On Trial By God

Nic Paolini

birds sitting on telephone wires

“Birds” by Nicole Ferrara

One of the many issues people have with the idea of God is if and how we are judged by Him. We are all familiar with religious texts, such as the Ten Commandments, but the idea of God having rules begs certain questions about sins and repentance. The Bible tells us that God does not like us to sin, but that if we beg for forgiveness, then we can be forgiven for all of our sins. What, then, is the relationship between sinning and God's acceptance? Is all of human life just some psychological, philosophical experiment put on by God? In this paper, I argue that sin cannot exist in a world with an omnipotent, omnibenevolent, omniscient God.

At the beginning of this argument lies the story from Genesis of Adam and Eve eating the fruit from the tree of knowledge. Theists claim that we are all born with sin and that our entrance into Heaven will be based upon our repentance of our sins. Some also threaten that God wants us to follow his commands and that if we do not then we will spend all of eternity in Hell. The story of The Garden of Eden tells us of man's first sin. It claims that Adam and Eve, having been warned not to eat from the tree of knowledge, disobeyed God and chose to sin.

The primary issue in discussing these actions, then, is whether or not we, as human beings, have free will. First, in order to discuss sin we must assume God actually does exist. If God exists, then He either created us with a preplanned fate or has allowed us to have free reign on every decision in our lives. If God does not exist, then we can safely say that it is only possible that we do indeed have free will, for there is no other possible being that could command it to be otherwise. Therefore it must be the case that God either gave us free will or has already determined the course of all human life on Earth.

God, being all-powerful, all-good, and all-knowing, could have made the world without sin. The problem of an omnipotent, omnibenevolent, omniscient God and sin is very similar to the problem of evil. J. L. Mackie illustrates that evil cannot simultaneously exist in a world created by a God that "...is both omnipotent and wholly good" (Mackie, 78). Clearly, if God were indeed all-powerful, all-good, and all-knowing, then there is no possibility for evil to exist anywhere in the world. Mackie, however, points out that it is the case that we observe evil in our world today and that there must be something inherently wrong in our concept of the God we have previously defined. Believers argue back that perhaps what seems to be evil to us may actually be all part of God's grand scheme of things; He is, after all, the all-knowing Creator of the Universe. One of the answers to Mackie's objection, which parallels an answer given to our question of sin, is the idea that "Evil is due to human free will" (Mackie, 83). Believers further claim that it is far better for humans to do good autonomously than in an entirely determined manner. Again, when we refer back to God's omnipotent, omnibenevolent, omniscient nature, we see that this answer is simply insufficient. God is omnipotent, so God could have made the world and human beings without evil. Evils are typically related to sins; we tend to regard them both as incorrect ways of living. Sin is considered by many theists to be punishment for wrongdoings, disobeying God, and evils are, by definition, the absence of good; and an all-good God should not allow for either.

Regardless of the potential benefits of evil, it is still true that God could have made the world without it. While it is true that the existence of evil challenges the human race to rise to the occasion and overcome it, one cannot help but wonder why God would feel the need to incorporate so much evil into the creation of the world. If evil was created in order to let us truly appreciate goodness, then "...a minute dose of evil would presumably do. But theists are not usually willing to say, in all contexts, that all the evil that occurs is a minute and necessary dose" (Mackie, 81). If we translate this argument into terms of sin, we can reason that even if Adam and Eve had "sinned" against God, it would not be logically necessary to pass that "Original Sin" on to all future generations of man.

Before we conclude anything, we must also consider the possibility that free will does not exist. If God has created all human life as determined, then we must examine who has what responsibilities. If it is the case that God determines each of our lives, and we are each simply following our own individual destiny, then no one would be able to claim that Adam and Eve had any other choice but to do as God had set out for them: to eat from the tree of knowledge. Adam and Even can only be held accountable for their actions if they were acting freely of their own accord. In Roderick M. Chisholm's Human Freedom and the Self, he explains that an actor cannot be held accountable for his actions when another person forces, or compels, the actor to act; there is simply nothing that the actor can do to prevent the action from being committed (Chisholm, 438). When we apply this theory to the story from Genesis, we see that the actors, Adam and Eve, could not possibly have done anything other than what God willed them to do. "If the man could not have chosen otherwise, then he would not have chosen otherwise—even if he was such that, if he had chosen to do otherwise, then he would have done otherwise" (Chisholm, 440). Ultimately, we can conclude that assigning personal responsibility for actions is not coherent with a deterministic view of action.

We are now faced with the dilemma of claiming that either God knew we would sin and allowed us to do so, or that God made us sin. Neither choice is coherent with our earlier definition of God as an all-powerful, all-good, all-knowing God.

If we claim that God allowed Adam and Eve to sin, but knew that they would, He clearly cannot be considered all-good. So, if we hold that sin does exist, we have to let go of the idea that God is the culmination of omnipotence, omnipresence, and omnibenevolence. While it is still possible to have sin if God is only two of the three aforementioned qualities, it seems impossible to have God be not as great as He should be; which is to say, we hold that a Supreme Being should be all-powerful, all-good, and all-knowing. If God is not all-good, then we are forced to concede that God might be some evil. If God is not all-powerful, then God is not as truly great as we have imagines and is merely better than man and yet not responsible for men. If God is not all-knowing, then we must also let go of our belief that God is everywhere and the Creator of Everything.

However, when we are rid of our concept of free will, we are forced to accept the belief that God is all-good even though God determined that Adam and Eve would sin. It is impossible for God to be considered just and all-good if God punishes man for the actions He has forced man to do. God could have made man without sin but, in this case, chose not to. The idea that sin exists, then, is God's own fault. God determined that man would sin and cannot, therefore, punish him for it. To punish man for sin in this way is like a parent punishing their young child for eating too much and becoming fat, even though it is the parent who always feeds the child too much food. In that instance, no one would blame the child for not doing the right thing and eating healthily because the child never had the opportunity to do otherwise.

In conclusion, the issue of sin conflicts with our commonly defined concept of God. Sin began as a choice made by Adam and Eve and that choice was either freely chosen or predetermined by God. In each case, an omnipotent, omnibenevolent, omniscient God could not remain as such if He punished human beings for their sins. Since it must be the case that God does not punish us for our sins, and the idea of sinning only applies in terms of God's judgment, then we must conclude that sins do not actually bear any weight in making moral decisions. Even if we accepted the idea that God first condemned Adam and Eve's choice to eat from the tree of knowledge in order to establish moral right and wrong, we can deduce that sin would no longer be necessary, or coherent, with our concept of an omnipotent, omnibenevolent, omniscient God.

Works Cited

  • Chisholm, Roderick M. "Human Freedom and the Self" in Joel Feinberg and Russ Shafer-Landau (eds.), Reason & Responsibility. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2008. pp. 438-445.
  • Mackie, J. L. "Evil and Omnipotence" in Joel Feinberg and Russ Shafer-Landau (eds.), Reason & Responsibility. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2008. pp.78-85.