In honor of the victims who lost their lives on September 11, 2001 and the brave heroes who rescued many survivors, I wanted to take on a common objection to the Christian model of God.
Objectors typically point out that God is omnipotent and omniscient according to the Bible, and either of these is grounds to believe that God is behind every evil action, either directly (by omnipotence) or indirectly (by inaction despite knowing the event in advance through omniscience).
Which leads to two questions:
- By virtue of his omnipotence, did God cause the terrorist attacks of 9/11?
- By virtue of his omniscience, does not halting the attacks make God as guilty as the planners?
No and no. Let’s find out why.
The first is fairly easy to dispense with. The capacity to do something isn’t the same as actually doing it. I can throw in a load of laundry and do the dishes, but I don’t do either very often. If the dishes or the laundry are done at my house, I’m not necessarily the cause (even though I’m more than capable of doing a load of laundry). Odds are, if either of those tasks are done, it was my wife who accomplished both.
So it is with God. Though God is capable of bringing about terrorist attacks on the scale of 9/11, that doesn’t mean he did. In fact, as we’re about to discover, it is quite doubtful that he had anything to do with them.
From a Reformed perspective, isn’t God is the ultimate cause of everything? Not exactly — that’s actually a strawman that Arminans throw at Calvinists. Properly, God has foreordained that which will come to pass, and most think that Calvinists teach that God’s decree is one dimensional.
In the model that most non-Reformed folks attack, if life were Red Riding Hood, God is David Leslie Johnson. If life were Spider Man or Mission: Impossible (how cool would that be?), then God is David Koepp. If life were a 007 movie (best scenario yet!), then God is Neal Purvis. If life were Inception or Memento, then God is Christopher Nolan.
Get it? Those guys are screenwriters. Life, however, is most certainly not a screenplay, and God is not a screenwriter. The decree of God for this earth is not so one-dimensional that it can be reduced to a pile of 112 white, 8.5 x 11″, typed in Courier New, 1″-margin pieces of paper.
God’s decree has more flexibility than a shot list and George Lucas-style unrealistic dialogue.
Part of God’s eternal decree is the free will to choose our paths apart from him. Our liberty is not forfeit, neither is the responsibility we bear for our choices (despite their contingency). And, moreover, God is not the author of sin. Mankind is wicked enough — we don’t need help creating sin!
The Calvinist affirmation: God is sovereign, yet we are responsible.
Which means that the 9/11 terrorists chose, apart from God, their paths. And those paths are to destruction, as are all paths chosen apart from God. Unfortunately, their destruction led to the forfeiture of many more lives than just their own.
Freedom to do horrendous evil sometimes, unfortunately, means that we do horrendous evil.
Is God, then, responsible because — knowing 9/11 would happen — he did nothing to halt it?
Nope. As I’ve argued above, God’s gift of free will means that curse of moral responsibility. God is not obligated to clean up our messes.
Which actually raises another interesting question. If God did stop sin, how would we ever know? We wouldn’t. So, then, is God the restraint on sin that Paul speaks of in these verses?
Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessnessis revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God. Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you these things? And you know what is restraining him now so that he may be revealed in his time. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work. Only he who now restrains it will do so until he is out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming. (2 The 2:3-8)
And there is at least one biblical example of God staying someone from sinning, despite that person having a prime opportunity. In Genesis 20:1-18, Abraham lied to Abimelech and told him that Sarah was his sister rather than his wife. So Abimelech, smitten with Sarah, tries to take her as a wife. I think we all know what that means (wink wink, nudge nudge!).
Yet, Abimelech never had the ceremony, nor consummated the relationship.
When the truth came out, and Abimelech pointed out that he was innocent, duped, and didn’t do Sarah, did God congratulate him for keeping it in his pants? Uh, nope. God said, “Yes, I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart, and it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her” (20:6, emphasis added).
Interesting. God stopped Abimelech. There is precedent, both in the apostle Paul’s passage and in this earlier example, of God restraining mankind’s sin so that it isn’t as bad as it could be.
The bottom line is that we notice the ones that God lets by, like 9/11. But we can’t fathom how many he might hold back, essentially saving us from ourselves. The ones he stops might be worse than 9/11.
But why let any through? Two main reasons, I think.
First, perfection of the saints’ faith:
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, 3for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (Jms 1:2-4)
Second, revealing pretenders:
A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear. (Mt 13:3-9, explanation at 13:18-23)
A third reason, not in the Bible, is the display of compassion. Look at what happened post-9/11. Every country rallied to the U.S. Everyone sent relief to the victims. Volunteers to clean the rubble weren’t in short supply. Blood donations soared. When President Bush announced the War on Terror, the armed forces suddenly had more recruits than they knew what to do with. Chain stores were out of American flags.
Patriotism was no longer out of style.
Truly, a person is refined in fire and tribulation. If you have it too comfortable, then you will never know what you’re truly made of.
So, Augustine summed it up the best when he wrote, “God judged it better to bring good out of evil than to suffer no evil to exist.” If God has a great reason to let the evil through, then we can hardly hold him responsible for the results since the results are the good things intended for us, and the suffering perfects our faith and our humanity.
Other Posts in the Coordinated Blogging Event:
- Atheism, Evil and Ultimate Justice
- Resources on the Problem of Evil
- Do all roads (and flights) lead to God? (Pluralism)
- Evil’s Three Faces and a Christian Response
- Where Was God on 9-11? A response to Rabbi Kushner
- Where Was God on 9/11?
- Did God Allow the Attacks on 9/11 for a “Greater Good”?
- The Need for Moral Choices and Consequences
- Ground Zero
- America After 9/11: Is Religion Evil?
- 9/11: “Full Cognitive Meltdown” and Its Fallout
- My 9/11 Memorial: Christianity Gives Authentic Hope In The Face Of Suffering
- If God, Why Evil?
- On September 11th, 2001 harmless things became fearful
- The Problem of Evil: Who’s problem is it? Is it a problem? (see Tilled Soil)
- 9/11: Where Is God During A Catastrophe?
- Christianity and 9/11: Guilt by Association?
- Suffering and the Cross of Christ
Guest Post by Nate Reid
My brother-in-law, Nate, associate pastor and youth leader at my church, originally wrote this article for my short-lived e-zine. Many Christians, including Nate and I, don’t think that Christians should celebrate Halloween because of its association with the devil and other malevolent entities. Here is Nate’s original article, written in October of 2008 and originally part of this e-zine.
For the Christian today, our diverse American culture poses many real
challenges in determining what he or she should and should not partake in. There is such a blending of belief systems and melding of cultural practices that for those who try to follow closely to the teachings of Jesus Christ, it can be a daunting task riddled with humanly perceived “gray areas.”
In keeping with the season, I would like to address the Christian’s response to the celebration of Halloween. I do not want to go into an exhaustive background, but Halloween began with ancient Druid beliefs that this time of year the souls of the deceased could and sometimes did come back to pester and possess the bodies of the living. Therefore, many of the customs that are still performed today have roots in actual Druid ritual. Carving Jack ‘o’ Lanterns and dressing up in frightening costumes was an attempt to scare away evil spirits. Building giant bonfires (derived from “bone-fires”) was intended to do the same and also eradicate anyone who was believed to be possessed by an evil spirit. Furthermore, today the “holiday” is celebrated by neo-Pagans, Wiccans, and even Satanists as somewhat of a high holiday.
So, if this is the case, what is a Christian to do? What’s so terrible about dressing up as a princess or a pumpkin and going door to door begging for candy? What possible harm can come from carving a pumpkin or bobbing for apples? I would venture to say that these things in and of themselves are not wrong and definitely not the point. The bottom line is this: Halloween today in our culture, no matter how any individual celebrates it, glorifies death, evil, and fear. As a Christian, we know that Jesus came to overcome the power of death, defeat evil, and eliminate fear. Why then would a Christian partake in an event that, no matter what their celebration includes, glorifies the very things Christ came to abolish?
If you argue that our customs for Christmas celebration have pagan roots and therefore would be wrong to partake of according to my argument, then you are right on the first part at least. Many Christmas customs do indeed come directly from pagan practices—the lighting of a tree and the yule log, just to name two. However, I would argue that you are incorrect on the second part of your statement. What, today, does Christmas stand for? Does it not still mark the celebration of the birth of the Savior of the world, Jesus Christ? You would be correct in noticing the need to eradicate the disgusting overemphasis of commercialism and the blatant substitution of the true meaning of Christmas with a certain “Santa Claus.”
Therefore, my analogy goes like this: Celebrating Halloween in the sense of celebrating the harvest and honoring the Saints that have gone before us would in theory be acceptable as a Christian, just as celebrating Christmas as the commemoration of the birth of Christ is acceptable. (The Catholic Church unsuccessfully tried to replace pagan meanings of Halloween, thus “All Hallow’s Eve,” which morphed into “Halloween” with “hallow” having the meaning of one who is hallowed or holy. Think, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name…”). Both celebrations go wrong when the pagan is celebrated over the Christian.
In the case of Halloween, glorifying death, evil, and fear is akin to placing the myth of Santa Claus in place of the real Jesus Christ while prioritizing the giving and receiving of gifts over glorifying the Giver of the Greatest Gift of all at Christmas time. I believe it is simply summed up in the following verse: “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil” (1 The 5:19-22, ESV).
As a Christian we have the responsibility to ensure we are thinking through everything we do in general, and specifically in this case with celebrations to make sure we are glorifying God, holding to only that which is good, and keeping far away from anything that is associated with evil. I cannot personally get around the fact that Halloween glorifies death, evil, and fear. It should be obvious that this is the clear meaning behind this day.
Halloween movies more often than not feature brutal massacres, witchcraft as fun and acceptable, and glorification of the demonic side of the very real spiritual realm. The fiction that has been created about ghosts, zombies, and the like have their roots in reality and can only be demons as described in the Bible. There is a spiritual realm that features very good and very bad spirits.
We should not, especially as Christians, make light of this and consequently behave as if the evil is “cute” or “harmless” or anything else other than a terrible offense to God and contrary to everything He is.
We suffer from an epidemic of Christians that behave exactly the same, or at least nearly the same as their non-Christian counterparts without regard for taking a stand for what is pure and holy. We need to not be afraid of looking weird or irrelevant when we speak out against or abstain from celebrating overtly pagan and evil “holidays” such as Halloween. It is time we did as the writer in Hebrews describes when he writes: “…Let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us…” (Heb 12:1, ESV).
I challenge every Christian who reads this article to examine the Word of God, pray specifically, and carefully consider what I present to you even if you initially disagree with my stance. I believe that any Christian absolutely must treat any and all matters of life, not exclusively the “hot button” issues like the celebration of Halloween, in this manner. We cannot afford to slog through life accepting or rejecting doctrine, lists of right and wrong, and in this case celebrations based on our culture at large, what someone we care
about or respect said, or whatever happens to fit our personal references.
There is absolute truth out there, and we all must strive to find it and understand it to the best of our imperfect human ability and live our lives accordingly. Ultimately, we will be held accountable for our actions and what we supported or fought against in the end.
I do not say all this to suggest that a true Christian cannot celebrate Halloween and still be “right with God.” There are godly men and women I know and respect and whose salvation I would not question who advocate at least portions of current American Halloween customs. I do not have a problem with disagreeing with them and personally choosing to abstain, but I only continue to respect their opinion if they have demonstrated that they are convinced that they are doing what is pure and holy to the best of their ability. I do, however, strongly infer that a true Christian will examine their hearts and motivations for celebrating it or not celebrating it and ensure that they have a solid set of reasoning and specific purpose for everything they do.