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The Mystery of God

Any theism that didn’t ultimately point to mystery would not be a very believable world view. So we must not regret our final use of mystery. It is not an unfortunate, desperation ploy but a necessary part of any exalted theism.

— Tom Morris

The Indictment Among the Rhetoric

Yesterday, I spoke of the Blog for WWGHA totally messing up Christian doctrine.  Mere rabbit trails compared to what the author really wants us to answer for him.

Thomas is asking for a theodicy that makes sense of the events of the last few years:

How can anyone love a “God” who allows hundreds of thousands of people to die in a tsunami, or dozens of people to get shot innocently in a movie theater? What parent would allow you siblings to die while they looked on laughing.

Semantically, Thomas is actually asking for a personal reason Christians can love a God that passively allows tragedy to occur.  But I’m going to interpret him charitably here, assuming Thomas is asking for a theodicy: a logically argued resolution to the problem of evil in a world run by an omnipotent, omniscient God who could end evil but doesn’t.

Infinite wisdom, as the author of the target piece argues, isn’t really all that satisfying.  Neither is the related “mystery” of God.

I’ve never really been that big a fan of the “free will defense,” since the Bible shows God quashing free will.  However, the instances of God upholding free will vastly outnumber the instances of him preventing sin.  So I think that free will, while not the answer, is a component of the bigger picture.

Greater good isn’t all that great by itself.   Strobel’s Case for Faith has a great analogy about a bear trap.  Suppose a bear is caught in a trap and you decide to free it.  You can’t possibly do so without causing the animal more pain than he’s in, and there’s no possible way to explain to the animal that his increased pain will actually lead to total freedom.  And so he’ll lash out at you while you try to free him in a misplaced effort to defend himself.

We lash out at God for people dying in tsunamis and for innocents getting shot in a movie theater.  But what if all this is just part of the ultimate plan designed to free us from this bear trap?  What if the pains we see and the suffering we endure are really leading up to the day when none of this pain and strife will be necessary?  When the metaphorical hunter finally releases our leg and we can scamper pain-free into the woods?

I don’t think it’s the whole picture, but I think that the greater good defense has some merit to it.

This means I see merit to both free will and the greater good.  And I think a synthesis of the two is the answer to all questions related to theodicy.  Which leads me toward something I might call the Education Defense for Evil — it is necessary to have evil in this world to reveal God’s full character (wrath, love, and mercy), bring full glory to God at the culmination of history, and to reveal our own nature.

Evil serves a purpose (greater good) without being God’s purpose (free will).

I confess that while I’ve thought about this for a while now, I have little in the way of previous theodicy by any great thinker to back it up.  The idea needs more development, but it is something I foresee I will be writing and researching more in the future.  This seemed as good a time as any to introduce it, since I could scarcely criticize Thomas from WWGHA in the previous post without actually answering the one conundrum that was worthwhile.

Scripture Saturday: Who Conceives Evil? (Ps 7:14)

Recently a commenter going by Patrick asked me, regarding this article, if it mattered whether God created calamity or evil.  He wondered if that was just semantics.

Well, no, it isn’t just semantics.  Evil here means “moral evil.”  If God created moral evil, then he cannot be good by any definition of the term.  A perfectly good God could not look back on his creation and say it was “good” if he had created moral evil.

On the other hand, “calamity” is neither this nor that.  It’s a force of nature, neutral.  In the hands of a righteous God, argues Clay Jones, calamity is a powerful call to repentance.

So for this Scripture Saturday Sunday (better late than never, right?), I wanted to take a peek at Psalm 7 to determine just who creates “moral evil.”  The answer is in verse 14:

Behold, the wicked man conceives evil and is pregnant with mischief and gives birth to lies.

This verse describes a potentiality — the potential to sin.  It all begins with the will to evil; a desire to commit mischief and that gives birth to lies.  James, the brother of our Lord, explains it this way:

Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. (Jms 1:15)

So the desire is our own, not the fault of God.  The desire, having taken root, produces the sin.  Sin, fully realized, is death.  That’s why God takes all of this so seriously — and why we should, too!  But, alas, Francis Schaeffer was right to observe “. . . that none of us in our generation feels as guilty about sin as we should or as our forefathers did.”

Did God Cause 9/11?

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:

  1. By virtue of his omnipotence, did God cause the terrorist attacks of 9/11?
  2. 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.

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