The providence of God and the mystery of evil
Due 20th January 2009
Daniel Migliore believes that God “remains ever faithful, upholding, blessing, and guiding the creation to its appointed goal.”
Our writer asks, “How can we continue to affirm the Lordship of God in the face of such horrendous evil?”
Providence and evil in the theological tradition
John Calvin has revealed the mind of God when he says, “God governs the cause of nature and history down to the smallest details. God directs everything by His incomprehensible wisdom and disposes it to His own end.” 1
“There are,” says Daniel Migliore, “three prominent answers to the theodicy question.”
1 One familiar theodicy argument underscores the incomprehensibility of God.
Job, among many others, faced this problem. He was the first innocent sufferer. If you are currently among that number, Daniel Migliore has for you a word of hope, comfort and understanding,
“At the end of the book, it should be remembered, it is Job rather than his orthodox critics who is commended by God for having spoken what is right [Job 42.7]. There is both theological and pastoral significance in the permission to question the justice of God in the face of outrageous suffering and evil.”
2 Another traditional theodicy argument interprets the experience of adversity as evidence of divine punishment [of the wicked] or chastisement [of the people of God].
There is a lot to be said for these two principles. However, the first part is open to misapplication, as the Lord taught in [Luke 13.4; John 9.2-3], and the second part needs to be handled with Pastoral sensitivity.
3 Still another argument of traditional theodicy centres on the divine pedagogy that makes use of earthly sufferings to turn us to God and to cultivate our hope for eternal life.
This argument teaches that Christians are to view all suffering as an opportunity for spiritual growth … Paul might be cited in support of this view [Romans 8.18].
However, Daniel Migliore has composed a word of discernment in adding that, “His statement ought not to be used to obscure the distinction between suffering that is willingly accepted for the sake of God’s reign and suffering that arises from conditions that can and should be changed.”
When we are rethinking providence and evil, Daniel Migliore removes “providence” from being the source of the problem to being the key to a Christocentric life controlled by a Trinitarian understanding.
Karl Barth has helpfully added, “God is so present in the activity of the creature, and present with such sovereignty and almighty power, that God’s actions take place in and with and over the activity of the creature.”
The Triune God and human suffering
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “The Bible directs us to God’s powerlessness and suffering; only the suffering God can help.” 2
This suffering God is the triune God whose holy, self-giving, victorious love is at work from the creation of the world to its completion.
And in a similar frame of mind, Jurgen Moltmann has added that, “All of the suffering of the world is encompassed in the affliction of the Son, the grief of the Father, and the comfort of the Spirit, who inspires courage and hope to pray and work for the renewal of all things.” 3
At the start of this section, I will take two quotes from the first section, one from Daniel Migliore and the other from John Calvin, weave them together and hopefully, build a structure which will exonerate God from blame and place the problem and the presence of evil in its rightful place.
Daniel Migliore said, “The suffering God is the triune God whose holy, self-giving, victorious love is at work from the creation of the world to its completion.” 4
And John Calvin has also revealed the mind of God when he said, “God governs the cause of nature and history down to the smallest details. God directs everything by His incomprehensible wisdom and disposes it to His own end.”
The majority of born-again Bible believing Christians believe that God is a good God and He always has the best interests of His people at heart. Furthermore, He will answer their prayers and He has promised to protect, provide for and bless His people, as many scriptural passages will confirm.
However, both unexpectedly and unannounced, evil comes and does not stop and ask permission to enter, but forcefully, sometimes like a whirlwind, intrudes into our lives and wreaks continual and immeasurable havoc.
However, if it is possible, it is good to keep everything in perspective, for, “If every wicked act that is now done had not been decreed, its place might be occupied by one ten times as bad. We never hear of a deed of wickedness done, but we can conceive of one far worse. If the evil deeds then, which do occur, had not been decreed, their places might be filled by others infinitely worse.” 5
God is, at that time, unusually quiet and extremely inactive, and as in the case of Job, there is no current divine justification or explanation given, no matter how often we pray, fast, claim the promises, or confess our sins.
Just many, many more periods of prolonged darkness, mental and spiritual anxiety and perplexity and the counsel which you would have given, at another time, and are now receiving from your partners in warfare, is totally inadequate.
However, God is, as Daniel Migliore has previously stressed, fully involved with His people even if, as with Bonhoeffer, horrendous evils are permanently surrounding us, and at the same time, our families and friends are queuing up to be assassinated.
When other suffering Christians, philosophers and sceptics continually slander God as Omnipotent and yet, disinterested in His troubled and tormented creation, are they right?
Peter Vardy has asked the same question but with an altogether different conclusion, “God is traditionally held to be omnipotent, yet if God can do everything why does He not abolish all the evil and suffering in the world? … The idea of God as a supreme power figure has been very important in Christian theology. It is not, however, a strictly biblical idea, rather it came from the Greek philosophic idea of God’s insurpassibility combined with the view of some early Church Fathers that God should not in any way be limited by lack of power … I want to argue that a much more restricted view of God’s omnipotence is required and that one of the major reasons that Christians have intellectual difficulties in believing in God in the face of the evil in the world is that they have a too exalted view of God’s power. God’s power is much more limited than is generally supposed and, far from this restricting God, it actually places Him in His proper place.” 6
In an effort to solve this never-ending problem, many people have reasonably asked, usually at the end of all their resources, if God in His foreknowledge knew everything that was going to happen, why then did He give man a free will?
“For of course, no one would dare to believe or declare that it was beyond God’s power to prevent the fall of either angel or man. But, in fact, God preferred not to use his own power, but to leave success or failure to the creature’s choice. In this way, God could show both the immense evil that flows from the creature’s pride and also the even greater good that comes from His grace.” 7
Paul Helm has also helped us here by saying, “The Bible gives examples of God’s knowledge of such possibilities. Two biblical passages became famous in the discussions: 1 Samuel 23.7-13 and Matthew 11.20-24. What the first passage makes clear is that God knew that if David were to remain in the city of Keilah, then Saul would come for him; and that if Saul were to arrive in Keilah for David, the men of Keilah would surrender David to him. What Jesus affirms in the passage from Matthew is that, if His mighty works had been performed in impenitent Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented … From these data there can be no doubt of the fact of God’s middle knowledge, His knowledge of possibilities which are never brought to pass. God knew what would have happened had David remained in Keilah. But David did not remain in Keilah. Christ knew what would have happened to Tyre and Sidon had His mighty works been performed there. But the works were not performed there … God, then, in His omniscience, knows propositions which could not be false, and propositions which could be false but which are true. He also knows propositions which could be true, but which are not in fact true, such as these concerning David and Keilah, and concerning Tyre and Sidon and Christ’s mighty works. It is from this vast array of possibilities that God in His wisdom and goodness wills the actual world, the world which you and inhabit.” 8
Dennis Bratcher, is one among many people who have been troubled by and tackled the perennial debate about predestination, free will, and God’s foreknowledge.
“One of the greatest difficulties in discussing theological issues is recognizing and understanding the assumptions upon which any particular theology is built, as well as the questions, perspectives and points of emphasis that give shape to how it unfolds. Those are almost always influenced by the needs of a community of faith in particular historical circumstances … The biggest problem for the foreknowledge of God is the relation of foreknowledge to human freedom … The fact is, this whole scenario is also tied up with circular reasoning related to Scripture. The omni-doctrines were not developed from Scripture, but from logic. Yet, they have become near absolute statements of fact in approaching the interpretation of Scripture. The logical positions are assumed to be true, then assumed to be in Scripture, and then Scripture is interpreted through the lens of these doctrines.” 9
The people who lay the charge at God’s feet and blame Him for causing all the evil in the world, have deliberately overlooked the theological truth that God, from eternity, knew that His Son was going to be crucified, therefore, God has suffered theoretically and experientially when He witnessed His only Son dying for the sins of the world.
In the following paragraph, John Calvin has attacked the argument of those who deliberately attempt to make God the first cause of all known sin.
“Our adversaries load us with illiberal and disgraceful calumny, when they cast it in our teeth that we make God the author of sin, by maintaining that His will is the cause of all things that are done. For when a man perpetrates anything unjustly, incited by ambition, or avarice, or lust, or any other depraved passion; if God; by His just but secret judgement, perform His works by means of such an one’s hands, the mention of sin cannot be made with reference to God in those His righteous acts.” 10
And, when the same people are talking about the “innocent” suffering, His accusers have conveniently forgotten the sufferings of the Lord in Isaiah 53.3-5. However, God weaves together the sufferings and the glory which is yet to be revealed.
Therefore, in the Revelation we see that the Lamb of God is in control of the seven sealed book [Rev. 5.5]. Evil does not have a mind of its own, as much as it would like. With the unfolding of the seals, the eternal will of God for His creation will be revealed.
Being aware of this, where, then, does the free will of man fit into God’s plan? William Craig has helpfully commented that, “Since God knows what any free creature would do in any situation, He can, by creating the appropriate situations, bring it about that creatures will achieve His ends and purposes and that they will do so freely.” 11
In this context, Peter Vardy has satisfactorily added, “God is omnipotent and He could prevent all pain and suffering, but the price of His doing this would be to take away human freedom … The highest good is human freedom as this is a, necessary condition for a relationship with God. God is leading us from human biological life to a spiritual life with Him. The existence of suffering and pain is the necessary price that has to be paid for this as God could order the world in no other way if this objective were to be achieved.” 12
To the bruised, battered, beleaguered and yet blessed believer, Paul Helm has a word of elucidation and exhortation, “According to scripture all events that affect a person’s life have value: ‘In all things God works for the good … ‘ Not until all the events of a person’s life have occurred, until that life has come to an end, could the contributory significance of any particular event or events be definitely assessed. In this sense, the meaning of a life lies outside that life.” 13
Furthermore, what about those who had died in innocence, the miscarried, the aborted, the mentally incompetent and those who have never heard the gospel?
Based upon His dealings with Job and his family, it is just possible, that He will restore to them all the blessings and benefits, which they had been deprived of during their short life on this earth.
At the end, He might say, as before, “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” [Genesis 1.31]
The puzzle of evil Peter Vardy. Harper Collins 1992
Job. Francis L Andersen. IVP 1977
Evil and the justice of God. N T Wright. IVP 2006
Providence and evil. P T Geach. Cambridge University Press. 1977
Providence and the problem of evil. Richard Swinburne. Clarendon Press. 1998
The enigma of evil. John Wenham. IVP. 1995
The problem of evil. Edited by Marilyn McCord Adams and Robert Merrihew Adams. Oxford University Press. 1990
The providence of God. Paul Helm. IVP 1996
Faith Seeking Understanding Daniel L Migliore. William Eerdmans Publishing 2004
http://www.God’s foreknowledge, predestination, and human freedom. [Dennis Bratcher]
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