Where do evil and suffering fit into God’s plans?

January 24, 2017

A regular contributor to Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed blog, who calls herself “RJS,” wrote a post that further illustrates the problem with the way that many evangelicals discuss issues related to God’s sovereignty and providence. If you didn’t read my post on the subject last week, please do so. Then read RJS’s most recent post.

I wrote the following comment, to which I hope RJS responds.

You say Genesis 50:19-20 shouldn’t be a “catch-all propositional truth thrown at people in times of pain.” For that matter, what propositional truth should be “thrown at” anyone in the midst of their pain. Pastoral sensitivity is necessary no matter what. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t propositional truths. I wouldn’t necessarily quote James 1:2 (“Count it all joy, my brother and sisters, when you meet trials of various kinds…”) when someone is in pain, even though someone’s pain would usually qualify as a “trial.” Right?

Regardless, if God can work “even through the evil actions of humans,” as you say in your last paragraph, I fail to see the distinction between what counts for “God’s plans” and what doesn’t. You seem to imply that God’s plans only use “good events.” But if God foreknows what sinful humans will do, and he’s at work, a la Romans 8:28, through everything, how can “every evil and tragic occurrence” also not be part of his plans—unless you accept some form of open theism and believe that these events take God by surprise. (Not judging here, just trying to understand your point of view.)

I’m speaking as a Wesleyan-Arminian, by the way. I’m not a Calvinist troll. But in my way of thinking, if God has plans at all, how can those plans not take into consideration the evil and sinful things that humans do—or even so-called “acts of God” that harm people?

Besides, every event that happens in the world—for good or evil—has a ripple effect on history, affecting the lives of hundreds, thousands, or more. At what point will God start enfolding these myriad consequences into his “plans”?

With that in mind, I still find Timothy Keller’s words about providence and the “butterfly effect” persuasive. As I wrote in an earlier blog post:

In the scientific realm of chaos theory, there’s something called the “butterfly effect,” which says that a butterfly flapping its wings in China “would be magnified through a ripple effect so as to determine the path of a hurricane in the South Pacific. Yet no one would be able to calculate and predict the actual effects of the butterfly’s flight.”[1] Should it be any easier to figure out God, and why God is doing or allowing something to happen?

Pastor Tim Keller reflects on this and writes: “If an all-powerful and all-wise God were directing all of history with its infinite number of interactive events toward good ends, it would be folly to think we could look at any particular occurrence and understand a millionth of what it will bring about.” Yet often when things don’t go our way, we’re the first ones to think, “That’s not fair! If I were God, I would run the universe differently.” But as you can imagine, we’re not really in a position to judge.[2]

1. Tim Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (New York: Dutton, 2013), 100.

2. Ibid., 101.

7 Responses to “Where do evil and suffering fit into God’s plans?”

  1. Grant Essex Says:

    Your use of the term “Calvinist Troll” disappoints me. I find my to value in Calvin’s Theology.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Who said there isn’t? I do too!

      In the context of Scot McKnight’s blog, “Calvinist troll” is a technical term whose meaning would be perfectly clear to McKnight’s readership, the vast majority of whom are Arminian. A “Calvinist troll” would be someone who lurks in the comments section in order to voice disagreement with the Arminian theology of McKnight, his contributors, and his readers.

      Trolls of all theological stripes are out there, and they don’t usually argue in good faith. There are Arminian trolls too.

      But I’m not saying that all Calvinists are trolls.

      • brentwhite Says:

        I wanted my comment to be heard. I know from experience that a lot of McKnight’s readers would be tempted to dismiss my words as those of a troll.

        Which they probably did anyway, since no one responded. 😦

  2. Grant Essex Says:

    Okay. I think there is much doctrine(s) the so called “Calvinist View” and the “Armenian View” that falls into the area of “both are true”, as opposed to “either or”.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Absolutely there are! I grow weary of fellow Methodist clergy rejecting anything that sounds “Calvinist” to them when in reality they’re also rejecting doctrines that Wesley himself held dear—like God’s sovereignty and providence. Read the Wesleyan covenant prayer and ask yourself if Wesley believed in a robust understanding of sovereignty. Of course he did! Methodists have watered it down. Anyway, that’s my soapbox.

  3. Grant Essex Says:

    Also, I think both camps suffer when we take an “us vs. them” approach to “Truth”.

    • brentwhite Says:

      You don’t have to tell me… The differences between the two camps are purely “secondary,” in my opinion. Plus, I say this as someone whose two favorite contemporary preachers are Tim Keller and John Piper!


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