Does God Ordain Evil?
One of the books I read on vacation was “Suffering and the Sovereignty of God”. This is a book edited by John Piper and Justin Taylor that tries to explore the theology of suffering from the conservative perspective. Perhaps the most challenging part of the book is the chapter by Mark Talbot entitled “All the Good that is Ours in Christ”. In it Mark argues that not only does God permit evil to exist in order to be glorified through redeeming the consequences of it, but more than this, God ordains evil in the first place. For example:
Eph 1:11 goes even futher by declaring that God in Christ “works all things according to the counsel of his will.” Here the Greek word for works is energeo which indicates that God nor merely carries all of the universe’s objects and events to their appointed ends but that he actually brings about all things in accordance with his will. In other words, it isn’t just God manages to turn the evil aspects of our world to good for those who love him; it is rather that he himself brings about these evil aspects for his glory (see Ex 9:13-16; John 9:3) and his people’s good (see Heb 12:3-11; James 1:2-4). This includes, as incredible and as unacceptable as it may currently seem – God’s having brought about the Nazi’s brutality at Birkenau and Auschwitz.
Wow. OK, let’s get our head around this. What Talbot’s saying is that it isn’t just that God permits evil to happen, it’s that he actually makes it happen in the first place. Now your response to that might be “that seems a bit sick of God” but is your objection on the basis that you don’t like the sound of that or that you don’t think the Bible teaches it?
Thinking a bit more about this last night I realised that our problem with handling issues of fore-knowledge and fore-ordination is that we see time from within it but God is beyond time. He sees and understands and reacts to everything at the same time (as it were). He is able to see all the possibilities at the same time and to engineer events. But does that mean that he simply permits evil to occur or that he actually ordains it.
Imagine God is playing a game of chess. Being God, he has perfect fore-knowledge. He can not only see what his opponent’s future moves are but also all the possible future moves and variations. That means that when he makes the first move he does so knowing what his opponent will already do, so he knows how black will react. When the first pawn advances forward God has already seen the end of the game. He’s already there while also being at the start of the game and at every point inbetween. He permits his opponent to make certain moves because he (God) knows he is in some sense playing the perfect game. He knows that when he makes a particular move his opponent will react in a certain way. God sees all the possibilites and plays the game accordingly.
This is a rather crude model for how God intervenes in history. Yes, he permits evil to occur, but only because he already knows the outcomes and is shaping events. He is in the business of redeeming evil in order to demonstrate his glory and holiness. And this is, roughly, the view I’ve held for the past few years. God doesn’t ordain evil, but he does permit it in order to neither violate the integrity of his created human beings and also in order to demonstrate that he is more powerful than evil.
But let’s go back to our chess game and ask a crucial question, namely, who created the person who plays black? You see, the problem I’m now seeing with saying that God permits evil but doesn’t ordain it is that God created human beings in the first place. He stands above history. He knows how it’s all going to turn out. When Adam fell he already knew that I, thousands and thousands of years later, would be a sinner and would also suffer from other’s sin. Suddenly it’s not acceptable to say that God permits Black to play his moves since he (God) can see the long game and is orchestrating the bigger picture. God made black player in the first place. He’s responsible for all the small minutiae of life and experience that affects the black player and shapes his game. God has created the black player and has therefore in some sense fore-ordained his moves. If God had created the black player any differently, or shaped the lives of those around him who influence him any differently then the black player might play different moves. So if we’re honest, God doesn’t just permit the black player to play his moves, in reality he’s fore-ordained them because he has shaped the black player’s existence, and chosen to do and not to do certain things that will have affected the black player.
Let me approach this from a different angle. An objection to the fact idea that God fore-ordains evil is that it’s a bit unfair for God to make me do something sinful and then to judge me for it. That seems a bit callous, but let’s think carefully about whether on the same basis I should be judged for my sin if God just permits evil and sin to happen rather than pre-ordaining that sin to occur. Think about this – I’m a sinner, steeped in a fallen nature not really because of what I have done but because of what Adam did. Because Adam sinner, and because God permitted him to sin, I am now fallen. I don’t sin because I choose to sin rather than follow God – rather as a fallen human being I am incapable of not sinning. But how fair is it therefore for God to judge me on the basis of my sin when it was God’s actions in permitting Adam to sin that got me in that position in the first place?
What I’m trying to say is this – the position that God permits evil isn’t actually in any sense morally superior or more just that the position that God fore-ordains evil. Both leave us in a position where we’re held culpable by God for things that he has set in motion. The only position that can get round this is Open Theism, but that’s such a denial of the “Godness” of God that I’m not even going to touch on it.
So is God a callous bastard who either way judges us for things that are ultimately his responsibility or is there another way of viewing this? Is the sovereignty of God just a short cut to the unfairness of God? Well that’s for a second post but in the meantime I’d love to know what you think of the above. And be warned – I’m not going to accept any arguments on the basis of “I can’t accept a God who [fill in the blank]”. Let’s do theology, not anthropocentric philiosophy. Let’s try and work out the truth about God, regardless of how that might make us react…