Saying God Has a Reason for Something Doesn’t Mean You Know What It Is (And Other Concerns)

JobMost 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

Is it Really Bad if God Brings Something Good out of it? C.S. Lewis, Joseph, and Moral Judgments

“Is it really a bad thing if God does something good with it?” You may have heard this kind of question before. Maybe in a discussion after your philosophy 101 class, or a Bible study, or in a coffee shop, the issue of God and evil comes up. How can God still be good and powerful given the amount of evil and suffering we see in the world? Copious amounts of ink have been spilled on the subject and numerous answers have been given. I’m not going to attempt anything so bold as to hazard a definitive answer except to clarify a couple of important points we must keep straight in our thinking about this issue.

Good Enough Reasons and the Problem of Naming Evil

One commonly made point is that it’s possible for God to still be good and powerful and allow all the evil we see in the world, if he has a morally justifiable reason to such as avoiding a greater evil or bringing about an outweighing moral good. For instance, I’m morally justified in allowing my child to suffer pain while getting vaccination shots because it will prevent some later, horrible disease. In fact, at that point, I’m just justified in purposing the pain, because it is outweighed by the good of avoiding the disease.

This is somewhat common-sensical, and leaving aside some issues related to God’s power, you could see the way that the principle could apply to God. God can still be good and powerful, yet allow for some good purpose even if it’s one that only He can understand. (The epistemological issue is an important one, but I’ll deal with that in another post on another day.)

At this point our post title becomes relevant. God is justified in allowing something we think is evil because of the good that comes from it or that evil that it avoids. But, the question actually goes a bit further and says, “Well, in fact, it seems that instance of suffering and evil wasn’t really evil because of the good result that came from it. Maybe it’s just that evil is just a good that is misunderstood?”

Is that right, though?

Natural questions like these make some worry about appealing to some higher “plan.” They fear that it impermissibly justifies evil and makes moral language ambiguous. In other words, if that crime was really part of God’s plan that he used to bring about some greater good, are we allowed to call it evil? Is suffering really bad? If that’s the case, then doesn’t that remove moral responsibility and render us unable and name evil as evil since it is “justified”? To say otherwise is “nihilism.”

In light of this, they would want to say that, in fact, all we can morally say is that there is no “good” reason for much of the evil that we see in the world. All we know is that God hates it, will end it someday, and make everything better.

But that seems troubling as well because if we can’t say that God had a good reason for allowing an evil, that leaves us back where we started with God allowing evil for no good reason at all.

Is there a way forward from this?

C.S. Lewis on Simple Good, Simple Evil, and Complex Good

There are a great many issues to consider here, but C.S. Lewis has a great little passage in his work devoted to the problem of suffering and evil, The Problem of Painthat begins to address the issue. He’s discussing whether Christians should seek suffering because so often it is linked to spiritual growth and moral goodness. In it he says:

I answer that suffering is not good in itself. What is good in any painful experience is, for the sufferer, his submission to the will of God, and, for the spectators, the compassion aroused and the acts of mercy to which it leads. In the fallen and partially redeemed universe we may distinguish (1) The simple good descending from God, (2) The simple evil produced by rebellious creatures, and (3) the exploitation of that evil by God for His redemptive purpose, which produces (4) the complex good to which accepted; suffering and repented sin contribute. Now the fact that God can make complex good out of simple evil does not excuse – though by mercy it may save – those who do the simple evil. And this distinction is central. Offences must come, but woe to those by whom they come; sins do cause grace to abound, but we must not make that an excuse for continuing to sin. The crucifixion itself is the best, as well as the worst, of all historical events, but the role of Judas remains simply evil.

We may apply this first to the problem of other people’s suffering. A merciful man aims at his neighbour’s good and so does “God’s will”, consciously co-operating with “the simple good”. A cruel man oppresses his neighbour, and so does simple evil. But in doing such evil, he is used by God, without his own knowledge or consent, to produce the complex good – so that the first man serves God as a son, and the second as a tool. For you will certainly carry out God’s purpose, however you act, but it makes a difference to you whether you serve like Judas or like John. 

So we see it is possible to speak of simple good, simple evil, God’s redemptive work, and the complex good that follows from God’s redemptive work. It is possible for both God and humans to be at work in one and the same events event–to be able to speaking meaningfully of human evil while still affirming God’s goodness in that particular event. Sounds good Clive, but is it biblical?

Joseph: A Biblical Paradigm

There are a number of events in biblical history which God speaks of as evil on the part of humans, yet part of a broader, good divine plan. The story of Joseph is often used as a paradigm for this way of thinking. In the story, he is sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, is wrongfully imprisoned by his Egyptian slave-master, left in jail for many years, but through a providential chain of events is elevated to a position of power in Egypt before a time of great famine. This then enables him years later to provide food for his family that had initially sold him into slavery as well as provide for the entire nation of Egypt. Eventually, from that family, comes the Messiah, the savior of the world.

In an encounter with his brothers years later he realizes that they fear for their lives from him. Even years after forgiving them and treating them well, they still worry that he might be holding a grudge against him for their evil. Joseph calms their fears by assuring them he knows that although they did what they did for evil intentions, God intended for good (Gen. 50:20):

As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.

So, in the one affirmation we see him affirm that being sold into slavery by your own brothers is evil. Being wrongfully imprisoned is evil. At the same time, being in the right place, at the right time to avert disaster for a nation and one’s own family is good. But the humanly-intended evil and the divinely-intended good were being accomplished side by side in the same events! Examples like this could be multiplied over and over again in Scripture, whether in the prophets or the preaching of the early church in Acts. Lewis is on firm, biblical ground here.

Conclusions

So let’s put this together: First, it is not that moral evil or evil events are just good not yet understood. We don’t want to deny the evil of evil, especially of sinful human actions. At the human level, we can say of those things that God condemns them as wicked and they ought not be done. Again, Judas is morally blameworthy and an evil individual for betraying Jesus. God disapproves of his actions. They are really and truly evil.

At the same time, on another level the existence of these evils is morally-justified even if we cannot see the moral justification currently,  with respect to God.  In the case of Judas and the Cross, God used Judas’ wickedness to accomplish his good divine intention. Judas is evil in his action. God is not because he had a good enough reason for allowing this evil to occur.

Admittedly, this is just a thumb-nail sketch of an answer to one of the many questions within a much broader issue. Still, I think can help us keep a couple of points clear that ought not be confused whenever we are trying to think about or discuss the issue of evil and suffering from a biblical perspective.

In all things Soli Deo Gloria.