Are these the actions of a perfectly loving and powerful God?

Following on from my previous post, another question arising from reflections from the Alpha course:

Please forgive the length of this email, but it’s important to me that you get some understanding of how much gravity I place on my new understanding of the universe, that the Alpha course was so key in bringing about.

Before I came on the Alpha course, I was a 10/10 atheist. I was universally negative about any form of monotheistic religion. There are reasons for this, and I’d be happy to discuss over a beer, but you, the alpha course and some additional reading have changed my mind. The alpha course was the catalyst for this change. Faith can create good, just because of what faith is.

You are really wonderful people. You lay your faith bare, naked, in front of any and all that come before you and seek to understand. You are honest, you are intelligent, you are calm, you are considered.. You are really cool people.

But, I have to decline any further discussion of the existence of the Christian God. I’ve done a huge amount of reading and talking about religion since I started the Alpha course, and to be honest, the knowledge I have found makes it impossible to believe in the Christian version of events. I’m going to list some of them. Not in the hope that you will lose your faith, far from it, but in a hope that you can understand why I can’t share it…

God is all powerful and perfect? Except Genesis 6:7 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.” A perfect being would not say “OK, I screwed up, let’s just flood the whole thing and start again”. In addition, He must have known that is how man would end up, he’s omnipotent! Why bake a cake you know will be disgusting, just so you can destroy it in fit of rage (and this is a loving God?). Is this another analogy or metaphor? Either the bible is “God Inspired” or it’s just mankind making a bunch of stuff up.. Take your pick. I don’t think you can pick and choose the truth or falsity of each passage and maintain the integrity of the bible as a holy book.

In my own words: Are the actions of God in Genesis 6 those of a perfectly loving – and all powerful – God?

You asked a lot more questions than I’ve quoted above, but this reply is already long enough! You’re right to struggle with these questions – I haven’t met a single believer who doesn’t. It is important to affirm that knowing somebody very well is not the same as understanding them fully, as many people with long term partners will testify. In everyday life, we are expected to trust people without ever quite understanding how they operate (ever filled out a tax return?!). I am quite comfortable with the idea that I can know God, love and trust him with all my heart, soul and strength, without fully understanding him. I would see trying to understand God as part of my worship of him.

Genesis 6 is a really tricky passage and raises important questions about what it means to say God is all powerful whilst also being perfectly loving.

What does it mean for us to say God is all-powerful?

If we are to affirm that God is all powerful we have to unpack that suitcase of what we really mean. We have to go beyond statements like about God being ‘able to do anything’.

Firstly, there are philosophical problems raised by talking about an ‘all powerful’ being encapsulated in the classic ‘can God create a stone which is too heavy to lift?’ question. If God could create such a stone, the idea of total divine omnipotence would appear to be denied, given that there is something which God cannot do – namely, lift that stone.

The more issue is the one you rightly raise: how do we hold in tension a God of love and goodness who appears to ‘regret’ decisions and wipes out many living on the earth in Genesis 6? C.S. Lewis touches on this in his book The Problem of Pain:

“If God were good, he would wish to make his creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty he would be able to do what he wished. But the creatures are not happy. Therefore God lacks either the goodness, or power, or both.” This is the problem of pain, in its simplest form.

By it’s very nature, you get into difficulty very quickly by saying that omnipotence simply means ‘God can do anything.’ This is because as soon as you say that ‘God can’ do one thing, it means that God cannot do something else (as with the heavy stone example).

I’d say there are some things that God cannot do: God will not act in a way that is inconsistent with his nature, because the very act of doing so would go against the character of God by which we define him. That’s the only way we can hold in tension verses like Gabriel’s statement in Luke 1:37 that nothing is impossible for God with Hebrews 6:18 that says it is impossible for God to lie.

Jesus reveals to us what the Father is like. One thing we learn from Jesus is that God chose in Jesus to limit his options. He chose to ‘take on flesh’ and to become human and to ’empty’ himself and become like us.

What’s this got to do with Genesis 6?

I’d encourage you to read Genesis 6 carefully:

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.

However you choose to interpret difficult passages like the flood and God’s ‘regret’, it is clear that God is in some way sad that what had been created was so corrupted by evil that a fresh start was needed.

I think most people would accept that if ‘every inclination of the thoughts’ of any human being were evil, it would only be right that a God of love would step in to incapacitate the evildoer so that they could not fulfil the wrongdoing they intended. Living amongst people whose hearts are bent towards destruction of themselves and others is a living hell. It’s right that we should expect a God of justice to stand up against injustice.

The problem we face is that the desire to see evil judged is made more complicated by they fact that we are often the ones in the wrong. As one guy says, ‘the heart of the human problem is the problem of the human heart’. The disconnectedness between us and God, and between one another is deeply woven into the fabric of God’s relationship with the earth and with humanity.

The great flood, regardless of its difficulties, teaches me that the only hope for change to the human condition could come from God.

What I realise as I reflect on this passage is that the bad things we see in the world and wish God would prevent or punish in others is right there inside of me. I long for justice in the world. I want to see a world where there is no pain and suffering. I also long for a world where justice is done. But that also means that I have to be prepared for justice to be done in me.

We see in the flood a God who is not prepared to sit aside, indifferent to the wrongdoing in the world. It pains him. It grieves him. It breaks his heart. Sending the flood was a heart wrenching act on God’s part. The primary emotion God appears to experience is not anger but grief (I certainly don’t think you can fairly read the passage as God acting ‘in a fit of rage’!). The picture is of a God who is not an “angry tyrant, but a troubled parent” (Walter Brueggemann). In a very real sense God was not exempt from the pain and anguish which sin had introduced into his creation.

Presumably the God who had made the universe could have thought of other ways of judging the sinful and preserving the Godly without enlisting the aid of Noah and requiring the laborious task of building the ark. But throughout history he has shown himself willing and eager to enrol men and women in cooperative ventures with himself.

So God enacts a plan to judge evil, and by choosing to keep Noah and his family safe from the flood, he starts rebuilding the human race.

Back to God’s choices

It’s exactly that kind of progression of events we read about in the Old Testament that give colour and meaning to the the actions and reactions of Jesus.

Jesus loves justice, and is full of grace. Jesus was moved with compassion for peoples’ predicament. Jesus is not prepared to stand aside and let evil triumph.

You email states “He must have known that is how man would end up, he’s omnipotent!” If that’s true of the Genesis 6 story, it’s also true of Luke 22v42 and Luke 23. In other words, we can’t accuse God of ‘knowing all along’ that he would flood the earth without also applying this to God knowing he would send his son.

God’s plan all along was to save the human race through the death of his son Jesus on a cross – and we see pointers of this in the story of Genesis 6. I believe in a God who was moved by sin in the world. So moved that he would give his own life so that all the evil of the world could be soaked up in his body on the cross.

There is not a greater act of love than that.