Sovereignty & Evil: Getting God Off the Hook ~ BitterSweetLife

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Sovereignty & Evil: Getting God Off the Hook

God doesn't want to be got off the hook.

In the Old Testament, God repeatedly takes "credit" for both blessing and calamity. "Your deliverance from Egypt?" he says. "I did that. And the fact that you are about to be brutally crushed by an invading nation? I am doing that as well. Are you enjoying life? Thank me. Are you hating life? Cry about it to me. Lay it all at my door."

In the New Testament, God repeatedly takes "credit" for both blessing and calamity. When the disciples finally begin to get a clue, and start healing a few people "on their own," it's because Jesus has authorized and empowered them to do it. And when Judas stabs his friend and master in the back, it's because God decreed that he would do that very thing.

God underwrites the greatest tragedy recorded in the New Testament, the horrific death of his own son, the only really innocent man to walk the earth.

Everything from storms at sea to the Roman occupation to a tower falling on bystanders and killing them--God underwrites it. And he underwrites the greatest tragedy recorded in the New Testament, the horrific death of his own son, the only really innocent man to walk the earth. Simultaneously, God takes credit for the well of freedom that springs up precisely because Christ was killed. He takes responsibility for both and doesn't blush.

As well, throughout all of this, God does not for a moment cease to maintain that "evil men" will have their comeuppance. Thus, even though Judas' servile disloyalty served God's eternal plan, it would have been better for him to never have been born. And at the same time, good men will be blessed for their involvement in divine drama: When Peter accurately IDs Jesus as "the Messiah," it's because the Father informed him--and Jesus still says that Peter is blessed.

All this goes to say that the uniform testimony of the Bible clearly establishes four startling truths regarding God's sovereignty and the bittersweet nature of his creation.
  1. God is ultimately responsible for all good things.
  2. God is ultimately responsible for all evil things.
  3. Human beings are ultimately held responsible for their involvement in good and evil.
  4. God is very, very, very good.
Since there are entire books written to unpack these truths, I don't have any hope of getting very far now, other than to point out a few implications for theology.

A lot of contemporary theology is formed with the idea of getting God "off the hook" where evil, pain and suffering are concerned. Problem is, God isn't concerned with limited liability. And as hard as people try to move God outside the realm of "blame" for evil, God crowns himself as the incontestable controlling authority. Consider:

Open Theism argues that God does not, actually, know the future, because he willingly limited his omniscience in order to give us kids room for "free will." However, if God is taken by surprise when awful things happen, it's still his fault. He chose to tie his own hands in this way.

Classic Arminianism argues that God cannot, actually, control all decisions and outcomes, because he willingly limited his omnipotence in order to give us kids room for "free will." However, if God is forced to watch in horror as we perpetrate terrible acts upon each other, it's still his fault. He chose to tie his hands in this way.

Are you getting my drift? Neither of these systems successfully remove God from his role of ultimate authority. If God is weak, or unknowing, or paralyzed, and he made himself that way so that we could tear the world apart at our own pace, it is STILL HIS "FAULT."

Describing God a self-made wuss does not remove from his hands the "awful" tincture of sovereignty. We can level the accusation, "God, why did you make yourself too weak to do us any good?! Why are you sitting there wringing your hands?!"

In the end, we need to stand under God's Word and humbly work to align our lives to what we find. Trying to create new categories that portray God more "favorably" than he portrays himself is not going to be a winning endeavor.

What I Am Not Saying

Secondary causes do not exist.
God personally perpetrates evil.
Human choice is an illusion.
God is a callous jokester.



Like what you read? Don't forget to bookmark this post or subscribe to the feed.

15 comments:

R. Sherman said...

I've been pondering your post of a few days ago in response to "The Preacher's" and now this.

I've always maintained that God's sovereignty is supreme, but I question your point about the Old Testament. Indeed, he allowed evil to complicate the lives of his chosen, but it is clear that he did so, even sent it, in punishment for their own transgressions.

I need to think about this some more.

BTW, when your son gets old enough to understand this whole internet blog thing, he's really going to be ticked that you posted pictures of him in his underwear here.

Cheers.

Jamie said...

Ariel: Artfully said. At least you don't beat around the bush when it comes to hard stuff--and I mean that as a compliment.

You say on the one hand that God is responsible for both good and evil, and then you say that God is very, very, very good. I have trouble seeing how these are compatible. Maybe the testimony of the Bible does clearly establish the first half of that sentence, but then how can the second simultaneously be true? (If I were to rephrase that question, I could just ask, "What is your definition of 'good'"?)

Re Arminianism: It is true given this view that God is still "responsible" in some sense, because he tied his own hands. But you assume there is no justification for doing so, and that's the assumption I'd balk at.

R. Hentsch said...

Men will always struggle with the duality of God because, well, we are not God.

We look at the work of His hands and in our own limited scope hope to make sense of the one holding the universe together. One could reasonably argue that God allows evil. When Satan was making his way through heaven God was the one who pointed Job out to him.

8 Then the LORD said to Satan, "Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil."

And although after the Devil was through with Job,and God blessed him more than he had originally, I am sure that Job missed his sons and daughters that had been killed by God's permission. Why then didn't he pass it off to a watchmaker God who started the universe and left it to run? Why, because Job knew who was in control.

Why then didn't he do as his wife said and curse God and die? Simply Job was smart enough to know he was not smart enough. Or put more succinctly Job knew he was not holy enough. What gets in our way of understanding this is our own pride. Just as it did Job. When Job finally had enough of his friends and was frustrated that God had not come to his defense Job went before God with this same question. And did he get an answer? Yes, but not the one he was expecting.

4 "Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.
5 Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?
6 On what were its footings set,
or who laid its cornerstone-
7 while the morning stars sang together
and all the angels shouted for joy?
8 "Who shut up the sea behind doors
when it burst forth from the womb,
9 when I made the clouds its garment
and wrapped it in thick darkness...

We think because we have split the atom or gone to the moon that we should be able to understand something as simple as good and evil. We often get confused with the difference between God's justice and His mercy. Because of the fall of man, evil runs rampant in the heart of man, and each of us deserves hell, but because of God's mercy there is another option.

God is very, very, very good.

Will Robison said...

R. Hentsch took the words and Biblical quotes right out of my mouth, thus allowing me to remain silent and lazy at the same time. ;)

Wisdom comes from understanding that we know nothing - doubly so when it comes to God.

Ariel said...

You say on the one hand that God is responsible for both good and evil, and then you say that God is very, very, very good. I have trouble seeing how these are compatible.

Jamie, I understand your reaction. When we encounter, for example, the verse where God informs us, "both blessing and calamity come from my hand," we are repulsed, and naturally so. This feeling may or may not go away.

I'd respond to your query in two ways. Philosophically speaking, the equation runs something like this:

God is all powerful, all knowing, morally perfect, created everything--and yet evil and suffering exist--so what gives?

Missing piece: God has a good enough reason to allow suffering.

Admittedly, all the questions are not answered. But the burden of proof is shifted to those who want to demonstrate that God's sufficient reason for suffering is inadequate.

In other words, while your confusion is a visceral reaction to God's sovereignty, we cannot, in fact, prove that God's control over good and evil is incompatible with his goodness. What we're left to do is find new mental categories for this biblically revealed "alien" truth. Our expectations for God's idea of blessing may also be raised to a new level...how good must it be, if God is willing to subject his loved creation to pain in order to get there?

But approach number two. For a believer, this question becomes one fundamentally of faith and humility. The Bible speaks clearly to God's sovereignty, and we're left with only two options. Submit, even reluctantly, and stand under the Bible's teaching, or rebel, even tacitly, and stand over the Bible projecting our own notion of rightness upon it...

Jamie said...

We cannot, in fact, prove that God's control over good and evil is incompatible with his goodness.

I don't know about this. If God creates evil out of whole cloth and injects it into his creation, then I'd think that is by definition incompatible with his goodness. Is it not meaningless to say that "good" can also include propagating evil?

You say the missing piece is that God has a good enough reason to allow suffering. If that's all we're saying (that God allows suffering), I agree with you, and I agree that he has a morally sufficient reason for doing so. Beyond that statement, I think we still see things rather differently, but I can at least affirm that one article of faith with you.

gymbrall said...

Jamie,
I don't think I've ever asked you this, but what is up for debate here?
I can only see a couple of options:

1. God is not omnipotent. (Can't really control things)
2. God is not omniscient. (Could control things, but doesn't know about them all)
3. God is not omnipresent. (Knows and has power, but can't be everywhere to stop all things, has to pick and choose)
4. God is not good

Even if as you say God has limited himself, he still knew before he limited himself, he still chose to do it the way he did it. He still could have done it a different way, or not done it at all.

As you've said, we seem to be missing something about God, and I think what it is, is that God can create a world whose purpose is to glorify Him and therefore if allowing suffering in that world brings Him glory, it is good.

You've said that if an author created a world where his creation truly felt pain it would be evil, but why is that so? Is it not only because God has told us not to cause others to suffer?

Let me try to say this in a better way: No human author can create something that has a purpose independent from the scope of God's purpose. If he could, he would be superior to God. God can create men to glorify Himself, to show His justice, to show His mercy, to show whatever it pleases Him to show.

Saying that God is bound by every concept of goodness that His creations are bound by does not make sense. It is like saying that a father must go to bed at the same time as his child, that a mother may not use a knife until her three year old can, that parents may not have sexual intercourse because their ten year old may not.

Does this not make sense?

Jamie said...

Gymbrall: Fair question. From my perspective, the issue up for debate is not whether or not God is omnipotent, but whether or not he exercises all his power.

As you point out, it is true that if God knew all things in advance, he still chose to do things the way he did, in which case my view of "limited omnipotence" doesn't look much different from predestination. I recognize this, so I suppose you could say that in some way I do believe God controls it all.

Still, there is a qualitative difference between foreknowing and predestining. I know you might deny that foreknowledge is possible without predestination, but the conceptual difference between the terms still exists. If God merely foreknew, then he did not actually predetermine our choices for us. He only created us knowing in advance what we would choose. (As for why he did this, I could suggest an answer, but I don't want to make this comment longer than it already is.)

Now, it's difficult to fathom how God could foreknow without actually predestining. But as I said in response to Ariel's previous post, my view is merely hard to understand, whereas (from my subjective perspective) your view is both hard to understand and repulsive.

Saying that God is bound by every concept of goodness that His creations are bound by does not make sense.

I agree that creature and creator have different roles, and therefore their actions will look a little different. But you don't even seem to acknowledge that God is bound by the same principles of goodness and justice to which he binds us. You are saying that God's version of "good" can include arbitrary cruelty just because it brings him glory. But in the human world, arbitrary cruelty is decidedly evil.

If indeed God's version of "goodness" is fundamentally different than ours, why would God (in Christ) tell us to be perfect as he is perfect? He apparently thought the principles of perfection were the same for creature and Creator.

Similarly, how could God expect us to understand what he means when he says he is love unless he is using the word according to the definition he gave us, in which love means laying down one's life for a friend and doing to others what we would have done to ourselves?

Surely, then, God's version of "goodness" must be the same as the one he has given to us. If our definitions of words are not the same, then the word "good" would have no content when applied to God, in which case it would be meaningless to say he is good.

gymbrall said...

Jamie,
Just a quick reply to one part of your post.


If indeed God's version of "goodness" is fundamentally different than ours, why would God (in Christ) tell us to be perfect as he is perfect? He apparently thought the principles of perfection were the same for creature and Creator.

I think the reason here is that because Christ was born as a man and as Galatians says, "made under the law", the rules and the roles of justice for Christ were much the same are they are for us. Christ is our example because he lived as a perfect man, keeping the law that we could not keep.

We are not called to be good as God the Father is good, because we can't even begin to operate in that way. We need the Word of God to know how to love God, ourselves, our family, and out neighbor.

Also, I wouldn't think of God's (the Father or the entire three-in-one's) actions as arbitrary in the same way that our actions are arbitrary. As I said in a previous post, no man's purposes can be independent of God's purposes, but God's purposes are independent of man's. When God is "arbitrary" it is nothing like man's arbitrary actions.

I guess, I'd also ask you another question: Do you believe that God created all things for His glory and that nothing exists that will not glorify Him?

gymbrall said...

A couple more thoughts:

Similarly, how could God expect us to understand what he means when he says he is love unless he is using the word according to the definition he gave us, in which love means laying down one's life for a friend and doing to others what we would have done to ourselves?

Don't forget John 3:16. Unless you believe that God hated his Son, His love for Him still allowed Him to send Jesus to die a painful death at the hands of cruel men. If He can love His son and do such to Him, why must His love toward us always look gentler than His love toward Jesus?

Surely, then, God's version of "goodness" must be the same as the one he has given to us. If our definitions of words are not the same, then the word "good" would have no content when applied to God, in which case it would be meaningless to say he is good.

I would go back to the analogy of the parents and the children (and because God cast himself as our Father and us as His children, I believe it's a very appropriate analogy). A parent has knowledge that a child does not have and at times does things that a child may not agree are good. Once the child becomes a parent, he often realizes that what he previously deemed to be evil actions on the part of his parent were actually good. Because of this, I'm definitely willing to say that we take it on faith that God can be sovereign and good and allow evil. We also know that one day, we will know and will understand when we are joined fully with Christ as His Bride.

Anyway, I think that's it.

Jamie said...

We are not called to be good as God the Father is good, because we can't even begin to operate in that way.

We are indeed called to be good as the Father is good: "Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." Luke 6:36 similarly says, "Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful." (True, we can't do this in our own power, but that's not the point of these verses.)

You're creating a split between the character of God the Father and that of the incarnate Christ, but the book of John takes pains to emphasize the unity of the Father and Son. Jesus works in his Father's name (John 10:25), and in fact does the works of the Father, proving that the Father is in him and he in the Father (10:37, 14:10). Accordingly, anyone who has seen Christ has seen and known the Father (12:45, 14:7-11). Jesus says that the disciples are no longer servants who don't understand their master, but friends, for Jesus made known to them everything that he heard from the Father (15:15). He even goes so far as to tell the disciples that they don't need a mediator, for the Father himself loves them (16:27).

In other words, John is plainly trying to emphasize the fact that the Father and the Son are of one character. There is no difference between them; the character of Christ is the character of the Father, and one of Christ's basic purposes was to reveal that character precisely so we wouldn't think that the Father was of a different nature. It is not fair, then, to say that the Father is operating on a different plane: our roles are different, but the principle of "goodness" is the same for us, for Christ, and for the Father. Our characters are to match God's character.

If He can love His son and do such to Him, why must His love toward us always look gentler than His love toward Jesus?

Hmm. Well, it's not God "doing" anything to Christ. Read the parable of the wicked husbandman (Matt. 21:33-41). It's the people who are wicked for killing Jesus, not God who is cruel in sending him. God sending Christ to us is no more cruel than a church sending missionaries to a closed country where they are under a death sentence. And besides that, other texts indicate that Jesus voluntarily gave his own life (John 10:17-18). There is no hint here that the Father's love is what we would call "ungentle."

I'm definitely willing to say that we take it on faith that God can be sovereign and good and allow evil.

I'm completely with you there. Where I'm not with you is on the implication that God has a different character and different principles of justice than he asks of us.

gymbrall said...

Jamie,
I also don't really like the phrase that "God has a different character and different principles of justice". Instead, and I'm sorry for beating this into the ground, I think that it's almost exactly like the example of parent and child in that God has an infinitely greater means to discern what is the good thing to do in any situation as He has all knowledge, but we, because we are limited to looking on the outward appearance of things, can only perform certain actions. Our limited ability to perceive/discern what is good, limits our ability to do good. (There are also many other reasons why we are so constrained, this is but one of them.)

Re: the statement about being perfect as christ vs the Father, I was replying specifically to your statement why would God (in Christ) tell us to be perfect as he is perfect?

Understand, I'm not trying to separate Christ and the Father. What I am saying is that the way that we are told to be perfect like the Father is by following the example of His Son Jesus Christ, who glorified His Father by being obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. This is how we strive for the perfection of the Father.

Because many people do not accept this, they try to look at God and then emulate His nature from their limited understanding of Him.

This is why it would be a grievous sin for an earthly ruler to order the death of all men, women, and children in a city (as in Jericho), but God could do so as the righteous judge who weighs the souls of all men.

It is this type of perfection that we cannot strive for, unless we find it in the example of Jesus Christ, our example of how to please God.

Does that make more sense? Not so much that you agree with me, but I definitely don't want to imply that I believe Christ and the Father are completely separate or that I'm ignoring those verses that you quoted about being perfect as the Father is perfect.

Ariel said...

Guess I'll jump in one more time on this post, unless someone says something wildly provocative.

If God creates evil out of whole cloth and injects it into his creation, then I'd think that is by definition incompatible with his goodness. Is it not meaningless to say that "good" can also include propagating evil?

You say the missing piece is that God has a good enough reason to allow suffering. If that's all we're saying (that God allows suffering), I agree with you...


It's hard to tell exactly where a conversation gets mired in semantics, but I'll try and clarify. I'm not saying that God is dualistic, that his character contains a good strand and an evil strand. However, it may not be meaningless to say that "good can include propagating evil."

Hard for me to know exactly what you mean here, Jamie. But God could certainly have kept Satan from tormenting Job--yet he allowed him. Likewise, God could have made the Fall a moral impossibility--and again, he allowed it. Whenever evil occurs, the same dynamic is at play.

God doesn't "propagate" evil in the sense that he nurtures and blesses it. But he most definitely forsees it, permits it, and bends it to his redemptive purpose.

Jamie said...

Charles: What I am mostly uncomfortable with is your (apparent) implication on several occasions that God can act on whatever whim strikes him and it would be right and good and glorious just because he's God. That does not seem right to me at all, but then, as Ariel pointed out, I don't know how much of that is a matter of semantics.

If you're not actually suggesting a split between God the Father and God the Son, and if you don't actually think God has a different character and different principles of justice than we do, then I don't have any argument with you. For now, anyway. :-)

Ariel: Since you're speaking completely in terms of God allowing evil, I don't disagree with you either. It's a bit trickier when you imply that God causes evil, but then I'm not sure you actually ever said that. I guess it's not exactly fair for me to criticize you for something you didn't say, is it? :-)

gymbrall said...

Jamie,
I think we're pretty close to being on the same page.

Re: the whim thing, I make that type of assertion in the same way that C. S. Lewis describes Aslan as not being a tame lion. I don't think God has whims in the same way that we do. Our whims are largely because of our inconsistent nature. God's "whims" are to create a world and glorify himself in a manner consistent with His nature. God can do anything that He wants to do, but from what He's told us about His nature (and assuming He's not lying), he doesn't want to do just anything.

 

Culture. Photos. Life's nagging questions. - BitterSweetLife