Evil is not good in disguise

Here is Brian McLaren’s kind and patient response to John Piper’s recent assertion (which he asserts often in the face of natural and human disasters) that God willed the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster in Japan. Needless to say, I strongly disagree with Piper. I’ve written and preached elsewhere on the subject of theodicy (re: Haiti, here, here, and here—my sermon on the topic is here), and I have little to add to McLaren’s article except to say a hearty Amen.

Piper writes that in the face of such tragedies, beyond empathy and aid, people need answers. Maybe they do, although it’s not evident to me that “answers” should be as high as third on that list. (I question the wisdom of volunteering answers so quickly and glibly, especially considering that Jesus, when asked to provide “answers” to a similar tragedy in his day, was far more circumspect.)

Regardless, if people want answers, Piper happily obliges them. Everything that happens in the universe, he says, God permits. (I think the hyper-Calvinists among us talk about God’s active will and God’s permissive will—something like that.) I wholeheartedly agree that God permits everything that happens. But Piper goes further: What God permits, God also obviously wills—even if it’s evil. This has Piper saying things like this: “God has a good and all-wise purpose for the heart-rending calamity in Japan on March 11, 2011, that appears to have cost tens of thousands of lives [. . . .] Indeed, he has hundreds of thousands of purposes, most of which will remain hidden to us until we are able to grasp them at the end of the age.”

This makes my blood boil, and it makes me sympathize with Wesley, who wrote so polemically against Calvinism. At the same time, I appreciate that Piper is far out on the fringe of contemporary Reformed thought. (I like Barth, after all, and he’s Reformed. I like contemporary Reformed theologian Kathryn Tanner.)

Anyway, read McLaren’s post for a good response.

Here’s one more thought, though. It emerges from my reflecting on the scripture for this week’s Vinebranch sermon: Matthew 27:45-49 and Jesus’ words from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Why is it that in this moment Jesus feels abandoned by God the Father—or is abandoned by God the Father? (There’s so much mystery here at the cross, I don’t even know what the right question is.)

One answer, I believe, is a clue to why Piper and his hyper-Calvinist friends are so wrong on the question of evil and suffering. The ancient Christian understanding of evil is that it is not a thing or a substance but the absence of a thing: specifically, evil is a measure of the absence of good. Evil is privation. If you want to use a metaphor, God is pure light. Pure evil (which is surely manifested on the cross) is total darkness. To attribute evil to God is like attributing darkness to light. Light “causes” darkness only indirectly, by casting shadows. Sin and evil, therefore, are shadows in the pure light of God’s goodness.

This is why the consequence of sin—our human contribution to evil, our resistance to God’s goodness—is separation from God. This is why Christ so acutely felt God’s absence in that moment on the cross in which Christ was made “to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (see 2 Corinthians 5:21).

God does not will the cross. The cross is not really “good,” if only we could see it from God’s perspective. The cross is a consequence of all the forces in our universe that oppose God. The good in Good Friday, however, which is the nature of our Christian hope, is that by using the cross to effect our reconciliation, God brings the greatest good out of the greatest evil. Even the greatest evil is no match for God’s goodness and love.

As Rob Bell would surely say, Love wins. This is why the cross, through God’s redeeming and unconquerable love, becomes an audacious symbol of love and hope.

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