Last week marked the tenth anniversary of the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis. From what I’ve read, the tragedy represents a failure of engineering (I say as a former engineer myself) and public policy: tax-paying citizens and their representatives in government are unwilling to pay for needed infrastructure repairs and improvements. Until we are, tragedies like the 35W bridge will repeat themselves.
The good news for Minnesota is that this particular tragedy motivated the state to repair dozens of bridges that, like the 35W, were in danger of failing.
Be that as it may, let me pose a theological question: Despite the many human and bureaucratic misjudgments and sins that went into the 35W’s collapse, could God have intervened somewhere along the way either to prevent the bridge’s collapse, or at least ensure that when it did collapse, no one would be on it (as with the famous Tacoma Narrows)?
If the answer is “yes,” then we must be prepared for the next question: Why? Why didn’t he?
Nearly everywhere I turn on social media, I’m confronted with one blog post after another telling me that, despite the cliché, everything doesn’t happen for a reason (or at least a reason that can’t be fully explained by science or free will), so we Christians are committing pastoral malpractice if we hint that God might have some deeper reason for allowing human or natural evil—and the suffering left in its wake. To ask why, we’re told, is almost sinfully presumptuous.
In one representative sermon by a popular United Methodist pastor I know, he said the following: “We want a reason for everything, and we have this tendency to say that because God is in control, all things that happen, even suffering, are God’s will. And it’s just not true.”
At one point in my life—as late as 2010—I would have agreed: God is not the author of sin or evil, therefore, when sin or evil happens, God doesn’t cause it. I still believe that. But several years ago I would then take the next (unwarranted) step: If God doesn’t cause it, he must also not have any good reason for allowing it.
As I’ve written before in many blog posts, this idea runs roughshod over the Bible. Here are only a few examples:
After the climax of the Joseph story in Genesis 50, Joseph tells his brothers, “What you intended for evil, God intended for good.” In other words, God had good reasons for allowing Joseph’s brothers to carry out their evil plans against him, and these reasons were different from Joseph’s brothers.
In Job 1-2, God allows Satan to carry out his evil against Job as a test of his faith. Satan believes that Job’s faith will falter in the face of suffering. God will prove otherwise, and teach something to Job and his friends in the process. What Satan intended for evil, God intended for good.
The prophet Isaiah teaches in many places that foreign powers like Assyria and Babylon are his agents for judging and punishing Israel. While this judgment and punishment reflect God’s righteousness, the behavior of Assyria and Babylon is evil, for which they too will be judged and punished. (See, for example, Isaiah 10.)
The same goes for Paul in 2 Corinthians 12: Paul complains about his “thorn in the flesh,” which is both a “messenger of Satan sent to torment” Paul, and a gift that “was given” (divine passive) by God to keep Paul humble.
In each of these cases (and many more throughout the Bible), God has no compunction about using evil to accomplish good—even though God doesn’t cause evil.
Besides, we haven’t even dealt with the other part of my clergy colleague’s statement: “because God is in control.” Does he really believe that God is, in any meaningful sense, in control? If so, then how is it “just not true” that suffering isn’t God’s will?
Again, how would my clergy colleague—indeed, the many pastors and bloggers who tell us to avoid saying “everything happens for a reason”—answer the question I pose above: “Could God have intervened somewhere along the way either to prevent the collapse of the 35W bridge—or at least ensure that when it did collapse, no one would be on it?”
So long as he would answer “yes” (which is the clear orthodox Christian, not to mention biblical, answer), then he has contradicted himself.
In the new book from the Gospel Coalition, The New City Catechism, which updates classic Protestant catechisms for our modern era, Question 2 asks, “What is God?” The answer:
God is the creator and sustainer of everyone and everything. He is eternal, infinite, and unchangeable in his power and perfection, goodness and glory, wisdom, justice, and truth. Nothing happens except through him and by his will.
Nothing happens except through him and by his will. Granted, in the Methodist circles in which I run, I can anticipate the objection: “But the Gospel Coalition is Reformed! Of course they believe that!”
To which I would say, “Yes, but we Wesleyan-Arminians believe it, too! Or at least we’re supposed to!”
Only recently have some of my Methodist colleagues boarded a lifeboat called “Process Theology,” or its friendlier “evangelical” form, “Open Theism,” to escape the orthodox conviction that nothing happens except through God and by God’s will.
Open theism, whose most popular contemporary proponent is Greg Boyd, says that God is time-bound rather than timeless. God’s time-boundedness (from an open-theist perspective) is usually construed as a “decision” on God’s part: God doesn’t want to “determine” the future by knowing it[*]; therefore he limits himself to being a participant in history alongside us creatures.
Therefore, God doesn’t know the future.
(By the way, if memory serves, the current version of the United Methodist Disciple I Bible study advocates for open theism in one of its weekly video lectures. 🙄)
Does this mean that God is less than omniscient? Does God not know everything, as Christian theology has always maintained? Not all, the open theist would say. God does know everything—at least everything there is to be known—all knowable facts. Since the future hasn’t happened yet, however, any future event is not a knowable fact. Therefore, that God doesn’t know the future doesn’t compromise his omniscience.
Therefore, when bridges collapse and people die, this surprises God as much as everyone else. The open-theist apologist would then say, “Of course God hates this evil and suffering, but what could he do about it? His hands are tied!”
Of course, this raises a question: Why is God, who knows all facts—including whether or not a bridge is properly designed, the tensile strength holding a bridge together, and the the external forces working against it—unable to anticipate the collapse of a bridge?
Or if God can anticipate a bridge’s collapse—not even by knowing the future but by knowing all pertinent facts about the bridge—yet does nothing to prevent it, how does open theism solve the problem for which it was apparently made to order?
I ask because no one would think up “open theism” without an eye toward theodicy: how can I reconcile God’s goodness with the fact that there’s unjust suffering in the world? Greg Boyd, for one, is always talking about theodicy. If this theological system can’t do the one thing it was created to do—given how badly it already fails on biblical grounds—why bother with it?
(Theologian Andrew Wilson has an excellent post on the subject of open theism here.)
That’s enough for now. In Part 2, I’ll look at a controversial blog post from 2007, written by John Piper, whose church was located near the bridge, and a critical response from Greg Boyd.
* Please don’t misunderstand: I’m not conceding for a moment that God’s foreknowledge of an event determines that event. The content of God’s foreknowledge is based in part on what human beings freely do (with the understanding that human freedom is badly compromised by sin). I like the way William Lane Craig puts it: Future events are logically, though not temporally, prior to God’s knowledge of them.