Where Was God when the Fertilizer Plant Exploded?

If what many Christians believe about God is true, then the West, Texas disaster (like every disaster) was actually good–”designed, ordained and governed by God” necessarily means “good” in a Christian worldview. Something God designs, ordains and governs (the key is “designs”) has to be good in the larger scheme of things. I say “in a Christian worldview” because I take it for granted that every true Christian believes that God is absolutely, unequivocally good. I have only heard of one Christian theologian who believed in a “dark side” of God to explain evil and innocent suffering. Needless to say, he was widely dismissed as a crank by liberals and conservatives alike. The vast majority, ninety-nine and forty-four one hundredth percent of all Christians the world over, Calvinists and Arminians, Lutherans and Catholics, Pentecostals and Eastern Orthodox agree on one thing–God is good.

But what does “God is good” mean? To some Christians “God is good” means “whatever God does is automatically good just because he’s God.” I call that view “nominalism/voluntarism.” Not all who hold that view use that label, but it seems to me the best one–drawing from the stock of philosophical and theological terms and concepts. So that’s the label I will use for it.

Other Christians mean that God is eternally, immutably good in himself and his good character governs what he does. He can’t lie, for example. It’s not that he just chooses not to; he literally can’t because he is truth itself. Whatever God does is good because he is good; he cannot do wrong. However, some who hold this view (“realist” with regard to God’s nature) believe that things we perceive as disasters and evils are designed, ordained and governed by God. To them, the West fertilizer plant explosion (which devastated a nursing home and killed several first responders and injured children and wiped out a large portion of a town) was from God in the sense that it was designed, ordained and governed by God. God didn’t just know it was going to happen and didn’t just permit it; God planned it and wanted it to happen (even if he regretted its necessity) and directly or indirectly caused it. Many would say God didn’t cause it because they appeal to secondary causes, but if one asks about it’s ultimate cause they will explain that God is the ultimate cause of whatever happens.

Relational sovereignty is a collection of views of God and worldly events that makes room for things to happen that God does not design, ordain or govern except (with regard to govern) to permit. In my opinion, relational sovereignty includes many perspectives about the details but all agree that not everything that happens, and especially not evil, is designed, ordained and governed by God.

I call the belief that everything that happens is designed, ordained and governed by God “meticulous providence” by which I mean “divine determinism.” Why not just call it “divine determinism?” Because many of its adherents hate that terminology. I try to avoid it as much as possible and only use it when I have space (as in Against Calvinism) to explain what I mean by it. (R. C. Sproul objects strongly to anyone calling his view “determinism” because he equates that with belief in external coercion. However, the dictionary definition of “determinism” does not limit it to that.)

Now, to my point about the West, Texas explosion (and all things like it): IF meticulous providence is true (viz., that God designs, ordains and governs whatever happens), then God was orchestrating it and rendering it certain (necessary) for a good purpose. (Or, for the nominalist/voluntarist, it’s “good” just  because God designed, ordained and governed it.)

What I have found in my (now becoming rather) long life is that many people who say they believe that falter in that belief when they mature and experience really bad things in their own lives–especially happening to loved ones.  It’s easier to believe that when it’s not your town, or your race, or your family it happens to. But I’ve also noticed that few, if any, of those who believe that actually follow through with that belief. Instead of celebrating what happened because God designed it, ordained it and governed it they express grief and sorrow and regret over it (especially when it happens to someone they know and love or their own town or family or whatever).

If I were a believer in meticulous providence, divine determinism (and still a Christian) I would feel duty-bound to thank God for whatever happens. I might feel great grief and sorrow, but I would follow through the logic of what I believe and say, publicly, that “This is from God and therefore good and I thank and praise him for it.”

I suspect, however, that IF more consistent Calvinists and others who believe in meticulous providence/divine determinism actually did that, many people moving toward that view would turn away. Is that why they don’t? I can only suspect that’s a reason why they don’t. (Some do and I give them credit for it.)

Another reason many don’t is because they know some people would ask them “So what good purpose can you imagine for such a disaster from God?” Of course, they can always appeal to mystery and just say they don’t know. That’s respectable. Still, “inquiring minds want to know” what are some possible reasons why God would design, ordain and govern (render certain, cause, make necessary) something like what happened in West, Texas two days ago. I suspect that deep in the recesses of their minds some believers in meticulous providence who live within a 100 miles radius of West, Texas are thinking it might have something to do with the annual “Czechfest” which is like an “Octoberfest” held in the Czech-settled town. Lots of drinking goes on there. Or they might know something else about the town that they think justifies such an act of God.

The problem with such explanations (and a reason people who think them often draw back from saying them) is that so often, as in West, the brunt of the disaster affects the weak and those trying to help the weak (e.g., nursing home patients and first responders trying to put out the fire). Frankly, to put it bluntly, if meticulous providence is true, God would seem to have bad aim (e.g., the hurricane and flood that devastated much of New Orleans left Bourbon Street in the French Quarter almost untouched!).

So where does a believer in relational sovereignty think God was when the fertilizer plant exploded? Many will simply say “We can’t know–unless God gives a revelation explaining his ‘place’ in it EXCEPT that God was and is there among the suffering offering grace, comfort, strength, pardon, hope.”

 

  • James Petticrew

    I must admit I thought along these lines when Rick Warren recently tweeted about being hurt by some people’s reaction to his son’s suicide, my mind went back to some things he had said in his Purpose Driven Life Book

    “There’s a grand designer behind everything. Your life is not a result of random chance, fate, or luck. There is a master plan. History is His Story. God is pulling the strings. We make mistakes, but God never does. …. God’s plan for your life involves all (in italics for emphasis) that happens to you, including your mistakes, sins, and your hurts.”

    I wondered if he really believes that God was pulling the strings when his son pulled the trigger? Whether he thought God was pulling the string when internet Christian trolls were spilling their bile and venom on him which he found so hurtful.

    I wondered if Rick Warren believes in a God who plants our hurts, I know I would find little comfort in that thought and I believe the God of the Bible heals our hurts rather than causing them

  • Patrick

    I don’t know what I am so far as descriptions go, but, I’ve never thought God planned or willed “bad stuff”. He allows bad stuff is how I view it. Until the restoration, evil still has it’s say even though Christ strategically defeated it 2000 years ago.

    Like, God will allow me to be wrong right here if I am, He didn’t will that I be wrong. Or, He will allow me to hate someone, He doesn’t desire that. That’s my view of how God interacts with evil, sin or bad stuff like West,TX.

    I guess I am not Calvinist at all.

    • rogereolson

      You sure aren’t! :)

  • http://jewishchristianintersections.com/ Larry

    Roger, this is much like your earlier post this week about the relational view of God’s sovereignty, and once again I like what you’ve said, and once again (from my Jewish perspective) I’d like to challenge what you’ve said. I think the Jewish view is what you’ve described as divine determinism: God is responsible for whatever happens, it’s all good, and we ARE duty bound to thank God for whatever happens. That’s the essence of Mourner’s Kaddish. At the same time we have a tradition of wrestling with God, of questioning and arguing with God, of prayer of supplication, of trying (and believing that we have succeeded at) changing the mind of God. Paradox.

    You correctly point out a danger in trying to discern the good purpose in a disaster: there is a tendency to demonize those hurt by the disaster, imagining something like God’s wrath at work. But that same danger exists if we take what you call the relational view – that is, if the relational view IS willing to give God credit for the good stuff (sunsets, rain for the crops, and so forth). Very few things happen unambiguously for the good. I might view God at work in the formation of the modern State of Israel, but then I have to address why God’s providential plan for the Jews included three wars and considerable suffering on the part of Jews and Palestinians. Should I “slice and dice” God, finding God only in those moments where nothing bad seems to be going on, where there are no trade-offs, where there’s nothing but sunshine and buttercups? Aren’t we trivializing God if we’re only willing to see God in what we used to call the “Kodak moments”? Particularly since there are precious few such moments? In my Los Angeles, sunsets are particularly beautiful on smoggy days, or when the air is filled with smoke from a brush fire. And the rain for the crops can cause mudslides.

    Moreover, who are we to say what is unambiguously good? I’m thinking about what I’ve read recently about evangelical international adoptions, and how these efforts can sometimes go tragically wrong. Should we see God only in those adoptions that work out? Or do we slice-and-dice further, and see God only to the extent of the good intentions and hopes of those involved? Is God’s presence in the world merely something that takes place in us internally and individually?

    I hope you see that “relational sovereignty” can lead to a kind of spiritual narcissism, where we make God responsible for those events that strike us as Godly, and deny God’s presence (except as a force for comfort and solace) in anything we don’t like. In this process, there’s a huge amount of judgment going on, and this judgment is closely related to the judgment involved in trying to determine how a disaster can be for the good. In short, I don’t think your relational sovereignty solves the problem of our fumbling to understand why God does what God does, though it may be a step in the right direction.

    In the final analysis, I think that your answer of “we can’t know” MUST apply to our efforts to see God at work in our daily lives, and this holds true regardless of whether we believe in relational sovereignty. At the same time, depending on how you practice gratitude, the gratitude of a God-believer WILL be directed at God, and I don’t think we’re advanced enough to practice gratitude without focusing our gratitude on things that seem to us to be good things. Paradox.

    • Bev Mitchell

      Larry,

      I’m not sure how Dr. Olson would answer your good questions, but here is one version. God made possible a particular kind of world in which a particular kind of people emerged who were capable of understanding a certain amount about God. God knew this would happen, and in his goodness he responded by revealing himself, to the extent that we humans can handle, and with full respect for our freedom to listen to him or not. When we listen to God (the Spirit of God) we can make progress toward God. It’s completely relational. Abraham, Moses, David, the Prophets (I particularly like Ezekiel because of what he helped God do with dry bones. :) , and for we Christians Jesus of Nazareth (as God and man) all listened and God was able to accomplish much through them.

      This is all about God working with us and through us. It is all relational. God makes possible a universe in which this whole complex of relationships can play themselves out. He could have done it in any way consistent with his nature (love, truth, goodness, holiness etc.). Since he did it this way, we should probably consider it as being the most consistent with his nature, that love and creaturely freedom would allow. He also did it and continues to do it against significant spiritual opposition. This point many hope to avoid (ignore) for obvious reasons, but it is overwhelmingly scriptural.

      When we try to force fit things but saying God acted here, but not there, we start down a never ending road that leads to confusion and conflict. The only solution, as the prophets say again and again, is to turn, in faith, to YAHWH. And, as Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Matt 11: 28-30.

      In an earlier response that you may have missed (because I was late to the party) I mentioned two books by outstanding Jewish authors that you may find helpful. They take theological positions that are really quite relational.

      Jon Levenson (1988) “Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence” (The 1994 Princeton U Press version is best because of the excellent Preface)

      Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (2011) “The Great Partnership: Science, Religion and the Search for Meaning”

      • http://jewishchristianintersections.com/ Larry

        Bev, I’m a long time fan of your comments, here and elsewhere.

        For certain, the essence of my spiritual life is relational. I could add to the texts you’ve suggested (now on my reading list): I and Thou by Martin Buber; God in Search of Man by Abraham Joshua Heschel; When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Harold Kushner; and Radical Judaism by Arthur Green.

        The difficult question is whether a relational understanding of God solves the problem Dr. Olson is describing, of how terrible things happen within God’s good creation.

        Dr. Olson describes a relational theology where we are to understand that certain world events are not caused by God. The question, then, is whether any world events are caused by God. I think that Dr. Olson would answer this question with a “yes”, as he stated in an earlier post that God sometimes “overrides the wills of people”. If God can and did cause a Red Sea to part, then God could also cause a fertilizer plant not to explode. Or looking at what happened: either God caused the plant to explode, or God could have prevented the explosion and chose not to do so. I don’t see much difference theologically between these two possibilities.

        The logic of Dr. Olson’s position denies the possibility that God could have caused the plant to explode, but Dr. Olson has yet to address what it means that God allowed the plant to explode. With this question unaddressed, I don’t see how Dr. Olson has explained “where was God when the fertilizer plant exploded”.

        Please keep leaving your terrific comments, here and elsewhere!

        • rogereolson

          I thought my final statement did answer that question.

          • http://jewishchristianintersections.com/ Larry

            Dr. Olson, strictly speaking, your final statement addresses where was God immediately after the explosion. Of course, I have not read everything you’ve ever written! But at least in your last two posts about relational theology, I don’t see where you’ve addressed the question of whether God allowed the fertilizer plant to explode, and if so, what does this mean theologically? Unless you’re taking a radically different view of God, I think you’d say that God knew the explosion would happen, and that God could have prevented the explosion. What does it mean that God did not intervene to prevent the tragedy?

            You wrote that “God was and is there among the suffering offering grace, comfort, strength, pardon, hope.” Agreed. But if God’s concern is directed to the suffering, wouldn’t this concern have been most effectively expressed by preventing the suffering from occurring in the first place? Certainly God does not want us to suffer just so God has opportunities to comfort us!

            Also remember, the explosion killed 14 people, none of whom received God’s comfort except in the afterlife (and perhaps not all of them there either, at least according to orthodox Christian doctrine).

            Dr. Olson, please understand that I agree with you: God is best understood as a relational God, and I believe in something very close to the relational theology you describe. I am not so much criticizing you as pointing out that relational theology does not explain how the plant exploded notwithstanding God’s ability to prevent the explosion.

          • rogereolson

            Relational theology says God permitted it and avoids attempting to explain why (without some clear revelation of God’s purpose). As Frank Tupper says “Life [in this world] is arbitrary, but God is not.” When God permits a calamity he has a reason; that’s a faith statement. Again, please (!) read Greg Boyd, Is God to Blame? I agree with his explanation of this matter (and with Tupper’s as the two are very close if not nearly identical).

          • http://jewishchristianintersections.com/ Larry

            Dr. Olson, this is the first time you’ve asked ME to read Greg Boyd. Boyd’s work is now on my reading list. YOU are on my reading list because I derive great value in reading you. I agree that we should “avoid attempting to explain why”, and that the paradoxes I see abounding here can ultimately be answered only with faith statements. My argument with you (and it’s a relatively small one, compared to the enormity of the issues we’re discussing) is that relational theology does not solve the problem you’re describing with divine determinism. God may have determined that the plant explode, or God may have permitted the plant to explode, but in either case God is inexplicable. Moreover, I would argue that there’s essentially no difference between these two points of view – if God permitted the plant to explode, then God ordained the plant to explode. When we’re talking about a Being that is immanent, omnipotent, omnipresent and transcendent, the moral distinction between acts of omission and acts of commission shrinks to essentially nothing, and we’re left with the same problem of explanation.

            IMHO, the superiority of relational theology comes in our response to events like the plant explosion. Our ultimate response to God should NOT be to stand to one side and ask for explanations. Please understand, I think this should be PART of our response to God – we live in a broken world, and it is our obligation to make repairs, and it’s inappropriate to adopt an attitude of passive acceptance of whatever comes. I have NO problem with occasionally looking heavenward and asking “REALLY?” At the same time, we should recognize (and isn’t it obvious?) that we weren’t put here to experience a perfect creation. We have been put here to fulfill a divine purpose. Central to that divine purpose is to seek relationship with God. For reasons I don’t understand, God either causes or permits events to take place that make it difficult for us to seek this relationship. The ultimate faith statement, therefore, is to look at the plant explosion and continue to believe that God wants this relationship. That’s why I think your theology is better than the other guy’s.

          • rogereolson

            I think our disagreement must lie in our perspectives about divine permission. I see God as sometimes (perhaps often) permitting evil because he cannot stop it–not due to any lack of power but due to what I can only call (for lack of a better term) rules that only he knows.

        • Robert

          Hello Larry,

          You wrote:

          “For certain, the essence of my spiritual life is relational.”

          Larry what are the conditions that make personal relationships possible? Wouldn’t those conditions include persons with minds, persons with consciousness, persons who have their own thoughts, persons whose actions includes having and making their own choices, a stable environment where these personal relationships can play themselves out, etc. etc.?

          Seems to me that people often forget what the preconditions are that make realities such as personal relationships possible. My point is that the same preconditions that make love and trust and other meaningful aspects of personal relating possible will also be in place that make evil personal realities possible as well. The same mind that can express thanks can plot to kill. A person can intend to do good, that same person can intend to do evil. God created the world seeking a world where personal and loving relationships are possible. But the very same things that make love possible (having a mind, expressing your own intentions, being able to act in the world to express love, etc.) can also make evil possible as well. An environment where love is possible will involve an orderly and predictable world. If I try to give someone a gift and that gift instantly turns into a venomous snake that attacks them, what happens to the orderliness and predictability of the world? The gift turning into a snake bothers us, and we don’t want such a world. And yet some will demand and clamor for a world where if someone intends to give someone a snake the snake instantly turns into a gift. But we don’t live in such a world. True there is the occasional miracle, but viewed with all of history in mind, miracles are extremely infrequent.

          And this demand that God miraculously intervene to prevent all evil events from occurring: requires a whimsical world, a disorderly world, a chaotic world where nothing is predictable and there is no consistent order. C. S. Lewis spoke of a whimsical world where when someone tries to say something negative about another person, the sound waves get scrambled, so the intended hearer never hears the hostile words. Where the stick intended to cause harm becomes a blade of grass. Some people really want this whimsical world. God did not create such a whimsical world. Instead he created a world where when you intend to say bad things to another person, the laws of physics make those sound waves travel to the intended target. People don’t realize where this talk of God always miraculously intervening would entail in the world. It would lead to a whimsical and chaotic world. It would lead to a world where your intentions and even mind must be controlled by God so that no possible evil thought, intention or action could occur. But people don’t want God controlling their thoughts either, they really don’t want to be puppets under the control of another. To be a genuine person you have to be capable of your own thoughts and intentions and they cannot be controlled by another person, even if that person is God. Besides God clearly values personal relationships so he is not going to contradict the very conditions that He himself set up. He set up an orderly and rational and predictable world where science is possible as well as personal relationships. But the laws of physics are not discriminating, they do not operate differently when someone attempts or thinks evil than when that person attempts or things good. Instead they allow for both kinds of choices, for real and genuine consequences of both good and evil choices in the world.

          “The difficult question is whether a relational understanding of God solves the problem Dr. Olson is describing, of how terrible things happen within God’s good creation.”

          And who says there is only one simple answer? Is it possible that instead of one solution that fits all size problems that there are instead various solutions to various problems all operating simultaneously? To take only one example. Scientists tell us that earthquakes make life on earth possible. Should God have eliminated the possibility of earthquakes (and simultaneously eliminated the possibility of life)? And yet how many times do I hear people questioning: why did God allow that earthquake? Or take the example of water. Water provides life for us and other creatures. Water can also be involved in flooding and drowning. Should God have eliminated water to prevent floods and drowning?

          Besides the fact we live in an orderly and predictable world where the laws of physics operate and where personal relationships are possible. The Bible also reveals that many (both men and angels) rebel against God and his authority. God could have simply destroyed all of the rebels, he would have been perfectly justified in doing so. And yet the Bible also reveals that God desires to save the whole world (both the world of men and He intends to create a new creation and world where there is no decay, no sin, no suffering). Speaking in the context of personal relationship, what could be a greater good to be in a personal and loving relationship that lasts with God forever? And God makes this greater good possible for all as he invites all to be part of the eternal state in which there is no more suffering and no more death and no more pain and no more sin. If the greatest good is personal relationship with God and if He invites all to participate in that, then why is that reality left out when people talk about the so called problem of evil?

          The Bible also says that this present suffering is not to be compared with the glory of the world to come. That means that in some way the worst evils imaginable that occur in this present world will completely pale in comparison to the world that God is bringing. And again he invites all people to participate in this world.

          Then there is the question of justice. It appears in this present world that justice is not always done, that evil people appear to get away with things. And yet the Bible presents the reality that all will face a future final judgment before God. So no one really gets away with things.

          “Dr. Olson describes a relational theology where we are to understand that certain world events are not caused by God. The question, then, is whether any world events are caused by God.”

          The Bible is clear God acts in the world, he causes things to take place. But God also created a real natural world where the laws of physics operate, where if you jump off a cliff the law of gravity will have consequences for you. A natural world where an airplane can take you to see a loved one or be used to destroy a building. Which brings us back to the reality of genuine persons with genuine choices and intentions that have real consequences for good or bad. So history is a combination of many actors and causes. It is not as if God alone is acting nor is it the case that God never acts. Instead God acts as He pleases in all situations in line with his character as well as the purposes he has for creation (these purposes include purposing to create creatures capable of personal relationships who have their own minds, their own wills, their own intentions).

          “If God can and did cause a Red Sea to part, then God could also cause a fertilizer plant not to explode. Or looking at what happened: either God caused the plant to explode, or God could have prevented the explosion and chose not to do so.”

          Again we have what appears to be a request for the whimsical world where God must intervene at all times to prevent all evils from possibly occurring. He should prevent explosions but must he also prevent thoughts or control someone’s mind when their thoughts or intentions are going the wrong way?

          More could be said but I don’t think people have carefully thought out exactly what is entailed if God prevents even the possibility of evil from occurring. If he did so we would not be in the world we are in, where loving and personal relationships are possible (nor the world that He intended). Instead we would be in a whimsical and chaotic and unpredictable world.

          Robert

          • rogereolson

            Amen to all that!

          • http://jewishchristianintersections.com/ Larry

            Robert, you make excellent points, many of which I agree with, and not all of which I have time to respond to. Please understand, the essence of the point I’m trying to make is that we can’t explain where God was when the plant exploded, or more precisely, that relational theology offers no better an explanation than does divine determinism.

            I appreciate your effort to explain the presence of evil and your rejection of a “whimsical world”. I appreciate that you can’t have free will operating in a perfect world. I recognize that suffering serves as part of the background for our participation in the human drama and for the fulfilling of the divine purpose.

            Beyond this I refuse to go. I reject the notion that this is the best of all possible worlds, and I pray in the Jewish tradition that the messianic age come quickly and in our time. I reject the notion that the world requires suffering, evil, injustice, natural disasters, disease, poverty and misfortune in the amounts we experience in order to give free will sufficient room to operate. I particularly reject the idea that the world requires suffering to be distributed among us in such unequal and apparently unjust ways, so that people like me essentially skate through life (relatively speaking) while others suffer horribly or are wiped off the planet without ever having had the opportunity to exercise free will.

            I further reject the idea that natural disasters are the inherent companions of natural wonders. Even if earthquakes are necessary to make life possible, I reject the idea that a life-giving planet must periodically erupt leaving 300,000 dead in Haiti. Not to mention Black Plague, Indian Ocean Tsunami, Bhola cyclone, China floods and Spanish Flu, just to mention a few lowlights.

            You posit that a world without evil would be whimsical, chaotic and unpredictable. But, compared to what? We have plenty of chaos and unpredictability in our present world. I find it weird to imagine that, if God had intervened to prevent the Haitian earthquake, we would have experienced this as whimsical, chaotic and unpredictable. I find it impossible to imagine that, without the Haitian earthquake, there’d be insufficient room for free will to operate, and personal relationships would have become impossible.

            I am purposely avoiding discussion of the world to come, as I think our religious difference would complicate this discussion.

            The conclusion I draw from Dr. Olson (despite his “Amen” to you!) is that all this is inexplicable. Nothing suffices to explain human suffering, particularly in the amounts we experience, and even more so in the ways this suffering is distributed across the globe. Or perhaps more accurately, if such an explanation exists, it is beyond our power to discover, or beyond our ability to understand. But God does offer us, or at least some of us, the possibility of a God relationship. This seems to be the essence of the divine purpose. I’m not going to reject that relationship, even though it appears that some (as a result of disease, hunger and the remainder of the depressingly long ways in which human beings can suffer) are impeded from or incapable of that relationship.

            But I accept this status quo with the gravest of misgivings.

          • rogereolson

            But, speaking only for myself now, I agree that “all this is inexplicable” except by appeal to 1) the fallenness of the world due to sin (Romans 8), 2) rules God knows, understands and abides by, and 3) the particularities of situations that no one but God fully understands (that determine when God can and cannot intervene). Again, I’ll suggest a good book for you to read: Evil and the God of Love by Christian philosopher Michael Peterson. Philosopher Keith Ward has also written much on this subject. C. S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain is also helpful.

          • http://jewishchristianintersections.com/ Larry

            Dr Olson, thank you for listening and for the opportunity to speak my piece. I don’t think I can add anything to what I’ve already said. I’ll look at the books you’ve suggested. Keep up the good work — I’m confident that relational theology is the best way to go.

  • Tim Reisdorf

    God respects (“allows” if you wish) the consequences of people’s choices. Sometimes the consequences are disastrous and deadly and often affects others. Other times God causes Floods (Gen 6), plagues (1 Chon 21), Death (Ex 12, Lam 1), and other hardship (Job). Job said it correctly, “God gives, God takes away, God be praised.”
    It may be important to distinguish the various terms of the word “good”. There is a moral “good” which its opponent is “evil”. There is an comfort “good” which its opponent is “unease” or “hardship”. God is all about the first good. For the other, Job’s words fit well.

    • LarryRR

      The paradox in this is that it makes humanity disposable, either by God directly through The Flood, or indirectly by other humans through His/their indifference (to regulations and protocol in West, TX, or to pain and suffering in Boston). It then follows that none of us are individually terribly important, and that our ‘value’ is simply being part of Creation in general and his desire to have a relationship with parts of that Creation. I think God gets off much easier in Dr. Olson’s view because, these days, He’s not inflicting the pain, He’s just soothing it. This way, you still get to have your nice, good God who grieves when free will goes awry, versus the God who ordained the explosion for good despite the suffering it caused. I don’t have enough faith to believe all things work together for good or enough reason to grasp why a relational God could prevent these tragedies but refuses to do so.

      • rogereolson

        It sure is easy to sit on the sidelines and cast aspersions at others’ views without expressing or explaining your own.

        • LarryRR

          Well, I’ll give it a shot! Like many here, I came from an evangelical (Pentecostal) background and accepted belief in God unquestioningly. The Problem of Evil wasn’t a problem for me because God was ultimately in control and Satan was still loose for limited time. If something bad happened, either God was trying to get your attention or you preferred to follow Satan. This seemed perfectly reasonable for a long time.

          Eventually, as I got older and saw how widespread and random evil could be, that belief started making less and less sense. I started to see my existence here in the US, and at this particular time (I’m too old to be in the military) as nothing more than pure random luck, and my belief in God a location-based perk. My good fortune has allowed me to be raised a Christian in relative middle-class comfort, and not as a Hindu in squalid conditions, or as a hated-filled Muslim, or as a hate-filled Evangelical for that matter. I wasn’t born into perpetual famine, endless territorial war, or to a country ruled by a tyrannical despot where my main concerns are finding food and staying alive. (When that is your life, is it any wonder that you focus so much on the next life and how much better it will be for you and how much worse it will be for your adversaries?)

          Slowly, my view of God began to change from one that could interact “if” He chose to and was appropriately engaged, to a God that considered Earth a Beta version and had moved on to other relationship models (perhaps actively limiting free will as a parent would do instead of being completely hands-off). Looking at the violent history of humanity and God’s unsuccessful efforts to steer it via the Flood and Babel among others, it’s hard for me to see how this was what God really wanted, particularly knowing chaos would be the end result. That doesn’t mean that God can’t make everything right upon death (I lost my belief in Hell along the way as well) but I see no sense of divine justice in this life or no divine intervention where it is most needed. I don’t see any at all, though I can’t deny that many people close to me see that intervention every single day. That view would seem to be a recipe for, if not nihilism, at least cynicism, but that has not been the case. It’s important to use this life to improve the lives of others as much as we can. I get tremendous joy from hiking in the mountains or watching my son play little league baseball. At the end, if there’s a God, and He’s just and merciful, I’m willing to take my chances that I, and everyone else who ever lived, won’t be sentenced to eternal suffering. If there’s not a God, it won’t matter.

          I’m still not 100% convinced that the case however and the reason why I enjoy Patheos, Veritas, Unbelievable, and other similar bolgs/podcasts. Plenty of smart people feel exactly the opposite and I want to know what their reasoning is. If they are convinced, perhaps I can be too. Too date though, I have not read a good explanation of why the chaos of Earth (on every level – earthquakes, disease, abuse, war) justified God creating it.

          • rogereolson

            Have you read Is God to Blame by Gregory Boyd? If not, and if you are truly seeking an answer to your question, I strongly recommend it. I only wish I had written it. :)

      • Tim Reisdorf

        Hi Larry,
        “Paradox” is not the word I would use. I might use the term “inscrutably complex” because I’m trying to describe a single reality when I see a world where all the pieces don’t seem to fit together. This is not the world’s trouble, it is mine – and my lack of imagination/intelligence/reading/listening.
        But I’ve listed the sources from where I get my conclusions that God is behind some of the very great suffering in the world’s history – and I believe the sources to be accurate in what they teach. Dispute the sources if you will, but I find myself coming back to them as truth. Yet the same sources tell of the same God who has a pursuing love for people. Surely, this is difficult to reconcile.
        What are the sources of truth that you rely on in wrestling with difficult problems such as this one?
        -Tim

        • http://jewishchristianintersections.com/ Larry

          Tim, “sources of truth” is not the phrase I would use. I try to draw upon the vast resources of Jewish tradition. It’s nearly impossible to summarize all this, but I’d venture to say that Jews approach many of these questions from a dialogical, perhaps even a dialectical point of view, where the truth regarding many matters is a “this and this” kind of thing, where two opposing points of view can both be right, and where the truth may best be expressed in terms of paradox. So, for example, I believe in a good God and a God that created a broken world, and I believe in both free will and a sovereign all-knowing God. As you noted in your quote from Job, “God gives, God takes away, God be praised.”

          Perhaps it is the case that the ultimate truth regarding God and creation IS “inscrutably complex”, as you say, and that the paradoxes do not exist in the mind of God. Or perhaps God is not as troubled by paradox as we are.

          One thing I like about Judaism is that we’re not all that troubled by theological puzzles. In this, I think that Dr. Olson is on the right track: what matters most is our relationship with God. It’s not necessary or even advisable to let our confusion get in the way of that relationship. Think of a relationship between parents and a newborn – the newborn need not understand the parents in order to have that relationship. Of course, there’s a paradox here too, because we’re not newborns, and it is in our God-given nature to ask questions.

          • Tim Reisdorf

            Hi Larry,
            Thank you for your thoughtful response. I heartily agree with you (and Roger) that relationship with God trumps perfect understanding of God. Confusion is OK – the relationship is key.
            Sometimes when I talk about sources of truth, I am referring to questions of being or action. These are black and white kinds of questions without allowance for much gray. Some question God’s existence. There are a number of sources of truth that I may go to, but ultimately the answer cannot be both “yes” and “no”.
            Other matters are less definitive: How does God execute justice in the world? With such a question, I can see a variety of quality answers – some of which may seem to contradict each other. There are many such puzzles, and I get the sense that both you and I can hold these in tension without them detracting from relationship from God.

    • Jeff

      I hear the Job verse trotted out by determinists all the time. However, in the context of the story, it is very clear that when Job pronounces, “God gives, God takes away”, he has no idea what he is talking about. In fact, Job was badly mistaken. There are three players in the drama; God, Satan and Job. Divine Determinists see Satan as just God’s “sock puppet”.

      • rogereolson

        Job is a real problem in that many (perhaps most) readers confuse Job’s statements with God’s revelation of his own thoughts.

        • Tim Reisdorf

          Roger,
          Please take the opportunity in some forthcoming post to tell us your take on the Book of Job. It is a book that generates much interest and discussion – and you obviously have some thoughts on it.
          Tim

          • rogereolson

            I see it as making one point–that disaster is not always due to some sin in the victim’s life (or victims’ lives) and that we should refrain from making such judgments.

          • Tim Reisdorf

            Job 1:1 says that Job was blameless (ie. not at fault for whatever trouble might happen). The narrator said it – and he is one to be trusted (as opposed to some of the other actors in the story). While I do not dismiss your point(s) for they are correct, I do think you have missed a good deal of the book. I would refer you to the WBC volumes on Job by Clives – or my favorite, a Handbook on the Book of Job by Reyburn from UBS.

          • rogereolson

            I’ll keep those recommendations in mind, but I don’t lose sleep over Job.

      • Tim Reisdorf

        Jeff, I’m disappointed to hear that Biblical references limit the credibility of an argument for you. As for your understanding of Job, “God gives, God takes away” is the very attitude that helps him pass the tests in the first 2 chapters of the book. Do you honestly believe that this is not the same conclusion that Job (rightly) has at the end of the book? Please contrast the two if you see it differently.
        There are are 2 primary players in the drama, Job and God. The satan is a bit-player (a foil) as was Job’s wife in the story. This satan was never mentioned after chapter 2, neither by Job, the friends, nor God. If the lesson of the Book of Job is what Job learned in his encounter with God, then Job was no wiser about the role of this accuser. Thus, this accuser had little to do with the point of the book.
        But make no mistake, I am no Divine Determinist (and, frankly, I feel sullied by your insinuation). I’m much closer to an Open Theist than any determinist. My point in the comment above was that God does things that hurt/kill people as the Biblical record describes it.

        • rogereolson

          Again (I’ve said this many times before) I don’t see Job as making the point that God hurts/kills people. God permitted the Satan figure (whoever or whatever that is meant to be) to attack Job; God didn’t initiate it or cause it.

          • Tim Reisdorf

            You are correct, that that is not the point of Job. Yet it is in the story plain as day. The severe testing of Job would not have happened without the active collaboration of God with the satan. The narrator disagrees with you about who is ultimately responsible for the harm to Job in 42:11. Would you let your theological systems muzzle him? Or would you have “progressive revelation” make his point of view irrelevant? Your argument is not with me, it is with the text.

            Jesus once said “Blessed is anyone who is not scandalized by me” in response to John’s (the Baptist’s) doubting questions to Jesus (Mt 11). In a similar way, I hope that your theology is not scandalized by the text.

          • rogereolson

            I think I’ve made clear here that there are portions of the OT I cannot make sense of and have given up trying. I see them as Hebrew literature. God chose to include them in our canon. Jesus sometimes contradicted them. There is much wisdom in the OT but also much that is dark and impenetrable.

        • Jeff

          Greg Boyd says it well here:

          http://reknew.org/2008/01/job-121/

          It can sometimes be difficult to separate, in the Bible, what God authoritatively pronounces and what the writers and characters say out of their own perspective and experience, non authoritatively. Erring on the side of caution is my preference.

          • Tim Reisdorf

            Hi Jeff,
            Did Job pass the tests? He certainly passed the first test – otherwise the satan would not have bothered with the second one. With what attitude did he pass this test? He passed the first test with the attitude described in the quotation being discussed. He was commended for this – God bragged about Job’s response to the satan! Obviously, God is pleased with Job’s attitude. The story is plain, the difficulty is whether you want to believe it or not. It seems to me that you have a theology that you are trying to fit this story into, and rather than believing the plain reading of the story, you prefer your theology and find reasons to doubt the story. (I read the Boyd article and would like to respond to it…but not here.)
            I would ask a question of you, Jeff. If Job’s response was insufficient, though commended by God, what might be a response that would improve on Job (given Job’s limitations)?
            -Tim

          • Jeff

            Tim,
            Perhaps Job’s reply was “sufficient”, whatever that means. My point was that it was factually incorrect. God was not the source, “taking away”, of Job’s troubles. Perhaps a simple, “I’ll trust the Lord regardless of the circumstances that I cannot explain”, would have been better. The book is full of incorrect statements by Job, his wife and his friends.

          • Tim Reisdorf

            Hi Jeff,
            No one will read this comment as it is coming to the discussion much too late, but I’d like to try writing it out anyway.
            It struck me last night as I was reading Job 1-2 that the nature of the challenges to Job mandate that God be the source of the “take away”. The satan presents the experiment in this pattern: A, B, not A, not B.
            A: God helps Job.
            B: Job blesses God.
            not A: God harms Job.
            not B: Job curses God.
            The premise of the challenge is that Job is only faithful to God because God is giving success to Job. The satan claims that if God were to injure Job, then Job’s faithfulness would stop and Job would turn on God. The challenge falls apart and is never actually conducted if God doesn’t do the “not A” (if we claim that the satan is responsible). Why on earth would Job turn against God if the harm actually came from the satan? The whole passage becomes illogical. God agreed to the satan’s terms to harm Job and instructed the satan to carry out the harm.
            I understand that you believe, Jeff, that God was not the source of Job’s harm – but you have no evidence other than your assertion. You have provided no internal logic, no external logic, no verse, passage, or chapter in Job that backs up your assertion. You have cited only Greg Boyd – who also only provides assertions.
            Job is a timeless story precisely because God is on trial – because God “takes away”. If it were merely the satan on trial, I doubt that it would sell more than a dozen copies a year.
            I know you don’t lose sleep over this, Roger; I appreciate you giving me patience to keep working this out on my own. I do lose sleep over this as it (the message of the book of Job) means very much to me.

      • Tim Reisdorf

        Jeff, I understand what you mean when you talk of Satan as God’s sock puppet. I toyed with that idea for many years as it has a strong basis of support in the OT. It does not hold up to the light of the NT – which views Satan from a very different perspective. Honestly, I’ve been unable to blend the two into a systematic whole, so I have and OT view of Satan and a NT view of Satan. Because I see the Bible as God’s Word for us, I am unwilling to jettison one view to bring a resolution.

        • rogereolson

          Tim, Didn’t I teach you anything about progressive revelation? :)

          • Tim Reisdorf

            I guess you probably did. Maybe I should have taken another year just to get the basics right.
            But I can’t help but wondering how the NT can redefine things that the OT already has in definition. The NT can’t say “here’s what Hosea really meant when ‘Out of Egypt I called my Son’”, it can only apply a pesher-type interpretation, or typology interpretation back on Hosea. We would be in error to claim that Hosea was intentionally and originally pointing to Christ.
            As to the (OT) satan, the term is used loosely, and seldom as a proper noun. In fact, the angel of the Lord who confronted Balaam is described using the word satan. There are human kings that opposed other human kings, and the description involves the word satan. Yet, when we do have an evil (or deviously mischievous) heavenly being in the story, we find that they are largely working in collaboration with God! (btw, I reject the Is14 and Ez28 passages as references to the devil; I understand I may well be in the minority on that. I see those as isogesis interpretations that are not correct.) This OT understanding is not covered over well by just a new coat of paint – the color beneath does not blend well with the top color.

          • rogereolson

            Agreed. But which color is most important for our Christian understanding of God?

          • Tim Reisdorf

            I also learned about the “Canon within the canon” from you years ago. I didn’t like it well then and I reject it now. Proper understanding of the NT is based upon proper understanding of the OT.
            Yet, I must confess that when my daughter asked me why Nahum was in the Bible, I didn’t have a good answer. I’ve got some work to do.
            Thank you for the interesting discussion, Roger.

  • http://www.logosencounter.com Matthew

    Thanks for this survey. I especially appreciate the conclusion. For some time now, and in connection with divinity studies, I have felt compelled to the position that mystery is often the best and wisest answer to many theological questions. I happen to prefer the problems and solutions of Arminian mysteries to those of Calvinist mysteries. Trouble seems to arise when we fail to acknowledge that all positions terminate in mystery at some point. I love exploring the mystery, probing forth theologically and philosophically, but I am sure I will never find its terminus in any doctrinal school. The search of Anselm’s fides quaerens intellectum (“faith seeking understanding”) has no end, and I am thankful. Instead, I find Christ with me through every step, question, and adventure. And that is best by far.

    P.S. You offer what you think “many” might say. Is that what you say?

    • rogereolson

      My earlier post on “relational sovereignty” points to what I would say.

  • John

    This is slightly off-topic, but fits the many of the discussions on your blog. It’s a good brief look at predestination from a Wesleyan view: http://howardsnyder.seedbed.com/2013/04/18/predestination-second-love-first/

    • rogereolson

      Thanks, John. I love Howard Snyder’s approach to these issues.

  • Ben

    Amen!

  • David Hess

    If ONLY more Augustinians/Calvinists would “think through” the logical implications of their doctrine. Thanks for your part in provoking some of that thinking.

  • Steve Rogers

    Of the “realist” view of God’s goodness you said, “God didn’t just know it was going to happen and didn’t just permit it; God planned it and wanted it to happen (even if he regretted its necessity) and directly or indirectly caused it.” This is where I get hung up. It makes absolutely no sense to me that, if only good can be done by God and all works together for good, why would God ever feel regret for anything he has done? The account of the flood is the most dramatic example where God is said to have regret and pain over having created humankind in the first place. If God is the cause of all, and then feels pain and regret over what he has caused, then is that not a self-inflicted pain? Must we believe that God can’t bring about good without tragedy and suffering including his own? If he can’t then it would seem there is some limit to his sovereignty. If he can but doesn’t I cannot avoid thinking there is some limit to his goodness. But I must say it seems silly to believe in a God who is not good and assume I simply lack the wherewithal to understand how it all fits together.

    • rogereolson

      Traditional Christian theism (“classical theism”) interprets God’s “regretting” (in Scripture) as anthropomorphism. I’m not embracing that view; I’m just telling you how most Christian theologians deal with those passages that seem to contradict their either explicit or implicit divine determinism (or just belief in God’s impassibility).

  • robert

    Shaking my head at all the convoluted intellectual machinations one might go through to come up with a reasonable explanation why a god is supposedly 99.8% good and all powerful and all knowing and perfect Truth……..in other words every thing we would like to be………..allows…….allows……
    allows???

    Folks its taken us 2500 yrs to begin to question the assumption that god is all powerful….wonder how long it will take before we start to question the premise that Jesus was divine or the assumption that humanity is fallen????

    • rogereolson

      Nobody here has questioned that God is all powerful. Where are you getting that?

  • William

    Jesus said that He came so that we might have life more abundantly. God simply allows life to happen. Amen!

    • rogereolson

      Not sure what you are saying.

  • http://www.davidsnet.ws/Biblical Peter Davids

    What I like about the post is that you, Roger, put things so clearly. I love that clarity. Of course, if I were a Calvinist I might not like it that well. But, as Ken Blue pointed out in Authority to Heal a couple of decades ago, meticulous providence does not work well pastorally. In fact, it often does not work at all. God becomes, in C. S. Lewis’ memorable words, “the great vivisectionist.” Furthermore, since I am a textually oriented scholar, I cannot reconcile meticulous providence with what I read in the text, where God response and interacts constantly with human choices.

    • rogereolson

      Thank you.

  • K Gray

    I don’t think people with traditional beliefs in God’s sovereignty ALSO necessarily believe that they must ‘celebrate’ or be grateful for things they suffer, tragedies. They may acknowledge, accept, mourn or grieve many things, just as Jesus did:
    – evil in someone, evil acts, betrayal (Jesus knew Satan entered Judas)
    - death (Jesus wept and mourned over Lazarus)
    - people’s foolish choices (Jesus mourning over Jerusalem)
    - terrible and apparently inexplicable injustice (Jesus’ crucifixion, His tears, His cries to God; John’s beheading)
    - a disaster which appears to fall on good and evil alike (the tower falling, as Jesus said)
    - warnings, signs, and “last chances” ( much of Revelation and OT prophecy)
    - persecution (Jesus said we will be hated)

    Of these, perhaps only persecution is a circumstances in which we are told to rejoice.

    • rogereolson

      Ah, but pointing to Jesus mourning doesn’t solve anything. I can simply use those instances as reasons why we should NOT believe those events (over which Jesus mourned) as designed, ordained and governed by God.

  • Nishkalank

    Those who believe in God knows that the abuse of freedom by individuals and others is bthe main cause of most of the ills. Also believe that God is not like a magician. He will interfere with the nature which he created, only in rarest of things. Suffering is part of life according to Christ who asked us to carry one’s cross daily So let us not find fault with God for all ills and sufferings.

  • Nishkalank

    Those who believe in God knows that the abuse of freedom by individuals and others is bthe main cause of most of the ills. Also believe that God is not like a magician. He will interfere with the nature which he created, only in rarest of things. Suffering is part of life according to Christ who asked us to carry one’s cross daily So let us not find fault with God for all ills and sufferings.

    Your statement ” dulicate comment detected is wrong. Please investigate why such comments appear when individuals post their comments

    • rogereolson

      It happens to me all the time. If I attempt to post a message to my blog or post someone else’s comment to my blog and it doesn’t work and I try again I get that message. Then I have to change a byte to get the second attempt to go through. It’s annoying but not worth investigating why.

  • Justin

    Dr. Olson,
    I genuinely would like to understand the orthodox Arminian position, and am not trying to start an argument. I understand that Arminianism is founded not on human freedom but on the goodness of God–you want to protect the character of God (an admirable goal) by distancing him from evil. Yet as God reveals himself (the Bible), it doesn’t seem as though God wants us to distance him from evil. We have verses like Amos 3:6 that say, “Does disaster come to a city, unless the LORD has done it?” and countless other passages like Isaiah and Habakkuk in which God says HE is raising up armies to come in and commit unspeakable evils against Israel.
    I’m really looking to understand the Arminian position on these passages and hope you can help. Also, what would be the best place to go for a scholarly take on these passages?

    • rogereolson

      You must be new here. We’ve discussed those passages much in the past. First, one should not base a whole doctrine of God on one verse that can have various interpretations (given ambiguity in the Hebrew). Second, one should develop a doctrine of God based on the whole of Scripture with Jesus Christ as the key to interpretation (especially the character of God). Read Greg Boyd, Is God to Blame? Although Greg is an open theist, that particular book expresses an (not “the”) Arminian interpretation of God in relation to evil and calamity.

  • William Huget

    I concur that free will, relational theism views like Arminianism and Open Theism (www.opentheism.info) offer a more biblical, coherent theodicy/model of providence than Calvinism. Let’s leave determinism/fatalism to Islam, not Christianity.

  • jamie orr

    As we see in the story of Joseph, where his brothers guided by God effectively, their aim was to banish him and to render almost certain, that Joseph had no chance of fulfilling his dreams that he had told them about. Then we find out when they are all reunited, that Joseph tells them not to worry as it was not really them but God himself that brought about his trials and hardship.In the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, God sends judgement on them for their lack of hospitality and there perversion.

    Modern day catastrophies , such as the Indonesian tsunami and the Japanese Earthquake, which as you say left many seemingly innocent and poor people taken away for what seems to be just bad luck. When I first seen these tragedies on the news, my first reaction was ( oh! God is angry with some people for something they have done) but I came to understand that God has all the time in the world to judge sins and does not even need to do it to people in this world, for everything that is covered shall be uncovered.

    As you said with Bourbon street being left untouched in New Orleans, does that mean that the destruction was totally a natural occurrence or was God releasing his anger on other sinful things which we may not yet understand. What I find hard is how can we decipher an act of God from a natural occurrence, yes we can be discerning and weigh up the circumstances but we still do not know for sure, that was it from God or was it natural.

    • rogereolson

      Like I said, without a clear revelation from God we cannot know whether or why God is purposefully involved in a disaster. Lacking any such revelation (which is usually the case) it is better for us to keep our mouths shut than try to announce that God was judging (or whatever).

  • gingoro

    Roger you contrast your view of sovereignty with “God is the ultimate cause of whatever happens”. To me this implies that you must think that there is space-time or persons around who were not created by God and act independently of him and his “laws”. If God had not created space-time and also had not created the dark ones originally as angles of light then Texas would never have existed, let alone this recent disaster. In one of your earlier posts you spoke negatively of Sproul’s observation that if there is one particle in the universe not subject to God’s laws then God is not God. Now, to say the least, I am not a big fan of Sproul’s teaching but I would have to agree with him on this observation. In other words if there is a particle not subject to the regularities (ie the forces, fields etc that physics studies) that God has created then God is not God. I’m quite happy to accept processes that are random in that they obey a number of statistical properties. Of course God himself can intervene and modify the behavior of anything in the universe he created and so can the dark ones to a controlled limited extent.

    Rather than what you critiqued above I affirm that:
    “To me, the West fertilizer plant explosion was from God in the sense that space-time was created by God and governed by God. God being outside of space-time see’s all and knew it was going to happen and permitted it; God did not explicitly plan it and regretted that happened.”

    As I see it just as Christ was self limited so God’s actions in the universe are self limited. “By his own choice he is not, in the inimitable words of Baptist theologian E. Frank Tupper, a “do anything, anytime, anywhere kind of God.” I first heard this view presented by George Murphy a Lutheran scientist and minister but I find it fits with how I read scripture.

    As I have said before I do not accept Meticulous Providence except possibly in the same sense that Luther did.
    DaveW

    • rogereolson

      I’m quite sure that’s not what Sproul means by “If there is one maverick molecule in the universe then God is not God.” His writing makes clear that he believes in what I am calling divine determinism–that God “designs, ordains, and governs” (that is, is the ultimate cause of) everything without exception.

    • Tim Reisdorf

      Hi gingoro,
      I have a question about your time-space idea. What does it mean for God to be outside time? I cannot wrap my mind around such a concept. I am used to mathematical concepts involving time and motion and such – if time is removed from the thinking, everything happens in an eternal and frozen moment. I am averse to viewing God in this way, but maybe my thinking is all wrong on this. How do you envision God being outside time?
      In a similar way, I would ask about space. What does it mean for God to be outside space? Everything I am used to has some sort of location (or many locations if its bigger than a mere point), so this idea goes beyond any experience that I have. Is it a matter of faith that I would need to just believe? or is there a way to believe by being convinced through understanding?
      Tim

  • chris

    Had a good laugh over your God’s aim quip!

  • TWM

    I’m neither a theologian nor a scholar. With that in mind, could someone explain why God doesn’t prevent evil? I believe that he is not the author of it, but surely an omnipotent God could stop it – yet, he doesn’t.

    The question has particular meaning to me since I’m unemployed, I have two parents with Alzheimer’s, I have a wife with severe depression and a host of other troubles that seem to get worse despite prayer and petition.

    If my best friend was getting beat up, I’d try to stop it. Well, I’m getting the crap kicked out of me…

    • rogereolson

      Read Is God to Blame? by Greg Boyd.

  • Scott C

    Why didn’t God provide some kind of warning before the explosion happened? I wonder if those grieving the loss of loved ones would have preferred God’s comfort after the fact or a divine warning beforehand to avoid the disastrous results in the first place. Does it help them in the grieving process to know that God knew this would happen but did nothing to warn anyone or stop it from happening? Does this knowledge enhance the comfort His gives in the aftermath?

    • rogereolson

      Imagine a world exactly like ours except that God gives clear warnings to everyone who might be affected by evil or calamity. Then read C. S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain. Also, stop thinking of God’s foreknowledge as providentially advantageous–as if foreknowing something is going to happen makes it possible for God to change what is going to happen.

      • Scott C

        Are you saying God is powerless to change what is going to happen or that he refuses to use his power to change what is going to happen?

        • rogereolson

          The biblical narrative forbids any claim that God is powerless; it presupposes that God restrains his power. He is sovereign over his sovereignty and power. Read the comment by “Robert” (responding to “Larry”) immediately preceding this.

          • Scott C

            So IOW God refuses to use his power to change what is going to happen since he is not powerless to do so if he wanted. I don’t see how that exonerates God from perpetrating natural or human evil. To have the power to prevent evil from happening but not doing so simply to preserve a non-whimsical world does not seem to get God off the hook for evil.

          • rogereolson

            Well, we see things differently. What else is there to say? We’ve discussed this here many times. I’m not sure you understand what is meant by a “non-whimsical world.” It’s a world where human actions have somewhat predictable consequences. Where, for example, gun don’t turn to putty every time someone aims one at an innocent person. It’s a world where moral actions, including incompetent ones, have consequences.

      • Tim Reisdorf

        Also, stop thinking of God’s foreknowledge as providentially advantageous–as if foreknowing something is going to happen makes it possible for God to change what is going to happen.

        This statement really illustrates the logical trouble with foreknowledge. If God foreknows that something will happen, then he CANNOT change it. If he did change it, then His foreknowledge was faulty concerning the event. (The Ninivite question in the book of Jonah comes to mind.) If God is outside time, then all of “time-bound stuff” is already written as if it were completed history. It begs an earlier question you raised many moons ago about whether God may change the past.

        • rogereolson

          Indeed God’s foreknowledge is a mystery. But I think most people who believe in what philosophers and theologians call “simple foreknowledge” (probably the majority of Christians) think it gives God providential advantage. A simple, logical look at it immediately shows that it doesn’t. Some time ago one of my frequent blog commenters suggested that God’s knowledge of the future simply “corresponds with” what is going to happen. I like that language even though it doesn’t dispel mystery. It avoids some of the problems other language creates (about God’s foreknowledge).

          • Robert

            Hello Tim and Roger,

            I want to address a couple of comments by Tim and Roger.

            First, Tim wrote:

            “This statement really illustrates the logical trouble with foreknowledge. If God foreknows that something will happen, then he CANNOT change it. If he did change it, then His foreknowledge was faulty concerning the event.”

            I don’t see the supposed problem here. God’s foreknowledge always concerns what will in fact take place. That is why when prophecies are given in the Bible the person does not say that: “X may or may not happen . . .” Instead they always say and intend that “X will happen . . .” In addition to this it is the case that something will in fact take place, and whatever that something is, is precisely what God foreknows will take place. Talking about whether or not God will foreknow something and then “change it” makes no sense as foreknown events are what will in fact take place and include whatever God will do in connection with that event. In other words, whatever God foreknows is also going to include whatever intervention God makes in that specific situation or even His abstaining from doing something in that specific situation.

            I also don’t understand the talk by some that foreknowledge is not advantageous: as if this is an attack on God having foreknowledge. Foreknowledge simply concerns the fact that God knows what will in fact take place in the future. God having foreknowledge of future events means that his beliefs concerning the future **correspond to what will in fact take place**.

            I believe that some when talking about the non-advantageous use of foreknowledge are forgetting middle knowledge. While not a Molinist, based on some clear Bible passages where God talks about what would have happened had other choices been made, I do see God using His “middle knowledge” (i.e. what people **would** do in any set of circumstances) to His advantage. So take the incarnation for example. God knew what people **would** do if Jesus came in the flesh and did and said certain things. Having this knowledge would be beneficial and advantageous in planning the incarnation which makes our redemption from sin possible. So while it is true that foreknowledge may not be “advantageous” when it comes to planning, having middle knowledge, knowing what people would do in any set of circumstances would be advantageous to planning.

            Roger responding to Tim wrote:

            “Indeed God’s foreknowledge is a mystery. But I think most people who believe in what philosophers and theologians call “simple foreknowledge” (probably the majority of Christians) think it gives God providential advantage.”

            I believe this is true, whether they are conscious of it or not, most Christians, both today and throughout church history have held to “simple foreknowledge” (i.e. that God has exhaustive knowledge of what will in fact take place in the future).

            Roger went on to say:

            “Some time ago one of my frequent blog commenters suggested that God’s knowledge of the future simply “corresponds with” what is going to happen. I like that language even though it doesn’t dispel mystery. It avoids some of the problems other language creates (about God’s foreknowledge).”

            That commentator was me. And I remind everyone again of the distinction that I was making that is very helpful concerning the issue of foreknowledge. We have to distinguish between: (1) something having a causal relation to something else and (2) something having a logical relation to something else. God’s foreknowledge does not cause future events to take place: nor do future events cause God’s foreknowledge. Rather, God’s beliefs concerning the future correspond to what will in fact take place. So God’s beliefs about the future have a **logical relation** to these future events **not** a causal relation.

            Two illustrations of this. First, years ago when O. J. Simpson was evading police with his friend Al Cowlings at the wheel of the infamous white Bronco. They were travelling down the freeways of Los Angeles and millions of people saw this as it was happening on T.V. I was one of those millions of people and I had true beliefs that O. J. and his friend were going down the freeways of Los Angeles. My beliefs had a logical relation to those events, they corresponded correctly with what in fact was happening. My beliefs did not cause the Bronco to go down that freeway (Al Cowlings’ foot on the pedal as well as the mechanics of the car and the laws of physics **caused** that Bronco to go down those freeways). Further, the causes that brought about the Bronco going down the freeways did not cause my knowledge of the event. Instead my knowledge of the event, my beliefs corresponded to the events that were occurring. God’s foreknowledge has a similar relation to future events: His foreknowledge does not cause the future events nor do the future events cause God’s knowledge. Instead God’s foreknowledge corresponds to what will in fact take place. God’s foreknowledge then has a logical relation to these future events not a causal relation.

            Take the simple mathematical truth that 2 + 2 = 4. If my knowledge corresponds to this reality, then my knowledge does not cause 2 + 2 to be 4. Nor does the truth of 2 + 2 equaling 4 cause my knowledge that 2 + 2 = 4. Rather my knowledge is correct as it corresponds with the reality that 2 + 2 equals 4. Again my knowledge of this truth does not cause it to be true; it is not a causal relation. It is a logical relation.

            In my opinion a lot of mistakes concerning God’s foreknowledge arise because people are either unaware or of or do not properly take into account the logical/causal relation distinction.

            I cannot tell you how many Calvinists have said to me or in my hearing that if we freely choose to do something in the future. Then we could also freely choose not to do that something in the future and so invalidate God’s foreknowledge. But this is impossible as God’s foreknowledge ****concerns what will in fact take place****. So if someone freely chooses to do X in the future, then God foreknows they will freely choose to do X. If instead when that time comes they freely choose not to do X, say they do Y instead. Then God foreknows they will choose not to do X but will choose to do Y. As God’s foreknowledge corresponds to what will in fact take place, whatever we will in fact choose to do (or choose not to do) is what God foreknows. God’s foreknowledge has a logical relation to what will happen, not a causal relation. So our future freely chosen actions do not cause God to know what He knows about the future (nor does what God knows about the future cause that future event to take place).

            Understanding that God’s foreknowledge has a logical relation to our future freely made choices **not a causal relation**, is extremely helpful in understanding how free will as ordinarily understood is fully compatible with God having exhaustive foreknowledge of all future events (including our freely made choices in the future). Many people mistakenly fear that God’s foreknowledge causes our future actions or that our future actions could somehow invalidate what God knows we will in fact choose to do. Much confusion and error could be avoided if we keep this logical versus causal relation distinction in mind.

            Robert

          • rogereolson

            Very well stated. Thank you.

  • Paul

    Hi Roger,

    You write of Sproul’s view:

    “[Sproul's] writing makes clear that he believes in what I am calling divine determinism–that God “designs, ordains, and governs” (***that is, is the ultimate cause of***) everything without exception.

    In your book Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, you write of Arminius’ view that:

    “***God is the first cause of whatever happens***; even a sinful act cannot occur without God as its first cause…” (Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, p.122)

    Are you suggesting Arminius was a proto-Sproulian? Or, is it just that Arminius made God a moral monster quite independent of Sproul’s theological chicanery?

    • rogereolson

      Did you really read what I wrote about Arminius’ idea of God as “first cause?” I can’t tell. Go back and re-read it. God as “first cause” is far from the claim that God controls everything. Every true Christian will confess God as “first cause” in the sense of “maker of heaven and earth.”

  • K Gray

    When you describe the view that God “designs, ordains, and governs” everything, is that a quote from someone? or is it a description or paraphrase? You probably have answered that before and I missed it; sorry!

    • rogereolson

      I’m sure he’s not the only one who uses the phrase, but I have read it in John Piper’s writings.

  • David Ray

    I don’t know the spiritual language for these positions but I look at this issue as follows:

    1. God loves us and wants a relationship with us. In order for us to love him we have to have the ability to reject him. Sin was not God’s idea it was my idea…In Genesis and in Revelation I see the beginning of things and the end of things as God intended… without sin…in the middle we (I) screwed it up with my sin…but God’s offer of Jesus makes a bridge to solve the problem if I choose him..
    2. My sin resulted in danger within nature as well as men…
    3. If God “corrects or fixes” the problem today we’d all be gone in an instant either to be with him or not with him, or turned into robots who cannot choose love….In this life we are in a grace period. We sometimes suffer. But in a sense our suffering allows more time for people to consider God’s offer of Jesus….but I don’t mean to sound like it’s easy or I always like it…. I’ll gladly suffer a sore throat to see another decide for Jesus, but I’m not at all glad to see Jimmy die, and yet my head knows that some seeds must have been planted and his being gone is is perhaps being used to bring others along. I hope this hope is confirmed when I get there..then anything here will have been worth it…to be there…

    2. I like what C.S. Lewis said, maybe it was about nature or God or both I can’t remember, something like”God (nature)? of course he’s dangerous but good”….

  • Jack Hanley

    Before the fall of man into sin, there was no sickness, pain, suffering, or disaster. After the fall, it is said according to the bible that, God placed curses upon mankind. We all suffer from the curses, some seem to suffer more than others, however we all are suffering the ultimate curse which is death. Therefore it does not matter how much one seems to suffer in this life as opposed to another, rather the fact is, we are all suffering the ultimate curse of death, we begin to die the moment we are born. We as the human race are responsible for the consequences we face, in the curses placed upon us, because of our sin. However the bible seems to be clear in stating that it was God, who placed the curses upon us. If this is all true then, it would seem that God is the cause of our suffering! We are responsible, but God is the cause of the curse.

    Let’s look at it like this. If I commit a crime against the government, I am responsible to face the the consequences, however I am not the cause of the consequences, rather the government is the cause. In the same way, I am responsible to face the consequences of sin, however I am not the cause of the consequences. I am the cause of sin, God is the cause of the consequences.

    Now I understand there will be some who will make the argument, that this is all too unfair. In other words there are some who seem to deserve to suffer more than others, also there are those that are suffering tremendously more than others, who do not seem to deserve it. This I believe, is ignoring the fact that, we are all suffering the ultimate curse which is death, nobody will escape dying. I would also ask this question. Would the unfairness of this all, not also be a consequence of our sin?

    My point here then is this. When we see, what we believe to be innocent people suffering in disasters such as, the Boston Marathon, or the plant explosion in Texas, we should see this as the consequence of our sin as a whole race, not as the sins of particular individuals. We should then ask ourselves, if there are really any of us that are innocent. Our next question should not be. Why did this happen to these particular people, but rather, why has it not happen to me?

    Who is responsible to face the curses, such as the Boston Marathon, and the plant explosion in Texas? We are as a race. Who is the cause of these curses? You tell me.

    • rogereolson

      Well, you already said what you think. If you ask me, the “cause of the curse” is not God but, as you imply throughout, us. It is the natural consequence of our racial disobedience (distancing ourselves) from God.

  • Robert

    Hello Larry,
    I am posting this here as there is no more room above:
    “Robert, you make excellent points, many of which I agree with, and not all of which I have time to respond to.”
    I understood I threw a lot of things out at once. Partly that was intentional as again I do not believe the proper approach to the so-called problem of evil is a **single** solution. Instead there are principles that are all true and have varying applications. For example the reality of free will explains some evils, primarily those committed by men and angels.

    “Please understand, the essence of the point I’m trying to make is that we can’t explain where God was when the plant exploded, or more precisely, that relational theology offers no better an explanation than does divine determinism.”

    I believe your statement here is conflating two very different issues. One issue is whether or not a “relational theology” is superior to “divine determinism”. Here the answer is Yes because if divine determinism is true the problems are much worse than if “relational theology” is true. This is one (but not the only) reason why most people when exposed to claims of divine determinism quickly and easily reject it.

    The other issue that you are mixing up with the question of which is a better explanation is the issue of God’s relation to those suffering.

    “I appreciate your effort to explain the presence of evil and your rejection of a “whimsical world”.”

    And again rejection of a whimsical world is just one of the principles that I maintain are simultaneously true. I brought that up to deal with the misguided thinking that God must prevent all evil from even occurring.

    “I appreciate that you can’t have free will operating in a perfect world.”

    Actually that was not my point, as I believe that you **can** have free will operating in a perfect world, that is the world to come which will be both perfect and include free will (it was also the world that Adam and Eve experienced before they fell into sin). I am speaking of **this** present world. And in this world the existence of free will and its abuse does partly explain the existence of evil here.

    “I recognize that suffering serves as part of the background for our participation in the human drama and for the fulfilling of the divine purpose.”

    Do you really? That is one of the principles as well. I really did not get into that. But a common and false assumption among many is that God has only one purpose for creating the world and specifically creating the world that exists. But he has multiple purposes operating simultaneously, with one of them being that he wants human persons to trust him no matter what circumstances they face. This builds character and also seems very important to God. Some have called this a “soul-building theodicy”. And this is one of the principles operating but not all of them.

    “Beyond this I refuse to go. I reject the notion that this is the best of all possible worlds, and I pray in the Jewish tradition that the messianic age come quickly and in our time.”

    I don’t believe in this being the “best of all possible worlds” either. What you refer to as the “Messianic age” Christians believe to be a time that is still to come when Jesus returns a second time. We also believe in a New heaven and earth that replace this present world. That future world will have no sin, no suffering, no death. It is sometimes referred to as the Kingdom of God and Jesus in his parables made it clear that He is inviting all to be there.

    “I reject the notion that the world requires suffering, evil, injustice, natural disasters, disease, poverty and misfortune in the amounts we experience in order to give free will sufficient room to operate.”

    I hope you don’t think that I believe that it is as if we have a measuring instrument that consists of two scales. On one scale is “suffering, evil, injustice, natural disasters, disease, poverty, and misfortune. On the other scale is free will. So it is as if God has to choose which one, he picks free will so we have to have the other things. In the future perfect world we will have free will but sin, suffering, evil injustice, etc. will not be present so these things are not ****necessary for free will to exist***.

    I think you are confounding two different claims here. One claim is that in order for free will to exist, suffering and evil **must** exist. The other claim is that if genuine free will exists then some suffering and evil may be a consequence of free will. Those are two very different claims and need to be carefully distinguished.

    “I particularly reject the idea that the world requires suffering to be distributed among us in such unequal and apparently unjust ways, so that people like me essentially skate through life (relatively speaking) while others suffer horribly or are wiped off the planet without ever having had the opportunity to exercise free will.”

    I don’t know what you mean here. You claim that some never have the opportunity to exercise free will. What does that mean? It seems to me that everyone experiences free will throughout their lives. One of the ways we see a person’s character is how they freely choose to respond to things that happen in their lives.

    “I further reject the idea that natural disasters are the inherent companions of natural wonders. Even if earthquakes are necessary to make life possible, I reject the idea that a life-giving planet must periodically erupt leaving 300,000 dead in Haiti.”

    This comment is contradictory. If the scientists are correct (and I believe they are) that earthquakes in this world are a necessary precondition to make life possible. Then you cannot simultaneously agree that the scientists are correct and reject the idea that earthquakes periodically happen.

    By the way another principle is that God intentionally created a world where science could be done. For science to be practiced again you’ve got to have an extremely orderly and predictable world. I always find it comical that God creates this world so rational and orderly and then some then turn around and want to use this extremely orderly and predictable world against God (i.e. it is so orderly and uniform and predictable that to some we don’t need God as the world is operating fine on its own!! :-) Or “If God exists why isn’t he doing more miracles?” ). Or God creates this gigantic universe and then they turn around and argue “what a waste if God is only concerned about us on this little speck of dust compared to the enormity of the universe”.

    “You posit that a world without evil would be whimsical, chaotic and unpredictable.”

    No, I don’t believe that you understood my point. I don’t “posit that a world without evil would be whimsical, chaotic, and unpredictable”. Before sin entered the world with Adam and Eve they experienced a world without evil and it was not whimsical, chaotic and unpredictable. And in the new heaven and new earth evil will not be present and the world will not be “whimsical, chaotic, and unpredictable”. My point was that if God were to ***always*** go around preventing evil from occurring the result would be a world that would be whimsical, chaotic and unpredictable. He would also have to control our minds and thoughts to make sure nothing could possibly result in evil of any kind.

    “We have plenty of chaos and unpredictability in our present world.”

    In my opinion this is overstated. Actually I don’t see what you are claiming here. I don’t see “plenty of chaos and unpredictability in our present world”. Instead, in this world we can build a jet airplane in any part of the world and in any and every other part of the world it will fly according to and in line with the same laws of physics. In fact everywhere you go we can show these laws to be operating and operating so reliably that we can predict all sorts of things. The success of science disproves your claim that we have plenty of chaos and unpredictability in our present world.

    “I find it weird to imagine that, if God had intervened to prevent the Haitian earthquake, we would have experienced this as whimsical, chaotic and unpredictable.”

    Now you are confusing apples and oranges. One principle is that free will sometimes results in evil consequences (call that apples). Another principle is that earthquakes are necessary for the existence of life (call that oranges). In your statement here you talk about God preventing an earthquake (but preventing more properly goes to the discussion of apples). You also seem to believe here that I believe that if God prevents a single earthquake that then we would experience this as whimsical, chaotic and unpredictable (again discussing apples). I never said or implied any of this. I said if he **always** went around preventing any possible evil choices from ever occurring then we would live in a whimsical world. I was aiming at the claim that some make that unless God prevents all evil choices from occurring He must not be good. And going back to earthquakes. The reality of earthquakes does not make this a whimsical world. If the tectonic plates get sufficient pressure built up in them, they will give way and there will be movement resulting in earthquakes.

    “I find it impossible to imagine that, without the Haitian earthquake, there’d be insufficient room for free will to operate, and personal relationships would have become impossible.”

    Again you are conflating apples (free will and its consequences) and oranges (earthquakes as being necessary for the existence of life). The Haitian earthquake was not a necessity in order for “free will to operate”. Nor does it logically follow that if the Haitian earthquake had not happened then and only then would personal relationships be possible. Larry you cannot take what I say about the existence of free will and then extrapolate it to earthquakes. Free will and earthquakes involve very different principles.

    “I am purposely avoiding discussion of the world to come, as I think our religious difference would complicate this discussion.”

    Well I have not avoided it as the world to come is a crucial principle when it comes to dealing with the presence of evil now. If the world to come does not include suffering, pain, evil, then that has got to be factored into the discussion of present world evil.

    “The conclusion I draw from Dr. Olson (despite his “Amen” to you!) is that all this is inexplicable.”

    I don’t think that Roger is saying that “all this is inexplicable”. He is saying that we don’t know everything about a particular situation. Nor do we know all of the rules that God is playing by. That being true, we should not make dogmatic pronouncements about evil events as if we knew everything involved in that particular situation. But not knowing everything, and not having a God’s eye view of specific situations does not mean that we don’t know anything. Some of what we know is helpful for us. If an earthquake occurs and your beliefs are that they only occur as a result of a local god being angry with the people, that belief is not going to be very helpful for you in my opinion. On the other hand if you know that scientists are aware that earthquakes make life possible, that belief is much more helpful in my opinion.

    And that is why I say that when it comes to evil and its presence in the world rather than having some simple and ***singular*** answer, why can’t we be operating by a set of principles that we know to be true?

    “Nothing suffices to explain human suffering, particularly in the amounts we experience, and even more so in the ways this suffering is distributed across the globe.”

    That is just a dogmatic claim being made by you. Various people who have suffered have been comforted by various beliefs (including the belief in a world to come, the belief that our present suffering is not to be compared with eternity to come, the belief that when we are in the presence of God we will experience perfect joy and goodness and love, the belief that we live in a world where earthquakes make life possible, etc. etc. etc. etc. etc.).

    “Or perhaps more accurately, if such an explanation exists, it is beyond our power to discover, or beyond our ability to understand.”

    Again you speak here as if there is a SINGLE principle that explains everything. And I grant you there is no single principle that sufficiently explains all things. But there are various principles that I (and others) find to be very helpful. One of those principles is that we don’t have to understand why everything happens (or does not happen) in order to be in a loving and personal relationship with God. Another principle closely related is that God desires for us to trust him come what may.

    “But God does offer us, or at least some of us, the possibility of a God relationship.”

    I would say that he offers all of us the possibility of a God relationship. Again that is why Jesus when giving his parables spoke of a Kingdom to which all were invited. Granted some had excuses and reasons they did not want to participate, but that does not change the fact that all are invited.

    “This seems to be the essence of the divine purpose. I’m not going to reject that relationship, even though it appears that some (as a result of disease, hunger and the remainder of the depressingly long ways in which human beings can suffer) are impeded from or incapable of that relationship.”

    And if being in personal and loving relationship with God is the “essence of the divine purpose” what is going to prevent us from experiencing that? The apostle Paul wrote on this very subject to comfort people who were suffering persecution for their faith:

    “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Just as it is written, ‘For Thy sake we are being put to death all day long; We were considered as sheep to be slaughtered,’ But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us, For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:35-39)

    So He goes with us through whatever we encounter here. And He invites us to be present in that new heaven and new earth where righteousness dwells and there is no more death, no more suffering, no more pain.

    Robert

  • don sands

    I would say that he offers all of us the possibility of a God relationship. Again that is why Jesus when giving his parables spoke of a Kingdom to which all were invited. Granted some had excuses and reasons they did not want to participate, but that does not change the fact that all are invited.-Robert

    Yes, Jesus says to unbelievers: “Come to Me.” And Jesus says to believers, who have been quickened, “Abide in Me.”
    And God has mercy on whom He wills, and He hardens whom He wills. God is way too good for us to ever know, and yet we can taste His goodness through His Spirit and truth: His presence and Word.


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