Posts Tagged ‘theodicy’

Why this Methodist believes in meticulous providence (Part 6)

October 18, 2017

Pastor and theologian Greg Boyd is no fan of John Piper!

(Click the following to see previous posts in this series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4Part 5.)

Eight days after the collapse of the 35W bridge in Minneapolis, pastor and theologian Greg Boyd responded to John Piper’s blog post on the subject, which Piper wrote the same evening as the disaster. I don’t know whether Boyd self-identifies as an Arminian; I know that some of his critics have identified him as such. But for some of these critics, unfortunately, “Arminian” has come to mean “non-Calvinist Protestant,” rather than an adherent to a robust Christian theological tradition.

One thing I know for sure is that Boyd is an “open theist.” This means that from Boyd’s perspective, God has limited himself to operating within our current time. Therefore, the future is unknown and unknowable to him: God can only know what might happen at any moment. I wrote the following in my original post in this series:

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!” [Or maybe I should say, “He’s tied his hands!” assuming God has limited himself to our time.]

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?

My point above is this: as a defense of God’s goodness, open theism, in addition to being heterodox, is a non-starter. Even if God doesn’t know the future for certain, he would be better able to at least predict the future, based on his perfect comprehension of all contingent events happening at any given moment, such that he could still intervene to prevent disaster from striking—assuming he wants to. And I don’t think Boyd denies that God could miraculously intervene once disaster strikes. Therefore, if God—who has perfect knowledge of all contingent events at every moment and the power to work miracles—doesn’t want to stop a disaster, we still have to ask why.

And we’re right back where we started: Why does God allow evil and suffering? What would be Boyd’s defense of God’s goodness in this case?

One thing is for sure: He did not like John Piper’s blog post on the 35W bridge disaster. In this post, I want to begin analyzing what Boyd wrote.

Boyd begins by summarizing Piper’s post (not referring to Piper by name—why? They were in the same city! Everyone knew whom he was talking about!), concluding his summary with the following:

This pastor interprets Jesus to be saying that “everyone deserves to die,” for “all of us have sinned against God.” And this, he insists, is “the meaning of the collapse of this bridge…”

What is more, this pastor argues that catastrophes like this one are God’s “most merciful message,” since they mean there’s “still time to turn from sin and unbelief and destruction.” For this reason, the message of the collapsed bridge is “the most precious message in the world.”

This is a perfectly fair summary of Piper’s interpretation of Luke 13:1-5. (As I said earlier in this series, I agree with Piper’s interpretation as well.) But he goes on to say that Piper’s teaching “honestly concerns [him]”:

First, his interpretation of Luke 13:1-5 assumes that God was somehow involved in Pilate’s massacre and the falling tower of Siloam. He thinks Jesus was teaching that the ultimate reason the Galileans were massacred and the tower fell on people was because “everyone deserves to die,” and Jesus was simply saying to his audience; “You’re as guilty as they are, and you’ll die too if you don’t repent.”

I would agree with Boyd that, apart from the rest of scripture, Luke 13:1-5 neither implies that God was involved nor uninvolved in these tragedies. But the question of what this passage “assumes” is different: If we believe that Jesus assumes that the Bible is a truthful record of God’s revelation to us, then it’s fair to say that Luke 13:1-5 assumes that God was “somehow” involved.

Was God “somehow” involved in the tragic events that befell Joseph in the final story arc of Genesis? Of course! Although God’s involvement wasn’t apparent until Joseph’s retrospective theological reflection on those events in Genesis 50:20: “As for you [Joseph’s brothers], you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.”

Was God “somehow” involved in the tragic events that befell Job? Of course! Satan initiates these events, but only with God’s explicit permission. I emphasize this fact because Boyd appeals to the freedom and power that demonic forces have to work evil in the world. Indeed, these forces are free, and they do have power. It is likely, given the constrained amount of power that God allows Satan to have in this world, that these evil forces played an important role in the bridge’s collapse. By all means!

But given the precedent of Job 1 and 2, Satan doesn’t work this evil without God’s permission.

In the New Testament, we see this same dynamic at work in Paul’s discussion of his “thorn in the flesh” in 2 Corinthians 12: the thorn was both a “messenger from Satan” sent to torment Paul and a gift from God to keep Paul from “becoming conceited” (v. 7). So it’s not either God or Satan; it’s both/and. Satan can do nothing apart from God’s providential permission.

For a theologian of Boyd’s stature, this should be baby talk. He should know—as classic Christian theology has always maintained—that God sustains everything into existence at every moment. No creature, no matter how free, lives independently of God. So God is necessarily involved in everything that (even) free creatures do. But even more, the Bible promises that God is working through “all things” for the sake of his children and his redemptive purposes (Romans 8:28).

Tim Keller, perhaps quoting someone else, called God “the great Alchemist”: only God has the power to transform evil into good. If he can transform the worst evil the world has ever seen (the cross of his Son Jesus) into the greatest good the world has ever seen (the salvation of all who believe in Christ), then he can surely transform all lesser evils, including the 35 bridge disaster.

Let’s look at the next sentence in Boyd’s post:

He thinks Jesus was teaching that the ultimate reason the Galileans were massacred and the tower fell on people was because “everyone deserves to die,” and Jesus was simply saying to his audience; “You’re as guilty as they are, and you’ll die too if you don’t repent.”

Here Boyd gets off track: He conflates God’s “message” embedded within a tragedy with the “ultimate reason” for the tragedy itself. They’re not identical, unless God’s sole purpose in allowing a tragedy is to communicate a message. In the case of the 35 bridge tragedy, we can infer that Piper believes that God let the bridge fall for many reasons, only one of which was to communicate a message about repentance:

Talitha said, “Maybe he let it fall because he wanted all the people of Minneapolis to fear him.” “Yes, Talitha,” I said, “I am sure that is one of the reasons God let the bridge fall.”

“I am sure that is one of the reasons.”

Given these words, it’s clear Piper distinguishes “reasons” for a tragedy from the “message” communicated through it, and that he believes that there are many reasons. Even if God were communicating only one message through the 35W disaster, he’s still allowing it for many reasons.

Boyd continues:

In fact, if you read on five more verses, you come upon another catastrophe Jesus confronted: a woman who had been deformed for 18 years. Rather than assuming that God was somehow involved in this deformity, Jesus says this woman was bound by Satan (13:16). He then manifested God’s will by healing her.

See my words above about Job and Paul, both of whom suffered physical illnesses in which God is explicitly involved, alongside Satan. He continues:

This is what we find throughout the Gospels. They uniformly identify infirmities (sickness, disease, deformities, disabilities) as being directly or indirectly the result not of God’s punishing activity, but of Satan’s oppressive activity.

Even this isn’t true. What about the healing of the man born blind in John 9? Here are verses 1-3:

As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.

Clearly, the gospels do not “uniformly” identify infirmities as being “directly or indirectly” the result of Satan’s “oppressive activity” rather than God’s activity—since this man was born blind so that “the works of God might be displayed in him.” Surely Boyd wouldn’t argue that Satan wanted God’s works to be displayed in the blind man! While these verses don’t rule out that Satan’s oppressive power is also at work, Jesus himself doesn’t go that far: we only know that God is the ultimate cause of the man’s blindness. Either way, Boyd has misrepresented the gospels.

I’ll continue to look at the Boyd post next time.

Sermon 10-08-17: “God and Tragedies”

October 12, 2017

I preached the following sermon one week after the tragic events in Las Vegas, in which a gunman killed at least 58 people. How do we make sense of this kind of evil and suffering light of our Christian faith? Jesus shows us how.

Sermon Text: Luke 13:1-9

My sermons are now being podcast! My podcast is available in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

A couple of days ago, Gary Chitwood nearly electrocuted himself—through no fault of his own—so what I’m about to say may hit too close to home for him. I don’t mean to be insensitive.

But back in the early-’60s, a psychologist from Yale named Stanley Milgram conducted a series of experiments involving shock treatment—or at least that’s what his test subjects thought. Back then, the world was still recovering from the evil of Hitler and the Nazis, and the purpose of Milgram’s experiment was to see just what kind of person would commit the atrocities carried out by Nazi Germany—what kind of person would participate in genocide—and under what circumstances.

So, in this experiment, Milgram told his test subjects that he was conducting an experiment related to learning. A “student” was in the other room, strapped to a chair, with electrodes attached to him. The test subjects, meanwhile, were told that they were to be the “teacher.” The person in the other room was asked specific questions, and every time he got an answer wrong, the so-called “teacher,” the test subject, was supposed to administer a shock to the person. The test subject had in front of him a shock generator with thirty switches labeled from 15 volts to 450 volts—with words ranging from “Slight Shock” to “Danger—Severe Shock.” The 450V switch was simply labeled “XXX.” Read the rest of this entry »

Why isn’t God’s presence more obvious?

October 6, 2017

In light of this week’s tragedy in Las Vegas, I’m preaching a one-shot sermon this Sunday called “Where Is God in the Midst of Tragedies.” My text is Luke 13:1-9. In my view, this scripture is Jesus’ most important word on evil and suffering. At the very least, it speaks directly to modern objections to God’s existence based on the “moral problem” of evil. I preached what I’m sure was a theologically and biblically inadequate sermon on this text back in 2010. I’m almost afraid to re-read it now!

Still, in preparation for Sunday’s sermon, I’m currently reading Clay Jones’s Why Does God Allow Evil. Among other things, he expands on ideas he debated on an outstanding Unbelievable? podcast in 2015. I admire the forcefulness and clarity with which he approaches a subject that most of us only approach with great caution. Perhaps he’s fearless because, as he says in the book’s introduction, when we understand who we are as sinful human beings, the so-called “problem of evil” vanishes. After all, no one asks, “Why do bad things happen to bad people?”

I don’t disagree with him.

In fact, I’ve been blogging for a while about how ill-equipped most contemporary Methodists are in dealing with questions of human or natural evil. Remember this official UMC article on the recent hurricanes? Most Methodist thinkers say something inadequate like, “We don’t know why there’s evil, but God is with us!”

Regardless, one nagging apologetic concern I have struggled with more recently is the apparent “hiddenness” of God. Why does God not make his presence more obvious to people whom he otherwise wants to save?

Dr. Jones tackles this question nicely:

If God wants us to be significantly free (know the kind of freedom we now possess), then God can’t make His presence too apparent; He can’t make His presence too “saturated.” His presence in the world is not smothering, like an overbearing parent. He is not an ever-present “helicopter God” (philosophers call this epistemic distance or divine hiddenness). This is so because if God’s existence were at every moment absolutely unmistakable, then many people would abstain from desires that they might otherwise indulge. As C.S. Lewis put it, “there must perhaps always be just enough lack of demonstrative certainty to make free choice possible: for what could we do but accept if the faith were like the multiplication table?” In other words, if Christianity were unmistakably true, then people would have less free will and they would be compelled to feign loyalty. For example, I’ve asked guys, “If you were getting up to speak at a podium, and there were cameras on you, and an audience watching you, and if there were a pornographic magazine on the podium, would you open it or even look down at the cover?” Of course the answer is always no. Why? Because they know that everyone is watching them! Similarly, God could make His presence and His power so evident that everyone would always do the right thing—whether they wanted to or not. But that would interfere with our acting freely.[†]

What would be wrong if the truth of God and his gospel were as obvious to us as the multiplication table? After all, we would know that God exists. We would know that the doctrines of Christianity are true. We would, in a sense, “believe in” Jesus.

But this wouldn’t be true faith. As I said in my recent sermon, “Dead Faith Can’t Save Us,” genuine faith is not merely knowing facts about God; it’s not agreeing to a set of propositions. It’s also entrusting ourselves to God—out of love for him and gratitude to him. It’s being loyal to him. Without this “epistemic distance,” as Jones says, we would “feign loyalty.” True faith may never take root and grow.

So without God’s “hiddenness,” the vast majority of people would believe in God, but they wouldn’t have faith in God. There’s a big difference!

Clay Jones, Why Does God Allow Evil? (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2017), 112.

Why this Methodist believes in meticulous providence (Part 4)

September 18, 2017

This is Part 4 in a series of posts. Click here to read previous posts.

I’ve been arguing on my blog for years that we Methodists are not, in general, well-equipped, theologically, to deal with tragic events—such as the recent hurricanes that ravaged the east coast of Texas, the Caribbean islands, and Florida over the past few weeks.

Case in point: Read this article from last week entitled, “Ask the UMC: How do United Methodists understand human suffering from natural disaster?

(What an ambitious title, by the way! Did we convene a General Conference without my knowing it, so that this author—whoever it is—could speak on behalf of the entire church?)

Needless to say, no one asked yours truly—a United Methodist—how I understand human suffering from natural disaster. I find this article deeply—though typically—insufficient.

The author quotes a John Wesley sermon called “The Promise of Understanding”:

[W]e cannot say why God suffered evil to have a place in his creation; why he, who is so infinitely good himself, who made all things ‘very good,’ and who rejoices in the good of all his creatures, permitted what is so entirely contrary to his own nature, and so destructive of his noblest works. ‘Why are sin and its attendant pain in the world?’ has been a question ever since the world began; and the world will probably end before human understandings have answered it with any certainty” (section 2.1).

By way of interpretation, the author writes the following:

While Wesley admits we cannot know the complete answer, he clearly states that suffering does not come from God. God is “infinitely good,” Wesley writes, “made all things good,” and “rejoices in the good of all his creatures.”

Our good God does not send suffering. According to Wesley, it is “entirely contrary to [God’s] own nature, and so destructive of his noblest works.” Suffering is not punishment for sin or a judgment from God. We suffer, and the world suffers, because we are human and part of a system of processes and a physical environment where things go wrong.

Let me begin by saying—and I mean this as respectfully as possible—”Ultimately, who cares what Wesley said?” The Rev. Wesley himself, a convinced Protestant, would likely appreciate my saying this. We are supposed to be “people of one book,” and that book is not ultimately a collection of Wesley’s standard sermons: it is the Bible.

Having said that, I disagree that this author has interpreted him correctly. Notice Wesley begins by saying that we don’t know why “God suffered evil to have a place in his creation.” While I think Wesley’s words are a bit strong here, this is one sentence from one paragraph of one sermon preached over the course of a long life of published sermons, tracts, magazines, and books. Wesley “never had an unpublished thought,” so the old joke goes. This paragraph hardly exhausts Wesley’s thinking on the subject.

While I don’t have the reference now, one of my Wesleyan theology professors in seminary said that Wesley didn’t hesitate to explain the divine origin of at least one or two natural disasters that affected England in his day.

Besides, what we know from the rest of Wesley’s corpus is that he was a “greater good” apologist for evil, like most of his contemporaries: In other words, now that sin and evil are a part of this Creation, God will use them redemptively in order to bring about a greater good. Wesley would likely point to Romans 8:28 and some of the scriptures I’ve dealt with as part of this series of blog posts.

Regardless, Wesley is speaking about God’s allowing evil to begin with; not what God is doing with evil and its “attendant pain” right now.

The author writes that Wesley “clearly states that suffering does not come from God.” He does no such thing! Notice how easily the author conflates evil with suffering. Why does he or she do this? To say that evil does not originate with God is not the same as saying God doesn’t send suffering. Do I have to rehearse my arguments from scripture in the previous three blog posts? For example, recall that God literally struck down Ananias and Sapphira for their sin in Acts 5. Was that not suffering? Or what about Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” in 2 Corinthians 12? There is clearly a sense in which God wanted Paul to suffer from his “thorn in the flesh” to keep him humble. Or what about those Christians in the church in Corinth who got sick and even died from eating the Lord’s Supper “in an unworthy manner” (1 Corinthians 11:30)?

While we might say that in a world without sin God doesn’t want his children to suffer, we no longer live in such a world. In our world, God does want us to suffer if by doing so he can accomplish his good purposes—as the Bible and our own experience prove that he can.

I’m reminded of a question that Rob Bell raised in his book Love Wins. Bell was kind of, sort of arguing—in that mushy, hard-to-pin-down, Rob Bell sort of way—that it doesn’t make sense that God would send sinners to hell. Why? “Doesn’t God love everyone and want to save them? Does God not get what he wants?” Mark Galli’s response, in his own book God Wins, was dead on: “Yes, but God wants more than one thing!”

God wants more than one thing. This is true when it comes to suffering.

By all means, all things being equal, God doesn’t want a world of sin, evil, and suffering. But not at the expense of creaturely freedom. In other words, God obviously wants this world of sin, evil, and suffering more than he wants a world in which sin, evil, and suffering are impossible.

In the end, it will be clear that all the suffering of this world, alongside God’s redemptive plan for it, will be to his glory. I can imagine some ways in which this might be true—and our best Christian apologists have helped us to imagine it—but whether I can or not is irrelevant: the fact remains that if God didn’t want the world in which we live, we would live in another world.

If you disagree with my logic, please tell me why.

Notice the question-begging that “Mr. or Ms. UMC” engages in with the following statement: “We suffer, and the world suffers, because we are human and part of a system of processes and a physical environment where things go wrong.”

Yes, but why? Could God not have created a world without such a “system of processes” or “physical environment”? Sure, if you’re a “process theologian” who denies God’s omnipotence, or an “open theist” who denies God’s foreknowledge, then you might have a case. But even I, who doesn’t have the authority to speak for the entire United Methodist Church, knows for sure that our denomination’s founding documents and doctrines rule out such a belief.

Finally, notice the contradiction in the author’s citation of John 9:

When Jesus and his disciples encounter a man born blind, the disciples ask Jesus the question we are asking. “Rabbi, who sinned so that he was born blind, this man or his parents?” (John 9:2). Jesus, why does seemingly arbitrary suffering occur?

Jesus’ answer, “Neither he nor his parents,” tells us that the disciples are asking the wrong question. “This happened,” Jesus continues, “so that God’s mighty works might be displayed in him” (John 9:3). Jesus asserts that it is in our response to suffering that God is found, in moments of everyday grace and in grand and sweeping gestures of care and solidarity with the suffering. God’s mighty works are found in hospitals and nursing homes and shelters.

“Why does this seemingly arbitrary suffering occur?” By the author’s logic, Jesus ought to say that the man was born blind because he was born into a “system of processes and a physical environment where things go wrong.” And given that this happened to him—and no one knows why—now God can redeem his suffering through a miraculous healing.

But this isn’t at all what Jesus says.

Instead, Jesus says God sent this man’s suffering, and Jesus even tells us the reason: “so that God’s mighty works might be displayed in him.” Jesus’s words only rule out that God isn’t punishing the man for his sins, or the sins of his parents, not that God didn’t enable or allow the man’s suffering for a reason.

The author asserts that “it is in our response to suffering that God is found,” but that’s not true in this case: God is also found in the man’s being blind in the first place. His blindness was a part of God’s plan for his life—for a good reason! To glorify God!

If you think that my words sound cold-hearted, how would you interpret Jesus’ own words?

When I read officially sanctioned Methodist articles such as this one, I’m struck by how human-centered they tend to be. It’s as if Methodist thinkers such as this author imagine that we human beings exist for our own sake, rather than for God’s—as if our happiness is God’s chief concern, and when we’re unhappy, then something has gone badly wrong, and God owes us an explanation. Sadly, these Methodist thinkers tell us time and again, there are no explanations.

Of course there aren’t explanations! It’s as if we’re looking in the wrong end of the telescope and asking why our universe is so small!

Just this morning, one UMC pastor, Drew McIntyre tweeted the following:

He’s writing in response to something that Methodist bogeyman John Piper said (taken out of context, as most tweets are):

Given what I’ve written above, you won’t be surprised at my response to Drew:

Anyway, speaking of John Piper—and picking up where I left off in my previous post in this series—these words from his controversial blog post on the collapse of the I-35W bridge resonate with me. This is an example, I believe, of “turning the telescope around” and looking at the question of suffering from the correct perspective:

All of us have sinned against God, not just against each other. This is an outrage ten thousand times worse than the collapse of the 35W bridge. That any human is breathing at this minute on this planet is sheer mercy from God. God makes the sun rise and the rain fall on those who do not treasure him above all else. He causes the heart to beat and the lungs to work for millions of people who deserve his wrath. This is a view of reality that desperately needs to be taught in our churches, so that we are prepared for the calamities of the world.

The meaning of the collapse of this bridge is that John Piper is a sinner and should repent or forfeit his life forever. That means I should turn from the silly preoccupations of my life and focus my mind’s attention and my heart’s affection on God and embrace Jesus Christ as my only hope for the forgiveness of my sins and for the hope of eternal life. That is God’s message in the collapse of this bridge. That is his most merciful message: there is still time to turn from sin and unbelief and destruction for those of us who live. If we could see the eternal calamity from which he is offering escape we would hear this as the most precious message in the world.

What can I say to this but Amen?

More opposition to theodicy from the Protestant mainline. Why?

June 7, 2017

Drew McIntyre, a fellow United Methodist pastor and blogger, reflects on a book by William Placher, who says, like so many others in the Protestant mainline, that we Christians ought to avoid traditional theodicies. The answers we give, in our well-intentioned efforts to reconcile a good and loving God with this world of evil and suffering, are worse than simply living with the tension.

Placher writes:

Theologians have often been justly criticized for announcing a “mystery” whenever they find themselves lacking a good explanation. But it is not intellectual cheating to refuse to explain something if you can give an account of why just this should not be explicable; and reflection on the nature of sin, I have been arguing, provides just such an account. Christians therefore should say both that there is not a single point where God is absent or inactive or only partly active or restricted in action, and that there are irrational events that are somehow not caused by God. They should be willing to say both without worrying overmuch about how both could be true, for the attempt to resolve such worries leads inevitably to a search for sin’s causes that makes it explicable, and it therefore loses its full irrationality. Even worse, it starts to produce accounts of why those who have suffered somehow deserved it – the one thing biblical texts like Job and the Gospel healing stories so firmly reject. (211, emphasis added)

Needless to say (if you’ve been reading my blog for a while), I disagree. I wrote the following in comments section of McIntyre’s post:

I disagree with the author’s overall point. I can happily affirm his two points (in bold) above—that God is always fully active in events yet is not the cause of irrational (by which he means evil?) events. But assuming that’s true, I don’t believe there is tension between them, logically if not experientially.

The Book of Job, after all, says much more than Brueggemann says that it says (go figure!) when it comes to theodicy. At the very least, Job affirms that Job’s suffering is not meaningless: As we’re explicitly told in chapter 1-2, God has a reason for allowing Job to suffer. Right? Job doesn’t know the reason, and his friends don’t know the reason, but we the readers do know.

And you may say, “Yes, but that’s an unsatsifying reason!” But Satan is real, and God clearly uses him to accomplish his purposes. Remember Paul’s thorn? It is both a “messenger of Satan” and something that “was given” (divine passive) in order to keep Paul humble. Paul inderstood that this suffering was deeply meaningful. Of course, there are many more scriptures I could cite. But the very fact that God transformed the greatest evil the world has known (the crucifixion of God’s Son) into the greatest good the world has known (the means of our atonement) proves that God can do this with all “lesser” versions of evil and suffering in our world.

My point is, we can say that God allows evil and suffering for a good reason, even if we often don’t know what that reason is. (How could we know in most cases? The ripple effect of even one insignificant event in time could have consequences centuries later. A historical “butterfly effect” is easy to imagine.)

Of course, to say this at a hospital bedside or graveside probably won’t be pastorally helpful, but that doesn’t mean it never needs to be said.

This “greater good” theodicy, to which I fully subscribe, was accepted by Wesley and Arminius—if that matters to anyone.

Regardless, I find this theodicy immensely comforting—the squeamishness of the Protestant mainline notwithstanding.

“Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him”

January 18, 2017

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A recent episode of the Unbelievable? radio program (and podcast), “How I Lost My Child but Kept My Faith,” featured Jessica Kelley, who describes the heartbreaking experience of losing her 4-year-old son to brain cancer. To cope with her son’s suffering, she adopted what’s often called a “warfare” view of human suffering, influenced by pastor and theologian Greg Boyd. As best I can tell, it’s a form of “open theism,” which limits the extent to which God knows the future and his power to change circumstances in our world.

Open theism is such a non-starter for me, on biblical grounds, I haven’t investigated it deeply: I’m not sure if Boyd would say that God limits his foreknowledge (if that were possible) or that God can’t know the future with certainty. Boyd’s concern, I think, is his mistaken belief that if God knows the future infallibly, this knowledge therefore determines it, thereby overriding human free will. I’ve heard him say that God can only know (whether by choice or by necessity) probabilities of events occurring—given every antecedent event happening at any given moment.

This seems crazy to me. Even fallible human parents can often know, with a high degree of certainty, what their child will do under a certain set of circumstances. Yet God can’t?

Besides, God’s foreknowledge does not determine. As William Lane Craig, among other apologists, has argued, while God’s knowledge of future events is chronologically prior to the events happening (obviously), it is logically subsequent to these events happening: God “sees” humans and other free agents (including angels and demons) making choices, and “what God sees” becomes the basis of his foreknowledge. God can intervene to change future outcomes as he sees fit without running roughshod over free will.

In other words, God factored in the free choices of human and angelic beings (including, in the case of humans, our prayers) when he created the world. He factored in the sin, evil, and suffering that would often result from these free choices. He factored in our human need for discipline and punishment. And he factored in the need for our world to be governed, as a rule, by stable physical forces. Whatever else God factored into this world that he created, he did so according to his good purposes and for his glory.

Therefore, having done so, we can be confident that what God causes or allows to happen right now is in accordance with his will: even—and I say this with fear and trembling—a 4-year-old dying of brain cancer. (I’ve written at length about the difference between God’s antecedent and consequent will, which might prove helpful. Click here for more.)

I find the doctrine of God’s sovereignty immensely comforting. But if you don’t, what’s the alternative? One Unbelievable? listener, “Wallace in Charleston,” puts it like this:

One question I would have liked to have asked Jessica, especially when she spoke of Jesus’ miracles of healing, is whether she believed God had the power to heal her son? Given her theological comments, it seems she would have had to answer no—”God didn’t have the power, because of these other wills and forces in the universe that, at least in my son’s case, were stronger than God’s.”

But think about the devastating implications of such an admission for Christian hope. How can I trust that a God who was powerless to heal my child will someday have enough power to raise him from the dead? How could such a God could ever accrue enough power to raise all the dead and create a new heaven and a new earth?…

I can sympathize with how Greg Boyd’s theology has appeared comforting to Jessica as she watched little Henry die, but I’m afraid that comfort comes at too high a price and has implications that are not comforting at all. Better to own the sovereign hand of God and say with Job, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him.”

Another listener, “Tim from Saskatchewan,” emphasized that we believe in God’s sovereignty because of scripture.

[Jessica] stated that most Christians start with the assumption that God is sovereign. But through her experience, she’s come to understand that God is not fully in control, but works on the side of good. She quotes John 10:10 to defend her position, which says Jesus came to bring life.

The issue I have is that Christians don’t assume God is sovereign: the Bible states it explicitly. Jesus didn’t come to make alive people feel better; he came that dead people may receive life. It’s impossible to read John 6 and not think that the Bible is clear that God is in full control of everything. Isaiah 46:10 says, “My purpose will be established, And I will accomplish all My good pleasure.” The fact that Christ was slain before the foundation of the world [Rev. 13:8] shows that the immeasurably horrible suffering of the cross was part of God’s plan. He didn’t do the best he could; he did exactly as he planned.

I would only add that our belief in sovereignty is based on much more than John 6.

Please don’t misunderstand me: I like Jessica. I’m sympathetic with her. And I find her story deeply moving. I also agree that Satan and his evil forces are at work in our world, opposing God’s people and the work of God’s kingdom—possibly even causing the evil of brain cancer. By all means!

But if I were Justin Brierley, I would have asked her: Does God have the power to prevent Satan from causing this harm? If her answer is yes—and how could it not be if God has the power to create the universe and everything in it, including Satan himself—then the difference between God’s causing and God’s allowing the disease, while important, isn’t as great as it first appears. Her version of open theism hardly solves the “problem” of evil.

Does a good God allow “gratuitous” evil?

March 8, 2016

In the latest episode of Unbelievable?, Josh Parikh and Cory Markum square off over this question: Does the existence of evil presuppose the existence of God? In my view, the answer is obvious: The moment you call something “evil,” you are appealing to objective moral facts, which themselves depend on the existence of a Judge who defines what is good and bad. As Tim Keller argues in his masterful book Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, in making an argument against God on the basis of the existence of evil, you end up “relying on God to make an argument against God.”[1]

If I were Parikh, the Christian debater, I would have exposed the sentimentality that atheist Markum depended on to suggest that evil is incompatible with God’s existence. He began by citing the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in which hundreds of thousands—disproportionately children—died in one fell swoop. Surely a good God wouldn’t permit this!

Parikh should have intensified the problem: In other words, if Markum is right, he doesn’t go far enough. By what logic does a good God allow not only the deaths of hundreds of thousands in a tsunami, but even the death of one person, for example, whose trailer park was struck by a tornado? Unless Markum can justify even one death, he’s neither helping nor harming his case by appealing to scale. Logically, multiplying the problem of one death from “gratuitous evil” adds nothing to the problem.

Besides, as C.S. Lewis points out in his masterpiece The Problem of Pain, no one suffers more than one death.

Suppose that I have a toothache of intensity x: and suppose that you, who are seated beside me, also begin to have a toothache of intensity x. You may, if you choose, say that the total amount of pain in the room is now 2x. But you must remember that no one is suffering 2x: search all time and all space and you will not find that composite pain in anyone’s consciousness. There is no such thing as a sum of suffering, for no one suffers it. When we have reached the maximum that a single person can suffer, we have, no doubt, reached something very horrible, but we have reached all the suffering there ever can be in the universe. The addition of a million fellow-sufferers adds no more pain.[2]

Years ago, I read an online debate between N.T. Wright and agnostic New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman. When Ehrman made this inevitable appeal to what Lewis calls the “sum of suffering,” Wright pointed out his logical inconsistency. Ehrman never grasped the point, unfortunately. Because it is a good point…

Or it’s a bad point inasmuch as it works against us believers in the Christian God. Again, either we can justify one person’s death from so-called “gratuitous evil” or we can justify no one’s death from it. It’s that simple.

Later in the episode, Markum appeals to the massive scale of animal suffering as another spin on the argument. What about a baby bat with a broken wing who dies a seemingly gruesome death in bat guano by being eaten alive by creatures living in the guano?

How is this not a facile example of anthropomorphizing animal pain? By all means, nature is red in tooth and claw, but Markum’s argument only holds water if we ascribe human-like self-consciousness to the bat—as if the animal were thinking (paraphrasing the Carpenters song), “I’ve only just begun to live/ So much of life ahead…” While many animals experience pain, God has designed them such that they are unaware that they are themselves experiencing it. They’re not capable of thinking, “Why is this happening to me?” They lack any awareness of regret, or remorse, or a sense of their own mortality—things that often makes human suffering so painful.

Again, Lewis tackles this question in his book. Other Christian apologists have done so more recently.

Besides, has Markum not heard the Disney song (by way of Tim Rice and Elton John) “The Circle of Life”? It’s good and necessary for the ecosystem that organisms in the guano feed on the baby bat. Right?

After all, when the cheetah attacks the antelope in the National Geographic special, we always feel awful for the antelope. But if we’re going to anthropomorphize, let’s anthropomorphize all the way: Let’s follow that cheetah as she feeds the antelope carcass to her cubs. Isn’t that sweet? (I’m a cat lover. I think it’s sweet when a house cat leaves a dead squirrel on the doorstep.)

Nevertheless, I agree with Parikh that the cross of Jesus Christ represents the worst evil the world has ever known. If God can redeem even that evil, then he can surely do the same with all lesser forms of evil. Suffering may be “gratuitous” in the sense that it isn’t necessary to fulfill God’s purposes, but it’s never meaningless—which is to say, it never happens outside of God’s providential purposes.

Does that make sense?

1. Timothy Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (New York: Dutton, 2013), 103-4.

2. C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 116-7.

When do we Christians cease being “blessed,” hashtag or otherwise?

February 15, 2016

My daughter sent me a link to this heartbreaking op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times. The author, Kate Bowler, a professor at Duke Divinity School, has Stage IV cancer. Her area of expertise is the prosperity gospel in America, and in this article she relates the promises of that movement’s theology to her terminal disease. Proponents of the prosperity gospel, she said, want to have control over their lives: they believe there’s no problem they can’t solve by reciting the right words and believing the right doctrines. In so many words, it’s always within their power to persuade God to do their bidding.

I’m sure she’s right, and you’ll get no defense of the prosperity gospel here. But there was one part of the article that bothered me. Her words are familiar from my own experience at a United Methodist-affiliated seminary like Duke Divinity, Emory’s Candler School of Theology. She writes:

If Oprah could eliminate a single word, it would be “luck.” “Nothing about my life is lucky,” she argued on her cable show. “Nothing. A lot of grace. A lot of blessings. A lot of divine order. But I don’t believe in luck. For me luck is preparation meeting the moment of opportunity.”This is America, where there are no setbacks, just setups. Tragedies are simply tests of character.

It is the reason a neighbor knocked on our door to tell my husband that everything happens for a reason.

“I’d love to hear it,” my husband said.

“Pardon?” she said, startled.

“I’d love to hear the reason my wife is dying,” he said, in that sweet and sour way he has.

My neighbor wasn’t trying to sell him a spiritual guarantee. But there was a reason she wanted to fill that silence around why some people die young and others grow old and fussy about their lawns. She wanted some kind of order behind this chaos. Because the opposite of #blessed is leaving a husband and a toddler behind, and people can’t quite let themselves say it: “Wow. That’s awful.” There has to be a reason, because without one we are left as helpless and possibly as unlucky as everyone else.

Read the rest of this entry »

What’s wrong with saying that God has a “plan” for our lives and world?

December 17, 2015

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?

We don’t live in world that is “in and of itself”

December 3, 2015

Tackling the subject of evil and suffering the day after yet another mass shooting in the U.S. isn’t, I know, good timing. On the other hand, people are getting murdered all the time in every place in the world—it’s just that most of the time it doesn’t affect us. We can’t wait for evil and suffering to cease before we address the topic. I’m only addressing it now because, for me, nothing less than God’s goodness is at stake in the question. How can I ignore it?

Besides, I didn’t bring it up; this blog post by Drew McIntyre over at the United Methodist-affiliated Ministry Matters website did. Drew calls the suffering of children the number one reason to be an atheist.

I was pleased that Drew’s post got some good pushback from his readers. For example, one person said that in his experience of dealing with parents who’ve lost children, “I never once saw the parents or anyone else see this as a reason for questioning God’s existence. On the contrary, the experience brought them all closer to God, driving home their need for Him.”

I agree. In reply I wrote:

My experience as a pastor confirms this as well: When I’ve seen Christian parents lose children—again, I’m only speaking from my direct experience—it has the effect of bringing them closer to God, not pushing them away from God. People who have already convinced themselves that there is no God are the ones who find this moral argument against God persuasive.

But they’re not thinking clearly. The moral argument against God turns in on itself: If God doesn’t exist, then there is no objective basis on which to say, “The death of children is wrong.” Without God, our moral intuition is a meaningless byproduct of unthinking and unguided forces. Moral intuition becomes nothing more than a matter of personal taste. Without a lawgiver, there is no law.

When we object to God’s existence on moral grounds, we are, as Tim Keller says, “relying on God to make an argument against God,” as I discuss here.

The best comment came from Mike D’Virgilio.

comment

I replied as follows:

Exactly right, Mike. The difference between God’s allowing and God’s causing evil, while important, isn’t nearly as great as many Methodists think. God is responsible for evil, as my (Lutheran) systematic theology prof at Candler said (echoing Pannenberg). God is responsible because God made this particular world, which permits evil. And as Christians we must assume that, from God’s perspective, it was worth making this world, in spite of the fact that evil would be one consequence of doing so.

I read Hart’s book, too, and I found it evasive at times: Evil has no positive contribution to make in our world, he says again and again. In and of itself that’s true. Fortunately, we don’t live in a world that’s “in and of itself.” We live in a world infused with God’s grace. The overwhelming biblical answer is that God can and does redeem evil, as the cross itself emphatically proclaims. (Remember Joseph’s words to his brothers: “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.”) If God can transform the greatest evil imaginable (the cross of his Son) into the greatest good imaginable (our salvation), then surely he can transform any lesser form of evil the same way.

I hate to be sectarian, but as an Eastern Orthodox convert, Hart doesn’t have to worry nearly as much as we Protestants do (or ought to) about making sure theology accords with scripture.

And, Mike, you’re absolutely right about prayer. The idea that God has nothing whatsoever to do with intervening to stop evil in our world conflicts with Jesus’ clear teaching that our prayers make a difference in the world. Logically, if God ever does something in response to our prayers that God wouldn’t otherwise do, then we must assume that God has a good reason for not giving us what we ask for—even when what we ask for is the safety of our children.

For all we know, if God intervened to prevent children from dying in a particular instance, something far worse might happen. We can’t know what that worse thing might be. Only God can. The question is, will we trust him?

I raised this question in a Facebook comment thread, and I’ll raise it here: Drew asks: “Could there ever be a good reason that God let your child die?” All I can say is, I hope so, because God clearly does let that happen. Right?

Finally, let’s remember: There’s no balancing of the scales of justice apart from heaven. Some Methodist thinkers refuse to resort to heaven—as if it were cheating or something—but ultimately it answers every objection. In the face of evil, the hope of eternal life and future resurrection is a fire hose extinguishing a birthday candle.

Or isn’t it? Do we not believe in it, after all?

I’ve made this point in sermons before but it bears repeating: In the aftermath of Sandy Hook three years ago, one theologian posted on Facebook: “The first five seconds in heaven will compensate for any suffering that these children and their teachers endured.”

Do you disagree? Please tell me why.