Trinitarian Musings 2: Being Single in Heaven
Imagine for a moment that you are God. I’m sure you’ve done it before. Now think: would you in your divine wisdom and power ever want to create a universe, and if so, why? Because you feel lonely and want some friends? Because you like being pampered and want some servants? It is one of the profoundest questions to ask: if there is a God, why is there anything else? Why the universe? Why us? Why might God decide to have a creation?
One of the earliest attempts at an answer can be seen in ancient Babylon’s creation myth, the Enuma Elish. There, the god Marduk puts it bluntly: he will create mankind so that the gods can have slaves. That way the gods can sit back and live off the labour of their human workforce. Now Marduk is more plain-speaking than most other gods, but whatever the religion, most gods since have tended to like his approach. And who can blame them? His reasoning is profoundly attractive. If you are a god.
In fact, the reason most gods follow Marduk’s lead is not just a matter of personal preference. Imagine a god who is the origin and cause of everything else. He brought everyone and everything into being. Now before he caused anything else to exist, this god was all alone. He had not made anyone yet. Solitary for eternity, then. And so, for eternity this solitary god can have had nobody and nothing to love. Love for others is clearly not his heartbeat. Of course he would probably love himself, but such love we tend to think of as selfish and not truly loving. By his very nature, therefore, this lonely, single god must be fundamentally inward-looking and not outgoingly loving. Essentially, he is all about private self-gratification. That, therefore, is the only reason why he would create.
There is a fascinating tension at just this point in Islam. Traditionally, Allah is said to have ninety-nine names, titles which describe him as he is in himself in eternity. One of them is ‘The Loving’. But how could Allah be loving in eternity? Before he created there was nothing else in existence that he could love (and the title does not refer to self-centred love but love for others). The only option is that Allah eternally loves his creation. But that in itself raises an enormous problem: if Allah needs his creation to be who he is in himself (‘loving’), then Allah is dependent on his own creation, and one of the cardinal beliefs of Islam is that Allah is dependent on nothing.
Therein lies the problem: how can a solitary God be eternally and essentially loving when love involves loving another? In the fourth century BC, the Athenian philosopher Aristotle wrestled with a very similar question: how can God be eternally and essentially good when goodness involves being good to another? His answer was that God is, eternally, the uncaused cause. That is who God is. Therefore he must eternally cause the creation to exist, meaning that the universe is eternal. This way God can be truly and eternally good, for the universe eternally exists alongside him and eternally he gives his goodness to it. In other words, God is eternally self-giving and good because he is eternally self-giving and good to the universe. It was, as always with Aristotle, ingenious. However, once again it means that for God to be himself, he needs the world. He is, essentially, dependent on it to be who he is. And, even though technically ‘good’, Aristotle’s god is hardly kind or loving. He does not freely choose to create a world that he might bless; it is more that the universe just oozes out of him.
Such are the problems with non-triune gods and creation. Single-person gods, having spent eternity alone, are inevitably self-centred beings, and so it becomes hard to see why they would ever cause anything else to exist. Wouldn’t the existence of a universe be an irritating distraction for the god whose greatest pleasure is looking in a mirror? Creating just looks like a deeply unnatural thing for such a god to do. And if such gods do create, they always seem to do so out of an essential neediness or desire to use what they create merely for their own self-gratification.
Everything changes when it comes to the Father, Son and Spirit. Here is a God who is not essentially lonely, but who has been loving for all eternity as the Father has loved the Son in the Spirit. Loving others is not a strange or novel thing for this God at all; it is at the root of who he is.
Think of God the Father: he is, by his very nature, life-giving. He is a father. One has to wonder if a barren god, who is not a father, is capable of giving life and so birthing a creation. But one can have no such doubts with the Father: for eternity he has been fruitful, potent, vitalising. For such a God (and only for such a God) it seems very natural and entirely unsurprising that he should bring about more life and so create.