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