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Is God a Consequentialist?

BY Mark Shea

| Posted 9/22/13 at 11:59 PM

 

A reader writes:

I have followed with interest your recent discussions regarding consequentialism.  I am in a pickle after a friendly argument with a utilitarian friend.  How can we distinguish the problems of consequentialist thinking from the sacrifice of the cross?  Catechism 601 states,

"The Scriptures had foretold this divine plan of salvation through the putting to death of 'the righteous one, my Servant' as a mystery of universal redemption, that is, as the ransom that would free men from the slavery of sin."

If "the righteous one" mentioned here is also the "spotless lamb" (1 Peter) and therefore perfectly innocent, are we being consequentialists if we accept the theology of atonement in which killing one innocent person redeems many?  Is God the Father's plan of salvation basically consequentialist?

Very interested in your thoughts.  Thanks!

I think the main thing here is that God suffers the evil.  He does not commit it.  God, in becoming man, simply enters the world and is the kind of man he is in the middle of a race of fallen people who are what they are.  The collision is bound to happen because sinners like us will inevitably hate him and kill him.  But he doesn’t make that happen.  We chose it.  God’s choice to become man is certainly something he is within his rights to make.  It is not like he “tempted” us to kill him.  He simply was who he was in the midst of a race of homicidal sinners who are what we are.  I don’t see how this is consequentialist, unless we want to put forward a theory that the good man is always and everywhere bound to mute his goodness lest it offend the evil man and prompt him to do something violent and unjust in retaliation for the good man offending him.

It’s true that God brought good out of the evil done to him by fallen man.  But I again don’t see that this is consequentialist.  God, who unlike us knows the end from the beginning, came to earth and was who he was in the midst of wicked creatures who are what they are.  He did not make them do what they did. He did no evil himself. He merely knew that we would do it and refused to let that stop him from being fully what he chose to be: true man as well as true God.  Again, if we insist that no good man should be allowed to fully express himself lest it offend evil men and prompt them to violence in retaliation, this seems to me to be massively perverse.  What God instead did was be fully who he is in the Incarnate Son and grant men total freedom to respond—even with whips and nails.  That he knew they would do this and yet allowed it is no more consequentialist than the choice to take a drive in a human population of bad drivers is to plot to cause a highway pileup.  To know somebody will do something is not to make them do it.  And to will to bring good out of it is not consequentialist unless you are making the evil happen.

This is part of the reason I am so insistent on pointing out that Jesus never ever tempted anybody, including Judas Iscariot.  The currently popular notion that you can egg people on to do evil in order to expose and destroy them is what the Church calls “giving scandal”. 

2284 Scandal is an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil. The person who gives scandal becomes his neighbor's tempter. He damages virtue and integrity; he may even draw his brother into spiritual death. Scandal is a grave offense if by deed or omission another is deliberately led into a grave offense.

Scandal is not “doing something naughty” or “offending prudes”.  Scandal is encouraging somebody to do something you know to be evil or they imagine to be evil.  When the thing you are encouraging them to do is mortally sinful, you yourself become guilty of mortal sin by encouraging them to do it.  Jesus knew perfectly well what lay in Judas Iscariot’s heart, but he never urged him to commit that sin and in fact tried everything he could to warn him of the fact that he was plotting evil (“One of you is a devil”).  He called him friend.  He gave him honor.  He warned that he knew of his betrayal (“One of you will betray me”).  He reached out in a last gesture of friendship (which is what giving him the sop at dinner betokened). He spoke the terrible warning that it would be better for him never to have been born than do what he was about to do.  He never in a million years came close to suggesting that Judas should be encouraged to sin so he could be exposed and destroyed "for the greater good".  His behavior was as far from consequentialist as you can get.  That’s because Jesus is without sin and he never tried to do evil that good could come from it.  We do that, not him.  He is all light.  In him is no darkness at all.