(October 2001 – Volume 7, Issue 9)
One of the hardest things I have ever done was to walk away for the last time from the house in which I had been raised. My parents had both passed away and it was no longer feasible for my siblings and I to keep the homestead, so we had to sell. It broke my heart because it closed a chapter in my life that I did not want to close. I felt a huge loss, a keen disappointment, as I realized afresh that nothing in this life is permanent and almost everything ultimately comes up short of expectations. Of course such loss is minor compared to the tragedies that many people, even godly people, face every day. Seeing this as wrong and unfair many complain, as we saw last time, “If God is truly loving and all-powerful then how can He stand by and watch little children die of starvation, be murdered or raped, or suffer horrible diseases? Or, how could He look the other way as terrorists smashed jet liners into the World Trade Center taking the lives of thousands of people?” If He is omnipotent and does not stop these kinds of things then His love is suspect. If He is full of compassion, but cannot do anything about them, then He is not really “God Almighty,” runs the line of reasoning.
Viewing these two attributes of God as unresolvable contradictions, a loud minority within Christian circles has demanded that we make a choice. “He can’t be both a God of love and unlimited in power,” this group of theologians is telling us, “So choose this day which God you will serve, but as for us and our house, we will serve the God of love.” “Open theists,” to whom I am referring, are left with the same view of God that Rabbi Kushner suggested in his When Bad Things Happen to Good People: a kind, compassionate deity who is as frustrated and outraged by the pain, suffering, and unfairness of this life as we are, and yet incapable of doing anything about it. Kushner chose this view of God because he felt the alternative was a power-hungry, controlling deity who cared nothing for His creation. Kushner did not believe he could live with such a concept of God. Those who espouse an open theology in Christianity, a conception of God that we will examine in a future paper, have now adopted Kushner’s view, with some modifications.
For now, however, we need to explore the issue of options. Kushner, the open theists and many others have attempted to paint us into a theological corner. An omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent God simply cannot exist, they say. And the proof? Just look around you at all the misery and suffering that even good and/or innocent people are forced to endure. Do you really believe that a loving God who possesses ultimate power and knowledge could stand by and allow such things to transpire in His world? No, something has to give. And since no one wants to even imagine a universe ruled by a mean or apathetic deity, the power and/or knowledge of God must be limited or reduced. But are these the only options? Are the Kushners of this world correct in their logic? Is it possible that there does exist a God of absolute love who is also infinite in knowledge and in sovereign control over everything and everybody? Can anyone believe in such a God in the face of all the “evidence” to the contrary? I believe we can, and must, believe in such a God, for it is the clear teaching of Scripture.
Of God and Men
Before we tackle some specific examples from Scripture we should first take careful note of the overall picture of God as presented in the Word. Whereas Kushner assures us that the world is populated with good people who have been undeservedly mistreated by life, the biblical writers have a different take altogether. First, while the Bible would recognize that by the world’s standards some people are kinder, better, wiser, etc. than others, it also clearly and boldly paints the portrait of mankind as rebellious and sinful. Romans 3:10-18 reads in part, There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, not even one… As a result of this sinful bent Paul tells us that the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18). Since this is the true nature of mankind, according to the Scriptures, we are not surprised to find that the inspired writers of the Word do not express astonishment at the Lord’s punishment of sinners, but rather amazement at His patience with them. Their question is not, “Why do bad things happen to good people,” but like the Tribulation martyr’s, How long, O Lord, holy and true, wilt Thou refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on earth (Revelation 6:10)? And keep in mind that those being quoted here are godly saints who have been tortured and murdered for their testimony for Christ. For some reason our loving, powerful Lord allows His saints to suffer, not for their sins always, but because of His purpose.
Jonah, if you recall, did not want to preach to the savage and wicked Ninevites simply because he did not want them to have an opportunity to repent. Knowing the nature of God, that He was a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity (Jonah 4:2), angered Jonah to the point of rebellion. He just could not understand the Lord’s patience and graciousness – and he did not like what he knew. At least that is the way he felt when it came to his enemies; he was greatly appreciative of the same characteristics when they benefited him (Jonah 2:9; 4:6,10).
We should also consider the prophet Habakkuk. The first paragraph of his book is Habakkuk’s complaint that God is not punishing the evil of the Jewish people. How long, O Lord was his cry (1:2). When God revealed to His prophet that judgment was on its way in the form of the Babylonian invasion Habakkuk was not any happier. How can a holy God use as His instrument of punishment those more wicked than the Jews themselves (see 1:13)? But God did not flinch. He did not say, “Well, Habakkuk, old friend, I would love to stop this thing if I could because I know of the utter devastation that will befall my people, but alas I am powerless to do anything.” Rather, He declared that judgment would indeed come at the hands of the Babylonians (2:3), and that judgment was under His sovereign control (chapter 2). The prophet was baffled. He did not understand God’s ways, only that everything he knew and loved was going to be taken away; yet, he trusted in God (chapter 3). Though the fig tree should not blossom, and there be no fruit on the vines; though the yield of the olive should fail, and the fields produce no food, though the flock should be cut off from the fold, and there be no cattle in the stalls, yet I will exult in the Lord, I will rejoice in the God of my salvation. The Lord God is my strength, and He has made my feet like hinds’ feet, and makes me walk on my high place (Habakkuk 3:17-19). Perhaps no finer example could be found of one who looked beyond what he must have seen as contradictions, and rested in the wisdom, compassion and power of his God.
The Sovereign God Who Loves
The issue on the table is this: is it possible for a God of love to be sovereignly in control of all things, including pain, suffering and even evil? Or must we choose between a loving God and a sovereign God? Since everyone in this debate agrees that God is a God of love and compassion we will not bother to discuss this truth. It remains for us to go to the Scriptures and distill what it has to say about God’s sovereign control.
Genesis 45:4-8; 50:20
When Joseph informed his brothers, concerning their shameful behavior towards him, that you meant it for evil against me, but God meant it for good, he gave us a pattern that would ring true throughout the rest of Scripture and time. A great evil had been done to a godly young man, but this did not take place without the knowledge or beyond the power and purpose of God. The biblical teaching is that, “God ordains evil, uses evil, and accomplishes infinitely good purposes through evil, but He never does evil” In Letters From a Skeptic, however, open theologian Gregory Boyd outlines a very different approach to God’s relationship to evil. He writes,
I want to argue that, ultimately, all evil in the world comes from free wills other than God. What God wills and does is always good. Whatever is not good has its origin from someone or something other than God.
If I’m correct, the horrendous evil we see people inflicting on each other in this world is a necessary possibility if this is to be the kind of world where love is possible. Even God couldn‘t have it any other way.
When an individual inflicts pain on another individual, I do not think we can go looking for “the purpose of God” in the event. Of course, God allowed the event to occur because His ultimate purpose includes having free agents…. The drunk driver alone is to blame for the girl’s untimely death. The only purpose of God in the whole thing is His design to allow morally responsible people the right to decide whether to drink responsibly or irresponsibly…. During this prelude period [life on earth] evil may come to us from individuals that God does not control. (Emphasis mine)
But follow this logic through to its conclusion. As Bruce Ware asks, “If God is not in control of tragic experiences then who or what is in control of what happens?” This is a sobering question. Boyd and other Open theists would have us believe that there are many things, including evil, which are outside the control of God. When tragedy strikes, don’t look to God for He had nothing to do with it – He is just as puzzled and helpless as we are. God only brings good, so when bad appears we can rest assured that God’s hand was not in it. God has no purpose in suffering except to allow mankind to live out their free choices. But Joseph and the inspired writers of Scripture did not see it this way. While never denying the free will and responsibility of people, they resolutely believed that God never lost control of anything or anyone. Tragedy, suffering, and evil, are not just the result of sinners using their free will; God ultimately does have a plan, a purpose behind these things.
A subject of this nature cannot be investigated properly without at least a glimpse at the book of Job. The thing that has always impressed me about Job is that he never knew at any point (as far as we know) why he endured so much misery and pain. We, the reader, have the privilege of looking behind the curtain, but Job did not; he simply lived out this painful episode on the stage of life. He, and the other actors in this true-life drama, painted themselves into corners as they offered learned opinions as to why the Divine Director was so orchestrating these things in Job’s life. Job and his friends each had developed theories explaining God’s behavior, but none of their speculations held water. Finally God spoke, but to our surprise, rather than explaining Himself He revealed Himself. He gave Job a lecture detailing His greatness, power, and wisdom. When God was done Job cried out, I know that Thou canst do all things, and that no purpose of Thine can be thwarted. Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge? Therefore I have declared that which I did not understand, things to wonderful for me, which I did not know. Hear, now, and I will speak; I will ask Thee, and do thou instruct me. I have heard Thee with the hearing of the ear; but now my eyes see Thee; Therefore I retract, and I repent in dust and ashes (42:2-6). Job did not understand what all had taken place in his life, but He finally knew that He could trust the One who did. As Carson says, “Job does not say, ‘Ah, at last I understand!’ but rather, ‘I repent.’”
The same concept is taught in the New Testament as well. And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose, has long been one of the most beloved statements in the Bible. As the children of God (the ones who love God and are called), we are assured that God is at work in every event of our lives (God causes all things to work…). “There are simply no accidents or tragedies in which God is, as it were, a passive bystander.” More than that He is causing these events to work together for our good, which in the context is conformity to the image of Christ (v. 29). What a marvelous promise. How tragic it is then to find the open theists gutting this verse of its power in order to maintain their view of free will, in a misguided attempt to protect the reputation of God. John Sanders (another leading open theist) tells us what this verse really means is that “God is working to accomplish good in all things,” yet, “the purposes of God meet with resistance, and even God does not always get what he wants” (emphasis mine). If Sanders is correct we are in deep trouble, but happily he has just ignored the clear meaning of this passage to fit his theology. That God sovereignly controls all things, while at the same time not being the author of sin, is the consistent teaching throughout the Bible. Note the clear teaching of Scripture: Whatever the Lord pleases, He does, in heaven and in earth, in the seas and in all deep (Psalm 135:6). Let all the earth fear the Lord; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of Him. For He spoke, and it was done; He commanded, and it stood fast. The Lord nullifies the counsel of the nations; He frustrates the plans of the peoples. The counsel of the Lord stands forever, the plans of His heart from generation to generation (Psalm 33:8-11). For the Lord of hosts has planned, and who can frustrate it? And as for His stretched-out hand, who can turn it back (Isaiah 14:27)? Remember the former things long past, for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like Me, Declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things which have not been done, saying, “My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all My good pleasure” (Isaiah 46:9-10).
So very much of the Bible deals with suffering and trial and never once is it implied that God is watching helplessly from the gates of heaven as we endure. Proverbs 15:4 is clear when it states. “The Lord has made everything for its own purpose, even the wicked for the day of evil.” Romans 8:35-37 tells us that it is only in the arena of suffering that we discover that as Christians, We overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. James 1:2-4 and Romans 5:1-5 calls on us to count it all joy when we encounter various trials because we know that it is these very things that God uses to produce maturity in our lives.
Space, in a paper of this nature, does not allow us to examine hundreds of other passages such as Deuteronomy 32:39; I Samuel 2:6-7; Ecclesiastes 7:13-14; Isaiah 45:5-7; Lamentations 3:37-38; and Amos 3:6, which teach the same thing. Our God is One who loves infinitely yet maintains sovereign control over all creation even as He allows for freewill choices in His creatures.
How can this be? This and the biblical purposes for suffering and pain will be the subject of our next paper.