I first heard this story about thirty years ago.
One day, a man wakes up on a couch in a field. The setting is new and strange, but he feels at peace. He has a vague memory of some sort of accident. Is this the afterlife?
A man with the formal demeanor of a butler comes over and asks if he’d like anything.
“Maybe some food?”
The butler indicates a table just behind the couch full of exotic snacks.
He asks for something to drink and gets all that he could want. He asks for other people and finds himself in a party.
Days pass—or so it seems, because there are no obvious indications of time, and sleep is no longer necessary—and the man finds every pleasure he could want. Food and drink, art and music, theater and sports, community and solitude. The mood is always upbeat and cheerful.
Finally, he realizes that his brain is idle and needs something to chew on, so asks his butler for a problem to solve. Just a little obstacle to make life interesting.
“I’m sorry,” the butler says, “but problems are the one thing from your old life that we don’t have here.”
“Oh, that’s fine,” the man says. “It was just a whim.”
Life rolls on as his moods demand, with formal dinners and casual picnics, sparkling literary conversation and bawdy drinking games. But the absence of problems wears on him. He asks repeatedly and is told, always politely, that problems don’t exist.
Finally, after what seems like years or even decades have passed, the man snaps. “I can’t take it anymore! Life is too easy here, and humans need problems! If I can’t have any here, I’ll go to the other place. Send me to hell!”
The butler, who had always shown an expressionless face, smiles slightly for the first time. “And just where do you think you are?”
(This is the rough plot for the 1960 Twilight Zone episode, “A Nice Place to Visit”; h/t commenter Ben Yandell.)
Limitations to omniscience
That’s a taste of God’s life. We see problems as bad things because most of us have too many, but what if you have none? That’s the problem for the guy in the story and for God. God could never be perplexed by anything, and there’s nothing to exercise creativity on. There’s no pleasure in solving a problem, no thrill of an Aha! insight.
Not only does God have no problems, he doesn’t even have surprises. No matter what it is, he saw it coming. No matter what it is, the correct response is not only obvious but foreseen billions of years earlier. Not only can’t God wrestle with a problem, he can’t think a new thought or plan or regret or be surprised or get a joke or make a decision. Omniscience can be a bitch, and God’s ways are a heckuva lot more unlike our ways that you may have thought.
But God’s calendar is packed, right? He’s granting prayers, weighing the consequences of people’s actions, satisfy his agenda by performing undetectable miracles, tweaking evolution so it goes in the right direction, and so on. Think of Jim Carrey standing in for God in Bruce Almighty.
Nope. God’s omniscience has consequences, and the God Christians have invented is as personable as a machine. He knows every request and every human problem, now and in the future. Knowing the future, God could list his every action like this: “At time T1, do action A1; at T2, do A2,” and so on. God is nothing more than that. Not only could he mindlessly carry out these actions, but God could be replaced by a universal wish-granting machine. He’s an automaton.
We can imagine a conversation with God, but he couldn’t see it like we do. A conversation for him would be like stating lines in a play, all of which he’s memorized.
It’s true that God in the Old Testament has original conversations, gets surprised (example: he regretted making humanity before the flood), gets angry (such as his response to the golden calf), and so on, all of which makes sense only if he’s not omniscient. But how is this possible? God would’ve seen it all coming for 13.7 billion years. God’s properties in the Bible are contradictory.
Christians have changed the properties of their unchanging God.
What did God do all day before he created the universe? If he created the universe, that admits that things weren’t perfect beforehand—if they were, changing things would make them less perfect. And if things were perfect after creating the universe, why wait so long for creating it? (And who would say that this mess of a world is perfect?)
Fourth-century church father Augustine told of someone who was asked what God was doing before he created the universe. The answer: “He was preparing hell for those prying into such deep subjects.”
But pry we must. A popular Christian answer is to say that the Big Bang theory has a beginning for the universe (more precisely, this theory says that there’s a point in time before which science can’t take us yet). Therefore, God lived timelessly before he created the universe.
No, a timelessness God doesn’t solve anything. How could God create the universe if he’s outside time? How could anyone create anything if you’re outside of time?! Creation is a process that can only operate within time. That’s also true for the decision to create. A timeless god is a frozen, unchanging, and inert god. He makes no decisions, sees nothing, decides nothing, initiates nothing, and loves nothing. Once frozen in time, he doesn’t have time by which to take the action to unfreeze himself.
Christians have created a God who’s inert (when outside of time) and a soul-less robot whose hands are tied by his own omniscience (when time is proceeding). Christians should rethink the properties they invent for God.
than an infinite intelligence in infinite nothing
wasting an eternity?
— Robert Ingersoll
(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 4/3/17.)