Why the Imperfect God idea matters

With his An Imperfect God essay in the New York Times, Yoram Hazony set off a new round of discussions surrounding the question of if God is perfect why is there so much pain and injustice.

Some atheists’ responses:

Some Christians’ responses:

It’s a familiar place for Jews and Jewish theology. Neither fish nor fowl. The imperfect God seems to fall in some unintelligible middle ground between Christians and atheists.

Hazony’s points

And yet Hazony’s central points are both true and important:

  • An understanding of God’s alleged perfection should begin with a plausible understanding of perfection.
  • The Bible often shows God acting as though there are limits on His knowledge and power.
  • The idea of God as static and unchanging was helped by the mistranslation of “ehi’eh asher ehi’eh” as “I am what I am.” The correct translation, “I will be what I will be,” leads to a more dynamic view of God.
  • The Bible establishes that man cannot fully understand the nature of God, or of goodness. Without understanding what is good, and what God’s goals are or should be, we cannot prove whether or not God’s actions are perfect.

What is perfection?

Hazony presents his view of perfection:

Normally, when we say that something is “perfect,” we mean it has attained the best possible balance among the principles involved in making it the kind of thing it is. For example, if we say that a bottle is perfect, we mean it can contain a significant quantity of liquid in its body; that its neck is long enough to be grasped comfortably and firmly; that the bore is wide enough to permit a rapid flow of liquid; and so on. Of course, you can always manufacture a bottle that will hold more liquid, but only by making the body too broad (so the bottle doesn’t handle well) or the neck too short (so it’s hard to hold). There’s an inevitable trade-off among the principles, and perfection lies in the balance among them. And this is so whether what’s being judged is a bottle or a horse, a wine or a gymnastics routine or natural human beauty.


What would we say if some philosopher told us that a perfect bottle would be one that can contain a perfectly great amount of liquid, while being perfectly easy to pour from at the same time? Or that a perfect horse would bear an infinitely heavy rider, while at the same time being able to run with perfectly great speed? I should think we’d say he’s made a fundamental mistake here: You can’t perfect something by maximizing all its constituent principles simultaneously. All this will get you is contradictions and absurdities. This is not less true of God than it is of anything else.

This is argument is simple when applied to bottles, but powerful and controversial when applied to God.

It implies that God, and the world, cannot contain infinite mercy, justice, love, liberty, truth, pleasure, painlessness, virtue, peace and happiness because those principles often conflict with one another.

It implies that the perfect world includes what would appear to be imperfections. The idea of a next world, where all is peace and harmony, never struck me as compelling. A world that includes effort, struggle, success, and failure seems far more wonderful. The question of which world is more perfect may just be a semantic argument over the definition of perfect.

Random House’s definition of perfect includes “excellent or complete beyond practical or theoretical improvement.” By that definition, a perfect world is a theoretical impossibility. A world that I can improve is imperfect by definition. But a world that I can’t improve sounds dreadful.

Questions for Hazony

What I didn’t understand about Hazony’s essay:

  • Why, after establishing this limited view of perfection, do you define God as imperfect? It seemed like you crafted a description of perfect perfectly suited for your concept of God, and then went the other way.
  • Why claim that God is limited instead of claiming that God restrains Himself? Yes, God allows man free will to hurt himself or others, and sometimes changes His position in response to man’s actions. How does that prove that God is not immutable, all-good, or all-powerful?
  • Why do you assert that the Bible doesn’t present God as all-knowing and perfectly powerful? What about the many verses that seem to claim exactly that? For example, God chides Abraham and Moses by asking “is anything too wondrous for God?” and “is God’s hand too short?” When Jeremiah asks about an apparent contradiction, God asks “Is anything unknown to me?” Admittedly, it is interesting that in all three cases God asks a rhetorical question instead of making a definitive statement.  Joe Carter provides a nice list of verses proclaiming God’s perfection and immutability. How do you reconcile these verses with your statement?

The Jewish response

A few days after posting the essay, Hazony noted “It’s interesting that many Christian and atheist writers have their responses all ready to go, but Jews don’t seem to.”

Perhaps this is because, other than some provocative word choices, the essay was largely consistent with Jewish tradition. A living, dynamic God, marked by restraint. The Song of Songs imagery of a King in shackles is not foreign to Jewish tradition. Perhaps the idea of the trinity helps Christians separate the image of God so that Jesus can weep while God is immutable. I think most Jews believe that God suffers as He sees people suffer.

An imperfect headline

A provocative three-word headline can drown out any nuance in a 1,300 word essay. The headline maximized interest and quantity of discussion. It sacrificed much of what was being discussed.

If our definition of perfect involves a trade-off of conflicting principles, then God and the world may be perfect despite the existence of pain and injustice.

If we define perfect as something that cannot be improved, then the world isn’t perfect. It’s better. Precisely because we can improve it.

With that understanding of perfect, describing God as imperfect may increase our appreciation of Him, of ourselves, of each other, and of what He stands for.

The world, the Bible, and God are all better than perfect. By measuring everything against a yardstick of some static, unblemished, and un-improvable perfection, we set ourselves up for disappointments, intolerance, and absurdities. The idea of God as imperfect can help us move beyond those limits.

But as a headline, especially coupled with a picture of God slipping on a banana peel, the imperfect headline may have detracted from the ensuing discussion.

About the Author
Gil Reich is the author of If You Write My Story, which helps kids deal with life, love, and loss. He is also co-founder of internet marketing and development company Managing Greatness. Previously Gil was VP of Product Management at He has been a popular speaker at internet marketing conferences around the world.