Does God always get his way?

Does God always get his way? August 20, 2012

Does God Always Get His Way?

I suspect that question would surprise most Christians and atheists alike. Most atheists I read seem to operate on the assumption that Western monotheism includes God’s absolute sovereignty such that whatever happens is God’s will. Most of them fall back on some version of the problem of evil to attempt to sweep away belief in God as impossible (because no one expressly questions God’s goodness). But Christians (I’ll limit my comments here to Christians although they could apply to other monotheists) give atheists their ammunition by believing that “God is in control” (a bumper sticker I often see).

I see two versions of “God is in control” among Christians. One is theological and the other is folk religious. The difference lies in considered reflection versus unreflective assumption.

Many Christian theologians believe and teach that whatever happens, without exception, falls into the category “God’s will” in the sense that it conforms to God’s “blueprint” for history and individual lives and, even though evil and innocent suffering may grieve God, God ordains and governs them for a greater good (e.g., his glory). I call this divine determinism because it fits the ordinary definition of “determinism.” Those who teach it often deny that it is deterministic. At the very least it is meticulous providence. Not only Calvinists teach this; it is a view held in a perhaps more nuanced way by many non-Calvinists (e.g., conservative Lutherans).

My hunch (I haven’t taken a poll) is that most Christians believe some version of divine determinism often inconsistently. This is revealed when, after a tragedy, they say “God knows what he is doing” and “God is in control.” Very often, however, that is not what they say or appear to believe before the tragedy strikes. That is certainly the view I was taught growing up in the “thick” of evangelicalism. Or perhaps I should say I wasn’t so much taught it as I caught it from my elders. Many of the songs we sang in church reflected some kind of divine determinism or meticulous providence. (E.g., “Day by Day and with Each Passing Moment”)

Recently I introduced a group of students to my saying that “God is in charge but not in control.” Some were shocked and indicated they probably could not accept that even though intellectually they do not think God controls everything that happens. My conviction is that “God is in control” is a cliché that has taken on a life of its own among Christians and is inevitably conveys the impression that God plans and renders certain everything that happens without exception. That is, God always gets his way in everything.

Let’s look at ordinary language. If I say that so-and-so is “in control” of a certain situation (and not only himself or herself), most people will automatically assume I mean that the person has a plan and is manipulating events to fit that plan. They will assume the person I’m talking about always gets his or her own way in that context. That’s what “in control” means (when said of a person about his or her management of a context).

Someone might quibble about that, but I believe especially when “in control” is attributed to God, who is believed to be omnipotent, it always automatically implies meticulous providence.

That is a problem, however, in light of Scripture and history (including contemporary events in persons’ lives). Many Scriptures more than imply that God was not getting his way in certain situation. The clearest one to me is Matthew 23:37: Jesus wept over Jerusalem’s rejection. Was God getting his way there and then? The Bible is filled with examples of God not getting his way even though he was able to bring something good out of those disappointments. History also gets in the way of saying “God is in control” or “God always gets his way.” Just the other day I was told about an incident in a poverty-stricken country not far from America’s shores where a woman and her boyfriend invaded an orphanage at gunpoint, kidnapped three children they believed were theirs and took them away. When confronted by police the adults brutally butchered the children. What I want to ask people who say “God is in control” and who believe God always gets his way is: Do you believe God controlled that situation and got his way in it?

Now, many theologically minded Calvinists and other divine determinists will, when pushed against the wall and forced to answer, will say yes, even in such a horrible situation of innocent suffering God was getting his way and was totally in control. My complaint here is not with them although such an answer leaves me absolutely bewildered. I do complain about them and that answer, but not right now. Here my complaint is about the widespread, almost universal, unreflective assumption on the parts of non-Calvinists, non-divine determinists, that “God is in control.”

I theorize that this folk religious belief in God always getting his way sets especially young people up to adopt divine determinism, meticulous providence, when confronted with it. What’s wrong with that? Well, in my opinion, it can have the effect of making them immune to the real horrors of history and of sin and evil. If all that is God’s will, if in it all God is getting his way, if in it all God is “in control,” then why be fired up with indignation against it and go out to fight against it? Also, it may cause them to ignore whole chunks of Scripture and think dishonoring thoughts about God. Finally, I know from personal experience it leads some young people to think that they don’t need to resist sin in their own lives because, if they are succumbing to temptation, it must be God’s will.

One of my favorite books about all this is by South African theologian Adrio König. It’s title is Here Am I! A Believer’s Reflection on God (Eerdmans, 1982). Here is one of the best statements against meticulous providence (whether theological or folk religious) I have ever read and it is by a Reformed theologian!

Anyone who levels things out in vague generalizations by attempting to explain everything and all possible circumstances as the will of God always ends up in the             impossible situation that there are more exceptions than rules, more things that are             inexplicable and that clash with the picture of God that is given to us in his word, than     there are comforting confirmations that he is directing everything. … Anyone who tries     to use the omnipotence and providence of God to propose a meticulously prepared divine plan which is unfolding in world history (L. Boettner) will always be left with the             problem that other believers might not be able to discern the God of love in the actual course of world events. … [i]t must be emphatically stated that…the Scriptures do not       present the future as something which materializes [sic] according to a ‘plan’ but             according to the covenant. … There are distressingly many thing that happen on earth    that are not the will of God (Luke 7:30 and every other sin mentioned in the Bible), that      are against his will, and that stem from the incomprehensible and senseless sin in which we are born, in which the greater part of mankind lives, and in which Israel persisted, and against which even the ‘holiest men’…struggled all their days. … To try to interpret all     these things by means of the concept of a plan of God, creates intolerable difficulties and           gives rise to more exceptions than regularities. But the most important objection is that     the idea of a plan is against the message of the Bible since God himself becomes             incredible if that against which he has fought with power, and for which he sacrificed his     only Son, was nevertheless somehow part and parcel of his eternal counsel. (pp. 198-199)          (I apologize for the spaces; I cut and pasted this and some of the formatting went strange. I don’t have time to fix it.)

"These are all false alternatives. And I don't like being subjected to interrogation on my ..."

The Key Difference between Conservative and ..."
"True, but you do not know me well enough. I have always said to my ..."

What Happened in 2015?

Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Thanks for posting that quote and for talking about this from the perspective of folk religion – I agree with your analysis and would only add that it is the responsibility of local church leaders to help believers think in good categories about this, especially since many feel that it must be all or nothing, that there is no middle ground between “God might lose” and “God controls every mite of dust.” The middle ground seems to be much more aligned with the testimony of the sweep of Scripture; it is a good balance of “I’m not sure why this happens but I recognize that it’s not what God wants for the world” and “I’m not sure why this happens but I do believe that there is reason to hope in God because of the resurrection.”

    One of my favorite short treatments of this subject is David Bentley Hart’s “The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami?” He makes great use of negation in describing what he believes can and cannot / should not be said about God’s sovereignty and in my opinion he provides a very satisfying and at times poetic mediating position.

    • rogereolson

      I make use of Hart’s book in Against Calvinism. I agree, it’s one of my favorite brief books about divine providence and what we should not say about it.

  • Kristin

    Is not the issue here how we define “sovereign?”
    I like your phrase “God is in charge but not in control.” However I would push back a little bit suggest the distinction needs to rather be made between things being “under control” and “out of control.” One can be in control but things still go wrong. More poignantly, it is impossible for all hell to break loose while God is sovereign.

    • rogereolson

      I’m not sure about that. It seems to me that all hell has broken loose. Jesus and Paul both referred to Satan as the “god of this world” (or “prince of the air,” meaning “of this present age.” Of course, God allows it, up to a point. Why God allows this much hell on earth is beyond me, but that’s where my faith kicks in and I believe he is keeping Satan on a long leash for a reason.

      • BAH

        “Why God allows this much hell on earth is beyond me”

        That is the unfortunate mindset that many people have. God doesn’t make bad things happen, people do. God gave each one of us free will. If someone willingly chooses to do something evil, God will do nothing to stop it. If God intervened, it would be God imposing on the free will he has given us, therefore that would mean that we actually have NO free will. God can, however, make the greatest things come out of the greatest tragedies. We have the power to choose our life paths, but God wants us to choose Him.

        Read Deut. 30:11–19

  • I completely agree, Roger. Being in charge of a project and controlling it are two very different things. If God were in control, how do we account for Jesus’ prayer, “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is on heaven”? Such a prayer wouldn’t make sense in a blueprint model of divine providence.

  • David Rogers

    I’m not as bothered by the phrasing “God is in control” because I usually hear it in contexts of response to tragedy as a reassurance to themselves that God is present. I take it as God will respond to this tragedy and bring good out of it somehow. The last word is not sheer chance or the schemes of the enemy. As a pastor (with temporal distance from events of tragedy) I try to clarify the distinctions between belief in God’s meticulous planning of events and belief in God’s immersive interrelationship with creation and history, but when I hear the statement “God is in control” from people, I hear it from the context of them also having acknowledged the presence of evil wills in events. These people would never say that the evil comes from God or was planned by God.
    When driving a car, events may happen that cause the car to swerve (ice, water on the road, etc.). If I quickly tell myself “Ok, you’ve got this, you can do this, you’re in control” it is a reassurance that the situation can be handled and the means are available to correct the swerve. It is not intended as a comprehensive statement about the things that contributed to the initiation of the swerve only as a reassurance that the swerve can be handled.
    I see the phrase when used among the people I pastor as a responsive reassurance not as a comprehensive philosophical declaration. If I were to say God is in charge but not in control I sincerely believe that most would not see the difference. I get where you’re coming from but a lot of laypeople I pastor don’t think in such differentiated preciseness of language. Their actual theology is expressed in more of a collection of the whole of their statements and not in the preciseness of each individual one.
    I do appreciate your work in pointing out the implications of statements because it helps me prepare to be more concise and clear when I make theological statements to the congregation. I hope by long term osmosis that their theological statements will become more concise.

  • John Inglis

    I find that Calvinists such as TL Tiessen reframe Arminian points or move on from criticism to their own solutions without considering the strong form of the Arminian position. For example, in responding to Olson’s critique of his book, Tiessen writes( in his blog about chp. 4) that “simply lets creatures do as they wish, without his gracious restraint.”

    But that is a key aspect of the Arminian critique–where does the desire, the wish to do something, come from? Is it not from God who created them and all that they are? but Tiessen then goes on to discussion “natural language” and how our natural use of words excludes the Arminian concept of permission but includes the Calvinist. But so what? The issue is not how particular terms or expressions are used by humans that speak English, but how we are to deal with particular concepts and conceptual categories–regardless of the words we use to lable those concepts.

    Calvinists also do not recognize how different are the various languages and cultures of the world, and that there are many that would not use permission in the way that he (Tiessen) does in his assumptions. Not that I can think of a particular example at this time, but my work with various languages and how they deal with concepts of time, counting, colour, etc. has shown me how incredibly different other languages and cultures can be. Hence, I would be surprised if every language and culture approached concepts of permission in the way that we do in the western English world.

  • J.E. Edwards

    Please hear me with grace, sometimes it is difficult to restrain the passion we have. I hope I have been able to. To answer the title of this post…Yes. I do see you go to “the most extremely terrible things that can happen to humans” card a good bit though. I do wonder, do you see it the same for millions of saints who have died throughout the centuries rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer for their Saviour, and that they knew that what they had received was directly from the hand of God? Aren’t these just as innocent even though they will be with God for eternity? How is this good since we are commanded to go to a lost and dying world and told this will happen? Is God good in causing His own to suffer? Who are we to decide what is good for us? God does intend to humble us. The question is…will we be humbled?

    • rogereolson

      I find that Calvinists always want to talk about God’s providence in relation to suffering only in relation to saints and martyrs. But what about children who are kidnapped, raped and tortured? That’s where Koenig’s statement that meticulous providence requires too many exceptions comes into play. Rarely have I heard or read a Calvinist say “Yes, that child’s kidnapping, rape, torture and murder was also ordained and governed, planned and rendered certain by God.” But that is what they have to say insofar as they follow Calvin, Edwards, Boettner, Sproul and Piper and other strict Calvinists in the doctrine of God’s providential sovereignty.

      • J.E. Edwards

        The thing is, neither you nor I can answer that question of the rape, murder, torture of a child or anyone from the outside. It is one thing to be an outsider who only reads this in the paper or sees it in the news. Is it terrible? Absolutely. It is entirely different if it is my son or daughter. I will have a genuinely different perspective in both positions. Certainly, evil and Satan have their place, but it was Luther who said the Devil is God’s devil. Simply saying that in no way implies that I know what God is up to. We who are outsiders to atrocities need to consult with those who are insiders to get OUR perspective, and not the other way around. That will probably give us a better perspective in relation to suffering. Plus, you still need to answer the thought about what do we do with the perspective of saints and martyrs who rejoice in leaving this at the feet of their loving God.

        • rogereolson

          We just go around in circles, don’t we? God permits evil; he does not will it.

          • Bev Mitchell

            Roger, J.E.,
            The quote from Father Gabriel Lalement, a martyr, that I posted below gives a concrete example for your discussion.

        • John Inglis

          There is no perspective that God could have that would either make rape and murder not evil, or that would justify them.

          Suffering is not an intrinsic good, else why would Jesus come (and them come again) in order to end it?

      • Dean

        Dr. Olson, it’s funny that you say that because I just saw a youtube clip where James White admitted under intense questioning that indeed that every child rape is ordained by God, and if that weren’t the case, then we are all truly lost because every act of violence would be totally senseless. Only through the most contorted use of “Christian logic” could one conclude that Jesus Christ would cause a child to be raped, FOR ANY REASON. I just finished reading the late Christopher Hitchen’s book, God is not Great. I obviously disagree with much of the book and he certainly caricatures Christianity, but when it comes to the neo-Reformed camp, I’m not so sure he is that far off. It just seems to me that some folks are so deep in the rabbit hole that they have simply lost the ability to look at something and say, that just can’t possibly be true, the God of the Bible can’t possibly be like that.

        • rogereolson

          It seems to me this is one of the deepest differences between Calvinists and non-Calvinist Christians. Calvinists (perhaps not only they) feel every event must have meaning BEFORE and AS it happens. But that means evil has a purpose. But if God is unconditionally good, that purpose must be a good one. That makes evil good. That’s impossible to say (so it would seem) to a parents whose child was just kidnapped, tortured, raped and murdered. I remember talking with the late Lewis Smedes one time about all this. He was, of course, of the Christian Reformed denomination. And he later wrote what he told me in a publication, but right now I can’t remember where. (This was about ten years ago–not long before he died.) He told me that long ago, before our conversation, he had stood by the grave of his son and said out loud “I will never tell another parent ‘God took your child’.” Smedes moved away from meticulous providence, nudged or driven by his own tragedy of losing a son, and eventually ended up an open theist (he affirmed this to me in an e-mail not long before he died).

      • gingoro

        Roger I can’t give you a reference but somewhere Francis Schaefer said that we should NOT see such things as coming directly from the hand of God. I have a feeling it was in a letter responding to someone asking about such a situation as you describe.
        Dave W

        • rogereolson

          Few Calvinists say tragedies or evil come directly from the hand of God. They say they come indirectly from his hand. The objection is that, however, they come from him, he renders them certain because he planned and foreordained them, even if he uses secondary causes to assure they happen.

    • John Inglis

      There are differences between something being an intended good, an intrinsic, and god being brought out of something. Rejoicing in suffering is different from being glad that it happened in the first place. I don’t buy into the felix culpa notion of the fall and so don’t see anything evil has being able to have some intrinsic good or even an intended good. It’s all evil, all bad. God can twist any evil into goodness, somewhat like Satan can twist or corrupt things into evil. Out of an evil that happens, God can create a good and a space for goodness.

      “Who are we to decied what is good for us”–we are the recipients of God’s revelation, that’s who. Revelation in nature, in His word, and in Jesus Christ. From that revelation we can know that no suffering is intrinsically good; it is all intrinsically evil. It is not “good” for us, nor is it God’s intent for us. All suffering, like all death, is an evil, an evil that Christ came and destroyed (albeit in already /not yet). While we are here in the midst of this evil, serving God, He will make use of the evil that occurs and ensure that good comes out of it (martyrs’ witness, shaping of character, etc.).

  • John Inglis

    It seems to me that there is something fundamentally impotent about a God who exercises “middle knowledge” (between natural & free knowledge) in the sense of either Teissen or WL Craig. A God with middle knowledge creates a being whom He knows will act in a specific singular way in a specific context. Hence, if he creates Olson in a particular world that is identical with this one all the way up to the point where Olson is about to pen “Does God always get his way?”, then God knows with certainty that Olson will pen “Does God always get his way?” and not

    But that means that God cannot create an Olson who in that exact circumstance will pen “God does always get his way, a reflection on why I was wrong”. Indeed, if the universe were repeated a million times, or even an infinit number of times, Olson would always choose to pen “Does God always get his way?”. This must be so or God could not exercise meticulous providence.

    But then, it follows that it is beyond God’s power to create an Olson who would choose differently in that exact circumstance. That lack of power, qua lack of power, is not inherently problematic because there are things that God cannot do: tell a lie, sin, create a stone so large he cannot lift it, etc. However, when considered within the parameters of what could instantiate that lack of power, the inability to create an Olson who does not pen “Does God always get his way?” IS problematic.

    The parameters are that in a world of meticulous providence, Olson acts “freely” on the basis of his utmost “desire”. That is, he will do that which he most desires in any given circumstance–provided that there is no blockage of that desire (i.e., broken computer, power outage, etc.). The utmost desire is either a function of all that Olson is as a human being, or it is an essential part of all that he is. If that is true, then why can’t God create an Olson who has a slightly different make-up such that in the exact same circumstance that has pertained prior to his writing “Does God always get his way?” he instead writes nothing, or writes “God does always get his way, a reflection on why I was wrong.”

    It could be argued that the Olson who writes post A is different from the Olson who writes Post B or who does not write at all, but the difference between the two Oslons vis a vis this choice (or any potential choice) is quite possibly so small as to appear to be an otherwise insignificant difference. Is Olson A really such a completely different Olson from Olson B that we could not properly say that they are the same person? Is that all it takes to individuate people?

    When we think of the Calvinist hypothesis of God putting Olson into a specific situation such that Olson “freely” does only particular action or choice, we think of a personal Olson with particular thoughts, desires, soul, and body. That is, an Olson who exists apart from particular circumstances in a particular world. We think of an Olson who could be placed in any of a number of imaginable hypothetical “possible worlds”.

    We think that there is something about Olson that is essentially him–at the very least a unique soul. We think of Olson has having essential qualities: moral choice, wit, emotions. We don’t think of acting or choosing in only one way in a particular circumstance as being an essential of Olson.

    We think that Olson would still be the same person or entity even if he was a person who less wit than he does in our actual world, or if his emotional outlook was slightly different because of different life experiences.

    If this is so, why couldn’t God create an Olson who does not choose to write “Does God always get his way?”. An Olson to whom God gives slightly different life experiences such that he does not have a desire to write “Does God always get his way?”, or an Olson who is slightly different in ways that are not essential to his essential Olsonness and who thus does not choose to write “Does God always get his way?.”

    On the other hand, in a libertarian world, there is no Olson that God cannot create, or, rather, the Olson that God does create has capacity to either write this post or not write the post. In a sense, because he is an Olson that contains each choice there is no Olson that can only write this post (which God can create) and an Olson who does not write this post (and thus an Olson that God cannot create). Furthermore, the Olson in the libertarian universe seems to be a more robust person, whereas in the predictable, meticulous universe he seems to be such a thin person. The latter universe also seems to make specific choices essential to personhood, and these added essentials are not what we would normally take to be essential about a person.

    Perhaps the above musings are nonsensical, but I cannot escape the thought that a meticulous God who cannot create an Olson-who-desires-and-chooses-not-to-write-this-post is a weaker God, a God who is not omnipotent in a theologically relevant way, a God who has a very greatly reduced set of possible worlds at his disposal. Moreover, how can such a thin person as the Olson who acts solely on the basis of chief desire–a desire that is the function of circumstances beyond his control (created personhood + life experiences + specific set of circumstances in which the choice is made)–be an object of love? of sacrificial redeeming love?


    • rogereolson

      Very good; I agree. I don’t know how a believer in middle knowledge with meticulous providence would answer that. I have argued (e.g., in Against Calvinism) that middle knowledge solves nothing in terms of getting God off the hook for evil–unless you say God has middle knowledge but does nothing with it except just “know.” (I have actually met a few Arminians who say they believe this.) Your comment reminds me of Pinnock’s frequent complaint that the God of Calvinism is actually weaker than the God of Arminianism/open theism because the latter God has to exercise a lot of wisdom and power to deal with a world gone wrong.

      • Rob

        Why wouldn’t molinism answer the problem of evil? I’ll show you really quickly why it gives as good an answer as can be given.

        First, start with a simple disjunction: Either there is a morally relevant distinction between foreseeing a bad outcome that is the result of one’s action as opposed to actually intending it, or there is not. No one can argue with that. Now we can tackle each disjunct and see how it relates to molinism and God’s responsibility for evil.

        Suppose there IS a morally relevant distinction between foreseeing a bad outcome as the result of one’s action versus intending a bad outcome such that it is never morally permissible to do the latter but that one might do the former if the action in question is morally required. To accept just this much of a moral theory is to embrace a broadly deontological framework. On deontology, one is not morally responsible for bad results of one’s actions that are mediated by the free decisions of other agents; one is never responsible for the crime of another agent.
        Molinism maintains that God knows what anyone would do in any situation but if we accept the foresee/intend distinction, then God is not morally responsible for what agents do despite putting them in that situation and knowing what they would do. If that sounds wrong, it is not a problem with molinism but a problem with the foresee/intend distinction. So deny the foresee/intend distinction and see what happens supposing the other disjunct.

        The other disjunct maintains that there is no moral distinction between foreseeing and intending. One is morally responsible for what one foresees as a result of one’s actions as much as for what one intends. The only moral framework that can accommodate this position is consequentialism. However, consequentialism makes it really easy to justify causing any bad outcome. One may permissibly cause any bad outcome, no matter how bad, so long as that outcome leads to an overall increase in good. Maximizing good just is what consequentialism is about. If God is a good-maximizer and freewill is a good with lexical priority, then God will maximize good by creating a world with freewill. The molinist simply assumes that this is a world in which the exercise of freewill yields the greatest balance of overall good. If this is such a world, any evil that occurs in it is morally justified.

        So no matter which disjunct you pick, God ends up morally justified in actualizing a world in which God knows people will choose to do evil.

        • rogereolson

          As I understand Molinism AS USED BY SOME CALVINISTS it does have God intending the evil actions of the compatibilistically free agents he puts in “slippery places” SO THAT they will sin. I have never denied that some versions of Molinism do not do that. But that seems to me the only use of Molinism–to attempt to get God off the hook, so to speak, for sin and evil while still affirming determinism.

          • Rob

            Hmmmmm. That sounds strange since the whole point of middle knowledge is that God knows the counterfactuals of freedom–libertarian freedom. So no molinist affirms determinism for then there would be no counterfactuals of freedom and no middle knowledge. There would only be the first stage which is God’s natural knowledge and the second would be God’s free knowledge (how the world will actually be now that God has made his providential decisions.) Any Calvinist trying to squeeze compatibilism into molinism is thoroughly confused and should stop and actually read what molinism is about.

            As far as God intending evil actions (whether because he has determined compatibilist agents or because God knows the counterfactuals of freedom), I think two points are important to keep in mind: first, according to many moral theorists (whom I disagree with) there IS NO moral distinction between intending and merely foreseeing a bad outcome that results from one’s actions. So in the eyes of many theorists, the Calvinist who says that God intends these evil actions is in no worse position than the Arminian who maintains that God merely foresees and allows evil actions. Second, on a consequentialist framework, it can be morally permissible or even morally obligatory to intend “evil” actions because they bring about a maximal state of good. If that is how the Calvinists are thinking of it, then it is internally consistent. I think it is nuts but that is because I think consequentialism is nuts.

        • John Inglis

          The statement by Rob, “then God is not morally responsible for what agents do despite putting them in that situation and knowing what they would do” is made as an assertion, without any support for its truth. I don’t agree with his assertion. Participation in, or cooperating with, someone else’s evil works is a sin in and of itself. 2 John 10-11 states, “10 If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, 11 for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works.” Furthermore, for God to put us in a position where we can nought but sin is contrary to the law he has given us, a law that flows from his very self, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Matthew 22:39)

          Secondly, for a Molinist view of free will to be true, our free willed choices would have to be something that exists outside of God, prior to him creating us. But how can something other than God exist at the same time as God, before creation? And if our freely willed choice exists not separately from God but as part of him, then the Molinist position is not essentially different from the Arminian simple foreknowledge position.

    • Rob

      Molinists affirm libertarian freedom and do not believe that the one acts solely according to one’s utmost desire. Nor do molinists deny that Olson *could* have acted differently–they just think that there is a fact of the matter about what Olson *would* do. Maybe you do not accept counterfactuals of freedom and that is where your disagreement lies with molinists.

      • rogereolson

        Ah, there you’ve put your finger on it. I, for one, do not believe in counterfactuals of freedom which is the most basic reason Molinism makes no sense. But alongside that, I am still convinced that when middle knowledge is used as an “explanation” of providence and free will, it lands on the side of meticulous providence rather than free will. It says the created agent could do otherwise, but then takes that back by saying he or she wouldn’t do otherwise (in an absolute sense) and that God actually wills the evil the agent does.

        • Rob

          Molinism is an attempt to reconcile providence and freewill. As long as we accept the analysis of freedom they give, nothing about our understanding of freewill is compromised. I feel kind of like you in that counterfactuals of freedom seem bizarre. But if they are real, then molinism does not in any way detract from freewill for the sake of providence, it leaves it completely intact.

          Here is the best way I know to motivate belief in counterfactuals of freedom: consider a claim like “If JFK had survived the assassination attempt, he would have invaded Cuba”. Either JFK would have or he would not have so the following is true: If JFK had survived, then Invade v ~Invade. A disjunction is true only if one of the disjuncts is true so one of the disjuncts is true. We don’t know which one is true but maybe God does. We do not want for there to be true propositions that God does not know.

          • Rob

            I should record my conviction that it is unlikely that the degree of providence attributed to God by Molinism will satisfy most Calvinists. Although God chooses which of the feasible worlds to actualize, the space of feasible worlds is fixed by creaturely freewill and not God. There might be possible worlds that God would desire that are not in the space of feasible worlds because of our freedom. So there are worlds that God might want that God does not have the power to get.

          • rogereolson

            Indeed, Calvinists Paul Helm and Bruce Ware disagree about whether middle knowledge is helpful or harmful to the Calvinist cause.

          • rogereolson

            Of course, Arminians (such as I am) believe God knows all true propositions, but I suspect philosophers will always have trouble with Arminianism (sans Molinism) we classical Arminians (in contrast to open theists) believe in a mystery–free will as power of contrary choice together with exhaustive and infallible divine foreknowledge. Why? Because all the alternatives are simply unacceptable.

  • Mark

    Dr. Olsen,
    Do you acknowledge two wills of God; that is – his revealed will and his personal plans to bring about his purposes? Of course to say that everything that happens is not according to the revealed will of God. However, it seems that God has a personal will to move and act that we may not have knowledge of. For example, Joseph says in Gen. 45:7 “And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors.” This of course is in reference to the brothers selling him to Egypt (against the moral will of God) yet clearly attributes the action to God’s plans and purposes in it. This seems to be a clear example where God’s revealed will was violated yet his secret will was carried out perfectly. Would you kindly comment on this example?

    • rogereolson

      The Joseph story is always brought up by Calvinists, but Arminians (and the early church fathers and non-Augustinians throughout the ages) have always had a simple explanation. I don’t know why Calvinists don’t seem to get it. God has an antecedent will and a consequent will. In his antecedent will God did not want Joseph sold into slavery by his brothers because that would be wanting them to sin. In his antecedent will he used Joseph’s brothers sin of selling him into slavery to bring about something good. Simple.

      • J.E. Edwards

        “In his antecedent will God did not want Joseph sold into slavery by his brothers because that would be wanting them to sin.” This doesn’t have anything to do with Arminianism or Calvinism. You change the picture of the gospel in the Old Testament with your view point. You change redemptive history with that view. God has a will, too. Can He not exercise it? His ways are inscrutable and past finding out, you know.

        • rogereolson

          True, but we keep trying (based on the huge book he has given us!). Of course, your assertion is only that–an assertion. I don’t believe I do any such thing. The Old Testament is filled with examples of God regretting things. If God always God his way, why would he regret anything. And I have no idea how you can say this has nothing to do with Calvinism or Arminianism; of course it does.

          • J.E. Edwards

            No doubt we do search out God’s word. In fact, I would say the Lord is offering us a divine dare to see what we can search out. However, your post on Isaiah 53 today is exactly what Joseph pictures, isn’t it? Rejected by his brothers, cruelly and unfairly treated. Why? To picture what Christ would endure. Is. 53 also says that “it pleased the Lord to crush him…” That doesn’t work with your explanation there. If humans have a will and use it, doesn’t God? Somehow God’s will is a kind of future, mysterious kind of thing that we’re looking for. Yet, rarely is His will spoken of in a take charge, determining way. Then He is supposed to limit Himself or else He’s on trial? There’s simply way too much Scripture to set aside or re-define/re-explain.

          • rogereolson

            It seems to me you’re forgetting the Trinity there. Jesus was the Lord; his death was his own choice. It was not “someone else” who “crushed him” (unless you divide the Trinity up into three different persons). There’s a world of difference between Jesus’ crucifixion and Joseph being sold into slavery. Of course, God brought something good out of what Joseph’s brothers did and even foresaw that he could and would, but he did not cause Joseph’s brothers to sin. Their sin was not God’s will. If they had not sold Joseph into slavery God would have brought Joseph to Egypt some other way or rescued Jacob and his family from the famine some other way. Neither did God cause the men who crucified Jesus to do it; Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem provoked them to sin. But it was really “the rulers of this world” (1 Cor. 2) who crucified Jesus. God allowed it. But Jesus volunteered for it. You want to smooth everything out as “God’s will;” that’s simplistic, in my opinion, and ultimately cannot escape making God the author of sin and evil and making evil good.

      • John Inglis

        In the last line, “In his antecedent will he used Joseph’s brothers sin of selling him into slavery to bring about something good”, I think it should read “consequent”, n’est pas?

        • rogereolson

          Absolutely! Thank you. Sometimes it’s too early when I do this. 🙁

        • J.E. Edwards

          I disagree. The picture of Christ in Joseph’s life is not a consequence or spin-off. It was planned by God to be that picture of Christ He intended. You change that, and you make Christ’s suffering a spin-off.

          • rogereolson

            Our only disagreement, so far as I can tell (in this particular case), is whether God planned, foreordained, and rendered certain the sin of Joseph’s brothers. I take it you believe that was the case. I can believe that God turned evil to good without believing that. And I can believe Joseph was a type of Christ without believing it. You can’t believe it without making God the author of sin and evil.

          • Bev Mitchell

            Isn’t another fundamental issue the interaction between power and love?

            We agree that God is all powerful.
            We agree that God is perfect love.

            In our hands, power begets control.
            But, in our world too, love can sanctify power yielding freedom.

            In God, perfect love can accomplish God’s perfect will.
            His love is as effective as any power.

            God’s love is so great he can give us freedom.
            His love is so effective it can clean up the messes we make when we exercise our freedom.

            Sin results from the free use of un-sanctified power. We are continuously tempted to use such power. God cannot use such power for he cannot deny himself.

  • John Inglis

    We can further investigate God’s potence and love, and our essential personhood, by examining possible worlds with the concept of “trans-world”. Platinga has probed the idea of “trans-world depravity”. In relation to that concept and those of middle-knowledge and moral responsibility and authorship of evil, Alan Rhoda has written,

    “. . . one wonders, why didn’t God do something different if he was sure that Adam would freely sin? One suggestion is that Adam, along with every other free creature God could have created, possessed “trans-world depravity”. In other words, no matter which free creature God could have created, eventually that being would have chosen to sin if allowed into any significant range of circumstances. I must admit that I find this idea of trans-world depravity highly implausible. Surely, one would think, given the trillions upon trillions of possible free creatures that God could have created and the unknown multitudes of circumstances he could have situated them in, surely at least a few of them wouldn’t have done what Adam did. And if so, then why didn’t God create that kind of world instead?”

    It is the sort of thing that, if meticulous providence is true, leaves me as bewildered as R. Olson: “Now, many theologically minded Calvinists and other divine determinists will, when pushed against the wall and forced to answer, will say yes, even in such a horrible situation of innocent suffering God was getting his way and was totally in control. My complaint here is not with them although such an answer leaves me absolutely bewildered.” [Olson, above]

    Yet once one starts down the Calvinist path, the garden of theology to which the Bible testifies becomes more and more strange and unrecognizable, until eventually one sees cacti and calls them daisies–or tulips:

    Question 190. Can God be thought to will anything which he does not approve, and thus that which is evil?

    BEZA: Truly, it must be confessed, that whatever God decreed, it is ordained altogether willingly, but here also shines forth His infinite wisdom, that with Him even the darkness has a bit of light, yet in such a way that it is and remains darkness, that is, it is good also that there should be evil; for God found the method whereby it might happen, that what is and remains evil by its own nature, might still have a bit of good before Him, and (as Augustine rightly and elegantly said) it may not happen except by His will, that is, apart from His decree, and yet be against his will, that is, what is by its own nature unrighteous, and therefore does not please God. For example, that God saved His own by the gracious redemption of His own Son Christ, is to His own exceedingly great glory, which otherwise [if men had not sinned] would not have shone forth. But man would not have required redemption from sin and death, unless sin and death existed. Therefore, in respect to the ordinance of God, it was good that sin and death enter into the world; and yet this sin is and remains sin so much by its own nature, that it could not be expiated for except by a very terrible penalty. Again, we receive far more in Christ than we lost in Adam. Therefore, it was best and most useful for us that Adam fell, in respect to God, who prepares a kingdom of eternal glory for us by this wonderful means. And nevertheless, this Fall is so evil by its own nature, that even those who are justified and believe, experience many miseries and calamities from it, even to death. Also, this is the great glory of God, that He shows Himself to be a most severe punisher of sin. But if sin had not existed, no opening would be made for this judgement. Therefore, it was good, in respect to the ordinance of God, that sin exist, and afterwards be spread abroad, which is damned in the demons and all those who are outside of Christ, with eternal punishment. . . . Therefore, by the express words of the apostles, that which is against Godís will or decree (that is, against that which He approves and commands), does not come to pass; on the other hand, it cannot be said that God is contrary to Himself, or that he wills iniquity, as Augustine rightly concluded from the Word of God against Julian.” [Theodore Beza, in 1570, in his catechism of questions and answers]

    To re-quote, “with respect to the ordinance of God, it was good that sin and death enter into the world; and yet this sin is and remains sin so much by its own nature.” So, because sin is only evil when considered in respect of its own nature, and because a nature is a thing other than God, God does not sin when He commands the existence of a nature that is in and of itself evil. I realize that Beza is only one of the many Calvinist voices, and that there are Calvinists with other positions. Yet, to me, it seems that they are making distinctions without differences.

  • John Inglis

    After my posts above, I did some further reading and discovered that others have thought along the same lines (whether one can be responsible for an essential characteristic, for example, the characteristic that he/she will necessarily do “x” in possible world “y”).

  • Joshua Wooden

    Wouldn’t this line of reasoning be more in accord with some form of open theism?

    • rogereolson

      Why? I don’t see it as necessarily so.

    • John Inglis

      Nor do I, though I perceive Open Theism as a very plausible explanation that is consistent with this data, though other theories (varieties of Arminianism) are also consistent with the data. The theories / theologies that we have for dealing with the issue of control and evil are underdetermined by the available revelation of God. Hence, more than one can seem plausible. But I do believe that some theologies are much more plausible than others.

  • K Gray

    God is in control” is certainly a comforting shorthand for many believers.

    Different meanings might include – depending on the speaker and circumstance – “God is sovereign,” “God has prevailed over evil (that is, evil is not in control)” “God is able” “God has not abandoned me” “God is aware of this and is working for the good of those who love him…ala Romans 8:28,” “I trust God’s power in this circumstance” “I have faith in God’s goodness and power” and so forth.

    I take these as statements (confessions) of faith. I’m wondering what is the point of deconstructing them.

    • rogereolson

      I thought I explained that. Did you read my whole post?

      • K Gray

        Yes, certainly. I do have a different concern, that of disabusing simple believers of simple childlike faith. Even mature believers can have a simple ‘unreflective’ faith that is rock solid, a wonder to behold.

        • rogereolson

          One of my basic principles is that the unexamined faith is not worth believing. Of course, I’m referring to mature people who have the ability to reflect.

  • James Rednour

    The God of Calvinism is definitely a weaker God than the God of Arminianism or Open Theism. He is a God who is trapped in His own blueprint for the universe, never able to respond to anything because He knows and preordained everything that has come to pass. He’s a God who inevitably must take responsibility for a world in which sin reigns and destroys because he could have created the world without it. At least the Arminian can say that God graciously allowed his creation to reject him which resulted in chaos. If God planned it, designed it and willed it to pass, creating men who could only reject Him unless He intervened, how could He ultimately hold His own creation responsible for doing exactly what He created them to do?

    The God of Calvinism is analogous to a computer program that is efficiently and logically executing its instructions. If God is constrained by the code He has written, unable to break out and change, He doesn’t seem to be very powerful at all to me. Just brutally efficient.

    • James Rednour

      Let me rephrase that. The Calvinist God is like a computer programmer who wrote the program of the universe and then hit “Run”. In this scenario though, sin is not a bug but a feature.

    • John Inglis

      Though the Calvinist answer would be that sin, death, and redemption and the sending of many to hell is necessary in order that God’s full glory could be demonstrated (where his “full glory” includes demonstrating his wrath and justice attributes). Sort of a felix culpa argument.

  • Elliott Scott

    Boyd does a good job in Satan and the Problem of Evil of pointing out that meticulous sovereignty is only comforting to those who have not been completely shattered by tragedgy. To someone who’s pain is complete, meticulous sovereignty simply makes God your enemy. God is the one who has kidnapped, raped, and killed your child. Hardly comforting. Or Biblical.

    And to those who believe that God’s will is always done, what is the meaning of the line in the Lord’s Prayer which says, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”? What is the point of praying for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven if that is already the case?

  • Greg Boyd posted a response today on his blog to the question, ‘how can you put your trust in a God who’s not in control of everything?’ Very helpful for those who perhaps struggle a little more with this issue.

  • Hi Dr Olson, here is an illustration Tozer gave regarding God’s sovereignty. I’m curious if you see it as consistent with Arminianism?

    “An ocean liner leaves New York bound for Liverpool. Its destination has been determined by proper authorities. Nothing can change it. This is at least a faint picture of sovereignty.

    On board the liner are several scores of passengers. These are not in chains, neither are their activities determined for them by decree. They are completely free to move about as they will. They eat, sleep, play, lounge about on the deck, read, talk, altogether as they please; but all the while the great liner is carrying them steadily onward toward a predetermined port.

    Both freedom and sovereignty are present here and they do not contradict each other. So it is, I believe, with man’s freedom and the sovereignty of God. The mighty liner of God’s sovereign design keeps its steady course over the sea of history. God moves undisturbed and unhindered toward the fulfilment of those eternal purposes which He purposed in Christ Jesus before the world began. We do not know all that is included in those purposes, but enough has been disclosed to furnish us with a broad outline of things to come and to give us good hope and firm assurance of future well-being. “

    • rogereolson

      I have used that specific illustration (from The Knowledge of the Holy) many times in explaining my own view of God’s sovereignty. I’m just not sure how it fits with some other things Tozer says in that book. 🙂

    • John Inglis

      As long as there aren’t two ocean liners, one bound for the port of hell and the other for the port of heaven.

  • This is a very thought-provoking post. As a pastor I hear people all the time say (and have said myself), “God in in control.” I know, at least for my own part, I don’t think (or mean to imply) that God determines everything that happens and that everything that happens is somehow according to God’s will, purpose, and plan. Though I agree with you, Prof. Olson (especially after reading your post!), that some version of that line of thinking is perhaps what many people think (or think they think) when they say that. Reading your post has challenged my own thinking on this, and it seems I’m going to have to be more careful and precise when I say things. It does seem to me that there myriad things that happen that are not, in fact, God’s will (the horrific example you offered of the two people taking and then butchering the kids being a poignant one). I think I like your saying “God is in charge but not in control” (though I need to think on it and process it more). Thanks for pushing me to think!

  • Ivan A. Rogers

    DOES GOD ALWAYS GET HIS WAY? — In reading the several comments in response to Dr. Olson’s blog question it becomes obvious that some say “yes,” some say “no,” and others say “maybe.” Here’s my two cents worth: I have written two chapters on this very question in my new book, “Dropping Hell and Embracing Grace,” by Ivan A. Rogers. Available at, also on Kindle. The two chapters are: “Phooey On Free Will,” and, “You Can’t Make Me!”

    In these two chapters I demonstrate that God is always “in control” even though sometimes it makes us scratch our heads in amazement. Hear his (God’s) own declaration from Isaiah 46:9-11 (KJV):
    “Remember the former things of old: for I am God, and there is none else; I am God, and there is none like me, Declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure: Calling a ravenous bird from the east, the man that executeth my counsel from a far country: yea, I have spoken it, I will also bring it to pass; I have purposed it, I will also do it.”

    • Bev Mitchell

      But please see good Father Lalement’s dilema in my post below.

  • Brian Abasciano

    Just a quick follow-up to my previous post, giving further support to my point that you (Roger) are wrong about the meaning of the phrase “in control,” from a more formal source. At Oxford Dictionaries online, here is the relevant definition of control: “the power to influence or direct people’s behavior or the course of events.” [Usage example: the whole operation is under the control of a production manager {//} the situation was slipping out of her control]. Notice that it has to do with the *ability* to influence or direct, rather than necessarily the actual bringing about of anything. Moreover, then actual degree of that influence or direction would seem to be variable, potentially great or small. So being in control would mean having the power to influence or direct people’s behavior or the course of events. And that is exactly in line with Arminian theology. It is simply another way of saying God is sovereign. he has the power to influence or direct. That might be resistible influence. Or if he so chose it could be irresistible. But being in control at base means no more than having that power/ability. And in case my reasoning is challenged, the page also defines the phrase “in control,” and does so thus: “in control
    able to direct a situation, person, or activity: [usage example:] I felt calm and in control

    It is just as I have said; the phrase is about the power to influence or direct, and even the extent of that influence or direction can be variable.

    This is not to say that someone cannot rightly use the phrase to mean the person in control necessarily gets his way. Normal usage seems to allow for that. But it also allows very much so for it to mean being in charge or sovereign, and seems to be a more typical meaning, and I would claim, the most common meaning when used by evangelicals about God. In any case it is fine language for indicating God’s sovereignty without suggesting determinism.

    • rogereolson

      My point was what MOST PEOPLE understand “in control” to mean.

      • Brian Abasciano

        That was my point as well, that I very much think you are wrong about what most people understand it to mean, and that there is actually some relatively objective evidence to back up what I am saying beyond your impression and mine. My post was a mere follow-up to another that did not get posted here because of some glitch; that’s why I started by labeling it a quick follow-up. I wonder if it did not get accepted by the system because it had several links in it. So perhaps I will re-submit it without the links. But even your response this post is puzzling to me. Dictionaries record popular usage, what most people mean by a phrase. So my impression is that most people mean by “in control” what you mean by “in charge.” Then, that is supported by various sources that treat the meaning of the phrase in common usage. So I would hope your response would have been, “Oh, I see, normal language usage is actually opposite of what I have argued. Therefore, I now agree with you that we should use the phrase “in control” to speak of God’s soveriengty.” Ok, maybe that’s hoping for too much, but you can’t blame me for trying (and hoping)!

        Alright, now let me try re-submitting the comment I tried to leave first, that the one you replied to is just a supplement. Stay tuned . . .

        • rogereolson

          Well, after teaching undergraduates and seminary students for 30 years I think I have a pretty good grasp of what most Christians think “God is in control” means. If I say “I am in control of my class,” most people will, indeed, equate that with “I am in charge there.” But when you add God to the equation, with all the baggage of folk religion most people carry around, most Christians interpret that as meaning something more than “in charge.” Especially when you add sayings like “God knows what he’s doing.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard those two sayings together after a tragedy and clearly the people mean “God foreordained it and rendered it certain” even when they’re not Calvinists.

          • Brian Abasciano

            My experience runs against yours. Adding God into the equation does not need to mean that people would interpret “in control” as more than “in charge”, unless that “more” is that God is directing things that happen–many of which he had nothing to do with causing–to his own good purposes and the good of his children.

            I don’t think saying “God knows what he is doing” necessarily implies more than God being in charge either. Knows what he is doing about what? It can very naturally mean “God knows what he is doing in having allowed this tragedy” rather than “God knows what he is doing in having plannned and caused this tragedy.” I would think that this is what most evangelicals would mean by it. It seems to me that your own admission that the people in question normally do not believe God causes such evil is evidence for my position and against yours. Why assume that people are being inconsistent when their words can naturally be taken as consistent with their stated belief? That is not to say that there might not be a number who have the type of folk belief you suggest and mean that God caused the tragedy with inconsistency with their larger beliefs. I also a imagine that there are a number of people who might not even know what they mean by it, but are just saying something not well thought through to express faith in God in the situation. But most probably just mean “in charge and overseeing to turn things to good.” And I think those meaning “caused” would largely not be due to the language of “in control.” Since it is fine language for the concept of being in charge, it should not be made the culprit. It is just that some resort to poor theology when tragedy strikes and others have not thought through the the issue to be consistent with their larger beliefs.

      • John Inglis

        That would put me in the camp of “not most people”, along with Brian–which is fine, I like the company.

        I agree with Brian that the word “control” can be used in line with Arminian thinking, but, I’ve always taken Roger’s saying or quip in the sense of a quick slogan or headline, a slogan that gets one’s attention because it at first seems paradoxical until it is unpacked. Slogans and headlines only work because they play with language, that is, they aren’t intended to be read according to the most common dictionary meaning.

  • John Inglis

    If one holds to meticulous providence, I cannot see how one can avoid calling “evil” “good”.
    For example, J. Piper considers the story of Joseph and his brothers from a Calvinist perspective and concludes that “For example, all the choices of Joseph’s brothers in getting rid of him and selling him into slavery are seen as sin and yet also as the outworking of God’s good purpose. In Genesis 50:20, Joseph says to his brothers when they fear his vengeance, ‘As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive.’”

    Piper then states, “Psalm 105:17 says. The text says, “You meant evil against me.” Evil is a feminine singular noun. Then it says, “God meant it for good.” The word “it” is a feminine singular suffix that can only agree with the antecedent feminine singular noun, “evil.” And the verb “meant” is the same past tense in both cases. You meant evil against me in the past, as you were doing it. And God meant that very evil, not as evil, but as good in the past as you were doing it. And to make this perfectly clear, Psalm 105:17 says about Joseph’s coming to Egypt, “[God] sent a man before them, Joseph, who was sold as a slave.” God sent him. God did not find him there owing to evil choices, and then try to make something good come of it. Therefore this text stands as a kind of paradigm for how to understand the evil will of man within the sovereign will of God. . . . The text says, ‘You meant evil against me.’ Evil is a feminine singular noun. Then it says, ‘God meant it for good.’ The word “it” is a feminine singular suffix that can only agree with the antecedent feminine singular noun, “evil.” And the verb “meant” is the same past tense in both cases. You meant evil against me in the past, as you were doing it. And God meant that very evil, not as evil, but as good in the past as you were doing it.”

    So Piper holds that God intended and decreed the evil that happened to Joseph, but because God’s intention was good and he brought good out of those actions, the evil actions of Joseph’s brothers were good from God’s perspective, but evil from the perspective of Joseph’s brothers.


    So a difference in intent changes an evil into a good? An action can be simultaneously good and evil depending on whether one’s perspective is heavenly or earthly?

    This is what meticulous providence inexorably leads us to.

    But calling evil “good” is something that God abhors and punishes and is an evil in and of itself: “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.” Isaiah 5:20

  • John Inglis

    “During a debate held at the March 2009 Christian Book Expo in Dallas, Texas, Hitchens sat on a panel with four different Christian apologists: William Lane Craig, Douglas Wilson, Lee Strobel, and Jim Denison. The moderator of the debate, himself also a Christian, spoke of his struggles with cerebral palsy and suggested that Christianity offers great consolation to those who suffer. He then wondered what the highbrow, intellectual atheism of Hitchens could offer to the suffering. Hitchens responded by telling the story of an Austrian woman who was abused by her father over the course of twenty-four years and posed a series of questions to his Christian interlocutors. How can the Christian justify such terror as part of God’s plan? How can the Christian justify heaven’s indifference to such suffering?”

    I don’t see that meticulous providence has an adequate answer to Hitchens.

  • John Inglis

    A further thought: meticulous providence eliminates the possibility of genuine tragedy.

  • Tom Harkins

    I don’t think that God requires evil to accomplish his purposes. Instead, he created free choosers (perhaps incomprehensible, but nonetheless necessarily the case to avoid the absurdity of God’s condemning those who simply did as he “ordained” them to do), and then molded his plan around what he foresaw those free choosers would be like. (Leaving aside any “temporal” aspect of “when” God made such a decision–don’t know the answer to whether God is everywhere in time before that time arrives). However, once having so foreknown what type of characters people would choose to have, God then set those “choosers” in the times and places where their characters would “manifest” themselves as what they are and also accomplish God’s plan of redemption for such “sinners.” (See the example of Pharaoh in Romans 9–he put him where Moses would face him to show the hardness of Pharaoh’s heart–not because God caused Pharaoh’s heart to harden by pushing some inner “switch.”)

    This may seem “deterministic” in a sense, but I think only in the sense that God is always “deterministically” set in acting only in accordance with his character and nature. Given who God is, he will always act in a certain way upon encountering a certain circumstance. This sets no limit on God other than that which he willingly sets on himself. As C.S. Lewis said of Aslan, once the magician makes the rules, he is obliged to obey them himself.

    But we don’t know what the future is (as God purposely designed), and therefore we act of our own free wills in every circumstance in which we find ourselves. Only, God has “set the circumstances” within which we will exercise our wills.

    This does not, I think, exclude “injustices.” Many injustices happen which are totally unfair to those affected by being in such “circumstances.” But this can be (and will be) “fixed.” Judgment Day and eternity are still waiting in the wings. To the extent that the free outworking of any evil person’s character impinges on someone else’s good character in a way they don’t “deserve” so that such a manifestation will occur and God’s redemptive plan be accomplished, then the evil doer will be appropriately judged and sentenced on Judgment Day and suffer his eternal reward, and likewise the person “wronged” will be rewarded for how he properly responded to such a “wrong,” and our present unpleasant circumstances are not worthy to be compared to the glory which shall be revealed in us, as Paul says.

    So, the “magic” thing to make this all “work” is how God can create something which can “freely” choose against God. That magic we will have to wait to understand until when God calls us home. But it is essential to everything else being just, fair, and right, consistently with God’s character.

    • John Inglis

      Isn’t this essentially the Molinist approach?

      • rogereolson

        I thought so, too.

  • Ben

    Hi Roger, have you read Greg Boyds book ‘Satan and the problem of evil’?

    • rogereolson

      Of course. (I don’t say that sarcastically. I’ve read all of Greg’s books; we have been good friends for years. And I have to read them looking for things we talked about into the late night hours in his office or mine or on one of our long road trips.)

  • Brian

    I had a question. I understand that the first liberal (Friedrich Schleiermacher) was not an Arminian (most people just assume that liberals are/were Arminian). However, wasn’t he almost a determinist? Also, what is a good short introductory book on Friedrich Schleiermacher and his theology?

    • rogereolson

      Schleiermacher was a divine determinist who thought petitionary prayer is immature because it fails to recognize everything happening as God’s will and implies that God is somehow dependent on us. At least he was consistent. A good brief book is A Prince of the Church by Brian Gerrish. I heard this book as lectures at Rice University in the late 1970s, then it was published by Fortress. I don’t know if it’s still in print. It’s very favorable to Schleiermacher, though. Read my chapter on Schleiermacher in 20th Century Theology (IVP, 19920.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Father Gabriel Lalement was a Jesuit missionaru to the Hurons of Canada in the 1600’s and eventually a martyr. In a recent volume on Canada’s Native People, the following quote from Lalement heads one of the Chapters. It alludes to one if the various diseases transported from Europe to North America in those days and vividly exemplifies some of the muddled thinking, with disastrous results, that can emerge from an overdose of divine deterministic/fatalistic world views.

    “It has happened very often, that where we were most welcome, where we baptized most people, there it was in fact where they died the most, and, on the contrary, in the cabins to which we were denied entrance, although they were sometimes sick to extremity, at the end of a few days one saw every person prosperously cured. We shall see in heaven the secret, but ever adorable,  judgments of God therein.” Father Gabriel Lalement, 1640

  • Rob F.

    Thanks for this post. This really hits home when you have a very thoughtful, sensitive 7-year-old who has probing questions such as “Why would God do X?” I gave her a much simpler and less articulate version of what you said…but it is nice to get the reinforcement.

  • Brian Abasciano

    This comment was supposed to be my first in this thread, but got lost in the system. I posted what was supposed to be a follow up comment above. So now I am trying to post my original comment. Please see my post earlier in this thread for a supplement to this post if interested:

    I again have to respectfully disagree with you, this time with your contention that we should not say that God is in control, but rather that he is in charge. I think we should say both. It is really a question of what the phrase “in control” means in popular speech. So it is a disagreement over what the phrase “in control” typically means rather than doctrine. I believe that what you mean by “in charge” is what most evangelicals mean by “in control.”

    You mention the example of ordinary speech of saying that so-and-so is “in control” of a certain situation (and not only himself or herself), and assert that most people will automatically assume it means that the person has a plan and is manipulating events to fit that plan, that they will assume the person always gets his or her own way in that context. I really do disagree with that. I think people typically mean by that phrase that the person has power and often authority in the situation to make things go the way he or she wants, but might or might not make everything go the way he or she wants. When used of God, is seems typically to mean that he is sovereign over the situation and that nothing can happen in it unless he at least allows it. It is what you mean by God being in charge.

    It has been widely acknowledged that most evangelicals are more Arminian than Calvinist. Moreover, most evangelicals I have encountered find the concept of divine determinism bizarre. If you were to take even the whole sin issue out if and ask the average evangelical whether they believe God decided which color socks they would wear that day, or what outfit, or what they would have for breakfast, most would look at you like you’re crazy. It has been my consistent experience that evangelicals who say that God is in control do not mean that he is determining everything, but that he is sovereign/in charge, and probably that he is directing things that happen–many of which he had nothing to do with causing–to his own purposes. I grew up saying “in control” and was never confused by it, and that is what I believe I have witnessed with many others.

    In a different setting, I previously pointed you to some comments/links about the meaning of “in control” in normal speech. Let me paste them in another post.

    • rogereolson

      It’s amazing to me how our experiences (of ordinary Christians and what they mean) differ. My experience has been that non-Calvinist evangelicals fall back on something like Calvinism when trying to make sense of a tragic event in their own lives or someone’s life close to them (e.g., someone they’re trying to comfort).

  • Brian Abasciano

    Well, the system seems to keep rejecting my posts with the links and material on the phrase “in control” in normal speech. It is evidence of actual usage rather than just your opinion or mine, though it is a bit informal, conveniently culled from internet sources (the material from Oxford Dictionaries online I mentioned earlier in the thread was a bit more formal). I am not sure why the blog is rejecting these messages. Perhaps I will try to paste in examples over more than one message.

    Let me preface it all by saying that the evidence of normal language usage coupled with my own impression of the matter brings me to say that I heartily recommend that Arminians use the language of God being in control to convey that he is sovereign. I think that is how it is naturally taken by most evangelicals, and it would be misleading and counterproductive to say that God is not in control. Of course, it might be a good idea to explain clearly what we mean by the phrase, just as it can be good to do with any number of phrases to ensure understanding.

  • Brian Abasciano

    Ok, the blog is just not accepting posts with the other material I mentioned. It is just a variety of internet sources that say mostly the same thing as the Oxford Dictionaries online material I quoted earlier in the thread. One can see in the material that the phrase “in control” very commonly means having authority or power in a situation and is largely synonymous with “in charge.”

    • John Inglis

      I’m with you on this one, Brian.

  • Robert

    Hello Roger,

    I believe in thinking about whether or not God always gets His way, we need to start by considering God’s original design plans for the universe which he created. If we think about it two related but key questions should be considered. First, (1) Could God be in control of all Human persons? Secondly, (2) Does he choose to be in control of all Human persons? The first question goes to possibility and we have to consider it before God decided to create the world we inhabit. Question 1 goes to the issue of what possible kinds of world God could have actualized. The answer to question 1 is that Yes he could choose to be in control of all Human persons. If he chose to do this we would have a world that many characterize as a puppet world with God as the divine puppet master and all of us as his puppets whom he directly, continously and completely controls. In such a world there is only one person with free will and every other “person” has their every thought, desire, belief, action prescripted by God. This is the world that calvinists imagine and wish were so. There are problems with this scenario (which I will not get into now). So let’s place this possibility aside and look at question 2 and assume the answer to the question is No (God does not choose to be in control of all human persons.

    While we know that He could choose to control all human persons (question 1) if we look at both scripture and the world around us it appears that for the most part he does not choose to be in control of all human persons. He could be quite easily, but chooses not to be in control. It appears that instead he takes what could be called an “interventional approach”. This means that while he could always intervene in any and all situations, that he could just take over every detail of any given situation, apparently he does not usually do this. In fact it appears as if when it comes to “being in control” he picks his spots. And there are good reasons for this as well, which I will not get into now.

    I believe that most people implicitly believe this to be the case because of the extremely common “why” question that comes up when people suffer. Most people (including even nonbelievers) when something bad happens in their life and they think about God they almost immediately ask: why did God allow this? If you believed that God directly controlled things you would not be asking why he allows things to happen because you would know that he directly causes things to happen (it should be noted that Calvin understood this well which is why he mocked those who spoke of God permitting things to occur, Calvin rightly understood that if God predestined every detail then nothing is ever merely permitted). But when people ask “why”, they are assuming that he could intervene whenever he wants and take over a situation. And this assumption that he could intervene whenever he wants is exactly what you would expect to be true if this “interventional approach” were true.

    When we look at scripture we see the same thing, He picks his spots. Sometimes he allows things to happen (e.g. the book of Judges where it says “everyone did what was right in their own eyes”, which is definitely people being allowed to do whatever they choose to do, Romans 1 where he reveals Himself both internally and externally to people, they reject this and so he “gave them over” to sin). Other times he takes a very direct approach (e.g. the Exodus plagues) where there is no doubt that he is “putting his foot down”. And then there is the ultimate intervention which is the center of history, the incarnation of Christ (even in the ministry of Jesus we see that he picks his spots by healing some and also saying because of some people’s unbelief he chose not to intervene with them).

    It is interesting that one of the most common objections by atheists is the so-called problem of evil. And it really boils down to a question about intervention: if God is good and loving and really cares about people then why doesn’t he intervene and bring an end to **all** evil and oppression and injustice in the world? There is actually a biblical phrase for this: it is called the second coming of Jesus! The descriptions of the second coming are very awesome and devastating descriptions of God intervening by Jesus coming back for all the world to see. These scriptural passages differ greatly from the suffering servant described in Isaiah 53 who comes to die on a cross at the hands of enemies who control him and abuse him and torture him before crucifying him. In the second coming passages Jesus comes back as a conquering King, it is the ultimate example of God intervening and “putting his foot down.”

    If this “interventional approach” or something like it is true, then we really need to take seriously this idea that He picks his spots. That he could have created a world where he was directly, completely and continuously in control at all times (i.e. the puppet world of the theological determinists/calvinists): but in fact did not create that world. It also means that not only does he “pick his spots” he also allows other personal agents (men and angels) to exercise limited control. These other personal agents by means of their limited control will sometimes do good and sometimes do evil. And often, when evil is done, people will wonder why didn’t God make this a situation in which he “put his foot down”, when it appears he merely allowed the other personal agents to do whatever they chose to do. If this “interventional approach” is accurate, then God is in charge (because he is the ultimate authority and he can intervene any time that he wants and do whatever he wants in line with his character and plans) and yet he is not always in direct control of a situation or person (he allows other persons to exercise some limited control). This also means that when persons do choose to sin, they not God, are the ones who bring about/cause their own sin and are fully responsible for what they do.


    • rogereolson

      What you write reminds me much of Greg Boyd’s view in Is God to Blame? and Satan and the Problem of Evil. I think you and Greg agree about this. The only thing I disagree with (in your comment) is that most Christians don’t believe God controls all events. I think most of them slip into that mode of thinking when horrible tragedy strikes close to home. Somehow it gives them comfort to think “God knows what he is doing.” The only alternative they know is to think that God is totally distant, uninvolved, deistic. I’m saying pastors need to teach about the alternatives to divine determinism and deism (and, of course, process theology).

  • Steve Rogers

    After reading through most of these comments, I can honestly say, I don’t know.

  • Francesco C.

    is the main arminian tradition AGAINST the idea of “God in control”?
    how many (in %) among arminian speakers, preachers, teachers, scholars, etc. TODAY believe that “God in control”?
    Thanks in advance for the answer, Dr. Olson.

    • rogereolson

      Well, I wouldn’t know the answer to that. And it depends on what “God is in control” means. My objection to the phrase is that it IMPLIES (obviously some Arminians disgree with me here) that God controls all events (Calvinism). I would guess the vast majority of Arminians still SAY “God is in control.” I’m urging them to think about that and possibly abandon it as it points in the direction of Calvinism.

      • Francesco C.

        I am an arminian that at the moment believes in Arminius’ doctrine of concurrence and that God controls every single event. Am I unusual? is there a logical contraddiction (and I am not aware of it)?
        TO BE CLEARER:
        I believe that man has some kind of active free will in libertarian sense EVEN by nature and before prevenient grace, but in order to allow to human beings to actually perform any action and real choice, God must authorize it. I think this is arminian doctrine of concurrence.

        I like the analogy of blogs: God is the owner of the blog called “universe”, every man can input comments, but God has set the option so that he must authorize every single comment before publishing it. It doesn’t mean that God writes the comments (that should be ipercalvinist determinism) and it doesn’t mean that there are events in the universe that happen without direct action of God (that would be very close to open-theism, in my opinion).

        I thought mine is a strongly (classical) arminian point of view, alligned with Arminius’ idea of concurrence. Am I wrong?

        • rogereolson

          When I hear people say “God is in control” after a major tragedy I am pretty sure they don’t mean “He permitted that to happen.”

          • Francesco C.

            Ok. I take this answer as “yes, brother, go in peace. You are still a good, safe and coherent arminian”.
            Did I understand it correctly? 🙂

          • rogereolson

            Uh, I think so. 🙂