In Scripture, the adversary of God is not depicted as another god. He is a powerful enough adversary, but he is not divine. He is not human either, but a pure spirit. His only fault can be the preferment of his self-centered world over that of God.
Among the pagans, to be sure, we found many gods, but even here one was more god-like than the others. Zeus himself displayed a few human foibles. Psalm 135 reads: “Our God is greater than all gods.” Whatever the other gods were, they were not the God of the Hebrews.
In 1932, Owen Francis Dudley wrote a novel with the unforgettable title: Will Men Be like Gods? Needless to say, some would like to be. But this question takes us back to the Fall, to the essence of the temptation of Adam and Eve. If they disobeyed God’s command, the Devil told them, they would be “like gods”. They would know or create by themselves the distinction between good and evil. The devil assured them that God lied to them by forbidding anything to them. It did not take them too long to find out who really lied to them.
The very idea of two identical gods with the exact same specifications, moreover, was rightly held to be contradictory. If they were both equally all-knowing and all-powerful, no grounds existed for distinguishing one from another. The result of this formulation meant that either there was only one God or there was no god.
Trinitarian theology, moreover, was careful not to propose three gods, even though many insist on reading this aberration into the Christian teaching. The distinction of persons within the Godhead is constantly presented as one God who is, in turn, the Yahweh of the Old Testament; that is, the one “God” who shall not have strange gods before Him.
The distinction within the Trinitarian life indicates what the one God is like in His inner life. The “otherness” within the Godhead does not constitute a second god. It implies the vibrant, complete inner life of one being. Christ constantly said “I and the Father are one.” The Father, the Son/Word, and the Holy Spirit are one God, not three, while one person is not the other. St. Augustine was fond of saying that we are one person with intellect and will that reached to what is not ourselves. In knowing what is not ourselves, we do not cease to be one. We are rightly called God’s “image”.
Why does all of this thinking about God make any difference? In the first place, we are supposed to think about God. If we think wrongly about God, most everything else goes wrong. But do we really need some accurate, if not wholly sufficient, understanding of what God is?
Modern thought of the God that is—the God who can do all things possible, the God who freely revealed Himself—does, however, leave us with another god who is said to be even more powerful than the One God of revelation.
The god of Hobbes is called a “mortal” god. He can, it is claimed, when he is covenanted by the wills of men, do one thing that the God of revelation cannot do. The mortal god is more powerful than the revealed God because he is not limited by the distinction of good and evil.
Machiavelli had already postulated this curious “freedom” of the prince. Hobbes’ Leviathan had the same scope of power. The god who is free to do either good or evil seems to have a certain advantage over a god who is limited by the fact that he cannot do what is evil. The mortal god of Hobbes, the famous Leviathan, can do whatever he wishes because, by agreement, in him is concentrated all the civil power. “Whatever the prince wishes is the law”—to recall a famous principle of Roman Law, a principle with which all legal systems wrestle. While this Roman Law principle was understood to be a statement of man-made or positive law, it presumed no transcendent check or limit. All that could be said in the law was that it was the law.
Hobbes had originally set out to enhance and expand the “rights” of each individual to whatever he willed. He wanted to be free of fear of the gods. But it quickly became evident that in practice this would lead to the famous “war of all against all.” So it was necessary to postulate the mortal God who could decide by his own fiat, backed up by corporate power, what would be done. Whatever was done was right by definition.
Hobbes implicitly denied the Socratic principle that death was not the worst evil. His system “worked” because he assumed that death, especially violent death, was the worst evil. Knowing this, all that was necessary to establish civil order was to enforce the positive law, whatever it was. No one could prevail against it.
Strictly speaking, if a god is free to do, in its classical distinction, either what is good or what is evil, then there really is no difference between good and evil. The concept of evil is only possible if there are things that even God cannot do. So there is this second god, this mortal god, who vies with the God of faith and reason for supremacy over things human.
At first, we might wonder if it is an even match. Surely the Leviathan god cannot overcome the God who is. Why is it, we wonder, that God seems unable or unwilling to counteract the logic of the Leviathan god?
Put in Augustinian terms, why does the City of Man seem so capable of counteracting the City of God? Why are there two cities and not one? Why does God’s side always seem to be the losing side? Logically, the central feature of the Christian revelation clearly maintains that Christ, the Word, the Son of God, was crucified. Why is He not a loser?
God, as we implied, is not limited except by what He is. When He created us in His own image and likeness, in a certain ironic way, He limited Himself. His hypothesis was not that of the Leviathan god who postulated death as the worst evil. Speaking for subsequent generations, including those following the Christian dispensation, Socrates affirmed that it was never right to do wrong. God did not willfully and arbitrarily change good and bad into each other.
This meant that the God of what is good had to deal with what He Himself made possible, namely the ability and power of a being who was not God to reject Him. In dealing with this possible rejection, God was limited to the good. When Socrates said that it is better to suffer evil than to do it, he set down the whole agenda of the redemption.
In order to save men from their own choices of evil, while retaining their freedom, God’s response to evil was the Incarnation. Ultimately, the response meant that suffering and sacrifice would be the way to salvation for a fallen race.
Since it was still possible to reject God even in His Incarnation, God only had, as it were, two other options open to Him in the beginning. The first was to save men by allowing them to do evil and call it good. This option—that of the Leviathan, the modem secular state, and the Allah of the Muslims—was excluded by God’s very nature. The other option was not to create at all.
What we do know is that the God who is chose to create—but not to do evil or identify it with what is good. What follows is that our redemption includes suffering and embraces what is true and reasonable. That is, it includes affirming that what is created is good and that it is better to suffer evil than to do it.
This conclusion also means in logic that there is a history of (and a city for) those who reject the order in things, whether this knowledge of this order comes from reason or revelation. We generally call this latter city, in its ultimate reaches, hell.
Augustine said that God would not allow some evil to exist unless something good could be drawn from it. The good that can be drawn from a knowledge of the possibility of a final rejection of what is good is the eternal life of those who live by the truth.
In the end, there are not two gods. There is only the one God who creates beings who are invited to be deified and enter into His inner, Trinitarian life. No one can have this communion with the Godhead who does not want it. The suffering God, the revealed God, was the final divine effort to save the finite, rational being by suffering the consequences of mankind’s sins. At that point, God could have decided not to create anything lest some fail. What we know is that He decided to create and eventually to redeem man both by reason and by suffering.
In short, the saga of the “two gods” is that there is only one true God. There is a pseudo-god who makes the world in his own image. The true God is the one who has also come to dwell amongst us.
How we think on the one God tells us who we are and, no doubt, is the major factor in our final standing before the God who is a Trinity of persons but only one God—a God who created the universe. He created it in order that we, each of us, might receive the gift of His eternal life.
(Editor’s note: This “Sojourns with Schall” column was post originally on September 15, 2018.)
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