If God just was, before time, before the universe, and he was perfect, why did he create the imperfect universe with us imperfect humans? If he wanted us to choose to love him, then he wasn’t really perfect before, he was lacking love in some way. If we are actually perfect as we are, then that is a strange re-definition of the word perfect. If you say there is a plan and we just can’t understand it, then you are just avoiding the question.
In a comment to the original post, Lausten clarifies:
Primarily, the question addresses the particular types of theology that assume unknowable perfection. In that theology, we can’t know God, we can only place our hopes in the glimpses of a better way that He gives us. So we can’t define perfect, other than as something beyond anything we know.
Certainly pain and bad design are examples of imperfection. The known physical universe requires a lot of death and destruction to continue with its creation. You could say that is a balance, but I consider it imperfect and incompatible with the existence of a loving God who claims to have performed the miracles found in the Bible.
Lausten, thanks both for the original question and the clarifier. I take it from your comments that you’re an atheist, and I’m particularly glad that you and some other atheists have begun reading this blog as a result of this series. At the very heart of your question is an assumption that you’ve stated in other comments: that Christianity is bedeviled with internal inconsistencies that ultimately undermine its claims on truth. But I think your question does something quite similar to that.
In the wording of your question, I understand that you’re attempting to play ball by the rules that we — Christian theologians — have set. The biggest problematic in the question you submitted, however, is your use of the words “perfect” and “imperfect.” Here’s a straightforward definition of “perfect”:
Having all the required or desirable elements, qualities, or characteristics; as good as it is possible to be.
Perfection is a quality that we derive from Plato. Plato had a very specific metaphysic, which many today would reject. I, for instance, wholeheartedly reject it. Nevertheless, it’s hard to even talk about perfection in the way you’ve introduced it without reference to Plato.
Consider this paragraph by Richard Kraut:
Many people associate Plato with a few central doctrines that are advocated in his writings: The world that appears to our senses is in some way defective and filled with error, but there is a more real and perfect realm, populated by entities (called “forms” or “ideas”) that are eternal, changeless, and in some sense paradigmatic for the structure and character of our world. Among the most important of these abstract objects (as they are now called, because they are not located in space or time) are goodness, beauty, equality, bigness, likeness, unity, being, sameness, difference, change, and changelessness. (These terms—“goodness”, “beauty”, and so on—are often capitalized by those who write about Plato, in order to call attention to their exalted status; similarly for “Forms” and “Ideas.”) The most fundamental distinction in Plato’s philosophy is between the many observable objects that appear beautiful (good, just, unified, equal, big) and the one object that is what beauty (goodness, justice, unity) really is, from which those many beautiful (good, just, unified, equal, big) things receive their names and their corresponding characteristics.
Lausten, if you find it problematic that many, many Christian theologians have embraced this platonic thinking, I agree with you. I think that perfection is a purely imaginary state. It doesn’t exist. It is a unicorn.
So, we can sit around and talk about perfection all we want, but that doesn’t make perfection any more real.
Further, I don’t find any indication from either the Hebrew or Christian scriptures that perfection was a quality that ancient Jews or early Christians attributed to Yahweh or to God. Subsequently, however, Plato was baptized into Christianity by theologians like Augustine and Aquinas. Now it’s hard to even think of the Christian God without reliance on these Platonic categories of “perfect” and “imperfect.” I’d like to wean us off of our Platophilia.
Speaking of imperfection, let’s think on that for a minute. A Platonic reading of Genesis 3 says that Adam and Eve were perfect; then they ate fruit and lost their perfection. The tilling of the soil, pain in childbirth, and death that result in their banishment from Eden are imperfections.
But as Ray Anderson used to ask his classes at Fuller Seminary, “What do you suppose happened when Adam, before he ate the fruit, stubbed his toe on a root in the Garden? Did it hurt? Of course it did!”
In other words, the prelapsarian Garden of Eden was not an ideal Platonic Form. For God’s sake, it was a garden! It was full of dirt and worms and rotting fruit.
Here’s another way of saying that: nothing metaphysically happened when Adam and Eve ate that fruit. Nothing ontologically changed in them. They did not go, with one bite, from “perfect” to “imperfect.”
Earlier this week, I argued that we should collapse the ideas that a “God of Peace” is the bipolar opposite of a “God of War.” I think dichotomies collapse when one is honest about the all-consuming presence of God. The same thing goes for “perfect” versus “imperfect.” (Indeed, even Plato, in his later writing (e.g., the Timeaus) seems to concede that his ideas about perfect forms are open to criticism.) Let’s collapse that dichotomy.
I realize that a lot of Western theology rests on the idea that God is perfect and humans are imperfect. For example, the entire penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement relies on the idea that God’s is perfect and cannot possibly abide spending an eternity with an imperfect, sinful being (like you or me). (That’s an idea that I attacked in my book on the atonement.) But this is an idea imported to Christianity from Platonic philosophy.
In the end, you may, as an atheist, find all of my answers to these questions disappointing. I suppose that, like you, I’d prefer a Christianity without any internal inconsistencies. But that’s not the promise of Christianity. Instead, Christianity promises a narrative that meshes with our experience — and my experience of life is rife with inconsistency and paradox. What Christianity offers me is a vision of God that more or less matches my experience of life.