The other day, I reflected once again on God’s sovereignty in the face of evil. Just today I came across this blog post by a retired United Methodist pastor named Jim Harnish, who takes issue with something that senator and presidential candidate Marco Rubio said in response the question, “Where was God on 9/11? Where was God in Paris?”
For a politician, Rubio answered the question well—judging by the excerpts from Rev. Harnish’s blog post. Harnish disagrees.
He begins by taking issue with Sen. Rubio’s first sentence in response to the question: “I said, ‘Where God always is — on the throne in Heaven.’” Since the Bible depicts God as being on his throne in heaven, and Christ being at his right hand, I’m not sure why this is controversial. By all means, God is also present here through the Holy Spirit, and heaven and earth are very close, but I wouldn’t expect a nuanced theological discussion in the heat of a presidential campaign.
Rubio’s point—the point of the figurative throne imagery—is that God is reigning. God is in charge of the universe. Again, why is this controversial?
Why does Harnish take Rubio so literally when he writes the following?
The most important word the Christian faith offers in the wake of 9/11, Paris or San Bernadino is not that God is “on the throne in Heaven” but that God is down here with us in the face of human suffering, injustice, pain and death.
Nothing I see in Rubio’s response contradicts the idea that God is also (through the Holy Spirit) “down here with us in the face of human suffering, injustice, pain and death.”
Besides, Rubio sees God as at least as active in the world as Harnish. Rubio at least believes that God is directing history according to a plan based on foreknown events. Rubio said:
Senator Rubio compared God’s hidden purpose in hard times with the way a child feels when a parent lets the doctor hurt them to receive a vaccine.
All that child understood at 3 years or 4 years of age is that my father and my mother, who love me, is allowing a stranger to stick a needle in my arm, in this case, some other region of the body, and it hurts, it hurts a lot. “Why are they allowing me to be hurt by this stranger? I don’t understand that?” But I understood. While that needle hurt for 3 or 4 seconds, that needle was going to prevent something much more dangerous and much more painful and much harder later on.
He said God’s promise in these difficult situations is “the peace of being able to handle whatever comes our way…knowing that all this comes from God and is part of his plan, which we don’t fully understand.”
How is that not a great answer? Regardless, I made the same point in my blog post the other day, except not as well.
In response to these thoughtful words, Harnish writes:
As a pastor, there’s simply no way I could look into the faces of the people who are burying their loved ones in California and tell them that “all this comes from God and is part of his plan.”
All this comes from God. Indirectly, yes, in the sense that God created this world in which free agents have the power to work evil. In that sense, God is responsible for it. And not only does evil have no power to thwart or derail God’s purposes in the world, God redeems evil events—as he did, most obviously, in the cross of his Son Jesus.
If Harnish is suggesting, however, that Rubio is saying that God therefore caused 9/11 or the Paris attacks, then we should object on the grounds of facts not in evidence. Rubio doesn’t say God caused them, only that he allows them.
Besides, it’s not even clear to me that Harnish disagrees with Rubio, theologically. (I’m guessing Harnish disagrees with him politically, but who cares about politics?) Because get a load of this statement from Harnish:
There is another branch of Christian theology on which I am willing to hang my soul. It says that while God does not cause everything, God can use anything.
God did not cause the deaths of 14 people on Wednesday afternoon. I don’t believe it was part of God’s plan. People did that. But I do believe that God can redeem these horrendous events to awaken his people to become a part of his redemptive purpose in this world.
God can use anything. Use it? For what reason? If there is a reason, if there is a why, then how is Harnish not saying the same thing as Rubio? Harnish refuses to call this ability and willingness on God’s part to “use” evil events a “plan,” but isn’t that six of one, half-dozen of the other? God doesn’t cause evil events, but uses them for his purposes. Rubio would agree and then add “therefore these events, along with the rest of history, are unfolding according to God’s plan.”
Regardless, I posted the following comment (which is awaiting moderation) on Harnish’s blog:
I don’t see a distinction between what Rubio said and what you say as clearly as others here. Based on your excerpts, Rubio didn’t say that God caused the evil events in Paris or anywhere else. Did he? He talks about God’s “allowing,” which—as far as I can see—is self-evidently true. God allowed 9/11, and the Paris massacre, and the San Bernardino massacre. The question is Why?
If there is a why that isn’t arbitrary, then we are right back to Rubio’s point.
Also, did God not foreknow that these events would take place, or did they take God by surprise? If he foreknew it, as most Christians of all theological stripes would affirm, then if God were going to “use these events for redemptive purposes” as you say, how is it untrue or unhelpful to say that this is part of God’s plan?