Are evil and suffering part of God’s plan?

October 22, 2013

keller_bookAs I’ve been reading Tim Keller’s Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering, I’ve waited for the other shoe to drop. Keller, you see, in addition to being one of our era’s best and brightest Christian writers and thinkers, is also Presbyterian. But not of the hippie-liberal PC(USA) variety: he’s PCA, a Protestant’s Protestant, a full-blown Five-Point Calvinist… or at least he’s supposed to be.

He keeps these doctrinal imperatives close to the vest. Which is as it should be: as with most Protestants, what we usually divide over hardly amounts to a bucket of spit. Presbyterians tend to care a lot more about theology than we Methodists, who are more about rolling up our sleeves and getting to work.

If you’re keeping score at home, however, we Wesleyan-Arminian Christians (which United Methodists profess to be) only agree with one of Calvinism’s five points: total depravity, the T of TULIP.

Wesleyans are suspicious of Calvinism’s strong emphasis on God’s sovereignty. Their tradition tends to emphasize God’s being “in control” so strongly that they mean God controls every single thing, like a puppet-master. As R.C. Sproul has said: “If there is one maverick molecule in the universe, God is not God.” It’s hard for us Wesleyans to see, if Calvinism is true, how human freedom is meaningful, or how God isn’t the author of evil itself. Calvinists would say we misunderstand Calvinism, just as they misunderstand our view of human freedom when they say we’re semi-Pelagian.

So you’d think that reading a book about evil and suffering from a Calvinist perspective would cause all kinds of alarms to go off within this Methodist’s brain. But it’s not too bad. It’s quite good, actually. The most overtly Calvinist statement I’ve encountered so far comes on page 117:

Often we can see how bad things “work together for good” (Rom 8:28). The problem is that we can only glimpse this sometimes, in a limited number of cases. But why could it not be that God allowed evil because it will bring us all to a far greater glory and joy than we would have had otherwise? Isn’t it possible that the eventual glory and joy we will know will be infinitely greater than it would have been had there been no evil? What if that future world will somehow be greater for having once been broken and lost? If such is the case, that would truly mean the utter defeat of evil. Evil would just be an obstacle to our beauty and bliss, but it will have only made it better. Evil would have accomplished the very opposite of what it intended.

I can’t see anything objectionable here. Can you?

God isn’t causing or even conspiring with evil (as I might fear a Calvinist would imply). Evil isn’t really good, if only we could see it in light of eternity. Evil is really evil, and God is defeating it twice over: not simply at the end of history when “all shall be well and all shall be well,” but by using evil (against its will—because we remember Satan) to make that end even better than it would otherwise be.

Christians already agree that God does this with the cross of his Son: He transforms the world’s greatest evil into the world’s greatest good. Had Christ won his victory over sin and death in any other way, would his victory have been as sweet? Keller, if I’m reading him correctly, is merely saying that God does this with all manner of evil.

That seems to be what Paul is getting at when he talks about Creation’s being “subjected to futility… by the will of the one who subjected it” in Romans 8:20-21, and “all things working together for good” in Romans 8:28.

How will God “wipe away every tear” in our own future resurrection if we can still look back and grieve for the evil that happened to us or through us. If, in eternity, we can’t look back on injustice, evil, and suffering and say, “I can see now—even if I couldn’t see at the time—how God was transforming that horrifying event or episode into something good,” won’t we continue to be injured by our memories? Otherwise, wouldn’t God have to erase our memories?

If God doesn’t use evil as part of his plans for our lives, how are we able to grow from our experiences of evil—which many of us undoubtedly do? We Christians often look back on the suffering that we’ve endured and say, “While I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy, I’m glad it happened to me, because I’m a better person as a result.”

This idea—that evil and suffering are part of God’s plan—is anathema to David Bentley Hart, an Eastern Orthodox theologian who wrote a book on the subject, The Doors of the Sea, in the wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. To his credit, Keller deals with Hart’s book directly in a lengthy footnote on page 341. In one of Hart’s most powerful illustrations, Hart sympathizes with the character Ivan Karamazov from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan, who isn’t a Christian, “rejects a God who might be using suffering in any way to bring about a ‘greater good.'” Hart believes that he is fully justified in doing so.[1]

Keller, by contrast, says that Ivan demonstrates a self-righteousness characteristic of modern man, “who is sure ahead of time that on Judgment Day, God could not reveal any insight or wisdom that Karamazov has not already thought of.” Further, Keller writes:

It is important to hold this truth—that suffering is something God hates—together with the teaching that God is sovereign over it. If we refuse to believe that God’s suffering and evil are ever part of God’s plan, we not only turn our back on a fair amount of biblical teaching…, but we also are left without the comfort that God is somehow working in actual experiences and incidents of evil. Nor will we have much incentive to think that God might be teaching us something so that we can grow through it.[2]

I’ve read Hart’s book. I wrote on this blog about how much I appreciated it and have returned to it often. What’s clear to me now—a few year’s down the road—is that Hart hasn’t done justice to what the Bible says. It’s tempting to say that this is because Eastern Orthodox theology, of all major streams of Christian thought, is furthest from the Bible (which I believe is true), but I assume that anyone named “David Bentley Hart” isn’t as thoroughly Eastern in his thinking as that. I suspect that like many systematic theologians, he’s more systematic than this often messy and sometimes paradoxical book that we call the Bible permits us to be. God isn’t easily systematized, to say the least.

1. Timothy Keller, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering (New York: Dutton, 2013), 341.

2. Ibid.

3 Responses to “Are evil and suffering part of God’s plan?”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    This is a difficult issue. I’m not sure we Protestants are as close together as you indicate, though. I think Sproul is totally wrong in his ultra-Calvinist position. To me it makes God out to be an ogre. I’m sure we both believe in the sacrificial death of Christ and many other things, but even with respect to the crucifixion, why would that be necessary if everything just does as God’s “button-pushing” would make it do?

    I do think that God does have good purposes being worked out of the evil that is happening. But I don’t know that I think everything will be “better” than it would have been had we not sinned. Thus, God brings good out of bad, but he might have brought out even more good had we not been bad. “Shall we sin, that grace may abound? God forbid!”

    I recognize that our universe is the best that it can be, as opposed to other options. But I still think that even God had to make some “trade-offs” in some respects. Maybe that is not the best way to put it, but we have to have free choice in order to have love, but the presence of free choice mandates that bad choices can be made. So, it would be better if we sinned not, but a universe without sin was simply not an option on the table, given the “highest good” of love that necessitated the presence of evil (freely chosen–in fact, if not freely chosen, how could it really be evil, and how could love really be love?).

    Perhaps an illustration may help my somewhat rambling point. I wanted my daughter to learn to ride a bicycle because I knew how much fun that would ultimately be. But I did not want her to skin her knee if she were to fall in the process. However, the goal of bike riding was so desirable that the temporary knee skin was “overridden.” But would I have been any less “satisfied” had she caught on so quickly and well that she learned to ride without ever falling? Would that not have been even “better”?

    So, with God, the prospect of “knee-skinning” (bad choices) was intrinsically necessary, but certainly not a good in itself. It was something that had to be “suffered through.” I think the ultimate “wiping away the tears” won’t necessarily be because we see that every fault and failing was something necessary to our ultimate good; instead, we will see that God’s grace was so wonderful that he could forgive even that, and that will bring us such joy that the faults can be “lived with.”

    Besides that, though, and to “wrap up,” I do think that God has a “plan” for each “bad thing” to bring the story of history to where he wanted it to be (given the fact that sins would, in fact, occur). Thus, with Samson, God sought occasion against the Philistines, so he “made use of” Samson’s weakness as to sexual attraction. But Samson still “suffered loss” from his sin–he lost his eyes. Nevertheless, he will be satisfied not only in that he sees how much greater he will get than what he “deserved,” but also in seeing how God used what he did to accomplish what God wanted to do vis-à-vis the Philistines. So, that’s how I see it. Good, but not necessarily better than it would have been if we sinned less.

    • brentwhite Says:

      It sounds like your only point of disagreement with Keller is the idea that God uses suffering to bring something better out of evil/suffering than would otherwise exist. I accept it as a possibility. Certainly seems true in my experience, though. But your quote from Romans may be on point.

  2. Clay Knick Says:

    Keller’s book is on deck. Looking forward to reading it. I’m reading Andy Crouch’s new book plus some others.

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