in his antecedent will) wished for the people. In connection with this, he may also take action, as the context in Isaiah indicates, going on to say “therefore he turned to be their enemy, and himself fought against them” (Is. 63:10b).

Divine Anger

Sadness is related to anger. One who is grieved can become angry with the person who grieved him, and Scripture does indeed speak of God being angry on account of our sins (e.g., Num. 22:22, Deut. 4:25, 2 Sam. 6:7).

When a man is angry, his intense disapproval of something that someone has done triggers a particular set of physiological sensations and mental discomfort. A difference between anger and sadness is that the former tends to be provoked when we view the person’s action as harming or threatening something we care about (as opposed to having a sense of loss or unfulfilled hope). Anger also is very likely to motivate us to act in some way, particularly by seeking to strike back at the one who has angered us.

Applying this to the divine, God does not have a body and so does not feel the physiological sensations we do with anger. Neither does he feel the mental discomfort associated with anger. He does intensely disapprove of sin and, when it is committed, will act. This action may take the form of allowing temporal calamity to befall those who engage in sin.

This allowing of temporal calamity on those who have sinned is sufficiently analogous to human anger for Scripture to apply the term to it. Thus when in the Old Testament people suffer on account of their sins, it is spoken of as the product of divine anger.

Alternately, God sometimes announced through the prophets that he was angry and would punish the people unless they repented. This also signifies God’s disapproval of their sins together with the information on what God will do if they persist on their present course.

Divine Repentance

In modern speech, repentance refers to a sorrow over and conversion from one’s sins. This kind of repentance is never ascribed to God, whose absolute holiness is unquestioned in Scripture.

The term repentance historically has been used in other senses, referring either to a change of course or a change of opinion, and in these senses Scripture does apply the concept of repentance to God. This is not literal because God’s omniscience prevents him from ever having any cause of changing his opinion (he cannot gain new information that he previously was unaware of) and because his timelessness prevents him from ever changing in any way. The point elsewhere in Scripture is made explicitly: “God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should repent” (Num. 23:19).

Nevertheless, it is fairly easy to unpack the metaphor of divine repentance when it is used in Scripture. For example, Exodus says “the LORD repented of the evil which he thought to do to his people” (32:14) following Moses’ intercession for them. This fits the same pattern as all answered prayer: God has determined that he will give certain things to us only if we ask for them, otherwise not. Had Moses not interceded for the people of Israel, punishment would have come upon them. This avoidance of the calamity that otherwise would have occurred is spoken of as if it were a change of course on God’s part. In actuality, there was no change. God had determined two possible paths to go down depending on the response of Moses. The prophet’s intercession simply determined which path was taken.

Similarly, when Genesis speaks of God repenting of or regretting having created man (Gen. 6:6-7), it signifies not that God got new information on how bad men are but that he fully recognized how bad man’s sins were (i.e., sufficiently bad to allow the race to be destroyed) and that he correspondingly chose to allow the calamity of the Flood.

Divine Malevolence

It is a more difficult to understand when Scripture speaks of God willing evil to someone (e.g., Jer 18:7-11). This must be squared with God’s complete goodness. There would seem to be two ways of doing so.

The first solution is that God never wills moral evil to anyone. He only allows them to become morally evil. He may positively will physical evil (pain, hunger, sickness, death) when it will serve to achieve a greater good (e.g., repentance, avoidance of danger). This appears to be the historically more common explanation in Catholic thought.

However, it is also possible to hold that even in the case of physical evil God is merely allowing it for a greater end, not positively willing it. It seems better to accord with God’s absolute benevolence that God would merely allow evil, whether physical or moral, rather than will evil.

This distinction has an impact on how one reads statements regarding God willing evil in Scripture. Statements suggesting that God willed or brought moral evil on someone (e.g., “the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh”; Ex. 9:12) must be interpreted in the sense that God allowed the moral evil (e.g., by withdrawing his grace from one who has resisted it). Statements that he willed or brought about physical evil (e.g., a plague) could be interpreted either to mean that he willed the evil to achieve a good or that he allowed the evil to achieve the good.

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