A man is awoken in the middle of the night by a figure at the foot of his bed. It is Jesus Himself, who says, “I am sending you to another city, where the thing you have waited for will come to pass. But it is no longer safe for you here; if you remain, you will only find difficulty and heartache.” At that moment, Jesus disappears and the man falls fast asleep. The next morning, the man remembers the event vividly, God’s words as clear as crystal. But he has many ties to the community, and he likes it here, where he lives. He decides instead to remain where he is at. And in a few months, he finds himself enduring tragic and difficult circumstances, just as God said he would.
Is it ever possible the bad we experience is not God’s will? The answer is yes . . . and no.
We have been discussing the topic of God’s sovereignty over the past few weeks. I have been contending that God is responsible for not only the good but also the bad in our lives, at least what we consider bad. But I now wish to ask the question: Is it ever possible the bad we experience is not God’s will? The answer is yes . . . and no. This dual answer, which I shall explain in a moment, actually provides us much insight into how God can be good in the midst of our difficulties.
In the last couple of posts, I have perhaps opened a small can of worms by suggesting God, as supreme author of life, is responsible for the bad things that befall us. The thought is reasonable, and — the more we contemplate God’s omnipotent and omniscient nature — inescapable.
But what is it about the idea that God has some part in the difficulties that befall us, that causes us pause? I believe the answer is: We fear this must mean that He is bad, no better than the devil. It would seem to suggest, at least on the surface, that He endorses the bad. That He intends for us to suffer.
But our misgivings go deeper than this. To allow the possibility that God is involved in the bad is, for many of us, to commit the mortal sin of questioning God’s goodness. Because faith is foundational to Christian doctrine, attributing God to the bad is seen as a failure of faith. We refuse to set foot in that direction.
In our past post, we asked the probing question: Is God responsible for all circumstances in our lives, including the bad things? Many would say no, mainly because it seems to suggest God Himself is not that good of a guy. We wish to protect Him from such a charge, if not in the public arena, then at least in our own minds. We wish to keep Him limited to the good things.
Some may even quote scripture to back this claim. For example, it is Jesus that said, “The thief (devil) has come to steal and kill and destroy, but I have come that you might have life and have it abundantly.” This certainly speaks to God’s intention for humanity, and also the devil’s. But many take it to mean it speaks to His sovereignty, also. That is, when bad things happen, God is not responsible at all. That is, He had no say or part in it coming to pass. Such a view of God, though it may seem good, is very small. It makes Him out to be not so much supreme over all of creation, but instead powerless over a great part of creation.
With God, all things are possible. What profoundly great news.
It may seem to be so, but I suspect for many believers it is secretly not such good news. On the contrary, it is a source of anxiety. The truth is so exceedingly great that they miss out on its possibility, profundity and majesty; they hear instead only one more thing that they are responsible for, and they secretly wish they were not. They almost wish, in fact, though it sounds bad to say, the truth weren’t so great. They secretly wish that with God, only some things were possible. That way, there would be less to think about.
But imagine such a world. Imagine that with God, all things were not possible. God was not capable, or perhaps He simply had decreed that we were beyond His assistance, imprisoned within our lives, victims destined to take whatever came our way, no exceptions.
Regrettably, such a world is what some not only secretly wish for but believe in. They believe all miracles ceased with the early church, but believe Jesus will come again one day with power and glory. They have made God powerful in the past and in the future, but not in the present. In the meantime, God is only capable of some things. He can comfort us in our physical suffering, but He cannot relieve it. He can provide us the means to provide food on the table that we thank Him for, but He cannot miraculously multiply fish and loaves. He is, apparently, no longer in the miracle business. He is on break.
It is an odd thing, really: To believe in a God who is all-powerful but not capable to do much of anything in the present, where we exist. He is powerful everywhere except for right in the middle of our lives. I would like to suggest the God we serve is not this god. He is much closer.
It is in fact a miracle that has brought us to faith in Jesus Christ in the first place. Just think how improbable it is to believe that a man who lived two thousand years ago is God. What could possibly persuade us? Would the credibility of those we know who claimed it is true? Would the compelling historical evidence? Would intellectual arguments? Or merely our upbringing?
All of these things may contribute to our spiritual journey, but coming to genuine faith in Jesus Christ — not just being persuaded intellectually or finding it convenient socially, but coming to experience One we have come to love, to Whom, according to Scripture, our spirits cry out “Abba, Father” —is nothing short of a supernatural event. If we have come to believe in God through a miracle, why would we deny any others? To believe in the miraculous is simply to continue in what we have come to already believe.
It is of course conceivable that our belief in God involves no supernatural element whatsoever. Though this is possible, it certainly does not reflect core Christian belief. “You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ.” For these words to be intelligible at all requires a supernatural element. It is possible therefore that churches who call themselves Christian deny any supernatural component, but this would not be true Christianity. True Christianity is supernatural. It claims we have met Someone. Whether that Someone is capable of all things or not much of anything is the only question that remains.
It is the up close and personal nature of Jesus Christ that is difficult for us to come to terms with. He demands change, and we fear the change required is equal to His ability to do so, and it is this fear that wishes to make Him smaller. For the skeptic, we do so by making him a mere man, or a myth. For the believer, we can do so by making him less powerful, or more distant. The goal is the same: To unconsciously preserve our way of life.
But his infinite power is the very thing we need. It may bring about great change, but take heart: He has overcome the world.
As I mentioned previously, the fact that the world around us is comprehensible, both rationally and mathematically, is astounding. But it is even more astounding that we are capable of comprehending it, if the widely-held belief of our modern age is true.
The belief I am referring to is best summed up by the words of renowned scientist and best-selling author Richard Dawkins: “There is nothing beyond the natural, physical world, no supernatural, creative intelligence lurking behind the observable universe.” In fact, any belief in a supernatural (literally: “beyond the natural”) dimension to our existence is regarded by many in higher education as backward, superstitious, quaint, and — above all else — irrational.
The fact that the world around us is comprehensible, both rationally and mathematically, is astounding. But it is even more astounding that we are capable of comprehending it, if the widely-held belief of our modern age is true.
The reasoning behind such anti-supernatural sentiment seems to find its roots in the prevalence of scientific thought in our culture. The idea is that, since we have been doing this science thing for so long and have yet to find any evidence for the supernatural, belief in the supernatural is at best grossly unjustified. I have spoken elsewhere how science would come to no other conclusion, but let’s allow for the possibility of such a world that science (actually, scientific naturalism) envisions.
Imagine a world, as Dawkins describes, where there is nothing behind the material Universe. All that exists is matter and energy, operating according to the observable laws of nature, and nothing more.
Now imagine you are observing the Universe, particularly Earth, just before life began. You see a lifeless, turbulent planet where, at the microscopic level, molecules are interacting constantly. Suddenly, by pure chance, a group of molecules find themselves arranged in such a manner that we would recognize as a building block of life. And, by further chance, that building block finds itself arranged with other by-chance building blocks in a way that we would recognize as the first primitive form of life. Now to be clear: It isn’t really life: It is simply a complex arrangement of molecules. For that is all there is. Life, after all, is a concept, merely a manner we use to describe lifeless matter arranged in a certain way and acted upon by unguided natural laws in a certain manner. That is, there is nothing beyond, or “out there,” making life what it is. Life is not real; matter is. Life is the term we simply use to describe some observable arrangements of matter. And so you recognize this by-chance arrangement of matter as fitting the description of what we call life.
So you decide to keep your eye on this particular arrangement of matter. Over eons, you observe that, through a strange combination of ongoing chance and unguided processed, more arrangements appear like the first one, a phenomenon we have called “reproduction.” And further, with the same strange combination of chance and unguided processes, the exact configuration of the molecular arrangements begins to change, becoming more diverse, eventually finding itself in a state you recognize to be what we call complex life.
You marvel; you are elated! You are witnessing before your very eyes life evolve! But to be clear, you are not in actuality witnessing life evolve. You are not, because life does not exist, let alone evolve. All that exists is matter and energy acting according to observable scientific laws.
But you cannot help but watch, and as more eons pass, the arrangements change further, finding themselves by chance in ever-peculiar and diverse configurations, till eventually, as a whole, they take on a form that you, with shock, personally recognize: Human life. Thinking, Feeling, Rational Human Life.
But of course, it isn’t really human life you are observing — nor, for that matter, is it thinking, or feeling or rational. For not only does life not really exist, neither does Thought or Emotion. Nor even, Rationality. These things do not exist because all that exists is matter and energy. Just as life is an illusion, the things we call thought, feelings, and rationality are as well. At best, they are mere descriptors for how molecules arrange themselves, or how they interact in a physical, natural world. And this must be so, for there is nothing beyond the physical, natural world, just as scientific naturalism claims.
And suddenly you realize with horror: You do not exist. Granted you, as simply a by-chance arrangement of molecules, do. But you — as a thinking, feeling, rational entity, who can achieve what we call understanding — do not. That does not mean of course you do not experience what we describe as thought, or feelings, or that you do not experience the belief in what you understand to be rationality. But that is the problem. If all that exists is the material universe, as scientific naturalism claims, that includes you. You therefore, on your very best day, are no more than a highly complex arrangement of molecules in constant interaction. Nor can you be otherwise. The part of you that thinks, feels, reasons, and has the capacity to understand — is an illusion.
No doubt, you struggle against such a realization (even if Dawkins does not). Not because you do not want it to be so, but because everything in you says it cannot be so — including the the you who affirms the claim of scientific naturalism. But the stark reality is that in order to possess understanding, you — at least the understanding part of you — must exist in a dimension beyond the material world, something which scientific naturalism denies.
Troubled by this dilemma, you decide to accept by faith that, although all that exists is confined to the natural, physical universe, your understanding does not. That it exists beyond the natural, and by definition, is super-natural. A supernatural reality you simultaneously deny.
And that, I argue, is faith in a miracle greater than Jesus rising from the dead.
So what do you think? Do you agree with Dawkins that “there is nothing beyond the natural, physical world”? If so, what is the phenomenon we call understanding and rationality? And if you believe there is a supernatural dimension to our understanding, how far does it extend? I welcome your comments.