The blog of Dr Glenn Andrew Peoples on Theology, Philosophy, and Social Issues

God vs Ancient Potentates


How much like an ancient potentate who boils his enemies in oil is God?

An interview in the New York Times with Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga titled “Is Atheism Irrational?” is attracting a bit of attention that the moment. The attention is deserved, because it’s a very good, succinct piece, pitched at a popular level, representing the sort of presentation of Christian thought that I wish the general public got to see more often, rather than the shallow or misleading tosh that the gatekeepers (editors) usually allow their readership to see.

Those familiar with some of Plantinga’s writing won’t be surprised at the issues he touches on: the problem of evil, the question of whether or not a person needs external evidence before they are justified in holding a belief, and the concern that naturalism may actually be self-defeating by removing any real hope that our belief forming structures – the very ones we might use to form our belief in naturalism – are reliable at all.

But one line jumped out at me – one unrealted to the overall points being made, I should admit. In discussing the problem of evil or suffering, Plantinga recounts the way that Christians belief that God too has participated in our suffering:

Think about it: The first being of the universe, perfect in goodness, power and knowledge, creates free creatures. These free creatures turn their backs on him, rebel against him and get involved in sin and evil. Rather than treat them as some ancient potentate might — e.g., having them boiled in oil — God responds by sending his son into the world to suffer and die so that human beings might once more be in a right relationship to God. [Emphasis added]

The fairly clear innuendo is that ancient potentates who boil their enemies in oil are pretty nasty pieces of work, but God isn’t like that.

I’m pretty strongly inclined to agree. God isn’t like that. But why doesn’t God do a thing like that, according to the above summary? It’s a summary, and Plantinga doesn’t say. I think we’re supposed to think that it’s because God isn’t a cruel torturer like an ancient potentate. But that can’t really be the reason intended, given that (as far as I know) Plantinga holds to a broadly mainstream view of Christian theology in the Arminian tradition. Surely what is driving God’s – admittedly benevolent – unwillingness to boil everybody in oil is just the knowledge on God’s part that if he were to provide a way that people could come back to him in repentance for their sins and be saved, some people will actually take up the chance. And so God provides just such an opportunity, in the manner that Plantinga describes.

I say this because according to the mainstream view held by Evangelicals and others, what God is going to do to those who reject the offer of salvation through Christ is a whole lot worse than being boiled in oil. At least if an ancient potentate were to boil you in oil – as agonising as that would be – the suffering would come to an end before very long. You would lose your life, which is obviously the point and about as big a loss as I can think of, but the protracted pain and misery would stop. But distaste for on-going suffering because of his kindly nature isn’t what stops God from boiling people in oil, on the mainstream Evangelical view. After all, God, on the mainstream Evangelical view, will take those who reject his offer of salvation and subject them to eternal torment in hell, the worst possible suffering that a person can experience, without any hope of an end. The “ancient potentate” is sounding pretty good right now.

Would that Plantinga and others would rethink hell in light of the teaching of Scripture.

Glenn Peoples


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  1. Peter Clapp

    Well, the Nazis killed 8 million Jews – most not by boiling in oil. I guess God didn’t do it, but he/she let it happen. And I guess it’s not the same – if you do it, or you let it happen. And there are 800,000 in Rwanda, and several million in Congo, and every last Tasmanian. And one in three children in the developing world doesn’t get enough food. But God didn’t do any of this himself, so he/she/it’s off the hook. And speaking of hell, here’s a bumper sticker from Berkeley CA: “God loves you so much that he created hell for you, in case you don’t love him back.”

    • Hi Peter. The fact that God allows people to suffer (i.e. the more general problem of evil or suffering) isn’t really the point here, so naturally this short blog post would have had no need to anticipate that problem.

      The point here was just that it seems strange to overtly distance oneself from a cruel “potentate” who ultimately boils his enemies in oil because sending one’s enemies to such a fate seems nasty, while at the same time affirming that God will ultimately send his enemies to hell to be tormented forever and ever.

      For that reason, I can only assume that the reference to the bumper sticker was made in support of the point I was making. 🙂

  2. Andres

    I totally agree with you. Alvin said in an interview that maybe God will forgive us all after death. I think that’s a good hope (in some way i hope that too), but i’m not sure if the Bible theaches that. Cheers from Perú.

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