Sovereignty and Evil

In our last two posts, we have been discussing God’s sovereignty — the fact that God is in complete control of His creation — and the two common difficulties we face. The first was understanding how God can be in complete control when we have free will, and the second was tragedy. Regarding tragedy, we explained God’s sovereign will never represents what He wants but rather what He intentionally allows.

But the idea that God allows, with intention (and this means He not only lets happen but orchestrates) every event in history and our lives carries with it a thorny implication: It means He is also orchestrating the tragic things that occur. Would that not mean God is the author of tragedy and (dare I say it?) even evil?

Clearly, based on our discussion so far, this is not what we are saying. Nonetheless, the idea that God “wills” evil and tragedy into our lives in any capacity is a thing many of us simply cannot bring ourselves to accept: We just do see God that way. Good is good, and He certainly is not evil. How then can we say He has a hand in evil?

I do get this sentiment. Less than two years ago, my wife of twenty-five years died suddenly and unexpectedly. Despite my family’s fervent prayers, she was not miraculously healed nor was she raised from the dead. Believe me, it is tempting to walk out of the hospital room and say, “God had nothing to do with this.” For this reason, we reject the whole idea of God’s sovereignty.

Today I wish to explore where rejecting God’s sovereignty leaves us, and why rejecting it is unnecessary. So for argument’s sake, let us assume for a moment that there is no such thing as “God’s sovereign will”: That God is not fully in control of human history including every single event in our lives down to the smallest detail. At this point we have a decision to make: We have to decide what God’s relationship to His creation actually is: Is He in control of it in any sense, or is it completely out of His control?

Most would answer that God’s creation is clearly not completely out of His control, at least in this sense: God is all-powerful. In other words, “God is in Heaven: He does as He pleases.” This means whatever takes place in Hi creation, He has the power to prevent it. But if this is so, we have to realize that rejecting God’s sovereignty on the grounds God is too good to allow evil has done little. That is: Whether God allows evil and tragedy intentionally or not, we are still left with a God who allows it.

And this, by the way, is not lost on anyone who has walked through tragedy. Walking through the process of my own loss, I knew deep down that ultimately, God could have prevented my loved one’s death. It ultimately made little difference to me whether God in His sovereignty had orchestrated it or God in His passivity had allowed it.

The truth is, the only way to insulate God and His goodness from evil in any capacity is to make Him completely powerless over it. But that means we have to forfeit the idea that He is all-powerful. And clearly that won’t work. I mean, conceiving of a God who has no choice but to allow evil is to conceive of a God who has lost control of His creation. This also means, by the way, He has lost control of our lives. There is no telling what might happen to us, because clearly God is not powerful enough to do anything about it.

Many however argue that God is not actually powerless; rather, He has chosen to limit His power for good reason. For example, He has delegated the responsibility of reaching the lost or healing the sick to us. He has delegated even our own potential to experience God’s goodness to us. “You will seek me and you will find me when you seek me with your whole heart.” God has, in other words, created the world in such a way that experiencing the fullness of His goodness requires our participation. But if we choose not to participate —  great or small, from refusing to forgive to engaging in a lifestyle of sin to simply refusing to believe — evil and tragedy is the result. So God is in charge, some say, but He is not in control.

And all of this is true. But here’s the thing: None of it has anything to do with whether God is fully in control of His Creation. God’s sovereignty does not violate free will, nor is it incompatible with a world, say, based on spiritual laws. If God creates a world based on spiritual laws, whether we violate those laws or conform to them is what God sovereignly intended from the beginning.

This might be a good time to remind us that God’s sovereign will is like the will of a novelist, and we are in the story. God’s sovereign will is not what He is “willing” inside the story; God’s sovereign will is what He is willing outside the story. God transcends the story, and this is why His sovereign will is not affected by our free will or any principles upon which He has chosen to limit His power in this world.

But if we are still uncomfortable with a God who has chosen to write evil into the story of human history, we really do have no other choice than to make Him utterly powerless over evil. We have to make Him merely an agent of goodness in the story and fire him from the role of the all-powerful Creator who is writing the story.

For those familiar with apologetics, this might sound familiar. The argument known as the Problem of Evil goes something like this: “If God is infinitely powerful and infinitely good, God would not allow evil. But evil does exist, which means God is either not powerful enough to do anything about it or not good enough to care. So God must not exist.” No believer of course will draw this conclusion. But by making God powerless over evil, we are attempting to eliminate premise one from the argument to preserve His infinite goodness.

There is however another way of insulating God’s goodness from evil, and that is free will. The counter-argument to the Problem of Evil known as the free-will argument goes something like this: God is love and therefore wants His creation to love Him. But for love to be genuine, it requires free will. But free will implies the ability to choose good or evil. Therefore, God must allow evil.

I like the free-will argument. It is similar to what we were discussing a moment ago: That God has created a world where evil is allowed more or less dependent on our choices. But the one weakness of the argument is in the very point it tries to establish: That God is powerless over evil. One almost gets the impression that at the beginning of Creation, God was wringing His hands and said, “Well, I want my creation to love me. But in order for them to love, they must be able to freely choose to do so. But that means they might choose evil. Oh well, I suppose I must allow evil . . . “. I mean, its basic argument is that God was forced to allow evil. But I am not convinced that God, being God, actually found evil — well, a necessary evil.

Besides, the free-will argument raises questions such as, “Will there be evil in Heaven? Or will there simply be no free will?” By preserving a God who is infinitely good, the free-will argument has essentially made evil necessary in every world.

The good news is that it is not necessary to counter the problem of evil by making God powerless. We simply have to recognize that the flaw in the Problem of Evil argument is found in the premise “God is infinitely good.” In context, “infinitely good” means “would go to infinite lengths to prevent evil and suffering.” And that is simply not the God we find in the Bible. What we find in the Bible is a God who, though the very definition of Good, is okay with His creation experiencing evil and suffering, should they choose it.

Perhaps the clearest picture of this is found in the opening pages of Genesis. Here, God places Adam and Eve in a Garden where obedience is required, or death will result. Not only this, but the Garden is already occupied by the Serpent. And yet, God is clearly portrayed as good: In fact, the very definition of Good. What is going on here? The answer is that God’s goodness is not defined by His willingness to prevent the potential for suffering. It is clearly defined by something else.

This, by the way, is the same God we find in the New Testament. Jesus spoke about the reality of hell more than anyone, clearly presenting to humanity the critical decision to receive Him as the only way to the Father, or eternal punishment would be the result. And yet, we do not get the impression that His goodness is somehow diminished because of it. His words do not judge Him: They judge us.

This “something else” that defines God’s goodness might be called His holiness. In other words: God is good and remains good whether we choose Him or not; He remains good even if we suffer consequences for rejecting His goodness. In fact, those consequences, in a way, only serve to further establish His goodness. For by rejecting Him, we are rejecting The Good.

A way to understand this is to consider a virtue, such as valuing the sanctity of life, embodied in the commandment “Do not commit murder.” Valuing the sanctity of life is a good. Those who do not follow it are not good and should be punished — that is, suffer. But whether they suffer or not says nothing about whether valuing the sanctity of life is good. This is because it is inherently good. So it is with God.

Our answer then to the Problem of Evil is not to say, “God had to allow it.” It is rather to say, “God is willing to allow it. But this does not diminish His goodness in the least, because this is not how God’s goodness is defined.” If the atheist wishes to define goodness in terms of the absence or presence of suffering alone, he may do so. But there is nothing written in the stars that says this is the way God must be.

And in retrospect, such a conception of goodness is rather self-serving. Nowadays we do tend to think of a thing being good or not by whether it serves us. I would like to propose that this is not how goodness has been defined throughout history — except when individuals or civilizations have become convinced they are God. God’s goodness is not something that ensures our happiness whatever our choices but rather places demand on our choices whatever the cost. That I propose is what is written in the stars.

Those stars are, after all, are written by God — as is every event that transpires in our lives. God has us.

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