Human kindness would never exist if our world was perfect

This counter-intuitive statement is an opinion of mine. I’m not a psychologist and have very little evidence to support it, but bear with me and see if you agree with my reasoning.

Children learn to understand the needs of others

Humans are born entirely dependent on their parents providing for their needs. The newborn’s existence will undoubtedly provide its parents with much joy, but because it is unable to fully process the stimuli of its world it is probably completely unaware of this, in fact, at this point of its life, it is probably entirely unaware of the needs of others around them. For infants we see this as morally acceptable. Their needs are simple and their parents are probably perfectly able to provide for those needs.

However, as infants grow to become children their needs will become more sophisticated and their parents may be unable to meet some of those needs. The child then has to learn to relinquish their needs, for example, they may be compelled to endure the long visit to the shops or to forgo the toy that they wanted.

Eventually, the child will develop a degree of autonomy and will be able to satisfy some of their needs themselves. They will also learn to empathise with other peoples’ needs and will occasionally find that their ability to satisfy their own needs compromises the needs of others around them. Their first instinct might be to satisfy their needs regardless of the impact on others, but through conflict and parental guidance they will soon learn to negotiate their needs with the needs of others.

We are all aware of this process, but I illustrate it here merely to highlight how limitations in the child’s environment encourage the child to understand the needs of others. We could speculate that the more severe the limitations the more aware the child would have to become.

Moving beyond negotiation

At this point the child has learnt to negotiate merely for the purpose of meeting their own needs. For all of us, as we matured into childhood and adulthood, we became habitually programmed to resort to negotiation to meet our own needs. We might often encompass this need to negotiate within a moral framework. For example, we might easily feel indignant when our part of the negotiation has not been reciprocated. We may have given 110% to our workplace and watched while promotion passed us by or supported our partner in the home and felt that our needs have been ignored. This drive to negotiate comes in many guises. Even acts of kindness may be done to receive gratitude or social recognition.

Sometimes, however, we can move beyond this need to trade kindnesses. For example, we may sacrifice a pleasure to give an anonymous donation to a worthy cause simply because we are moved by compassion. It seems to me that the greater our compassion the more likely we are to make a genuine personal sacrifice to meet the needs of others. Generally, the greater the suffering of others, the more we are moved in compassion. Of course, our reactions to suffering may be mixed. Apathy or self preservation may lead us to ignore it. However, without the suffering of others there would be no drive for us to abandon the trading of kindnesses in favour of true compassion.

An imperfect world leads to human kindness

So, it seems to me that our moral development is dependent on us living in an imperfect world. Without limited resources we would not have to learn to consider others’ needs and to negotiate. Without the suffering of others we would not have the choice to either act in compassion or to be apathetic towards the needs of others.

This may seem obvious, but it underpins my arguments as to why God might allow suffering and that The Christian calling is to love selflessly.

The Christian calling is to love selflessly

On the face of it, this topic might seem to be only about the subtleties of Christian theology. However, it’s more than that; it is the foundation for an argument that suggests that God might require his existence to remain unproven so that humans can fulfil their calling to love selflessly.

What is Love?

‘Love’ is an ambiguous word that has many meanings. In fact, you could consider there to be four categories of love, each named after an ancient Greek word: Storge (pronounced Stor-gay), Eros, Philia and Agape. Storge refers to the love found within families, Eros refers to the desire to draw out all that is good, beautiful and true (particularly in a romantic context), Philia is the love within a friendship and Agape refers to a selfless love.

The first three of these categories, Storge, Eros and Philia, could be considered to be kinds of love that are typically offered on condition that they will be reciprocated. For example, the love found in families can often be accompanied with expectations of loyalty and behaviour. Romantic love and friendships often only function when they are reciprocated.

However, Agape love, in contrast, is not offered conditionally. By definition, it is most likely to be unreciprocated, and the giver is less likely to withhold it even when it is unreciprocated.

Agape Love in an Imperfect World

In my topic, ‘Human kindness would never exist if our world was perfect’, I argue that humans can only develop traits of kindness by learning to compromise their desires and by learning to act in compassion and that their opportunities to do this depend on them living in a world of conflict and suffering. These traits (being able to compromise personal desires) and acting in compassion are those that are most akin to the characteristics of agape love.

Agape Love in the Bible

I personally believe that the Christian calling is predominantly a calling to love selflessly. I’m not trying to undermine the importance of other aspects of Christianity such as divine forgiveness, prayer, worship and evangelism. However, I do feel that the Christian calling to love selflessly is by far the most important and is sometimes more neglected than it should be.

References to the overriding importance of selfless love within Christianity can be seen throughout Jesus’ teachings. For brevity I list only two passages taken from the Gospel of Matthew; there are others.

Matthew 5:39-48

“Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Matthew 22:37-40
“Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord you God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and the greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

In the topic “God doesn’t want his existence proven,” I argue that God may require his existence to remain unproven so that our actions are more likely to be acts of selfless love rather than reluctant acts of obedience.

God doesn’t want his existence proven

Following on from my topic The Christian calling is to love selflessly I hope to show in this topic that acts of selfless love would be much less prevalent in society if God’s existence were to be proven beyond all doubt and that a belief in God should not therefore be rejected merely because there is ambiguity regarding his existence.

Moral ambiguities cause us to express our inner character

Most of the moral dilemmas that we face are obscured by ambiguity. We might, for example, want to buy an item of clothing such as a jacket. Equivalent jackets might be available in various clothe stores, some at prices beyond what we wanted to pay, whilst others at prices that are more affordable. We could then go on to question why the jackets are priced differently. If the qualities seemed equivalent then we might suspect that the affordable jackets had lower production costs, probably benefiting from worker exploitation in developing countries.

Of course, none of the clothe stores would advertise their worker exploitation, so our moral dilemma is immediately clouded by ambiguity. However, this ambiguity actually gives us the freedom to express either our inner morality or even our inner immorality. We could, for example, take the highly moral approach and decide not to do anything that could potentially encourage the exploitation of workers in the developing world. We could say that the act of simply searching for the best bargains would ultimately encourage clothe stores to cut prices and that the resulting price competition between stores might ultimately result in further cost cutting and further exploitation of workers in developing countries. This would clearly be a very moral approach, which, if we followed through with our actions, would require us to selflessly pay more for the jacket than we would otherwise need to.

Alternatively, our inner moral dilemma could result in an action that was more favourable to ourselves. We could conciliate our conscience with the knowledge that the clothe store might not be exploiting workers or even argue that any exploitation was not our doing and, therefore, not our responsibility.

The moral ambiguity will have then given us the freedom to either make a highly moral decision or to make a decision that benefited ourselves. If there were no moral ambiguity then the opportunity would be lessened. If, for example, every clothe store that benefited from worker exploitation, either directly or indirectly, was forced to advertise the fact then our decision to buy a more expensive jacket would be driven by a sense of obligation or a desire to keep our conscience clear rather than generosity of character.

The moral ambiguity made it possible for us to make a decision based on shear generosity. Our conscience would have been clear whatever our decision, but we had the opportunity to say, ‘Just in case there is a chance that my money will encourage worker exploitation, I will pay more.’

Our purpose is to love selflessly

In the same way, our tendency or otherwise to believe that God exists reflects our inner morality because his existence is unproven. I’ll explain my reasoning next. (I’m not trying to say that all followers of religion are automatically more moral than others; there are many reasons why people can follow a religion and not all of those reasons are moral.)

In my topic The Christian calling is to love selflessly I explained that I believe the most important calling for a Christian is to love selflessly. This selfless love is sometimes called ‘agape love’ and is an unreciprocated love. In others words, it is the kind of love that makes the receiver feel better than the giver. As you can imagine, it’s a challenge to love in this way.

Our selfless acts are more generous when we are uncertain about God’s existence

It is perfectly reasonable to say that if God existed he might be calling us to love selflessly. However, it’s also perfectly reasonable to expect that the challenge to love selflessly does not suit everyone. If our preference is for a different, more self serving kind of love and we are confronted with the challenge that God exists and that he is calling us to love selflessly we have three choices.

The first choice is the one we would be least likely to take; we could believe the challenge, but decide to reject the challenge to love selflessly. I say that it’s the one we would be least likely to take because the act of believing and rejecting the challenge is fairly self condemning, in the sense that it is a judgemental statement of our own character and it is an acceptance of any consequences associated with the rejection of the challenge.

The second choice is the easiest to take. We could deny that the challenge is true. In the same way that we could earlier deny that the cheapest clothe store might be benefiting from worker exploitation, we could say that God’s existence is unproven and that the challenge can therefore be ignored.

The third choice is the one that I believe to be the most honourable. We could honestly consider and investigate the challenge and, if it seems reasonable to us, then we could say to ourselves that, although we are not entirely sure that God exists, we would like to strive to love selflessly and accept God’s calling for our lives. I’m not saying that the mere act of following a religion is honourable, but the act of sacrificing our own desires to love selflessly because God might exist is definitely both honourable and generous.

Again, it was the ambiguity of God’s existence that gave us the opportunity to make either a decision based on shear generosity or a decision that benefited ourselves.

If God’s existence and calling were proven beyond all doubt then I suggest that we would probably be more likely to try to accept the challenge, but also more likely to fail. Our actions would no longer be those of generosity and self sacrifice, but actions of self preservation as we seek to appease God. The very call to love selflessly itself would be invalidated as we made vain attempts to act out the lifestyle that we felt God wanted from us, whilst our motives to love selflessly would be overrun with a desire to keep God happy with us.

Does God’s unproven existence form part of a universal moral test?

I suggest then that the very ambiguity that surrounds God’s existence is not a reason to dismiss his existence. Although, Jesus himself was never ambiguous about the existence of God, the Bible describes in the Gospel of Matthew chapter 16 (verses 13-20) how even he warned the disciples not to reveal that he was the Christ, relying instead at that time on the interaction between a person and God as a source of the revelation. The process of ‘discovering God’ might in itself be part of a moral test, a challenge that we either accept or reject. I don’t find it surprising then that Jesus himself seems to hint at this in various places in the Bible, including the Gospel of Matthew chapter 13 (verses 24-30, 36-42) and chapter 25 (verses 31-46) where he describes how all of mankind are being/or will be sifted according to their morality.

It’s a challenge to us all that the seemingly inconsequential decisions that we make daily may be justifying or condemning ourselves. Please, continue to investigate the evidence of God’s existence, possibly by reading some of the other topics on this website.

If God exists then why doesn’t he appear to us?

I’ve sometimes heard people say, ‘If God exists then why doesn’t he just show himself?’ I think that for many of us this is probably one of the most important questions to address. Even when we don’t vocalise this ourselves, I’m sure that this question underpins many of our doubts, even if we don’t realise it.

An over-simplistic scientific rationale

Today, more than ever, our knowledge and beliefs are underpinned by a scientific rationale. I use the term ‘scientific’ here loosely. Scientific methods rely on observations to prove reasoning and belief. In other words, a scientist will typically create an unproven theory, for example, ‘The universe is full of dark matter’ or ‘No mass can travel faster than the speed of light.’ Eventually, this theory is shown to be either correct or incorrect by observations of the real world. This is an excellent technique for discovering and testing knowledge and has been used to demonstrate many discoveries, from the existence of Oxygen in air to the existence of elementary subatomic particles, e.g. Quarks. The former is well within the resources of the typical school science lab, whilst the latter requires a large investment of time and money.

Whilst demonstrating the existence of Oxygen in air is fairly straightforward, we need to be a little more open minded when demonstrating the existence of elementary subatomic particles. We can no longer rely on general observation and must instead rely on complex theories and expensive equipment. Likewise, it would be very wrong to assume that God does not exist simply because he is not typically demonstrated through simple observation.

Relying on the beliefs of others

However, the question ‘Why doesn’t God just show himself?’ still causes doubt, even to those that are content to accept scientific theories that are barely observable. I believe this might be due to two reasons. Firstly, the rationale of some of the people that state that God exists might not seem to be as carefully and rigorously thought out as the theories of the professional scientist. I believe that it is very easy to align our own beliefs with the beliefs of those that have thoroughly investigated a theory when we lack the time or motivation to investigate the theory ourselves. If we doubt the thoroughness of that investigation then it is too easy to doubt the theory itself.

God may not want his existence proven

The second reason, and more relevant to this topic, is that we attribute a superior intelligence and power to God. Many Christians will respond to the question ‘Why doesn’t God just show himself?’ by saying that God has demonstrated his existence through the life and resurrection of Jesus Christ. However, if we then assume that God has a simple desire to be believed whatever the consequence and we recognise that God’s existence through the witness of Jesus is not universally accepted then we’ll attribute his failure to be believed as evidence of his nonexistence.

I believe that this is flawed reasoning. In the topic, God doesn’t want his existence proven, I argue that there might be legitimate reasons for God to be selective about who he demonstrates his existence to. I argue that our action in response to an unsubstantiated belief reflects our deepest motives. If an unproven God tells us to love our enemy and we chose to do that then our actions are much more significant than if they are a reluctant attempt to obey a proven God. Doubt gives us the freedom to make different choices and ensures that those choices reflect and shape our characters.

Instead of letting the question, ‘Why doesn’t God just show himself?’ stop us in our fascinating journey of discovery we should careful consider what evidence there is for God’s existence and let that shape our beliefs instead.

If God exists then why does he allow suffering?

This objection is typically raised against the Christian faith. The Bible describes God as a god of love (1 John 4:16) and an all powerful god (Jeremiah 32:17). The rationale behind this objection is, quite simply, if God is a loving god then he wouldn’t want mankind to suffer and if he is an all powerful god then he would have the means to stop suffering. Therefore, the rationale follows, God cannot be both loving and all powerful and so the Christian premise must be wrong.

However, this is, in fact, an oversimplification of Christian theology. The Bible itself acknowledges the existence of suffering and even suggests that suffering brings benefits:

Romans 8:17
“We are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.”

Is there a greater good at stake?

So, can the existence of suffering be reconciled with a belief in an all powerful and loving God or is Christian theology fundamentally flawed?

I personally believe that it is perfectly reasonable to believe that God could permit suffering to happen for the purpose of a greater good. To describe this with an analogy, imagine a parent with a young child that is about to start school. That parent will willingly send their child even though they are fully aware that the child will no doubt endure some suffering. They do this because they anticipate that the benefits of an education will out way the short term consequences of the suffering that their child will endure.

The Bible describes the human lifetime and its sufferings as momentary (2 Corinthians 4:18) and compares the suffering that humans may endure in this lifetime to the labour pains of childbirth (Romans 8:22). Although suffering may be intense it is described as being outweighed by its future benefits.

Suffering permits human kindness

In my topic, Human kindness would never exist if our world was perfect, I argue that living in a world where there is suffering permits humans kindness in two ways. Firstly, limited resources give us a reason to compromise our own desires for the sake of others and, secondly, other people’s suffering can lead us to act compassionately. Of course, suffering doesn’t always lead to acts of human kindness. Sometimes, for example, the fear of suffering can lead us to become selfishly self-protective. However, in a world where there is no suffering there would probably be no kindness and, possibly even, no evil. Maybe the suffering in our world is the foundation upon which our moral character is tested: do we show kindness to those in need or do we become self-protective? The choice reflects our inner most characteristics.

Whose to blame for the suffering: God or mankind?

This doesn’t necessarily mean that God is therefore inflicting suffering on mankind, rather than merely permitting it. I believe that the majority of suffering is the result of two very obvious facts. We are living in a world of limited resources and we have free will to share or hoard those resources as we choose. Everything from the nutrition that sustains life to life itself is limited. Even the suffering caused by natural disasters or, so called, ‘acts of God,’ is aggravated when populations are forced to live, through their poverty or otherwise, in countries or buildings that are vulnerable to flooding or earthquakes.

It seems to me that if God existed he would not be the one to blame for the suffering in our world, but the blame would instead lie with the daily choices that we make as individuals and, if God were to relieve suffering he would have to first remove our ability to make choices, that is, our free will; something that we would all object to.

Jesus Christ was just a good man

Taken at face value, this is predominantly an objection against Christian doctrine rather than an objection against the existence of God. However, I believe that this objection often originates from the presumption that there is no God and that Jesus could therefore not have been the Son of God, but instead, merely a good man.

The life of Jesus is, however, an excellent place to start our search to find out whether or not God exists. The description of Jesus in the Bible is of a man who clearly considered himself to be the Son of God and who performed many supernatural acts. If this description is correct then Jesus’ life becomes a very significant piece of evidence.

A mere man who says he is the Son of God cannot be a great moral teacher

The four canonical gospels are the four books in the Bible that describe the events of Jesus’ life. In my topic, There is no natural explanation for Jesus’ miracles, I list Jesus’ references to himself as the Son of God within one of these gospels, the Gospel of John. There is no doubt that Jesus was convinced that he was the Son of God, something which is incompatible with the theory that Jesus was merely a good man. C. S. Lewis, the author of the Narnia stories and a Christian apologetic, demonstrated this using an argument, which is now known as ‘Lewis’ Trilemma’. He reasoned that the gospels describe how Jesus clearly saw himself to be the Son of God and that if he was anything other than the Son of God then he would have had to have instead been either a lunatic or an evil person capable of deceiving his followers. He certainly would not have been merely a good man or a great moral teacher. Here is a quote from Lewis’ book, Mere Christianity,

A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon; or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

Jesus’ actions and teachings aren’t those of an evil man

If the gospels are to believed then we can quickly discount that Jesus was evil. He taught his followers, amongst other things, to uphold the law, to love their enemies and that the reliance on the swearing of oaths to discern truth is rooted in evil and encouraged an honest ‘yes’ or ‘no’ instead. He put his ministry and ultimately his life in danger several times by healing sick people on the Sabbath, the Jewish religious day of rest, and he was particularly concerned about helping those rejected by society and had little or no concern about being accepted by the powerful and influential. To state whether someone is evil or not always requires a subjective assessment, but in Jesus’ case it is nonetheless one that is irrefutable; he cannot have been evil.

Jesus’ references to himself as the Son of God were not light hearted throwaway statements. They were repeated and calculated. It would have been obvious to him and his followers that to refer to himself in this way would have placed himself at great risk of being charged with blasphemy by the Jewish religious authorities. In fact, it was his claim to be the Son of God that the Jewish religious authorities used to convict him under their own law, which ultimately led to his crucifixion by the Roman authorities.

Delusions of grandeur or Miracle Maker?

So, if Jesus’ references to himself as the Son of God cannot be attributed to throwaway comments or to him being evil enough to deceive his followers can they be attributed to Jesus being, in Lewis’ words, a lunatic. Could he have suffered from, for example, delusions of grandeur?

Anybody today who claimed to be the Son of God would immediately be assumed to be suffering from delusions of grandeur. Even in the first century many of the Jewish religious authorities assumed his claims to be false, although this seems to be partly because they didn’t believe or didn’t know that Jesus was born in Bethlehem – the prophesied birth place of the expected Messiah. If we were to make an assessment of Jesus’ identity based on nothing more than his character and teachings we too, by default, would have to assume that he suffered from delusions of grandeur.

However, the gospels record that Jesus performed a large number of miracles. Many of these would have been difficult or impossible to fake using natural means even if Jesus had knowingly been deceiving his followers. If Jesus was a mere human who genuinely believed in his own integrity then his miracles would have had to instead been the product of sequences of extraordinarily improbable natural events. This is not just implausible; it is inconceivable to think how even improbable natural events could somehow have been the real cause for some of the miracles in the gospels. To highlight just one example, what natural event could have rolled away the stone of the tomb in which Jesus had been born? It would be difficult enough to argue that Jesus had somehow survived not only his crucifixion, but also survived his preceding flogging (which was in itself life threatening) and the subsequent piercing of his heart with a spear. It would be impossible to then argue that the same mortally wounded man rolled the stone away from the entrance of his own tomb from inside, which was probably guarded on the outside by Roman soldiers, who would have been under pain of death to do their job properly. The miracles in the gospels and the extraordinary claims of Jesus clearly cannot be explained by saying that Jesus suffered from delusions of grandeur.

Can the gospels be trusted?

The only remaining reason to discount the gospel records of Jesus’ life as evidence of the existence of God would be if the integrity of the gospels themselves were substantially in doubt. They would have to be something other than genuine attempts to record the events of Jesus’ life. It could be speculated that the authors of these gospels were attempting to deceive their readers, or that the authors were confused in some way or that the gospels were some other kind of fabrication. In my topic, There is no natural explanation for Jesus’ miracles, I discuss every reasonable natural explanation for the miracles of Jesus that I can think of and, after finding serious flaws in all of them, I come to the conclusion that Jesus’ life can be treated as evidence for the existence of God.

Hasn’t science proven that Christianity is wrong?

The typical onlooker could be forgiven for thinking that there is no common ground between Christianity and science. On the one hand they may hear Christians emphasising that the universe was created by God, whist on the other hand they may hear scientists stating that the universe was created through a ‘Big Bang’. Ever since the Big Bang theory was first mused in the 1930’s it has gone from being distrusted to universally accepted by scientists. It might seem to the onlooker that the theory becomes more trusted each decade by everyone except Christians. It is highly ironic therefore that the Big Bang theory actually owes its existence to a Christian minister and physicist.

The founder of the Big Bang theory

Georges Lemaître was a Belgian Roman Catholic priest and a professor of physics and astronomer at the Catholic University of Louvain. He was the first scientist to propose the theory in the early 1930’s, calling it the ‘hypothesis of the primeval atom’. The term ‘Big Bang’ was coined by Sir Fred Hoyle in the late 1940’s who was himself a sceptic of the theory because the creation of the universe seemed to imply the existence of a creator.

Why do Christianity and science appear to be in conflict?

The reason why some Christians struggle to accept the Big Bang theory is because the first chapter in the first book of the Bible (Genesis 1) states that God created the heavens and the earth in six days. A literal interpretation of this narrative would seem to be clearly incompatible with the Big Bang theory.

Deriving the Big Bang theory from the Bible

In my topic, Christians aren’t required to believe in a 6 day creation, I show how many Christians interpret Genesis’ creation narrative less literally, often believing that God worked though evolution to create new species.

These Christians tend to view Genesis as a metaphorical or a theological narrative rather than one that accurately describes the physical world. However, a Jewish scholar, rabbi and philosopher called Nahmanides through a careful study of the Bible derived a description of the Big Bang. Astonishingly, he lived from 1194 AD to 1270 AD, centuries before the Big Bang theory was even conceived of by scientists. Modern science now predicts that the universe, immediately after the beginning of the Big Bang, contained an intense amount of energy, which, as the universe expanded, became a plasma and finally matter. Here is an extract of Nahmanides biblical commentary, which describes this:

…At the briefest instant following creation all the matter of the universe was concentrated in a very small place, no larger than a grain of mustard. The matter at this time was very thin, so intangible, that it did not have real substance. It did have, however, a potential to gain substance and form and to become tangible matter. From the initial concentration of this intangible substance in its minute location, the substance expanded, expanding the universe as it did so. As the expansion progressed, a change in the substance occurred. This initially thin non-corporeal substance took on the tangible aspects of matter as we know it. From this initial act of creation, from this ethereally thin pseudo-substance, everything that has existed, or will ever exist, was, is, and will be formed.

To interpret this from Biblical scriptures would seem almost miraculous. I know nothing of how Nahmanides might have done this, so I’m reluctant to draw too strong a conclusion here, but this clearly shows us that there need not be any conflict between the disciplines of Biblical study and science. Indeed, many prominent scientists who are also Christians would probably agree.