God and Disaster

Posted By on May 17, 2008

I just saw this on John Hobbins’ blog, Ancient Hebrew Poetry.  John’s a friend of mine, and his blog is a good one.  He writes:

Eastern Orthodox theologian David B. Hart blasts away at all the latter-day comforters of Job, who, in the wake of the disasters that have hit China and Myanmar, speak glibly of God’s providence according to which punishments and rewards are distributed according to our just deserts. He nails it with this affirmation:

[T]here is no more liberating knowledge given us by the gospel – and none in which we should find more comfort – than the knowledge that suffering and death, considered in themselves, have no ultimate meaning at all.

The same truth is jealously guarded by Judaism. Which is why Judaism, no less than Christianity, would be without meaning without the hope of resurrection. Suffering and death have no meaning whatsoever except insofar as they will be vanquished forever. Think about it until the point sticks. Otherwise, I dare say, the one who would be God’s defender becomes God’s enemy.

Check out the link to David Hart’s piece.  It’s well worth it.

If you were a subscriber to my pre-blog newsletter, and thus a reader of my “book-in-progress,” you’ll want to re-read Chapter 4 as well.  It’s the Chapter on how sovereignty needs to be redefined, how free will is inextricably linked to the concept of humans being imagers of God (an angle you may never find anywhere else), and how traditional approaches to sovereignty and free will like Calvinism, and newer approaches like Open Theism, both miss the mark when it comes to free will, sovereignty, and theodicy. In brief, evil is a direct result of free will, itself a necessary attribute of being an imager of God, perverted by rebellion. Evil happens because people choose evil; because they exercise a communicable attribute (freedom) for their own selfish, rebellious ends. And yet this is preferable to the alternative of there being no imagers. And God, being able and willing to steer all things back toward his original, intended “heaven meets earth” life for humanity, considers suffering and death to have no meaning, knowing that all things will be made new. For the death of the innocent (and there is such a category), this is especially comforting.

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23 Responses to “God and Disaster”

  1. Phil Gons says:

    In brief, evil is a direct result of free will, itself a necessary attribute of being an imager of God, perverted by rebellion.

    I have a hard time with this explanation since the capacity for sin will be non-existent in the new earth and yet we will still be truly human and imagers of God. It seems that you must either deny (1) that sin will be impossible in the new earth or (2) that we will be truly human and imagers of God in the new earth—both very problematic in my view.

    I’d be interested to hear your response.

  2. Phil Gons says:

    One additional question: How is it that imaging God requires the capacity to do evil when God Himself, the one being imaged, lacks that very capacity? It would seem, then, that the capacity to do evil is not an essential component to imaging God.

  3. stephen says:

    “like Calvinism”
    Which Calvinism are you referring to?

  4. MSH says:

    For Phil (hi Phil!)

    You wrote: I have a hard time with this explanation since the capacity for sin will be non-existent in the new earth and yet we will still be truly human and imagers of God. It seems that you must either deny (1) that sin will be impossible in the new earth or (2) that we will be truly human and imagers of God in the new earth—both very problematic in my view.

    ** Imaging (being an imager of God) of necessity involves free will, since it would not be possible to image God without free will (how could we possibly reflect a free being without being free – not to the same extent God is, though). Have you read ch4? I don’t want to reinvent that wheel here. This freedom meant that humans could indeed choose to act contrary to what God had said should they become aware of such an alternative by experience or by test or by temptation. My view is that in the new heaven and new earth we become as Adam was before being tempted / tested, and what he would have been had he succeeded. Adam was the original imager of God; Jesus (the second Adam) was the “express image” of God. I see the humanity of Jesus and the humanity of Adam essentially the same, except Adam was not incarnate deity. He had a semi-divine status, which included free will, and was sinless until he chose the alternative that surfaced. Jesus never would have b/c he was deity. We will be like the “glorified” Adam and like Jesus. In the new heaven and new earth (which is the restored, perfect Eden, without any hint of testing or temptation, there will be no sin since there is no alternative to choose. I won’t say it’s impossible, since God could allow us to be tempted (I speak purely hypothetically here, only to make the point that, even glorified, we are still lesser beings than God). I see no evidence from Scripture that God will do that — by not using the word impossible I’m allowing that God could do something that isn’t recorded in Scripture (it’s not exhaustive), so it’s purely hypothetical. So, I wouldn’t deny the gist of either of your propositions; I’m just quibbling about the word “impossible” so as not to limit God.

  5. MSH says:

    stephen; “Calvinism” = any variety that would insist that foreknowledge necessitates predestination, and so God ordains human acts of evil.

    I’m targeting a position that says that God demands or decrees everything, even the most heinous evil. If so, then you have a God who WANTS those things to happen (how could God ordain what he doesn’t want – think about it), or he NEEDS those things to happen to make a larger plan work. The first makes God cruel, or perhaps inept (couldn’t he find a better way?); the latter makes him dependent on sin once sin is unleashed (it has to be “factored in” to make his will work). I don’t see the biblical God as either. But the Gnostics certainly saw God as this position leaves him, which is why they invented the Demiurge (the evil creator of our world) to explain evil.

  6. MSH says:

    An addendum regarding Calvinism:

    If readers read through my posted Ch4, they will note in a footnote that my view of sovereignty & free will does NOT rule out individual election. I actually believe in that. God is an influencer who uses people and non-human beings to influence people to make decisions. He must operate this way, since he cannot remove free will from people, since to do so would remove the status of imager from a human being. God can influence whomever he wants whenever he wants, and can influence some more than others as he wants. The Scriptures are clear that God will always ensure there is a remnant of his earthly family. These concepts are quite in line with individual election, and don’t require that God ordain evil or that we define free will away, or that we invent some way to have God bind the human will so it isn’t genuinely free. In short, God is so powerful he doesn’t need to bind free will – he can steer all things to his desired ends without that.

  7. stephen says:

    When you say “individual election” do you mean that the recipeints of this “individual election” will “make it to heaven” with absolute certainty?

    And do all these individually elected, with absolutely no exception, respond to God?

    I think people have to find some kind of meaning for suffering and death: When you say “God can influence whomever he wants whenever he wants, and can influence some more than others as he wants,” the question is why did He not put work more to influence Adam, Eve, Satan without violating their will to keep all this from occurring since “he can steer all things to his desired ends.” If he can steer all things to his desired ends why this wreck. People ask me this. People do want to know that their suffering is not meaningless and they find comfort in believing that is part of His program(I like this choice of word you used) The alternative, that the way things turned out is not what God really had in mind is the most profound horror.

  8. cwmyers007 says:

    Stephen,

    Your contention, I think, exposes the problem with Dr. Heiser’s view in this area. Check out Dr. Heiser’s comments to my musings on this same exact topic on his blog Every Thought Captive.

    Grace and Peace,

    Chris

  9. MSH says:

    For Stephen: Not a problem.

    God knew that he would decide to give humans genuine free will “before the foundation of the world.” He also knew that this genuine freedom would result in the fall. What more could God have done to influence Adam and Eve than put them in a perfect environment and walk directly with them? Oh, he could have stopped them from making the decision, but that would mean the choice wasn’t theirs. God is an influencer, not a deity that removes choice. Same with Satan – this was a being who also has free will (angels/divine beings are also imagers – see ch. 4 – and have genuine freedom). Satan dwelt in the divine council in the direct presence of God – what more could God have done short of removing the freedom to choose? Maybe you have a suggestion. God knew what the choices would be, and he had a plan to restore the Edenic state and its redeemed (and eventually glorified) human imagers. Anyone who winds up in heaven is there because God first approaches and quickens them.

    Why the wreck? Because without genuine choice there can be no imaging of God. God deemed this path preferable to creating robots or pawns on a chess board. Knowing the risk (to us), he chose a solution to the bad choices of Satan, Adam, and Eve, a solution that involved consistent activity among humanity (hardly deism!) via his Spirit and the sacrifice of his own Son. The wreck was necessary for us to be like him and because only He could hold freedom and salvation in tandem and tension.

  10. MSH says:

    I should add one thing to “why the wreck?” If God can and will invade human activity to ensure a remnant is saved–effectively influencing some (the elect) irresistibly (and I, along with many Calvinists, would not see this as removing free will – you can read them if you wish) –why did he not do that to Satan, Adam, and Eve?

    My take on this is that for humanity to understand the folly of choices made selfishly or in favor of something God does not approve of or want, failure was necessary. Had there been no fall, all humans after Adam and Eve would not have the benefit of knowing God’s way is the right way. Following the failure, there is redemption, and there are several lessons learned there that could not be otherwise grasped: God’s love and forgiveness; God’s sovereign power in overcoming sin and evil; God’s willingness to give humanity freedom when the ultimate cost of that freedom is the sacrifice of his incarnate self. We may disagree, since we lack the perspective of an omniscient, perfectly free omnipotent being, but God deemed the path that balanced genuine freedom for his imagers and the risk of that decision to those imagers to be preferable to all of us being robots. Frankly, I can’t think of much that is good that we could appreciate or comprehend without this decision.

  11. cwmyers007 says:

    Dr. Heiser,

    It doesn’t work. You say, “What more could God have done short of removing the freedom to choose?”

    The answer is EVERYTHING (even overruling man’s free will without removing his imaging status). Do you let your child walk all over you? No, you are sovereign and overrule her free-will, although she still has it. Secondly, God could have appeared right during the serpents deception of Eve and God could have helped Eve reason for herself why this would be a bad idea. AND BELIEVE ME, if God appeared to her and revealed the lies of Satan, then she would NOT have eaten the apple.

    God allowed the fall because he ordained it to be. And I agree with you when you say because it allows us to understand him as grace filled, merciful, and Savior. Think how horrible it would be if we did not know these things about God.

    You need to realize this, the one thing that God holds as more important than restraining evil is HIS OWN GLORY, NOT the free-will of man. Do you see how man-centered the latter is?

    Grace be with you,

    Chris

  12. MSH says:

    It isn’t letting your creation walk all over you if you have the power to bring your desired order out of the chaos, and proceed to do so. You have your way, but not because you didn’t allow people a choice. I’ve already explained (perhaps not well) why God allowed the free choice of evil to run its course – why that was preferable to removing the decision, so I’m not going to repeat that.

    So, God is glorified when he has pre-ordained all decisions ahead of time, as opposed to having the power to bring order out of disorder? That’s stacking the deck. Here’s how it breaks down:

    Your view: God gets glory by disallowing any decision any other intelligent being could make. God ordains rebellion against himself and then holds the humans who didn’t choose voluntarily to do evil accountable for what is actually HIS predestined choice. This MUST be the case since the ONLY decisions that are made are the ones God ordained would be made. Your view can’t have any decision happen without predestination. The human “decider” couldn’t have decided otherwise, since his decision was ordained for him. God then expects his creatures to turn around and praise him for not allowing them to make any decision, ever, without his predestination of that decision.

    My view: God allows his creatures freedom of choice. They screw up and act selfishly, in rebellion against God. God then, through his power, Spirit, other divine beings, and people, acts to turn the fallout of evil to good. He is able, in the end, to make all things work to his desired ends. He overcomes freedom used badly through his power. Humans see that they should not have chosen badly, they know they are truly responsible, and are grateful God forgave them through Christ for something they truly chose to do in rebellion.

    I have no idea how the former gives God glory since HE is in fact acting against his own wishes through predestinating evil, yet holding humans accountable for choices they did not freely make. This is the dilemma of this position.

  13. cwmyers007 says:

    Dr. Heiser,

    As you probably already figured out by now, I am going to say that I agree with you that your former argument does not bring any Glory to God. Actually, the way you have explained my view is the exact opposite of what the classical Calvinist argument is.

    The classical Calvinist view is this: Foreordaining DOES NOT mean that God chooses something for someone else (so you cannot say that humans did not choose the sins that God allowed him to choose and therefore you cannot say that humans are not responsible for their sins!). God’s foreordaining means that he is truly omniscient and UNDERSTOOD and made certain the plan by which his creation would unfold, the beginning from the end, the ends and the means, the details and the powers that holds, directs, and completes his plan (without taking away imaging, obviously)—and ALL of this before he even spoke to move the waters at Genesis 1; that is foreordination. I think people have this unbiblical view of predestination because of fatalism and other worldly perversions.

    Now how does my view glorify God?

    My view: God Sovereignly creates the world, God lets man to his own will and allows him to fall into his own rebellion against God (we know God ordains this because he did not sovereignly prevent this, but allowed man to fall by his own lustful desires). However, through the creation–man knew God’s goodness, through the fall– man knew God’s justness and righteousness, through the covenants–man knew God’s holiness and faithfulness, through the redemption of mankind, man knew God’s grace through the man Jesus Christ! How amazing is his ways! Man gives God glory through each and every one of these understandings of who God is. Man deserved to die, each and every one of us, but God was so merciful and full of grace that he saved many of us–his children– and God is so just and righteous because he has endured with patience the wickedness of man for so long and he justly casts them into utter darkness.

    My reply to you is this: Do you believe in a God that allows evil in order to overcome the results of man’s freedom!? Or do you believe in a God who allows evil in order to reveal himself fully to His people by the person Jesus Christ and therefore through his revelation of himself and his work in Christ bring about utter Glory that is all to the name of Christ and is able to be inherited by his people for the perfections of eternity? Make no mistake: God allows evil for the Supremacy of Christ. Man’s freedom is not infringed because of God’s absolute Sovereignty or his omniscience or his foreordination–this is a logical tension (God’s absolute sovereignty and man’s free agency) that is plain even in Scripture.

    Grace be with you, I think a little study would show that foreordination does NOT necessitate an infringement on will–this is the logical chain that I opine needs to be broken on your end.

    Chris

  14. MSH says:

    Chris – When God fore-ordains an act, could the person who does the act have done something else?

    If they could not have done otherwise, then they had no freedom of will – or you’d have to explain how “freedom” is defined as not being able to make this choice.

    If they could choose something different, then how was the event fore-ordained? Something is fore-ordained but not sure?

    I’d like answers to THESE questions without rabbit trails – since this seems to be the heart of the issue.

  15. stephen says:

    When God fore-ordains an act, could the person who does the act have done something else?
    From their perspective they could have and so their “free will” is not infringed. But in an absolute since they are not free because as you yourself stated only God is absolutely free. They are concious of no coercion or constraint and so their “will” is free, but this does not mean that being is in freedom.

    If they could choose something different…
    Perhaps they could have chosen something different but to their mind their was no alternative, even though “objectively” there was one or more alternatives, but their mind was either too narrow by nature, or blinded by an outsider(influenced) and so in no way is their “free will” violated but this is not to say that they are free… free from the flaws of their own being or the influence of others both of which are beyond the individuals choice and yet are binding on the choice.

  16. MSH says:

    stephen: “From their perspective” doesn’t answer the question – I’m talking about “in real space and time” / in reality. If their “freedom” is only a matter of perspective and not reality, it isn’t real freedom. I’m asking about what happens in reality; you are answering about what goes on in someone’s mind.

    Can you answer the question with this clarification?

  17. cwmyers007 says:

    Dr. Heiser,

    You do well pointing out stephen’s problem of not answering the question directly. Let me answer you in the same exact way that a classical Calvinist would: When God foreordains, he makes certain. This is different then forcing to occur, therefore, a classical Calvinist cannot and will not say that a person cannot choose something different then what God ordains. Rather they say that the human agents WILL choose whatever is foreordained by genuine human free will. This is why you must understand that God ordains details, because it is only by the influencing details that the ends come about.

    For example, when I was searching for a seminary, God made clear his will for me by allowing acceptance only to one theological seminary, that this one seminary compensated for military, and that this one seminary had a superb DLP program where I could juggle family, job, and school most easily made my choice certain. Now I really wanted to go to Trinity Evangelical or Southeastern or even Westminster Theological Seminary, but my will was overruled by God’s and he made that clear by influencing me through the details and confirming this through His Spirit in prayer. Now could I have chosen against God’s foreordaination for me to be at Liberty? Yes and No, yes because I have genuine free will, but NO because the details made it so that I would have to alter my family life and my financial standing in order to do this and this would be completely illogical. And this is my whole point, God makes certain his plan, it is so certain that it is illogical to choose any other way than what he has ordained. AND when someone does choose the illogical choice, then it was God who allowed the man to go about his own free will. In a sense-God withholds his influencing, so that man chooses exactly what he wills to choose, even the illogical–like being a drunk or beating your wife–and since God allows it and does not influence the human agent in any way against these illogical choices–God ordains that there will be a time of drunkness and wife-beating in someone’s life, but this is due to the free choices of the wifebeater and not CAUSED by God just because he foreordained it by allowing man to have his own way for a time! Many times you have heard the stories of how God has used this time of sin in someone’s life to reach out and rescue others caught up in the same sin, or the sin may be used by God to open the man’s eyes to his absolute depravity and need for a Savior.

    Grace be with you brother, I hope this answered your question, if not, it is not any deficiency in God’s sovereignty, but only in me.

    Chris

  18. MSH says:

    Chris: This is an evasive response. It tries to have it both ways. The fact is that if God foreknew and foreordained an event, that event MUST come to pass, else God foreknew incorrectly, or the event wasn’t certainly fore-ordained. I think this is crystal clear. Like the Princess Bride’s funny bit on “mostly dead,” you can’t have an event partially or mostly fore-ordained. If it is fore-ordained, it MUST happen, and if it must happen, there was no other choice. That is crystal clear as well (“ordained” means “ordained to happen” – what part of “ordained” gives you wiggle room?). Your answer is in line with the evasive nature of calvinist responses I have seen before many times, and is unsatisfactory (to me anyway).

  19. cwmyers007 says:

    Dr. Heiser, I think that it can be shown to be true that man’s free-will is not infringed because God foreordains. Just because God makes something certain DOES NOT mean that it obliterates free-will. I do not see this tension as evasive. It is a tension that exists in the Bible as a paradox that is simply allowed to stand as it is in Calvinism. I thought my example could show how foreordination could not necessitate force.

    Now remember that the same problem you pose against foreordination holds equally true for foreknowledge. If God forsees something, He knows it is going to happen. So really if God foresaw that the cat was going to pea on your right shoe, could the cat choose to pea on your left one? It is certain that it is going to happen because God saw it in the future and he knows it will happen, so the cat must not have any say in the matter, the cat is forced to pea on your right shoe by GOD. Is that even logical? That is just as ridiculous as any question you can muster in human terms. Outside the “evasive” Calvinist view you must deny BOTH the foreordination of God AND the foreknowledge of God to be consistent.

    Grace be with you,
    Chris

  20. MSH says:

    All I’m saying is that YES, God does and has predestianted events — but NO, he just hasn’t predestinated ALL events, nor does he need to. My view reconciles the two sides, and is built on the severance of foreknowledge and predestination that is quite obvious from the Keilah incident (and others). It doesn’t deny foreknowledge, predestination, or free will — it just doesn’t exhaustively connect the first two. There is no need to do so.

    You say that you can show it to be the case that man’s free will is not infringed upon by foreordination, but you’ve changed the wording in your answer. Maybe I can state it another way: are all your future decisions determined (predestinated)? If you answer yes, then they are already determined, and you could not do otherwise – you might think you are free, but you are not, since your decisions were predestinated before you were born. What I’d like to see is a clear answer as to how you can be free to choose in such circumstances. It isn’t freedom to be able to pick one path when only one is offered.

    The following paragraph tells me you don’t understand what I’m saying about the Keilah incident (I assume you have read it, but this makes me unsure):

    “Now remember that the same problem you pose against foreordination holds equally true for foreknowledge. If God forsees something, He knows it is going to happen. So really if God foresaw that the cat was going to pea on your right shoe, could the cat choose to pea on your left one?”

    This entire line of reasoning assumes that if God foresees something it has to happen. This is absolutely DENIED in the Keilah incident. God foreknew what Saul would do when David asked, but when the circumstances changed (David leaves the city) the event does NOT happen. God foreknew something that did not happen — so foreknowledge is no proof or piece of data to argue predestination. There is no absolute linkage. I just don’t think you’ve grasped this point, and it’s critical, else you wouldn’t offer an argument like this.

  21. Marc says:

    Suffering has no meaning? Tell that to the child prostitute or the starving baby! No matter what blissful end our divine sovereign may promise, the End does not justify the Means. What happens, happens, and some things are inexcusable and no amount of paradisical plaster will cover them up.

  22. Dawn says:

    Chapter 4 was a really refreshing read. Thanks Mike.

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