The story of Abraham and Issac is difficult, but not so much ( for me) because God has the right to “kill” Isaac and take him to heaven. The difficulty for me is that God would accomplish this by asking Abraham to do the killing. It’s too hard to grasp. Also, since God knows all things; the outcome was already known (so why command Abraham to do it in the first place?)
This is a really good question which I’ve wondered about myself. I’ve come up with a few reasons. But first, let’s just be clear on a few things. God need not test us to know the outcome of events – He’s fully aware of what we consider the future, of every decision we’ll ever make or not make. He’s even aware of how we would react in situations we never encounter in this life. God can answer the question as to who would win in a kickboxing fight between Chuck Norris and Bruce Lee, and His answer isn’t just an educated guess. For every Saint in Heaven, God knows countless situations and conditions in which their lives might have gone off-course, and they might have ended up in Hell. I think we’re used to thinking of God as just a collection of knowledge which exists in this world, like a glorified Wikipedia. But His knowledge is much deeper and broader than that.
So to say that God Himself knew the manner in which Abraham would behave is certain, and even an understatement. But God Himself also knew/knows the way that every individual would succeed or fail when challenged to live out their Faith. So if there’s no reason to test Abraham, there’s no need for any of life’s challenges for any of us. But here are a few reasons why I suspect God chooses to do things this way:
- Even though He knows the outcome, we don’t. And our knowing the outcome can be vitally important. Failing one of these tests may be the wake-up call we need that our Faith isn’t where it should be. It can also be God’s way of humbling us and saving us from Hell.
- The test itself strengthens us. 1 Peter 1: 7 refers to our faith as “gold tested by fire.” That “test” doesn’t consist of ticking a box which says that the gold is or is not pure. The test itself purifies the gold.
- Applied to Abraham and Isaac, this convinced Abraham that God could be relied upon, and it introduced him to the idea of the Resurrection – see Hebrews 11:17-19. So God didn’t learn anything, but Abraham learned plenty.
- These tests can weed out Saints from phonies, the shepherds from the wolves. I’ve largely avoided discussing the Legionaries of Christ here, but revelations about Fr. Marcial Maciel’s seedy personal life have helped correct the path of a lot of well-intended members of the Legionaries and Regnum Christi.
- These tests are a seemingly necessary component of God’s Justice, as I’ll explain below.
In the movie Minority Report, a group of “precogs” are cognizant of crimes before they occur, enabling the police to prevent the crime, and arrest the would-be wrongdoer. The problem with this system is that people are tried for hypothetical crimes which they’ve not actually committed. The upside is that there’s a world without crime, but the downside is that no one in the penal system has actually done anything wrong.
Remember former Secretary of Education William Bennett, who argued that “if you wanted to reduce crime, you could, if that were your sole purpose, you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down”? Does anyone think that’s a just system of law enforcement? Death penalty before any crime is committed just based upon (a) statistical data [in Bennett’s case], or (b) pre-cognition [in the case of God and Minority Report]? Even Bennett himself, after realizing what he said, seemed to back away from it immediately.
Since we’re saved by the grace of God, every soul who makes it to Heaven could have ended up in Hell had things gone differently. Likewise, every soul in Hell, had they accepted the gift of God’s grace, could have rested in the gentle arms of their Savior instead of sufferring eternally. This is the only way to view it which upholds the notion of God’s justice. Otherwise, people are eternally saved or damned without their involvement at all.
This understanding of God’s justice is very synergistic, of course. A monergist would presumably say that the masses are rightfully (and justly) drowning in the sins, and God, in His mercy, saves His elect. But if that is the case, then you’re right to ask, Hmyer, what’s the point of it all? If God knows who He wants to keep, and who He wants to kill, and He’s the only One operating at all, why play around with trials and tests and earthly existence? Judgment Day’s come and gone for everyone before they’ve done anything they could be judged for. If you’re eternally reprobate, you’re damned from before you were born, instead of being damned on account of your sins.
So for #5, I guess I’d just say that a just cop waits to arrest you until you’ve committed a crime,* and a just Judge waits to condemn you until you’ve actually done something damnable. And assumed in that sentence is the idea that there’s a way to avoid the crime (or sin). If you’re incapable of doing otherwise (for example: killing while sleepwalking), your activity isn’t considered a crime at all. Both crimes and sins require an act of the will, or a refusal to act when you’re obliged to.
6. Mary Catelli adds, “There is also the aspect that this was a normal sort of divine request. So not by asking but by withdrawing the order, God was showing that He’s different from Moloch.”
Very true. It sends a signal that the reason we don’t sacrifice our children isn’t that we love our God any less than the followers of Moloch loved theirs, but because our God loves us more.
*Significantly, attempt is a crime and a sin. So by attempting to, say, commit murder, you’ve committed the crime of attempt, and have sinned by murdering the other person “in your heart.”