Wednesday, April 24, 2019

The Infinitude of a Perfectly Good God's Reward

One of the lynchpins of my bottom-up apologetic argument in defense of the Christian faith is the possibility that God, if He is perfectly good, might be able to deliver a reward of ostensibly infinite value.  To some, this sounds like pie-in-the-sky speculation, or mere wishful thinking.  Perhaps it sounds like I’m a religion salesman, and I am just puffing my wares.  “Infinite rewards await you!  Act now, before it’s too late!”

I can sympathize with those reactions, to some extent.  I would only guard against some misconceptions about what I am actually claiming.  My argument does not actually rest on the infinitude of a good God’s reward as a matter of actual fact.  Instead, my argument operates simply by accounting for the possibility that a good God’s reward might be infinitely good or valuable.

What’s the difference?  For one, if a premise of an argument rests on a matter of actual fact, then the argument can be undercut if it can be shown that no evidence exists to directly support the truth of the supposed matter of fact.  In this case, one can easily point out that we cannot directly observe the reward in question.

Furthermore, a premise affirming as a matter of actual fact the infinitude of God’s reward would beg multiple questions which are actually being answered in the conclusion of the argument.  For example, God’s reward could only be infinite as a matter of actual fact if God’s existence and goodness were also taken as granted as a matter of actual fact.  But if you are familiar with my actual argument, these matters are taken to be just as uncertain as the reward itself.

These points might seem obvious to some.  I have bothered making them in order to be quite clear about the goal posts, as it were.  Since my argument only actually depends on the possibility of an infinite reward, then defeating my argument requires a demonstration of the total impossibility of such an infinite reward.

Ron Garret has taken considerable efforts to probe and understand my argument, and always with exemplary respect.  He has presented a challenge to my argument on these grounds, to which I responded very briefly in my original post.  Ron recently recapitulated his argument in greater detail.  I am pleased to expand on the rebuttal that I offered against his argument.

1. Any condition impairing one’s ability to perceive and enjoy goodness might be specific to our current fallen nature, and absent in our eternal form.

Ron presents the right kind of argument here.  He argues that an infinite reward is impossible, because, in his words, “an infinite reward is fundamentally incompatible with human nature.”  Ron “can hardly imagine a worse fate than to be immortal.”

There is an important sense in which I quite agree with Ron’s statement here.  I absolutely agree that “an infinite reward is fundamentally incompatible with human nature.”  Human beings are, in the core of our nature: ignorant, proud, lazy, fearful, and restless.

Human ignorance sometimes prevents us from being able to enjoy goodness when we fail to perceive that goodness is before us.  When the odd man out declares a joke to be stupid, the rest of us know quite well what is actually going on: he didn’t get the punchline.  He thinks the joke is bad, but only because he failed to grasp the incongruity below the surface.  Pride prevents us from being able to enjoy goodness that we did not produce ourselves.  We want to be superior to the other, and thus we have to deprecate the fruit of the other, else his value would threaten our own.  Laziness prevents us from being able to enjoy goodness which requires effort to be enjoyed.  Mastery of any skill brings great joy, but most of us never really taste it outside of very contrived circumstances, precisely because achieving mastery is hard.  Fearfulness prevents us from enjoying good things for which we have no guaranty.  We see other people enjoying some things, yet we do not pursue them because we lack faith in the process of realization of the good thing.  Maybe we will fail to get it.  Maybe we will get it, but it won’t turn out to be as good as we hoped.

But there is something beyond even all of that, which is also part of human nature, and which also prevents us from being able to enjoy good things.  Human beings are restless.  Whenever we are in the process of authentic enjoyment of any objectively good thing, without fail we become aware of the many good things that we aren’t enjoying.  A person who loves movies can spend all his leisure time at the theatre, and go on day after day in the same habit.  But eventually, he becomes aware that he really should spend more time outside.  He should expand his social circle.  He should read more.  He should learn to cook, or to play guitar.  He should travel.  All of these things are good, in and of themselves, but our enjoyment of all of them is marred for the simple reason that we can’t enjoy them all.  And why is that?  It is because we are mortal.

This last point is important.  Ron, himself acknowledges this obvious fact when he says “Being mortal is woven deep into the fabric of our being.”  Yet, here we are, talking about how we might fare in eternity.  You see that we have already thrown off this major aspect of human nature, as we now know it to be.  We readily allow that human nature could possibly be changed so that we could be immortal.  Why, then, should we be so rigid concerning all those other aspects of human nature, which absolutely would impede our ability to enjoy goodness for all eternity?

Our restlessness can be cured by immortality.  We will be able to spend as long as we like at the theatre, because the time we spend there will not take away from the time we can spend hiking, or calling on friends, or reading, or cooking or making music.  We will be able to do it all, and so we needn’t worry about missing out on anything.

In the same way, we can imagine the possibility that a good God’s reward will entail the removal of all these obstacles to our eternal enjoyment of good things.  A good God can replace our ignorance with His revelation.  We will not then fail to perceive the goodness of anything, as we do now.  If a good God was able to replace our pride with humility, then we should find it just as natural to bask in the glory of other people’s achievements just as readily as we do in our own.  Transforming laziness into diligence would enable the pursuit of a greater variety of goodness, especially within the context of eternity.  And replacing fearfulness with faithfulness, we would never forego the pursuit of any good thing based on a presupposed expectation of failure.

You see, Ron’s argument for the impossibility of the infinitude of God’s reward depends on the fixity of our nature.  But as far as I can see, there is no reason to assume fixity concerning those aspects of our nature that impede our ability to perceive, pursue, and enjoy goodness.  It is generally and easily understood that certain aspects of our nature would have to be changed in order to enter God’s perfect kingdom.  Obviously, we would need to be made immortal, and that is no small facet of what we now view as fundamental to our very nature.  Christians also agree that our unrighteousness will have to be completely cured.  It is certainly possible that God might be able to do all these things, and thus it remains possible that God could deliver an infinitely valuable reward.

All this was entailed in the point included in my original rebuttal of Ron’s “problem of boredom”.  There I put it simply as “any condition impairing one’s ability to perceive and enjoy goodness might be specific to our current fallen nature, and absent in our eternal form.”

2. Since personal experience attests to the renewal of interest after a sabbatical, then rotation between several activities might maintain positive levels of interest and enjoyment through eternity.

Ron also alludes to the “bigness” of infinity as a problem for the infinitude of God’s reward.  Because the total amount of time to be devoted to the complete set of all heavenly activities is infinite, then the time to be devoted to any individual heavenly activity should also be infinite.  That is one of the properties of infinity: infinity divided by any real number still returns infinity.

If there were only two activities in which we could engage ourselves in heaven, and we divided our time between them evenly, then we would still be spending an infinite amount of time on each activity.  And this would remain true whether the “complete set of heavenly activities” included two, three, or one million unique activities.  However many activities there are to be enjoyed, so long as that number is finite (and more on that later), then the time to be devoted to each activity will be infinite.

Now, Ron must again appeal to human nature as it currently is: insofar as human beings experience declining pleasure from any activity after a certain point, we should reasonably expect that any heavenly activity will eventually become stale, dull, boring.  But once again, no reason has yet been provided for why Ron expects our nature to remain fixed in this arbitrary way.  Remember that the decline of our enjoyment of a good thing has to do with our mortality, ignorance, pride, laziness, and fearfulness.  And all of these could simply be defects, which are easily rectified in a willing patient.

Nevertheless, I grant that Ron’s appeal to the bigness of infinity has a certain intuitive force, even beyond our irrational assumption of the fixity of human nature.  In order to illustrate the force of the objection, let’s imagine that the “set of all heavenly activities” includes reading books.  Ron, for his part, imagines that reading books would be a good activity which we might expect to enjoy in heaven, and I agree with him (in principle).  In Ron’s picture, however, the child of God undertakes to read all possible books.  Part of the purpose of Ron’s example is to paint a picture of the lengthiness of eternity.  He says, “If you put an upper bound -- any upper bound -- on how long a book you're willing to read (100 million pages, say) you can read every one of those books [from the "Library of Babel"] an infinite number of times.”  And this, for what it’s worth, is a great way to illustrate the lengthiness of eternity.

But Ron goes on to say, “And if you spend even a little time browsing the Library of Babel you will see that reading most of those books is not going to be a lot of fun.”  This is a great way to demonstrate that reading is not good, in and of itself.  There is nothing enjoyable about reading gibberish on this side of eternity, and that is no fault of our own nature, but instead this is a defect of gibberish.  No, the goodness of reading comes from the goodness of that which is read.

So while the “Library of Babel” (which “would contain every possible combination of 1,312,000 characters, including lower case letters, space, comma, and period”) is a good way to demonstrate the bigness of infinity, it is a poor way to characterize the potential activity of heaven.

Nevertheless, we still have some common ground: reading good books is a good activity, and we can reasonably expect the set of activities in heaven to include the reading of good books, or else something which is essentially like it.  And since the set of all good books is only a very small portion of the set of all possible books, then the intuitively forceful problem of the length of eternity becomes all the more powerful.  We have a smaller number of books between which we are dividing the infinite amount of time which we can devote to reading.

So, if the “set of all heavenly activities” is finite in its membership, then it follows that we will spend an infinite amount of time on the activity defined as “reading good books”.  Let’s take a second to consider what this would actually be like.

If we assume that the reader is lacking those aspects of human nature which impede our ability to perceive and enjoy goodness, then what we must try to imagine is a person who can read and re-read the same good book over and over again, and no matter how many times he has read that book, he will experience some positive measure of pleasure from reading that book one more time.  We needn’t try to imagine that the enjoyment will remain constant: of course novelty, the newness of an experience, is a pleasure in itself, which would only be present in an inverse proportion to the reader’s memory of the book.  But, if it’s a good book, then the novelty of it is not the only good aspect to the book.  The novelty of the experience of reading the good book may wear off or disappear completely, and yet the child of God would be able to perceive and enjoy the goodness of the book, in and of itself, no matter how many times it has been read.

Of course, we also don’t need to try to imagine that the reader is immediately re-reading the same book which he has just finished.  The reader can take a break from reading in order to enjoy the other members of the set of heavenly activities, and can do so for extremely long periods.  So of course it is easy to suppose that even the pleasure of novelty could be recaptured, if the hiatus was long enough.

You see, everything Ron says about eternity remains true when we think about a heavenly reader who reads his favorite book once every hundred years.  In eternity, this reader will spend a non-finite amount of time reading that same book.  And yet I can’t really grasp any hard problem associated with this picture.  It seems very plausible that this reader will be able to experience some measure of legitimate pleasure every time he goes to read this book, no matter how many times he has read it before.  And this was the essence of the point which I raised against Ron’s problem of boredom, when I said, “since personal experience attests to the renewal of interest after a sabbatical, then rotation between several activities might maintain positive levels of interest and enjoyment through eternity.”

That is the nature of appetite.  Just about any legitimately good thing can be spoiled by trying to enjoy them out of their proper measure.  Water is the tastiest thing in the world when you are thirsty, but will make you sick if you just keep drinking more and more of it.  Even so, it is possible that a plethora of activities will be available to us in heaven, and that by rotating between them, we will have the appetite to enjoy each one when we come back around to it.

3. The infinite creativity of a perfectly good God might make it so even novelty, at some level, could persist through eternity.

In the previous section, I said, “Because the total amount of time to be devoted to the complete set of all heavenly activities is infinite, then the time to be devoted any individual heavenly activity should also be infinite.”  But, as I later alluded, this is only true if the “set of all heavenly activities” is finite.  In reality, there is no good reason to suppose that this will even be the case.

Think of all the pleasures that we get to enjoy, here and now.  Every one of our senses can be excited in various pleasurable ways.  Remember that God invented our senses, as well as all of those things which excite them.  He did not invent them from pre-existing materials, nor did He require inspiration from nature to conceive of them, as do human inventors.  God invented nature itself!  God conceived of these things when nothing existed which could have inspired them.

This is true “creativity”.  Human creativity is praiseworthy and wonderful, but God is Holy (set apart; unlike anything else that exists).  His creativity is not just on another level, but on a completely different plane.  For this reason, there is no good reason to suppose that the pleasurable activities available to us right now, are going to be the same or only activities available to us in heaven.  Isaiah 65:17 says that God “will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind.”

The limits of human creativity are defined by the number of combinations in which we can package and repackage the pre-existing materials made available to us.  But for God, there is no such limit.  God’s creativity is bounded only by God’s imagination, which is clearly powerful enough to conceive of potentialities far removed from actual reality.  He imagined and created light, when nothing even remotely like light existed.

You see, there is no good reason to suppose that the “set of all heavenly activities” will be finite.  God is able to produce and introduce entirely new kinds of pleasure, which can be packaged into entirely new kinds of activity.  With a potentially infinite number of activities to be enjoyed in heaven, the previous points could be entirely moot.  It may be that we will still be looking forward to an infinite number of undiscovered, unimagined pleasures, even after a hundred trillion years of divine fellowship.

Ron rejects the possibility of infinite reward, but only by taking as granted the fixity of human nature, ignoring the virtues of appetite, and underestimating the creativity of God.  There are no good reasons to take these positions, without which, the problem of boredom dissolves away.

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