Monday, December 2, 2019

Why Sacrifice Isaac?

NB: I know that this book crosses pretty far into the “Christian” side of the discussion here, but I am reviewing it in some detail for a couple of reasons: first, I think the problem of no pain directly contributes to the meaning crisis which directly contributes to the loss of purpose in man, and therefore to our loss of liberty; second, I want to understand better the counter to a tired criticism – if God is love, why is there pain?

Since the life of Christ is every way most bitter to nature and the Self and the Me (for in the true life of Christ, the Self and the Me and nature must be forsaken and lost and die altogether), therefore in each of us, nature hath a horror of it.

Theologia Germanica, XX

The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis

Lewis offers the example of an accomplished artist.  One can envision such an artist sketching a quick picture for a young child, not so concerned about details or exactness.  But what of the painting meant for grand display?  Are we not that for God?

One can imagine a sentient picture, after being rubbed and scraped and recommenced for the tenth time, wishing that it were only a thumbnail sketch whose making was over in a minute.  In the same way, it is natural for us to wish that God had designed us for a less glorious and less arduous destiny; but then we are wishing not for more love but less.

The more that a father loves his son, the more care he takes in the son’s development; sometimes the form of this care is less than agreeable to the son.  Love is something far more than ensuring a son’s continuous happiness:

The problem of reconciling human suffering with the existence of a God who loves is only insoluble so long as we attach a trivial meaning to the word ‘love’, and look on things as if man were the centre of them.  Man is not the centre.  God does not exist for the sake of man.

Why would a good God allow such pain?  Who says that His paramount objective is to ensure such pain is never experienced?  Who says that the avoidance of our pain is God’s purpose?

To ask that God’s love should be content with us as we are is to ask that God should cease to be God…. I do not think I should value much the love of a friend who cared only for my happiness and did not object to my becoming dishonest.

Unless we are asking our friend to no longer be our friend.

…man, as a species, spoiled himself…good, to us in our present state, must therefore mean primarily remedial or corrective good.

Pain plays some part in the remedy.  We see this every day: one decides to pick himself up only after he recognizes and understands that he has hit bottom.  Without this recognition, no remediation would take place.

A recovery of the old sense of sin is essential to Christianity.  Christ takes it for granted that men are bad.

Once we accept this, we can understand pain.  Why would we expect paradise and peace in a world of fallen man?  As we are fallen, why would we not want to learn how to get up?  As we are weak, why would we not want to learn the measure of our true strength?

Per Lewis: Good descends to us from God; evil is produced by rebellious man; God exploits that evil for His purpose; this produces the complex good to which accepted suffering contributes. 

It is my understanding that one of the primary reasons for the exponential growth of the early Church was its work in alleviating the pain and suffering of those living under the yoke of Rome.


Abraham takes Isaac to be sacrificed to God…

But as St Augustine points out, whatever God knew, Abraham at any rate did not know that his obedience could endure such a command until the event taught him: and the obedience which he did not know that he would choose, he cannot be said to have chosen.


I had to look up the Theologia Germanica – the source of the quote at the beginning of this post – wanting to understand something about it.  It was written in the fourteenth century by an anonymous author.  According to Martin Luther:

Next to the Bible and St. Augustine, no book has ever come into my hands from which I have learned more of God and Christ, and man and all things that are.

So, Luther loved it.  John Calvin, on the other hand:

…says it is "conceived by Satan's cunning... it contains a hidden poison which can poison the church."

The Church placed it on the list of prohibited books in 1612; it remained on the list until the latter half of the twentieth century.


  1. "And since responsibility cannot be conceived of without free
    will; since acts, if not voluntary, could not furnish valid instruction or experience; since beings whose improvement or deterioration would be entirely due to outside causes without any act of will, reflection, or choice on their part, as happens in the case of inert matter, could not be called perfectible in the moral sense of the word; we must conclude that freedom is the very essence of man's progress. To tamper with man's freedom is not only to injure him, to degrade him; it is to change his nature, to render him, in so far as such oppression is exercised, incapable of improvement; it is to strip him of his resemblance to the Creator, to stifle within him the noble breath of life with which he was endowed at his creation." - Frederic Bastiat

  2. "I think the problem of no pain directly contributes to the meaning crisis which directly contributes to the loss of purpose in man, and therefore to our loss of liberty" - BM

    I apologize for the long quote, but every bit of it is relevant, and I don't have the heart to chop it up or summarize it. It's one of my favorites from Bastiat, along with the other much shorter one in the other comment.

    "Deny evil! Deny pain! Who could? We should have to forget that we are talking about mankind. We should have to forget that we ourselves are men. For the laws of Providence to be considered as harmonious, it is not necessary that they exclude evil. It is enough that evil have its explanation and purpose, that it be self-limiting, and that every pain be the means of preventing greater pain by eliminating whatever causes it.

    Society is composed of men, and every man is a free agent. Since man is free, he can choose; since he can choose, he can err; since he can err, he can suffer.

    I go further: He must err and he must suffer; for his starting point is ignorance, and in his ignorance he sees before him an infinite number of unknown roads, all of which save one lead to error.

    Now, all error breeds suffering. And this suffering either falls upon the one who has erred, in which case it sets in operation the law of responsibility; or else it strikes innocent parties, in which case it sets in motion the marvelous reagent that is the law
    of solidarity.

    The action of these laws, combined with the ability that has been given us of seeing the connection between cause and effect, must bring us back, by the very fact of suffering, to the path of righteousness and truth.

    Thus, we not only do not deny that evil exists; we recognize that it has its purpose in the social order even as in the physical universe.

    But if evil is to fulfill this purpose, the law of solidarity must not be made to encroach artificially upon the law of responsibility; in other words, the freedom of the individual must be respected.

    Now, if man-made institutions intervene in these matters to nullify divine law, evil nonetheless follows upon error, but it falls upon the wrong person. It strikes him whom it should not strike; it no longer serves as a warning or a lesson; it is no longer
    self-limiting; it is no longer destroyed by its own action; it persists, it grows worse, as would happen in the biological world if the imprudent acts and excesses committed by the inhabitants of one hemisphere took their toll only upon the inhabitants of the other hemisphere." - continued in next comment.

  3. "Now, this is exactly the tendency not only of most of our governmental institutions but also and to an even greater degree of those institutions that are designed to serve as remedies for the evils that afflict us. Under the philanthropic pretext of fostering among men an artificial kind of solidarity, the individual's sense of responsibility becomes more and more apathetic and ineffectual. Through improper use of the public apparatus
    of law enforcement, the relation between labor and wages is impaired, the operation of the laws of industry and exchange is disturbed, the natural development of education is distorted, capital and manpower are misdirected, minds are warped, absurd demands are inflamed, wild hopes are dangled before men's eyes, unheard of quantities of human energy are wasted, centers of population are relocated, experience itself is made ineffective; in brief, all interests are given artificial foundations, they clash, and the people cry: You see, all men's interests are antagonistic. Personal liberty causes all the trouble. Let us execrate and stifle personal liberty.

    And so, since liberty is still a sacred word and still has the power to stir men's hearts, her enemies would strip her of her name and her prestige and, rechristening her competition, would lead her forth to sacrifice while the applauding multitudes extend their hands to receive their chains of slavery.

    It is not enough, then, to set forth the natural laws of the social order in all their majestic harmony; it is also necessary to show the disturbing factors that nullify their action." - Frederic Bastiat