“God is not divided into parts, yet we see different attributes of God emphasized at different times.”2
All of the perfections of God are true of all of God’s being; there is no division or hierarchy of the perfections. God’s perfections are not separate or additional to God’s being; rather, they all describe who God is all of the time. God is as to His being always, at all times, just, holy, merciful, etc.
“The simplicity of God follows from some of His other perfections; from His Self-existence, which excludes the idea that something preceded Him, as in the case of compounds; and from His immutability, which could not be predicated of His nature, if it were made up of parts....Scripture does not explicitly assert it, but implies it where it speaks of God as righteousness, truth, wisdom, light, life, love, and so on, and thus indicates that each of these properties, because of their absolute perfection, is identical with His Being.”3
“The personal is prior to the impersonal. God’s personal goodness defines any legitimate abstract concept of goodness. God relates to us as a whole person, not as a collection of attributes. The attributes merely describe different things about him.”4
Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.”
Deuteronomy 32:4a: “The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice.”
1 John 1:5: “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.”
1 John 4:8: “Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.”
Hebrews 12:29: “Our God is a consuming fire.”
The being, persons, and attributes of God exist in perfect harmony. No contradictions or incompatibilities between the attributes are possible. Nonetheless, apparent incompatibilities or logical difficulties between the attributes, from a human perspective, are often used as arguments against the existence of God. We will first look at a few representative examples of such arguments, followed by a brief discussion of the problem of evil, along with biblical principles by which to approach the problem of evil and related arguments.
One such argument is that God cannot be both just and merciful because justice requires just deserts while mercy spares just deserts. This, of course is a legitimate question, but one that is easily solved by the clear testimony of Scripture. As will be examined further in the discussion of God’s righteousness below, God indeed cannot let the guilty go unpunished and can never act in a manner inconsistent with His perfect justice. God cannot compromise His justice to the smallest degree in order to be merciful to a sinner. This very problem, however, is the reason for the Gospel, the reason why Christ perfectly satisfied the unchanging and strict requirements of God’s justice by His perfect obedience and perfect sacrifice to bear the just penalty for sin. Christ fully satisfied the requirements of God’s justice on behalf of unrighteous sinners. Such is why God can “justify the ungodly” (Romans 4:5) and “be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:26). Christ was the propitiation for sin in order “to show God’s righteousness” in saving sinners (Romans 3:25).
Another such argument is that God cannot be omniscient and free at the same time because a future choice that is known before the choice is made, cannot be a free choice, because it cannot be other than what is was already known to be. If God changes His choice, the argument goes, His original knowledge was incorrect. The same argument is used against God knowing the future acts of “free” people. Namely, if people are truly free, God cannot know their future acts. Yet, Scripture clearly teaches that God is both omniscient and free.
Earlier we noted the unbelieving argument that God cannot be both transcendent and personal, or be outside of time and act within time at the same time. Again, Scripture teaches that God is both transcendent and personal. Many such arguments are used to argue against the existence of God.5 Nevertheless, as we will see below, the biblical principles that answer one of the above arguments will answer all of such arguments.
Perhaps the most well-known argument used by opponents of Christianity, and the one that seems to create the most problems for Christian theologians, is what is called the “problem of evil.” Speaking of moral evil,6 the argument logically sets God’s goodness against God’s omnipotence as follows:
If God is perfectly good He would not want evil to exist.
If God were omnipotent He could prevent it.
God is either not good or not omnipotent.
Or stated another way:
“Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then his is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?” Epicurus (341-270 BC).7
In other words, because moral evil exists, God cannot be both good and omnipotent. Or put another way, given that Scripture teaches that God is both good and omnipotent, the God of Scripture cannot exist.
Many arguments against the existence of God and theological difficulties confronting Christians are but variations of this argument. For instance, Scripture teaches that God predetermines and brings all things to pass, yet people are solely responsible for their sin. Attempts to reconcile God’s preordination of all events and the responsibility of people for moral evil (sin) often set God’s sovereignty against His holiness. If God causes all things, would He not then also be the cause of moral evil and therefore unholy? Conversely, if evil is beyond God’s control, God cannot be sovereign over all things. From a limited human perspective, one might logically deduce that God is either unholy as responsible for sin or not in control of His universe. Yet, Scripture tells us that God is sovereign and all of God’s sovereign acts are holy.8
Similarly, how can God as a perfect creator of all things and the fall of angels and people created by God be logically reconciled? We know that God is perfect and all that He creates is perfect, yet Scripture locates the beginning of evil in the will of created beings. How could beings, created by a perfect God who does all things perfectly, do evil? If we say that God created free will, did God not know they would sin when He created them? He is, after all, omniscient and the determiner of all things. To protect God’s holiness in light of this difficulty, one might argue that God did not know they would choose evil. But that denies God’s omniscience. Perhaps the option to choose evil is required for beings to have free will and God wanted to create free beings. But, God is infinitely and eternally free and does not have the choice of evil, and we will be the most free in heaven where we will not have the choice of evil. Moreover, Christ set us free from the power and penalty of moral evil, He did not set us free to have the option to choose moral evil.
Related difficulties include saying God created beings with the propensity or inclination to sin. But this makes God imperfect and responsible for their sin, for He created them with the defect that led them to sin. Or, if we say God created evil for the greater purpose of revealing His goodness, we make God the author of evil in order to do good. The idea of doing evil that good may result is strongly condemned in Scripture (Romans 3:8). If we say that evil is the necessary flipside of good and is equally as ultimate as goodness, we deny God’s self-existence and holiness because God alone existed as holy for all eternity until He created creatures with a will. As noted in our discussion of God’s self-existence, evil cannot be equally ultimate with good. The view that evil is necessary to know good will be discussed in detail under the implications of God’s goodness.
From our short survey we can see that the attempts of finite people of limited perspective to logically reconcile certain theological difficulties, including the supposedly incompatible nature of various attributes of God, often create additional problems and the denial of other attributes of God. So how does one approach such difficult questions, or give an answer to those who would use them to deny the existence of the God of Scripture?
We know from the perfection and unity of God, no attribute of God as revealed in Scripture can be compromised, and no one attribute of God can be in conflict with another attribute. If a single attribute of God were compromised, God would not be God (to be discussed further below). How, then, do we logically answer the difficulties and reconcile the apparent contradictions? While a comprehensive list of answers to each theological problem is beyond the scope of this work,9 Scripture provides the answer to all such problems. The answer lies in the nature of God’s perfections. The “problem of evil,” and all such theological difficulties, are answered in light of the infinite excellence of God. As will be seen below, the perfections of God answer the difficulty of reconciling the perfections of God!
All human difficulties with reconciling God’s revelation of Himself and the world as it exists can be reduced to the infinite difference between God and His people. We are finite in perspective and knowledge, God is not. God determines all truth, while we depend upon Him for all knowledge of the truth. And as the finite cannot fully comprehend the infinite, we deny reality and set our reason as the ultimate authority over God’s revelation if we attempt do so. As we noted concerning God’s incomprehensibility, mystery is proper and reasonable for finite beings in a universe created and sustained by an infinite God. That finite people cannot and will not fully understand the nature and ways of an infinite and transcendent God is reasonable and to be expected. Our desire to reconcile every apparent tension or incompatibility of God’s revelation with our understanding of the world often reflects a refusal to accept the fact that we are not God. To reject what God has revealed about Himself and His universe because we do not understand it repeats the sin of Adam and Eve by exalting our limited human understanding over God as the ultimate standard of truth. It says, in effect, that “what I cannot understand cannot be true, and only that which I can understand can be true,” lowering God’s ways to our ways. While we cannot fully grasp how evil can exist in a world created, ordered, and sustained by a good and omnipotent God, our limited understanding does not constitute the final authority of what is possible and impossible with a transcendent and infinite God. When confronted with the profound mysteries of Scripture, we must avoid saying that which contradicts Scripture and dishonors God as the source of all truth and knowledge. By all means we should pursue the study of God’s word and learn about God’s universe through scientific study. But when the land meets the deep waters, we do best to stand on the safety of the shore. When confronted with deep mystery, we rightly admit our limitations and refuse the irreverent debasing of God.
The biblical and God-honoring approach to all such theological problems involves the acknowledgement and assent to the following biblical truths.
1) God’s ways are perfect in every way and infinitely higher than our ways.
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9).
“Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind and said: ‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding’” (Job 38:1-4).
“Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand and marked off the heavens with a span, enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure and weighed the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance? Who has measured the Spirit of the LORD, or what man shows him his counsel? Whom did he consult, and who made him understand? Who taught him the path of justice, and taught him knowledge, and showed him the way of understanding?” (Isaiah 40:12-14).
2) As created, finite, and dependent upon God for all knowledge, we can know only what God has chosen to reveal to us.
“The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 29:29).
3) Our limited understanding does not constitute the standard of truth for what can or cannot be true with God, or what God can and cannot do in His universe.
“Behold, I am the LORD, the God of all flesh; is anything too difficult for Me?” (Jeremiah 32:27 NAS).
“When I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done on earth, how neither day nor night do one's eyes see sleep, then I saw all the work of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. However much man may toil in seeking, he will not find it out. Even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find it out” (Ecclesiastes 8:16-17).
“But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’” (Romans 9:20).
4) No proposed solution to the “problem of evil” or other theological difficulty can compromise any revealed attribute of God, or any necessary implication of an attribute of God.
“And the LORD said to Job: ‘Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? He who argues with God, let him answer it.’ Then Job answered the LORD and said: ‘Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but I will proceed no further.’ Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind and said: ‘Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me. Will you even put me in the wrong? Will you condemn me that you may be in the right?’” (Job 40:1-8).
“What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? By no means! Let God be true though every one were a liar, as it is written, ‘That you may be justified in your words, and prevail when you are judged.’ But if our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God, what shall we say? That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.) By no means! For then how could God judge the world?” (Romans 3:3-6).
5) The responsibility and guilt of sin always lies in the will of the creature that sins, including the foreordained acts of sinners.
“See, this alone I found, that God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes” (Ecclesiastes 7:29).
“This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:23).
“For truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place” (Acts 4:27-28).
“For the Son of Man goes as it has been determined, but woe to that man by whom he is betrayed!” (Luke 22:22).
6) God has remedied evil at infinite cost to Himself. In the redeeming work of Christ, He upheld and displayed His perfect righteousness and sufficiently revealed His perfect character in which we can fully trust in the face of the greatest mysteries and difficulties.
“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it--the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:21-26).
Of course, an entire library could be filled, and indeed many libraries are filled, with the presentation and explanation of the last point. God has displayed His infinite excellence in the person and saving work of Christ, condescending from His infinite glory in heaven to take upon Himself frail human flesh. From an infinite heart of love he suffered infinite wrath on behalf of the infinitely evil and unworthy, that he might purchase for them perfect righteousness and infinite joy in heaven forever. And through it all He maintained and displayed the perfection of all His attributes. The God who goes the infinite mile for the unlovable, without the slightest compromise of His righteousness, can be fully trusted in the face of great mystery. Of this we can be sure, God’s character is infinitely excellent and the free will of the creature is responsible for sin. To find fault with such a God speaks only of the wickedness of the heart that would do so.
Yet, none of the above truths will satisfy the sinner as the self-appointed ultimate authority and standard of what God can and cannot be, and what God can and cannot do in His universe. A person at enmity with God will suppress and reject all truth that points to the supremacy and excellence of God (Romans 1:18-22). “To the pure, all things are pure, but to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled” (Titus 1:15). But, all the suppression and denial in the world does not make the above truths above any less true. As we have seen, the opinions of God’s creation cannot effect what God can and cannot be and can and cannot do.
As noted in the Introduction and increasingly evident by overlap in the discussion thus far, the same apologetic principles are implied by many different attributes of God. For instance, man’s dependence upon God for all knowledge is because God as self-existent and self-sufficient created, sustains, and determines all things, possesses perfect and infinite knowledge and wisdom, is omnipotent, omnipresent, spirit, and the source of all truth. Similarly, God is not subject to the limitations of His creation as infinite, omnipotent, self-existent, self-sufficient, omnipresent, and spirit, and thus all arguments against God that are based on the supposed impossibility of God existing based on natural laws are without merit. This point will become increasingly clear as we examine the apologetic implications of more attributes.
The attributes of God are mutually dependent one upon the other, while each attribute is implied by the others. In speaking of the unity of God, Frame writes, “all of his attributes have divine attributes! God’s mercy is eternal, and his creative power is wise.”10 As I note elsewhere concerning Edwards’ view of God’s justice and the Gospel,
God’s justice is both consistent and necessarily implied in God’s perfections. God is creator of all things, upholds all things, and knows all things, and as He is infinite and perfect in knowledge, He knows what is the ‘fittest’ in all things. His perfect knowledge precludes His ever being deceived, and He cannot be tempted to receive any more than He already has, ‘for it is impossible that he should want any addition to his happiness or pleasure,’ for He is ‘self-existent’ and ‘independent as to his happiness.’ Should He need anything, ‘with infinite power he can procure it,’ while He cannot be tempted to procure it unjustly. Injustice in God contradicts His all-sufficiency, self-existence, infinity, holiness, mercy, immutability, omniscience, and goodness. Indeed, ‘to suppose that God is unjust contradicts all the attributes and so the very being of God.’ For God to be unjust is to no longer be God.11
Hodge writes, “The perfections of God…are attributes, without which He would cease to be God.”12 To deny one attribute of God denies other attributes of God and therefore denies God as God. Yet, this all important truth of theology and apologetics is often misunderstood or ignored by theologians attempting to reconcile mysteries beyond what God has revealed to us, or by those who attempt to make God’s nature and acts more amenable to prevailing philosophical and cultural beliefs.
For instance, granting to an unbeliever that God can only act in time denies God as infinite, self-existent, spirit, omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent. To deny God’s knowledge of the future to preserve a supposed view that human acts cannot be free if they are ordained or foreknown by God not only denies omniscience, it denies God’s infinite perfection, wisdom, and self-sufficiency as He is made dependent on events outside His control to accomplish His will. Advocates of such views do not always appreciate the full implications of their attempts to reconcile what they believe to be incompatible with reality and logic. In the desire to save what they believe is necessary for free will, they deny God as God. In the end, they exalt their own understanding to the place of ultimate authority to determine what can and cannot be true about God. Better they should accept their limited understanding and dependence on God for all knowledge and trust what God has revealed about Himself in Scripture.
God has called us to defend and proclaim His excellence in the Gospel of Christ. Yet, He has not done so because He needs us. Rather, He has graciously given us the privilege to participate in His ultimate purpose to display His glory in and through the person and saving work of Christ. We are to honor Him in reverently participating in this purpose. The denial of a single attribute of God is contrary to God’s ultimate purpose. God needs no defense that elevates human reason over His authority, or subjects Him to the constraints of our human understanding of logic or the created universe. God needs no “defense” that reduces His infinite excellence to suit our limited understanding, or compromises any of His attributes as He has revealed them to us in Scripture.
“Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.”
1 William G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, 3rd ed., ed. Alan W. Gomes (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2003), 276-7; Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 61-2.
2 Grudem, Systematic Theology, 177.
3 Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 62.
4 Frame, Doctrine of God, 230.
5 See Theodore M. Drange, “Incompatible-Properties arguments: A Survey,” Philo, Vol. 1, No. 2, Fall-Winter 1998, 49-60. Drange lists ten pairs of what he perceives to be “incompatible properties” of God. Drange’s list is not exhaustive, as variations of each argument could be produced, just as many variations of the problem of evil exist. For additional arguments along these lines, see Michael Martin and Ricki Monnier, eds., The Impossibility of God (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2003).
6 While the argument sometimes includes all types of evil in the world, such as suffering and natural disasters and the like, natural disasters and other “natural” evils do not pose as great a theological difficulty as moral evil. All “natural” problems in a world originally created perfect by God can ultimately be traced to the entrance of sin into the world and God’s curse upon it.
7 Louis P. Pojman, Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company), 163.
8 Frame, Doctrine of God, 392-393.
9 For an excellent summary of various proposed solutions to the problem of evil, the problems associated with each proposed solution, and a biblical response to the problem, see John Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of God (P & R Publishing: Phillipsburg, NJ, 1994), 149-190.
10 Frame, Doctrine of God, 229.
11 Biehl, Infinite Merit of Christ, 99-100.
12 Hodge, Systematic Theology, 1:369.