Is God a Hedonist?
|Copyright © 2004, 2005 - All rights retained by author|
|Written by: C. W. Booth|
Hedonism is a philosophy one adopts to guide oneís own behavior. The foundational rule of hedonism is: "always choose those actions which bring oneself maximum pleasurable sensations." A second rule of hedonism is similar: "always choose to avoid all actions which bring pain if it is within your power to do so." Hedonism is essentially a living for pleasure and a devotion to pleasure.
Men can only be imperfect hedonists. Without the ability to foresee the future or to control the outcome of events around them, men are forced into taking actions which are either unpleasant now or will result in unpleasant conclusions. For example, men often must choose between such unpleasant situations as going to war or running away from the country they love. The result in either choice is likely to be unpleasant, and the decision cannot even be made on the basis of which action will bring maximum pleasurable sensations but rather on the basis of what is the "right thing to do."
If God were a hedonist, being sovereign, all powerful, and all knowledgeable, He would never have to violate any rule of hedonism. He would never have to feel pain or experience an unpleasant emotion. He could live for, and live in, ultimate pleasure forever. He would be the perfect hedonist, experiencing only pleasurable sensations for an eternity. If He were a hedonist.
God Does Whatever He Pleases
When the Word says that God does "whatever He pleases", some mistakenly think this means that God only does what gives Him pleasurable sensations, thus making Him into a hedonist. Such people erroneously conclude He never does anything that causes Himself pain, for everything He does pleases Him and is therefore pleasant to Him. There is no need for a fully sovereign God who is pleased with Himself to ever feel any pain. If He did feel pain, He would either not be a hedonist, or, He would not be fully sovereign.
If God is indeed a hedonist, we must expect that God can and does ordain that only pleasurable things happen to Him and for Him to enjoy. He can and should ordain that He never experience pain and never be pained via unpleasant emotions such as anger, hate, sorrow, or disappointment. Instead, a perfect God who is the perfect hedonist, can ordain that He live in bliss for eternity. If He were a hedonist.
Those who honestly believe that God is a hedonist fail to understand that the word "pleases" must be translated and understood in context. In the two places in which the Old Testament says that God does "whatever He pleases" the word is used in the sense "whatever He sets His mind to do, He does". The expression "He does whatever He pleases" cannot mean "He does only what gives Him pleasurable sensations" when taken in context. In Psalm 115:2-8 we read:
This passage is not a comparison between what "pleases" idols and what "pleases" God, it is a comparison between idols which cannot choose to act and the living God who acts on what He chooses. The main point of this passage is to say that idols are false gods who have no will of their own and are incapable of causing even their own bodies to walk. They have no mind, no will, no choice, and no control over their bodies. They simply cannot do as they please, or do whatever they set their minds to do because they have no minds and no ability to act. By contrast, the living God does just as he chooses to do. He is able to think, He has the power to act. The context of this passage does not instruct us that God is a hedonist as some have misapplied this text to assert.
Similarly we find in Psalm 135 that the living God is compared to idols who again cannot see, speak, think, or act. A second time we are reminded that the living God is able to do as He pleases, in heaven and on the earth, sending signs and wonders, and even killing men, beasts, and kings.
From the context, this passage too is describing the expression "God does whatever He pleases" as meaning that God is unconstrained and can do just as He chooses. There is no implication here that idols choose to act on unpleasant things while God acts on only those things that give Him pleasure. This passage, like the other, does not imply hedonism as an attribute of God, it explicitly identifies that God has sovereign power and sovereign will to use that power as He chooses.
God Chooses to Experience Unpleasantness
How do we know for a certainty that Psalms 115 and 135, beside teaching that God has power and a sovereign will, are not also teaching that God is a hedonist who only does those things which give Him pleasurable sensations? This can be tested with a more thorough reading and review of Psalm 135, verses eight through ten. God, doing "as He pleased", killed the firstborn of Egypt, kings over multiple nations, and entire populations of cities and countries.
Did all this death which God exacted cause Him pleasure? If God were a hedonist it would have had to please Him, having been the author of those deaths, for the very essence of hedonism is that if a hedonist has the power to do so he gives himself only pleasure and avoids all unpleasantness. If God were a hedonist, He would be a perfect hedonist with all power, and would always be able to avoid all unpleasantness. If God were a hedonist.
"Cast away from you all your transgressions which you have committed and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! For why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies," declares the Lord GOD. "Therefore, repent and live." Ezekiel 18:31,32
"Say to them, 'As I live!' declares the Lord GOD, 'I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn back, turn back from your evil ways! Why then will you die, O house of Israel?' Ezekiel 33:11
God takes no pleasure in the deaths of all those He has killed, yet, He does as He pleases. There can be no doubt that the expression as used in Psalm 135 and 115 means that God does as He wishes to do, as He chooses to do. It would be terrible theology and worse exegesis to force that expression to mean, "God is a hedonist in the heavens and only does those things that give Him sensations of pleasure." Such a theology violates and contradicts Ezekiel 33:11.
To reduce God to a single motivation, namely the hedonistic pursuit of His own pleasurable sensations, appears doctrinally flawed. For example, God takes "no pleasure" in destroying the wicked who are thrown in Hell. Yet He places them into Hell anyway. Why? Because He is righteous and His holiness dictates that this is the right thing to do. In the case of the death of the wicked and their eternal damnation in Hell, God is motivated to do an eternally unpleasant thing out of a sense of duty to His own holiness and His own justice. God is holy and just and cannot be motivated to act otherwise. He takes no pleasure in this course of action, yet He does as He wishes and executes judgement on the wicked. Why? Not from a core nature of hedonism, certainly, or He would not do something so unpleasant. Why does God do that which causes Him discomfort? A hedonist would not do so.
He Does As He Pleases, Or, He Does As He Chooses--Crushing the Messiah
This Hebrew expression, "does as He pleases," has several mutually exclusive English counterparts. Only rarely does it actually mean, "to do that which causes sensations of pleasure." Most often it means, "to do as He chooses," which is the linguistic equivalent as saying, "to do as He wills," or "to do as He desires."
In Isaiah 53:10, the prophet is saying that the coming Messiah will be brutalized and executed, not as a result of random happenstance, but through the force of Godís design according to the Lordís own will. As a result of following the Lordís will in this matter, the Messiah would see the will of God prosper that act of sacrifice into the salvation of many, satisfying the wrath and justice of God.
Yet it was the LORD's will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand. (Isaiah 53:10 NIV)
But the LORD was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief; if He would render Himself as a guilt offering, He will see His offspring, He will prolong His days, and the good pleasure of the LORD will prosper in His hand. (Isaiah 53:10 NAS)
Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand. (Isaiah 53:10 KJV)
Some Bible versions translate the expression, "it was the Lordís will," with the words, "it pleased God." It is arguable that the second set of words is more literal, but is it also a far less precise translation given the expression and the context. The NIV is more proper when it translates the expression as "it was the Lordís will." To require the passage to read, "it pleased God" could cause some to assume that Godís emotional state with regard to the execution is the subject being described here; such people might be tempted to conclude that God was in Heaven uttering happy belly laughs saying, "this fills Me with pleasure." There is no such implication from this expression.
No tension exists between the two possible translations of this phrase; that is to say, only one translation is correct. Most often it means "God does as He chooses" with no hint of how the choice made God "feel." In only a few passages the context makes it clear that Godís will is not being referenced, but rather His emotional feelings, such as in 1 Samuel 15:22--"Samuel said, ĎHas the LORD as much delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Ö" When the phrase means "Godís will" it does not mean "God feels pleasurable sensations", and in the few cases when the phrase means "God feels pleasure" it does not mean "Godís will."
That God would enjoy orchestrating the torture of His Son and felt pleasurable sensations even as He had to forsake His Son, who was slowly dying on the cross, is a baseless distortion of language and a contradiction to other plain Scripture. Indeed, such a repugnant image as God enjoying the death of Jesus is rejected by Scripture elsewhere. God says that all death is unpleasant to Him (Ezekiel 33:11), and the death of His own Son would be no less unpleasant. Therefore, we know that Isaiah 53:10 is not describing Godís emotional disposition regarding the brutal slaying of His Son, but rather the idiom is only communicating that "it was the Lordís will" that Jesus die. It was not pleasant, but it was the will of God. For this reason, the NIV is most correct in its clear and unambiguous rendering in this instance.
We begin to understand more about the nature of God when we study Colossians 1:18-20.
He [Christ] is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything. For it was the Father's good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven.
Here, the expression "good pleasure" means "to think good and proper thoughts, or, to think well of", as in to think in a holy manner, or, to think on the good and pleasing qualities of a thing. In either case, to ascribe to this phrase only the inference that God was motivated by "pleasurable sensations" to assign Christ the place of headship over the church is to lose the better understanding of what is truly meant. It was more than just a "good feeling" which caused God to do this; it was also the justness, holiness, appropriateness, propriety, and goodness of the decision itself which caused God to act. It was the right thing to do. God thinks right thoughts and acts upon them. God is holy and cannot act otherwise. He acts out of a duty to His own holiness and is not tempted to sin, even against Himself (James 1:13, Psalm 99:9).
Love Motivates God, Not the Pursuit of Pleasure
Another aspect of Godís character that is impugned when He is called "a hedonist" is His capacity to act out of love. God is love, and He is motivated to act from out of that love (John 3:16, 1 John 4:8,16).
We know that God created the world to show His glory (Isaiah 43:20). Why did He choose to show His glory to a universe created solely for that purpose? Creating the universe was optional, it was His choice, so why did He choose to show His glory to a created race? Is it because showing His glory brings Him pleasant sensations? Or, perhaps is there a better understanding? Could it be that perhaps God created mankind so that mankind would have the chance to experience Godís glory as a kindness to the creation itself even though the act of creation was exceedingly painful and costly to God? If so, creating the universe as a means of showing His glory becomes not an act of hedonism but a good, proper, holy, and loving thing to do. We will explore this more carefully.
The law of hedonism is that one only acts in the pursuit of pleasure for oneself; so devoted are hedonists to pleasure that every action is taken only when it is designed to increase pleasure and to acquire more pleasurable sensations than one had the moment before. A course of action is always rejected if it involves pain, assuming some other action can be taken instead which results in pleasure.
Why did God create the universe as a means to show His glory? Hedonism dictates that He did it to become happier than He was before. Such is the soul of hedonism, always in pursuit of ever more pleasant sensations. So it would be with God if God were a hedonist. This argument assumes that God was not sufficiently happy prior to creation. This argument must presume that the all self-sufficient God was incomplete, less than satisfied, and to some small measure, unhappy. Therefore, He created the universe to become happier and to attain more pleasurable sensations than He had before; and that then assumes that the act of creating the universe would not result in God experiencing pain and would not cost God grief or anguish, for that would undermine the very goal of hedonism: increased pleasure without pain.
This argument for God having created the universe out of a desire to be more hedonistically pleased with Himself than He was previously does not properly acknowledge the biblical record. God needs no man, no creation to be fulfilled or to be happy. God was complete, self sufficient, and fully pleased before the creation.
So we ask, "Why did He create the universe? If not to make Himself happier than before, then why?" Again we answer from the Bible, to show His glory to the things He created. And for whose added benefit is it that Godís glory is seen? His, or the creation's? Most assuredly creation added nothing to God's ultimate glory, for He knew who He was before man existed. The act of creation, then, permitted "others" to see and benefit from His glory, namely, mankind.
Was God more pleased with Himself after creating the universe than before? This line of reasoning is quite unlikely and fully unsupported by Scripture. A better question is: Were the created beings more pleased before or after creation? By necessity the created beings were more pleased after being created than before; before creation they did not exist, and after creation they did. That which does not exist is dead, and that which is dead is without the ability to sense, to feel pleasure, or to see Godís glory. Only the living feel pleasure, experience awe, and respond with love. Therefore, while creating the universe to show His glory did not make God more pleased with Himself than He had been before, the created beings He made were now more pleased than before their creation.
Does God take pleasure in His creation? Of course, because it is good. Does He have more pleasure now and is happier now that there is a creation than before the universe existed? There is no biblical support for such a presupposition.
So why did God desire to show His glory? Why did God desire to benefit this set of created beings? Why did God create the universe?
Creation was an act of love, a tribute to Godís character. God is love. Everything He does is an act of love. Everything He does is motivated by love because God is love (1 John 4:8,16).
All life was brought into existence so that God could show His glory to the creation. Creation itself was an act of love toward the very beings He created. How can we know if this was just an act of love and not an act of hedonism? We know because a perfect hedonist would not willingly plan to be anguished by His own choices which He Himself could have obviated, or could have decreed not to cause pain.
It did cost God much pain, much anguish to create us. Even before He created the universe, before its foundations were laid, He knew that His created beings, made in His own image, would rebel and sin against Him. He planned their redemption at His own expense of pain long before the first star was spoken into existence. Knowing that He would experience the ultimate pain of seeing His Son suffer the penalty of sin though He was innocent, knowing this, He created the universe anyway. Why? Creation was optional, He did not have to create mankind, He did not have to suffer pain and anguish, yet He did. Why? Not because He is a hedonist, but because He is a God of love.
Creation and Redemption--Unselfish Acts of Pain
Creation was an unselfish act, not an act of self-pleasing hedonism. God was not looking to fill a void within Himself by adding in more pleasurable sensations. God was seeking an outlet for His lavish love. He showed His glory, His loving nature, to a universe of beings of His own creation, even though this cost Him untold emotional pain, anguish, hatred, anger, and the unpleasantness that comes with death and the eternal damnation of the unrighteous.
There scarce could be even one genuine Christian who would dare entertain the morbid belief that turning over His own perfect Son to be abused and executed as a sacrifice for our sins was in some way a pleasurable experience for the Father. We know that act was one born out of pain-drenched love.
To be certain one of the motives for Jesus agreeing to endure this sorrow was for the "joy set before Him" (Hebrews 12:2). What joy? We know that there is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine men who do not need to repent (Luke 15:7). Jesus certainly foresaw the joy the saved would experience along with the joyful celebration of the angels--the joy set before Him--and He acted out of selfless love to ensure their joy. Perhaps Jesus even considered His Fatherís joy which was ready to be expressed at the fulfillment of His willing obedience and duty--death on a tree. But did the Father send His Son just so that He might experience pleasant feelings or did Jesus die just so He could experience future joy for Himself as hedonism would dictate? Or is the biblical record more centered on Godís desire to express His love, kindness, and mercy no matter the painful cost?
For even Christ did not please Himself; (Romans 15:2a)
He was despised and forsaken of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; (Isaiah 53:3a)
More than any perceived and misguided notion that Jesus was some sort of divine hedonist, we know He gave up His life in agony motivated by an undiminished love for others, and by His obedient love toward His Father.
"For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life." (John 3:16)
Now before the Feast of the Passover, Jesus knowing that His hour had come that He would depart out of this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end. (John 13:1)
Is God a hedonist, living for ever more pleasurable sensations? It seems more likely that God was, and is, self-sufficient and self-pleased, lacking in nothing, and not lacking in any happiness. The fact is that God is motivated by many diverse aspects of His perfect character, such as justice, mercy, and kindness; though He is most motivated by love. God is love.
Does pleasure motivate God at all? Possibly to some lesser degree, but that is not hedonism. To be a hedonist one must be in pursuit of pleasure as the only motive for all actions, otherwise, the philosophy has no meaning and pleasure is merely relegated to being just one more influence among so many others.
Had God been a perfect and sovereign hedonist He would not have had to suffer any pain, any anger, any hate, nor tolerate the unpleasantness of destroying sinful men for eternity. Creation and redemption were voluntary acts that have brought God pain, which could have been avoided entirely by simply not speaking the universe into existence. If hedonism had been a priority for God, He could have continued on in bliss without creating the universe and all the unpleasant death and sorrow that came with it. If God had been a hedonist.
God was motivated to create the universe to show His glory. Creation was costly to Him, and to His Son, but immensely beneficial to the created beings. God is love. God was moved by "good and ethical thinking" to do what He did, to lavish love and mercy on others. God acted out of perfect love toward others, not from a heart of hedonism.