Most of Christian theology, one way or another, is caught up with the problem of evil–what it is, where it comes from, how will it be defeated, and how do we live with it in this world. God’s providence, though, is one of those doctrines that seems to uniquely impinge on the question of evil. How could a good, all-powerful God allow the amount and kinds of evil we see and experience in the world? Is it possible to speak of his control and sovereignty, his foreknowledge and wisdom, in a way that’s consistent with the world as we know it.
I’ve written on this before, but it bears repeating that one of the key points made in recent, philosophy of religion (especially of the analytic sort) is that if God had a good enough reason, then it’s possible for a good, powerful God to allow evil to exist for a time. One of the key issues distinguishing different forms of Christian theology is which kinds of reasons are deemed to be sufficient to justify the sorts of evil we see in the world. Your overall theology of salvation and providence plays out in your view of the problem of evil.
Arminian and Wesleyan (and open or relational) theologies typically appeal to the good of libertarian free will (the ability to do otherwise in any decision, without being ultimately or finally determined by situation, disposition, or metaphysical constraint) at this point. On their account, it is supposed to be necessary to the nature of love, and the good of freely-chosen love, significant moral choices, etc. Because of that, it’s worth the risk, the possibility, and the actuality of evil in the world. More Reformed theologians typically eschew that account because their view of human freedom sees it as fully compatible with God’s eternal decree for what will come to pass in human history whether by a decision to cause or permit different, human events.
Instead, Reformed theologians have offered a couple of different, interlocking considerations. Some, appealing to Romans 9, say that God’s deepest reason for allowing all that he does is the display of his own glory in human history (through his work of creation, judgment, redemption, etc). If some tragedy befalls, then, we can know that its direct purpose is to somehow glorify God.
Others, more modestly (I think), confess that while in the end all things will redound to the glory of God, we simply don’t know what his reason is for various, specific events or the way they fit into the broader tapestry of the Triune God’s purposes for history. We are finite, small, and too sinful to expect to have that kind of comprehensive knowledge. That said, we view all things in light of God’s work in the tragi-comedy of the cross and resurrection, wherein the Son came in the power of the Spirit at the behest of the Father to give himself up into the hands of sinful men on our behalf, so that one day we might be raised with him. Because of that we know that our good God is loving, powerful, and does have purposes in all of human history, even the darkest and most opaque of our trials. And these are purposes that, if we knew all that God knows, were as good as God is, and saw all that he sees, we would see that he is right to allow all that he has and redeem it in all the ways that he eventually will.
I bring all of this up because of a recent conversation about the problem of evil and what it means to assert that God has a good enough reason to justify and allow the evil that we see in the world.
Some see this sort of defense as a rationalizing system that calls evil good and good evil. Or it’s a cold comfort that alienates the truly broken-hearted with bland pieties about “God’s plan.” Or even more, a possible attempt to act as God’s spokesman, because if you’re the one who can say that God has purposes for all things, then you’re the mediator of God’s purposes. An appeal to God’s sovereignty over all things and inscrutable purposes puts you in danger of becoming one of Job’s friends, offering up proverbs of ashes and unwitting condemnation.
I simply want to make a few points by way of clarification and response here.
First, it should be obvious that to say that God has a purpose for all things is not to say that I have any clue what those specific purposes are from case to case. It’s simply to point out that a God of infinite goodness, wisdom, and love doesn’t simply let evil befall the world for no good reason, or only general ones. It is an affirmation that God is not careless, nor is he asleep at the wheel but is attentive to the plans he has for all of his creatures. If anyone is tempted to claim that kind of specific knowledge, they have missed the point of Job and are probably at the risk of coming under judgment themselves. It’s the difference between saying that you believe the Bible is inerrant and claiming that your own interpretations of it are also inerrant. It is by no means the case that the one follows logically from the others. It’s possible to have a very high view of God’s Word and little confidence of your own ability to work your way through it without making a mess of things. In the same way, it’s quite possible to have a very high view of God’s wisdom in history and acknowledge your own blindness to what that wisdom is.
Second, to claim that God has specific purposes for what he permits is not to claim that evil isn’t really evil. That’s a very sloppy, unbiblical claim. It is only to say that God means something good to come out of the evil which he still calls evil. As with the situation of Joseph being sold into slavery, God still condemns the hatred and jealousy of his brothers and their sale of Joseph as evil, though God permitted and even decreed it so that one day he could save Jacob’s family and the birth-line of the Messiah through Joseph. Saying that God doesn’t allow the evil of cancer for no good reason, by no means commits me to saying that any case of cancer is a positive good. We have to have a space for the infinite, Creator God to view a single event or activity from a far more expanded, complex, unified perspective than you or I typically do. For more on this, see here.
Third, to say that God has purposes for all things in no way necessitates that God’s providence is the only doctrine we can appeal to in the context of pastoral comfort. One thing I’ve noticed over the years is how little attention we give to the fact that not only is right doctrine a matter of chief importance, so is the proper use of doctrine. Just as having a high view of Scripture won’t save you from a misuse of Scripture, neither will having correct doctrine always mean you’re applying it properly. But this is of chief importance. Being a good doctor is not simply a matter of knowing varieties of good medicines, but the ability to prescribe the right medicine at the right time, because even good medicines misapplied can do harm. There are dozens of other glorious, comforting truths such as the resurrection, God’s atonement, his grace, etc, that you can apply to people in times of suffering and pain beyond the issue of the providence of God.
As always, there’s more to say, but hopefully these considerations offer some clarity as to what we are and are not saying when we claim that our sovereign God has a good reason for all things.
Soli Deo Gloria