Ray Ortlund Jr. On My “Jesus: ‘Why Do I Allow Evil?'” Video

Dr. Raymond C. Ortlund Jr.

So first I put up my Xtranormal.com video, Jesus: “Why Do I Allow Evil to Exist?”

Then I Twittereeted a message to Ray Ortlund Jr., pastor of Immanuel Church, and (along with the likes of Mark Driscoll, Albert Mohler, Tim Keller, and John Piper) a Council Member of the imposingly-named Gospel Coalition, where he also keeps his really outstanding blog, Christ is Deeper Still. (About a year ago, Ray [in his post Christ Appears Without Being Asked] excerpted and then linked to a post on my blog. After that, he and I became e-buddies.)

In my message to Ray I asked what he thought of my Jesus video.

Here’s how he responded:

1. Great representation of Jesus. Doesn’t trivialize him at all, seems to me. He even wags his finger at us a little, so confident is he in his real authority. John, that is so not politically correct, as you well know—that Jesus would claim to be God, and speak with authority! Some people won’t like that. But it does have the advantage of presenting him the same way he presented himself.

2. Great articulation of The Problem. And it really is The Problem, for so many people. For me. Life can be horrible.

3. Great ending.

4. I don’t agree with the way “free will” is explained. I don’t believe in “free will” as much as I believe in “unfree will.” That is, I do have free will to do whatever I want — and it comes out badly at times. But I do not have free will to choose what I want. I cannot control what my “wanter” down inside wants. If I lust over a woman, it’s because I want to. But then, why the shame and frustration? Because I did something that I wanted to do; but, at the same time, I didn’t want to do it. So, I need God to get involved in my interiority, and change what I want.

I need the “new birth” of John, chapter three.

(By the way, in your own story, when Christ encountered you, according to your blog post on the matter, you realized what you really are, and that you would never change. Unfree will. It is so real. And biblical. And you described it effectively. You had me so hooked, because I saw myself there, too.)

I totally get why you would relieve The Problem with an appeal to man’s free will. It’s an easy out. But it’s too easy. Here’s why:

Let’s say we both believe in heaven in some biblical sense. Okay, will we still sin in heaven? No. We’ll finally be free of it all. But why won’t we sin in heaven? It won’t be us boot-strapping ourselves there. No Christian believes in self-salvation. It will be Christ’s work in us. The whole message of the Bible.

So here’s my point: when we no longer sin, but goodness is exploding out of us forever in heaven, will we also be “brain-dead automatons”? When His grace finally changes our free wills to want only what He wants, will we be diminished or violated? We will be more alive, more human, more complete, more free than ever. And it will be totally His work in us.

Free will, defined as autonomous/uncaused will, is an intuitive and popular way to explain human realities. But we just aren’t as simple as that. We’re dang complicated! And to make it more complicated, God gets involved!

Human free will (in a qualified sense) and God’s sovereign will are compatible in the way reality actually works. Not that I can wrap my brain around that! But I can’t account for either our experience, or the Bible without this understanding.

Here is how bluntly I would say it: “God makes me do his will of my own free will.” His will is real. My will is also real. But he accomplishes his will through my will without my having even to consciously cooperate, and yet it’s still the real me, and I can’t blame God for anything. This is counter-intuitive, but it seems to be the assumption that all the biblical authors are working with.

Net result: The Problem is more difficult than before! But with this qualified understanding of free will, I am finally facing into how little I understand of life, and how much I have to refer it to God, and say, “I don’t get this. I can’t defend you as easily as i wanted to. You’re not letting me get you off the philosophical hook! I’m pushed to the place where all i can do is trust you. I can’t explain you. I can’t rescue your public reputation. So, okay. I’ll do what i can. But this is not going to be easy.”

Anyway, that’s where I end up. I think it’s where the biblical Job ended up, as he struggled with his sufferings. Boy, if there’s a biblical book that doesn’t appeal to free will as a solution, it’s Job — the biggest book of all about The Problem!

Sorry for the length of this, John.

God bless.

I thought Ray’s response worth sharing with you guys; and he graciously allowed me to do that.

And there you have it!

A quick response to Ray’s response:

I don’t think there’s anything in what Ray wrote that contradicts the point of my video, which is that God doesn’t interfere with human free will. If Ray wants God to redefine his interior life (“I need God to get involved in my interiority, and change what I want”), then he must first ask God to do that for him. Just like anyone else’s, Ray’s relationship with God depends upon Ray first deciding that he wants that relationship—that is, it depends upon Ray exercising his free will toward that end.

And though this is a minor point, I think it worth mentioning. Ray said, “If I lust over a woman, it’s because I want to.” I don’t think that’s true. A straight man has no more choice about sexually desiring women than he does about needing sustenance to survive. (I wrote a bit about this subject in The Myth of the Christian Eunuch.) We can use our will to determine how we respond to our sexual desires, yes. But we cannot use our will to stop those desires from occurring in the first place.

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  • eydie

    I’m not even a Christian, and yet this…

    “But he accomplishes his will through my will without my having even to consciously cooperate, and yet it’s still the real me, and I can’t blame God for anything”

    …completely works for me.

  • Michael Eric Hund

    Hello John,

    I think in your “minor point” that “we cannot use our will to stop those desires from occurring in the first place” is pretty much the same thing that Ray was saying, in a slightly different way, that he cannot keep “his wanter” inside from wanting. Couching it in his belief in an “unfree will” is what leads me to further respond.

    My apologies to you both, in advance, as I do not know Ray, and I hope he understands that I am only at odds with his interpretation of some finer points regarding “free will“!

    First, as most strongly, his personal definition of “free will”. Ray appears to be setting out a “straw man” to knock down pre-determined oppositions to his own statements. His definition of free will does not come close to my definition of free will.

    Second, his statement, “God makes me do his will of my own free will.” Personally, I believe that while God may want me to do God’s will, as any concerned parent would want for their children, I still have the free will to chose whether I do it or not. With God’s help, hope, grace and love, I may do the right thing more often, but it still remains my own free will whether I accept that help, hope, grace and love. I think that eventually all of us will accept God’s will, if only because, as God is Love, God’s will is True.

    Third, that it then makes his following assertion the more absurd, “but it seems to be the assumption that all the biblical authors are working with.” This is, again, absolute straw-man hokum, to put one‘s own thoughts into the mouths of others; and it is a rather strong “assumption” on his part.

    Fourth, that “free will” is an “easy out”. I believe that free will is the most difficult thing in the world for people to get a grip on, regarding what can bring evil into being. I think too many of us only equate it with the individual choices that the people we are most familiar with may make. It is far more difficult to comprehend the results of free will that have come about when we have to multiply it exponentially, with several billion other people’s cumulative experiences across vast distances of time and space, in a Universe filled with such a bountiful diversity as ours. To me, free will is the “hardest out” possible.

    Fifth, that the book of Job is “a biblical book that doesn’t appeal to free will”. I believe that through all the actual suffering, and self-pity, of Job is the joy to be found in the fact that Job never gives up in his “free will” choice to believe in God; although he certainly questions God about how much he has to endure to realize it as such. Ultimately, it appears that his “free will” to believe in God is the one thing that Job is able to hang on to (along with his wife, who has been joined with him in marriage). In steps that we can all follow and comprehend, in our own kinship with him, Job, in his “free will“, finally, fully, understands and accepts, with no further questions possible, that his, and our, God is indeed the One True God.

    Just my two pence worth…

    All joy and peace to you!

  • vj

    I suppose, to some extent, I can understand Ray’s point about the initial desire to do evil being slightly different to the issue of free will, especially given Jesus’ own emphasis in the Sermon on the Mount being that of heart attitude rather than actual perpetration of evil…

    As to how we will exist one day in Heaven without ever sinning again, I think we will still have our free will. However, partly because we will actually be eternally in the physical presence of God, all the time (i.e. there will be no room for doubting his goodness, mercy, love, etc), and partly because there will be no enemy tempting us with sinful desires (the first sin was a direct result of active intervention by the serpent), I think that there will be no practical likelihood of us ever again exercising that free will in a negative expression. Not to mention that we will then also be healed of the emotional/physical/spiritual baggage that is so often at the root of the evil that we ‘choose’ in this life. And, possibly, the memory of how awful a world marred by sin can be will hold us back (Adam and Eve obviously had no clue!)

    Just as Jesus was able to resist the devil’s temptations in the desert because He knew (as much as we know that 1+1=2) the entirety of the true awesomeness of God, I believe/hope/think that when we, too, are confronted with this ultimate reality, we will have everything we could ever need to always respond freely to God in ways that are pleasing to both Him and ourselves.

  • vj

    And doesn’t Dr. Ortlund look freakishly like the father (Stephen Collins?) from 7th Heaven? 😉

  • Skerrib

    Rock on. This is particularly relevant to a conversation we’ve been having in my small group at church.

  • Patty


  • Dan

    “God makes me do his will of my own free will.” – sounds like Pastor Ray’s statement is teetering on pre-destination – as if everything we do is in fact God’s will because we have been “pre-destined” to do it. That’s what I’m getting out of it anyway.

  • cat rennolds

    there are only 3 real evils, manmade or otherwise: Fear, pain and death. with God there is no fear and no death. without fear or death, pain is just a thing that happens. it HURTS, but it doesn’t MATTER. evil only exists when we are looking away from God. it changes the way we see.

  • Don Rappe

    My internal Guinea baboon wants me to copy my comment from the previous post here. Sorry about that.

    Why does the expression free-will sound redundant to me when compared to the word will? What is freedom if not the potential to effect our will? But my will seems to me to be “in here” rather than “out there”. When God changes my heart, God simultaneously changes my will. This leads to an ambiguity of meaning which is noted by some commenters. Now, from “my will” I can leap metaphorically to the “Will of God”. Thy Will be done among us as it is in the visible sky. If God answers this prayer, does it make us automatons? I think not. If God answers this prayer, does he also answer the theodicy? I think so. So the simple faith of a child contains the answer to the theodicy. But no amount of logical argument can. So, I paraphrase your point about the conundrum..

  • I have nothing material to add to this. All I can say is that Ray’s email, John’s response and the responses thus far (Don, vj, Michael, particularly) in the comment thread are each very thoughtful and worthy of the deepest consideration. This is the kind of discussion I thoroughly enjoy and which helps me gnaw a bit deeper into the tiny kernel of understanding within.

  • Speaking of fantastic comments ….

  • What I’m about to write here can be considered a sidebar to the discussion at hand.

    While Ray clearly disagreed on at least one part of the video, the thing that drew me in to his response was your introduction where you described each other as “e-buddies.” At risk of going off on a tangent, I think there is a quality of discussion that can take place among people who actually know each other that is much richer, fuller and more beneficial to everyone than the anonymous sparring that characterizes many blog exchanges.

    He knows a bit of your heart and where you’re coming from; and to me, that makes a huge difference in the way he responds to your definition of free will. I always feel when I’m reading blog comments from strangers who either want to create an adversarial situation or polarize the issue — I always feel like I want to say to them, “Listen, you don’t know me; you don’t my heart.”

    May I propose, “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers disagree charitably.”

    As to the story of the potential boy-wonder in India which ends the video clip, that was gold!

  • Thank you for this, Paul; it’s good to hear from you. And you’re right to mention this special quality of Ray’s. I certainly didn’t have time in the intro to go into it, but the truth is I barely know Ray at all. We’ve twittered or sent short emails back and forth a handful of times. But each time we have I’ve been deeply struck by his open, honest, good-natured tone; clearly, this was a guy more interested in the truth than … the size of his podium, or whatever. And so I knew he’d be just the guy to ask about the video. And he responded right away, and just as graciously as anyone could have. He acted like I was honoring HIM by asking him to in any way participate in this little project of mine. It was really something. And yes, as you say, you can clearly see the quality of his spirit, right here.

  • I was greatly impressed by the way the two of you disagreed, by the tone and the honesty of his response to you.

    Trying to completely understand the whole free will thing strains my brain, so I’m not sure how to express my thoughts and impressions fully. But I think there are interventions God makes that are outside our free will which means it may not be entirely free.

    If he talks to us inside our heads, makes us pay attention to certain things, allows “coincidence” or consequence to have an impact and any or all of those things change us, almost without our participation, then responsibility for the change would be a little murky, wouldn’t it?

    Maybe our openness to God is our choice? But I think God woos us, so even that is not fully ours, is it?

    I guess I’m thinking that there’s a collaboration at work but possibly initiated by God.

    But these are just my thoughts so far.

  • Annie

    LOL. I love how it always comes down to “faith”. Cause you really ain’t got nothin’ else.

  • And since when is faith nothing? You so readily make fun of people who have faith–but you, yourself, are, I know (since all people are) filled with deep hopes, about all kinds of things.

    You laugh at faith in others, but in your own heart nurture hope.

    Consider that you’re not as clear as you think you are on the difference between faith and hope.

  • Well, they’re good ones!

  • Diana A.

    “You so readily make fun of people who have faith–but you, yourself, are, I know (since all people are) filled with deep hopes about all kinds of things.”

    The impression I sometimes get about some atheists (specifically those who jump all over anyone who expresses even the smallest iota of faith in God) is that they are terrified to feel any hope at all. They are like those who have been burned in love and decide as a result to never love again. It isn’t enough for them to turn their backs. They have to deride anyone who gives love/faith a chance because if it actually works out for that other person, they might be tempted to try again–and that would be a terrible thing to do. Of course, I could be wrong about this.

  • Jeremy

    In your last paragraph, I think you misunderstood Ray. He agrees with you that you have no choice in the matter of lusting over a woman. Similarly, you have no choice over anything else you want. You don’t get to choose what you want. Free will means doing what you want most, but it doesn’t mean you can choose anything and do it. You can only do what you want, and you don’t get to choose that.

    In an earlier post, you asked why free will isn’t a full explanation of the theodicy, and I think Ray’s response is a good answer. Basically:

    1. God could prevent some evil in the world even without interfering with free will, for instance by making earthquakes less likely, or the cells in our body less sensitive to cancer, and so on. Even if some evil is necessary, why is there so much of it?

    2. What we do isn’t completely free. There are physical, mental, and psychological limits on our behavior. God could have made it psychologically more difficult for us to hurt each other, for instance.

    3. God could have set up the world so that the free choices we ended up making caused less suffering. If you think this is interfering with free will, you don’t understand correctly. Our choices aren’t completely random: that wouldn’t be free will at all. They’re influenced by our environment and our personality. For our choices to “come from us” they have to be caused by who we are. So, by designing a world where people have different personalities, God could have caused less suffering.

    4. God could also have let us make free choices, but interfered with the consequences of those choices to prevent suffering: this would also not interfere with free will.

    5. If you think that in heaven humans won’t sin, but will still have free will, as Ray says, why couldn’t God have made us like that on Earth? Why even bother with life on Earth then? In response to your point that we have to invite him in, why couldn’t he make it easier for us to do that? For instance, I’m an atheist, but I would invite him in if there were actually evidence that he existed. He had no problem appearing before people in Biblical times, so I don’t see what’s stopping him now: this would be one way of preventing suffering without interfering with free will.

  • Savannah

    First of all, sorry to rehash something so old, I doubt anyone will read this, but I have just discovered the wonders of John Shore.

    Wow, these are some great questions.

    In response to 1-4, I believe that there is some intrinsic value to suffering, because without suffering, there is no redemption. I think all of the most beautiful and inspiring stories involve suffering and redemption. Why God chose this particular world, with this quota of suffering, out of infinity possible worlds, is not a question that I can answer.

    To number 5, my response is this: humans can only exist in true free will in accordance with God’s will when their will is submitted to God through suffering and redemption. If free will was born into complete submission, would it be truly and totally free?