All the Good That Is Ours in Christ: Seeing God's Gracious Hand in the Hurts Others Do to Us
This message appears as a chapter in Suffering and the Sovereignty of God.
In Night, his memoir of life in the death camps of Birkenau and Auschwitz, Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel struggles to convey the experiences that consumed the devout faith of an earnestly pious Jewish boy in the fires of the incomprehensible horrors of Nazi inhumanity.1 Starting from the unsuspecting innocence of his early adolescence, Wiesel chronicles the pathway from its sunny security to the spiritual night that provoked him to write words like these:
[A]s the train stopped, . . . we saw flames rising from a tall chimney into a black sky. . . . We stared at the flames in the darkness. A wretched stench floated in the air. Abruptly, our [cattle car’s] doors opened. . . .
“Everybody out! Leave everything inside. Hurry up!”
We jumped out. . . . In front of us, those flames. In the air, the smell of burning flesh. It must have been around midnight. We had arrived. In Birkenau. . . .
The SS officers gave the order.
“Form ranks of fives!” . . . [We began] to walk until we came to a crossroads. . . . Not far from us, flames, huge flames, were rising from a ditch. Something was being burned there. A truck drew close and unloaded its hold: small children. Babies! Yes, I did see this, with my own eyes . . . children thrown into the flames. . . . A little farther on, there was another, larger pit for adults.
I pinched myself: Was I still alive? Was I awake? How was it possible that men, women, and children were being burned and that the world kept silent? No. All this could not be real. A nightmare perhaps. . . Soon I would wake up with a start, my heart pounding, and find that I was back in the room of my childhood, with my books. . . .
NEVER SHALL I FORGET that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed.
Never shall I forget that smoke.
Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.
Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live.
Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.
Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself.
Never. (Wiesel, Night 28-34)
Language, as Wiesel declares, proves helpless to convey such realities. It became clear as he wrote “that it would be necessary to invent a new language” to convey these horrors adequately. For
how was one to rehabilitate . . . words betrayed and perverted by the enemy? Hunger — thirst — fear — transport — selection — fire — chimney: these words all have intrinsic meaning, but in those times, they meant something else. Writing in my mother tongue . . . I would pause at every sentence, and start over and over again. . . . All the dictionary had to offer seemed meager, pale, lifeless. Was there a way to describe the last journey in sealed cattle cars, the last voyage toward the unknown? Or the discovery of a demented and glacial universe where to be inhuman was human, where disciplined, educated men in uniform came to kill, and innocent children and wary old men came to die? Or the countless separations on a single fiery night, the tearing apart of entire families, entire communities? . . . How was one to speak [of things like these] without trembling and a heart broken for all eternity? (Ibid., ix)
These unspeakable horrors, piled on each other, disoriented Wiesel and led him to throw off his faith. One incident stands out. Wiesel’s Oberkapo was a Dutchman with over seven hundred prisoners under his command. He was kind to them all. “In his ‘service,’” Wiesel writes,
was a young boy, a pipel, as they were called. This one had a delicate and beautiful face — an incredible sight in this camp. . . .
One day the power failed at the central electric plant in Buna. The Gestapo, summoned to inspect the damage, concluded that it was sabotage. They found a trail. It led to the block of the . . . Oberkapo. And after a search, they found a significant quantity of weapons.
The Oberkapo and his pipel were tortured, although they named no names. The Oberkapo disappeared, but his pipel was condemned to die along with two other inmates who were found with arms.
One day, as we returned from work, we saw three gallows . . . . Roll call. The SS surrounding us, machine guns aimed at us: the usual ritual. Three prisoners in chains — and, among them, the little pipel . . . . The SS seemed more preoccupied, more worried, than usual. To hang a child in front of thousands of onlookers was not a small matter. The head of the camp read the verdict. All eyes were on the child. He was pale, almost calm, but he was biting his lips as he stood in the shadow of the gallows. . . .
The three condemned prisoners together stepped onto the chairs. In unison, the nooses were placed around their necks.
“Long live liberty!” shouted the two men. But the boy was silent.
“Where is merciful God, where is He?” someone behind me was asking.
At the signal, the three chairs were tipped over. . . .
Then came the march past the victims. The two men were no longer alive. Their tongues were hanging out, swollen and bluish. But the third rope was still moving: the child, too light, was still breathing . . .
And so he remained for more than half an hour, lingering between life and death, writhing before our eyes. And we were forced to look at him at close range. He was still alive when I passed him. His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet extinguished.
Behind me, I heard the same man asking: “For God’s sake, where is God?”
And from within me, I heard a voice answer: “Where is He? This is where — hanging here from this gallows . . .” (Ibid., 63-65)
Rosh Hashanah came, and ten thousand gathered in the camp to bless God’s name. The officiating inmate’s voice rose “powerful yet broken, amid the weeping, the sobbing, the sighing of the entire ‘congregation’: ‘All the earth and universe are God’s!’ . . . ‘And I,’” Wiesel writes,
I, the former mystic, was thinking: Yes, man is stronger, greater than God. . . . [L]ook at these men whom You have betrayed, allowing them to be tortured, slaughtered, gassed, and burned, what do they do? They pray before You! They praise Your name!
“All of creation bears witness to the Greatness of God!”
In days gone by, Rosh Hashanah had dominated my life. I knew that my sins grieved the Almighty and so I pleaded for forgiveness. In those days, I fully believed that the salvation of the world depended on every one of my deeds, on every one of my prayers.
But now, I no longer pleaded for anything. I was no longer able to lament. On the contrary, I felt very strong. I was the accuser, God the accused. My eyes had opened and I was alone, terribly alone in a world without God, without man. Without love or mercy. I was nothing but ashes now, but I felt myself to be stronger than this Almighty to whom my life had been bound for so long. In the midst of these men assembled for prayer, I felt like an observer, a stranger. (Ibid., 67)
Human brutality to other humans had shattered Wiesel’s faith:
In the beginning there was faith — which was childish; trust — which is vain; and illusion — which is dangerous.
We believed in God, trusted in man, and lived with the illusion that every one of us has been entrusted with a sacred spark from the Shekhinah’s flame; that every one of us carries in his eyes and in his soul a reflection of God’s image.
“That,” Wiesel concluded, “was the source if not the cause of all our ordeals” (Ibid., x).
You and I did not go through the Holocaust. We have, at most, only the dimmest notions of the horrors Wiesel experienced. Yet we may know all too well something about the multitudinous ways in which human beings hurt each other, both intentionally and unintentionally; and we may find this knowledge disorienting and shattering to our own faith. Dennis Rader, the Wichita BTK killer — “BTK” was Rader’s acronym for “bind, torture, kill” — was in the news in the summer of 2005, and that fall there was a made-for-television movie of his life and terrible crimes. Why does God allow such things to happen?
Most of us know couples where a spouse has been unfaithful, causing immense grief to the other spouse and to their children. We know of situations where drunken drivers have veered into the wrong lanes and killed or maimed innocent people. In any large crowd, there are bound to be some people who were sexually abused as children or who have been raped. Some of us may know someone who was tortured. Indeed, things like these may have happened to us, while we were Christians, and while we were begging God to make them stop. So why didn’t he?
Some of you may sometimes consider your childhoods and wish your parents had been more careful to help you to grow up as godly Christians. You are perplexed about why they didn’t seem to care more about doing that. Why didn’t they talk to you about how much you would regret doing some of the things you did? Some of you may be thinking right now about distressing coworkers. Perhaps your supervisor really dislikes you, treats you unfairly, and even lies to his superiors about you, but you can’t stop him. Or perhaps you are part of a Christian organization that has some employees who teach or live in clearly unbiblical ways, and this distresses you day after day. In that situation, you may find yourself wondering why God doesn’t just move those people out and make the organization more like what, it seems, he must want it to be.
Then, again, some of us may be thinking about our own choices. We may be regretting something we have said or done. And we may realize that if our circumstances had been just a little different, then everything, it seems, would be fine right now — if you hadn’t had that porn site pop up unexpectedly on your computer screen, then you might never have gotten hooked on Internet porn; or if you hadn’t bumped into that co-worker when you were already so upset, then you wouldn’t have said those things that have now cost you your job; or if you hadn’t met that man, there would have been no chance of your having cheated on your husband with him. So why did God allow things to go the way they did? You may not doubt or deny your responsibility and guilt, but it still seems that God could have kept you from falling into sin.
These are the sorts of situations that I want to consider. As my examples suggest, we will not just consider the ways that we hurt each other; we will also consider the ways that we hurt ourselves. How does God’s will relate to our wills when we hurt each other and ourselves? Where is God when human beings cause themselves and others such hurt? Why doesn’t God stop such things?
There is one answer to these kinds of situations that I want to challenge right away.
Many of us have heard about “open theism.” Open theism was developed to deal with these very situations. It does so by addressing how our free wills and our responsibility are related to God’s will and the evils that we suffer and see. Open theists want to take God off the hook for the kinds of evil that we do. They explain these evils by claiming that God can’t prevent them without restricting or destroying our freedom. But, they claim, God doesn’t do that because he takes our freedom to be so valuable. He takes our freedom to be so valuable that he is willing to pay the price of there being all sorts of human suffering that is caused by our misuse of it.
Gregory Boyd, pastor of Woodland Hills Church in Saint Paul, Minnesota, is an open theist, and he tells this sad story in his God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open View of God to drive home why:
Several years ago after preaching a sermon on how God directs our paths, I was approached by an angry young woman (I’ll call her Suzanne). Once I was able to get past the initial raging words — directed more against God than they were against me — Suzanne told me her tragic story.
Suzanne had been raised in a wonderful Christian home and had from a very young age been a passionate, godly disciple of Jesus Christ. Indeed, since her early teen years, her only aspirations in life were to be a missionary to Taiwan and to marry a godly man with a similar vision with whom she could raise a godly, missionary-minded family. She had accepted the common evangelical myth that God had one right man picked out for her and so had committed herself to praying daily for this future husband. She prayed that he would acquire a similar vision to evangelize Taiwan, that he would remain faithful to the Lord and remain pure in heart, and so on.
Suzanne eventually went to a Christian college and, quite miraculously, quickly met a young man who shared her vision for Taiwan. Indeed, the commonalities between them as well as all the “coincidences” that had individually led them to just that college at just that time were truly astounding. For three and a half years they courted one another, prayed together, attended church together, prepared themselves for the mission field, and fell deeply in love with one another. During their senior year, this man proposed to Suzanne; surprisingly, she did not immediately say yes to his proposal. Even though so many pieces had miraculously fallen into place, she needed to have an unequivocal confirmation in her heart that this was the man she was to marry.
For several months, Suzanne and her boyfriend fasted and prayed over the matter. They consulted with their parents, their pastor, and their friends, who agreed to give the matter prayerful attention.
Everyone concluded that this marriage was indeed God’s will. Before too long, God gave Suzanne the confirmation she needed. While in prayer, she was overwhelmed by a supernatural sense of joy and peace wrapped up with a very clear confirmation that this marriage was, in fact, God’s design for her life.
Shortly after college, the newly married couple went away to a missionary school to prepare for their missionary career. Two years into their training, Suzanne learned to her horror that her husband was involved in an adulterous relationship with a fellow student. Her husband repented, but within several months returned to the affair. Despite intensive Christian counseling, this pattern repeated itself several times over the next three years.
During these three years, Suzanne’s husband’s spiritual convictions altogether disappeared. . . . He grew increasingly argumentative, hostile, and even verbally and physically abusive. In one argument toward the end of their marriage, he actually fractured Suzanne’s cheekbone in a fit of rage. Soon after . . . [he] filed for divorce and moved in with his lover. Two weeks later, Suzanne discovered she was pregnant.
The whole sad ordeal left Suzanne emotionally destroyed and spiritually bankrupt. All of her dreams had crashed down on her. She felt that her life was basically over. The worst part of it, however, was not the pain her husband had inflicted on her. The worst part was how profoundly the ordeal had damaged her previously vibrant relationship with the Lord.
Understandably, Suzanne could not fathom how the Lord could respond to her lifelong prayers by setting her up with a man he knew would do this to her and her child. Some Christian friends had suggested that perhaps she hadn’t heard God correctly. But if it wasn’t God’s voice that she and everyone else had heard regarding this marriage, she concluded, then no one could ever be sure they heard God’s voice. This was as clear as it could ever get. She had a very good point.
Other friends, reminiscent of Job’s friends, suggested that her marriage had indeed been God’s will. Knowing its outcome, the Lord had led her into it because he loves her so much and was trying to humble her, build her character, or perhaps punish her for previous sin. If a lesson was the point of it all, Suzanne remarked, then God is a very poor teacher. The ordeal didn’t teach her anything; it simply left her bitter. Initially, I tried to help Suzanne understand that this was her exhusband’s fault, not God’s, but her reply was more than adequate to invalidate my encouragement: If God knew exactly what her husband would do, then he bears all the responsibility for setting her up the way he did. I could not argue against her point, but I could offer an alternative way of understanding the situation.
I suggested to her that God felt as much regret over the confirmation he had given Suzanne as he did about his decision to make Saul king of Israel. . . . Not that it was a bad decision — at the time, her exhusband was a good man with a godly character. The prospects that he and Suzanne would have a happy marriage and fruitful ministry were, at the time, very good. Indeed, I strongly suspect that he had influenced Suzanne and her ex-husband toward this college with their marriage in mind.
Because her ex-husband was a free agent, however, even the best decisions can have sad results. Over time, and through a series of choices, Suzanne’s ex-husband had opened himself up to the enemy’s influence and became involved in an immoral relationship. Initially, all was not lost, and God and others tried to restore him, but he chose to resist the promptings of the Spirit, and consequently his heart grew darker. Suzanne’s ex-husband had become a very different person from the man God had confirmed to Suzanne to be a good candidate for marriage. This, I assured Suzanne, grieved God’s heart at least as deeply as it grieved hers.
By framing the ordeal with the context of an open future [in other words, within the context of human free choices which even God cannot know in advance of our making them], Suzanne was able to understand the tragedy of her life in a new way. She didn’t have to abandon all confidence in her ability to hear God and didn’t have to accept that somehow God intended this ordeal “for her own good.” Her faith in God’s character and her love toward God were eventually restored and she was finally able to move on with her life.
Understandably, Taiwan was no longer on her heart, but fortunately, the “God of the possible” always has a plan B and a plan C. He’s also wise enough to know how to weave our failed plan A’s into these alternative plans so beautifully that looking back, it may look like B or C was his original plan all along. This isn’t a testimony to his exhaustive definite foreknowledge; it’s a testimony to his unfathomable wisdom.
Without having the open view to offer, I don’t know how one could effectively minister to a person in Suzanne’s dilemma (Boyd, God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open View of God [Baker, 2000], 103-6).
When I first started thinking about the relationship between God and evil many years ago — in fact, very shortly after having had a paralyzing accident when I was seventeen — a fair amount of this way of explaining why we suffer struck me as exactly right (I wrote about my accident and the theological journey it initiated in “True Freedom: The Liberty that Scripture Portrays as Worth Having,” in Beyond the Bounds: Open Theism and the Undermining of Biblical Christianity).
After a couple of years of thinking intensely about this issue, I concluded that God had to put up with all kinds of things that he did not like in order to preserve our freedom. This still strikes me as a natural way to think about this issue because it fits in with our own experience. For sometimes we have to put up with what we don’t like in order to leave other people their freedom. So, “Of course,” we think, “it must be the same for God.” What I want to show is why we shouldn’t think this way, as natural as it is.
I think it is important to say that I never went as far as Boyd does — and I don’t think that most Christians do. It is not natural to think that God makes mistakes — and yet that is what Boyd seems to imply when he says that God must regret the way he guided Suzanne, including having influenced her and her future husband to attend the college they did. According to Boyd, God made a good — indeed, the “best” — decision but it had really bad results. God, in Boyd’s way of looking at things, can be as mistaken as we may be about what someone will actually choose to do. And so I don’t think it is unfair to say that Boyd’s God is one who sometimes just rolls the dice. He is better at mopping up any messes afterwards than we would be, but he still can be caught out and be more or less helpless to prevent our doing and suffering bad things.
I hope this part of Boyd’s thinking strikes you as badly as it strikes me. For, as I will now try to show, it challenges God’s glory, and it threatens our sense of assurance that, when things seem to be going really badly for us, the God who loves us remains fully in control.
Scripture’s General Perspective on God’s Relationship to Evil
What are the issues that we need to address in order to think biblically about this topic?
First, we need to know what Scripture says in general about God’s relationship to evil. Scripture declares that the Judge of all the earth will always do what is right (see Genesis 18:25). God is, as Moses sings, “the Rock, his works are perfect, and all his ways are just.” He is a “faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he” (Deuteronomy 32:4, NIV). God never does evil.
Yet this is not to say that God does not create, send, permit, or even move others to do evil, for Scripture is clear that nothing arises, exists, or endures independently of God’s will. Thus, when the writer of Hebrews states that Christ “upholds the universe by the word of his power” (1:3), he is claiming that God the Son is providentially governing everything through sustaining all of the universe’s objects and events as he carries each of them to its appointed end by his all-powerful word. This follows from the fact that the Greek word for “upholds” is pherø, which means to bring or bear or produce or carry.
As Wayne Grudem notes, pherø “is commonly used in the New Testament for carrying something from one place to another, such as bringing a paralyzed man on a bed to Jesus (Luke 5:18), bringing wine to the steward of the feast (John 2:8), or bringing a cloak and books to Paul (2 Timothy 4:13).” Consequently, in our verse’s context it “does not mean simply ‘sustain,’ but has the sense of active, purposeful control over the thing being carried from one place to another,” especially since pherø appears in our verse as a present participle, which “indicates that Jesus is ‘continually carrying along all things’ in the universe by his word of power” (Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine [Zondervan, 1994], 316). So here is the picture: God the Son holds each and every aspect of creation, including all of its evil aspects, in his “hands” — that is, within his all- powerful and ever-effectual word — and carries it by that word to where it accomplishes exactly what he wants it to do.
Ephesians 1:11 goes even further by declaring that God in Christ “works all things according to the counsel of his will.” Here the Greek word for “works” is energeø, which indicates that God not merely carries all of the universe’s objects and events to their appointed ends but that he actually brings about all things in accordance with his will. In other words, it isn’t just that God manages to turn the evil aspects of our world to good for those who love him; it is rather that he himself brings about these evil aspects for his glory (see Exodus 9:13-16; John 9:3) and his people’s good (see Hebrews 12:3-11; James 1:2-4).
This includes — as incredible and as unacceptable as it may currently seem — God’s having even brought about the Nazis’ brutality at Birkenau and Auschwitz as well as the terrible killings of Dennis Rader and even the sexual abuse of a young child: “The LORD has made everything for its own purpose, even the wicked for the day of evil” (Proverbs 16:4, NASB). “When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider: God has made the one as well as the other” (Ecclesiastes 7:14, NIV).
“Scripture is clear: nothing arises, exists, or endures independently of God’s will.” Tweet
As Thomas Goodwin noted, in this passage from Ephesians Paul wants to assure his Jewish Christian brothers and sisters that God has worked grace in their hearts as the consequence of his having predestined them before all time for salvation in Christ so that they will be confident of their eternal inheritance. So how does Paul proceed? He argues from the general principle to the specific case. God “‘works all things after the counsel of his own will;’ he plotted every thing beforehand, therefore certainly this [particular thing]” (Goodwin, An Exposition of the First Chapter of the Epistle to the Ephesians in The Works of Thomas Goodwin, [Tanski Publications, 1996], my emphasis).
In thus arguing from the general to the specific, Paul is arguing from what would be obvious to his biblically literate Jewish brothers and sisters to what would be less obvious for them as relatively new converts to Christ. These Jewish Christians would know that God — the God of the Old Testament whom they now recognized as the Father of Jesus Christ — declares “the end from the beginning” (Isaiah 46:10) — and, by implication, knows and has ordered everything inbetween, even down to foreseeing and ordering the words we will speak (see Psalm 139:4 with Proverbs 16:1).
They would know that the One who said, “My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,” is the One who ensures this by bringing everything about, including, in the immediate context of Isaiah’s words, “calling a bird of prey from the east, . . . from a far country” (Isaiah 46:10) — that is, Cyrus the Great, king of Persia from 559–530 B.C., who would conquer Babylon in 539 B.C. and then allow the Jews to return to Jerusalem so that they could rebuild the temple (see Ezra 1:1-4). God here calls the pagan, unbelieving Cyrus “a man to fulfill my purpose” (Isaiah 46:11, NIV).
From events as small as the fall of the tiniest sparrow (see Matthew 10:29) to the death, at the hands of lawless men, of his own dear Son (see Acts 2:23 with 4:28), God speaks and then brings his word to pass; he purposes and then does what he has planned (see Isaiah 46:11). Nothing that exists or occurs falls outside God’s ordaining will. Nothing, including no evil person or thing or event or deed. God’s foreordination is the ultimate reason why everything comes about, including the existence of all evil persons and things and the occurrence of any evil acts or events. And so it is not inappropriate to take God to be the creator, the sender, the permitter, and sometimes even the instigator of evil. This is what Scripture explicitly claims.
For instance, Isaiah 45:7 reports God to declare: “I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the LORD, who does all these things.” The word for “create” here is the Hebrew word bara’, which is the same word that is used for God’s creative work in Genesis 1; and the word for “calamity” is ra, which is the word that is almost always translated “evil” in the Old Testament, as we find in places like Genesis 2–3; 6:5; 13:13; and 50:15, 20. Again, Amos asks rhetorically; “When a trumpet sounds in a city, do not the people tremble? When disaster comes to a city, has not the LORD caused it?” (3:6, NIV). Isaiah also says, “The LORD has mixed within [the leaders of the Egyptian cities of Zoan and Memphis] a spirit of distortion,” and they have then “led Egypt astray in all that it does” (19:14, NASB).
Nor is maintaining that God never does evil equivalent to claiming that he does not send evil. Sometimes he sends evil spirits — one to torment King Saul (see 1 Sam. 16:14-23), another which caused the leaders of Shechem to deal treacherously with King Abimelech (see Judg. 9:23), and a third to lie through King Ahab’s prophets and thus entice him to travel to Ramoth-gilead where he would be killed (see 1 Kings 22:13-40). And sometimes he sends delusions, as Paul affirms when he says that, because the perishing refuse “to love the truth and so be saved, . . . God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness” (2 Thess. 2:11).
In Genesis 19, God sent angels to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah (see especially verse 13). In Exodus 7–12, he sent the ten plagues. In Numbers 21:6, he sent poisonous snakes to bite the grumbling Israelites. In 2 Samuel 24, he sent a pestilence on Israel that killed seventy thousand men. In 2 Kings 24:2-4, after having vowed earlier that because of Manasseh’s sins he would bring upon Jerusalem and Judah “such evil [ra] that the ears of every one who hears of it will tingle” (21:12, RSV), God sent marauding bands of foreign peoples against Judah to destroy it because of King Manasseh’s sins. All this came upon Judah by God’s word (see 24:3). In Isaiah 10, God vows to send Assyria against godless Judah, but then he also vows to “punish the speech of the arrogant heart of the king of Assyria” (verse 12) by sending a plague among his warriors (verse 16). When the Lord’s angel fulfilled this vow, 185,000 Assyrian warriors died (see Isaiah 37:36).
Scripture also establishes that God permits others to do evil, as when he permitted Satan to destroy all of Job’s property and children, so that it would be clear that even then Job would not curse God (see Job 1:6-12), and when he allowed foreign nations in Old Testament times each to walk in its own sinful way (see Acts 14:16). The idea that no one ever does evil to someone else unless God at least permits or allows it is suggested by other passages, such as Genesis 31:7, where Jacob says to his wives that God did not allow their father Laban to do ra to him; and Exodus 12:23, where Moses states that God will not allow the destroyer to enter the Jewish homes and kill their firstborn; and Luke 22:31, where the use of the Greek exaiteø seems to imply that Satan had to ask God permission before he could sift Simon.
Indeed, some biblical passages, such as Isaiah 19:2, portray God as moving others to do evil: “I will stir up Egyptians against Egyptians, and they will fight, each against another and each against his neighbor, city against city, kingdom against kingdom” (see also 9:11). Second Samuel 24:1 states that “the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel” and so “he incited David against them” by inciting David to count the Israelites. Moreover, reading Job 1:6-12 prompts the conclusion that when God said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?” in verse 8, he was actually putting Job in Satan’s gunsights.
I have belabored the Scriptures in order to drive home this point: as one of my students said rather wonderfully in responding to open theism, “Open theists are trying to let God off the hook for evil. But God doesn’t want to be let off the hook.” The verses that I have cited establish that Scripture repudiates the claim that God does evil while at the same time everywhere implying that God ordains any evil there is. To say that God “ordains” something is to say that he has planned and purposed and willed it from before the creation of the world — that is, from before time began. And whatever God has eternally planned and purposed and willed — whatever he has in that sense foreordained — inevitably takes place; to say that God has ordained (or foreordained) something is to say that he has determined that it will take place.
As Isaiah puts it, “The LORD of hosts has sworn, ‘As I have planned, so shall it be, and as I have purposed, so shall it stand’. . . . For the LORD of hosts has purposed, and who will annul it?” (14:24, 27). Nothing — no evil thing or person or event or deed — falls outside God’s ordaining will. Nothing arises, exists, or endures independently of God’s will. So when even the worst of evils befall us, they do not ultimately come from anywhere other than God’s hand.
Human Freedom and Responsibility
This is strong meat. It can be very hard for us to digest these truths. Yet even considering these claims raises other issues. For if these claims are true, then what becomes of human freedom? If everything that occurs happens because God has willed it to occur from before time began, then how can human acts be free? And if we are not free, then what happens to the crucial notion of human responsibility? How could it ever be right either to praise or blame or to reward or punish anyone?
This is the second set of issues that we must address. We need to investigate how Scripture represents the relationship between divine foreordination and human freedom. In other words, we need to think about how what God has willed relates to what we will. And we need to determine what Scripture claims about human responsibility.
“Open theists are trying to let God off the hook for evil. But God doesn’t want to be let off the hook.” Tweet
Open theists are what philosophers call free-will libertarians. Freewill libertarianism involves a claim about what must be true if human beings are to be truly free and thus capable of genuine responsibility. For free-will libertarians, true freedom involves more than just my doing whatever I choose to do. Such freedom of choice, Robert Kane argues, is just “surface freedom” (See Robert Kane, A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will [Oxford University Press, 2005], 2), because someone could manipulate me so that I always chose to do what that person wanted me to do. True freedom, Kane and other free-will libertarians hold, requires that a person not only is able to make specific choices but also was able at the time she chose to choose differently than she actually did.
So I have only freely chosen to eat chocolate ice cream if, as I chose it over rum raisin ice cream, I could actually have chosen rum raisin instead. Again, you are only free in choosing to remain sitting right now if you can also choose to stand up. But if something would stop you from standing up (let’s say that someone is with you who would hold you down if you tried to stand up), then even if (rather than fight that person) you choose to remain sitting, you are not really free. For Kane and other free-will libertarians, all of this means that we must possess what they call freedom of the will — that is, freedom to decide what we will want and thus to determine for ourselves who we will be and thus what we will choose — in addition to freedom of choice.
Now here is the crucial point: for free-will libertarians, we cannot be held responsible for what we are and do if our wills aren’t free in this libertarian sense. If the ultimate explanation for my choosing as I do lies outside me, then I am not really free and I cannot be held responsible for how I choose. And if I cannot be held responsible, then I cannot justly be praised or blamed or rewarded or punished for how I choose.
On the level of everyday life, this seems to make sense. We know that virtually all serial killers were sexually abused as children, and so it seems proper to place part of the blame for whom they have become on their abusers and not just on the killers themselves. This is what makes it seem necessary to free-will libertarians that we must have freedom of the will if God is to be just in holding us responsible for what we do. And surely we should grant that in Scripture God does hold us responsible for what we do — just read, for example, Romans 1:18–3:20. So free-will libertarians conclude that we must possess freedom of the will, which means that God cannot foreordain what we do.
For open theists, there is an additional rub, given what they think are the requirements for our possessing libertarian freedom. Open theists comprise just a subset of free-will theists because they hold, as some freewill theists do not, that if God knows what we are going to choose, say, next week, then what we are going to choose must already be determined in some way. They maintain that if God knows right now that I am going to choose chocolate ice cream instead of rum raisin ice cream next week, then that means that the claim, “Mark is going to choose chocolate ice cream instead of rum raisin ice cream next week,” is true right now; and this means that my choosing that way next week is already set. When the time comes, it may seem as if I am freely choosing to act as I do, but in fact that cannot be. So open theists insist that God cannot foreknow the future, if humans are to be free and responsible beings.
All of this seems like pretty good reasoning, although there are actually all sorts of possible answers to it. Yet I am not interested in arguing philosophically against either free-will libertarianism or open theism right now; I want to see what Scripture says. And what we find in Scripture is this: Scripture holds human beings to be acting responsibly when God foreknows what they will choose, and even when it says or implies that God has predestined or foreordained what they will choose.
In addition to some of the verses that I have already cited in the previous section, I am thinking here in particular about what happened during Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost. At one point in it he declared, “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know — this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless” — that is, wicked and yet responsible — “men” (Acts 2:22-23).
What, then, was the reaction of the Israelites to Peter’s accusation that they had been party to God’s will in crucifying the Christ? Did they claim that they were not responsible just because their actions were foreknown by God and a part of his predetermined plan — in other words, because Christ’s death, including their own choice to crucify him at the hands of lawless men, was part of God’s working all things according to the counsel of his will? Did they claim that they could not be blamed because God knew ahead of time what they would choose to do? No!
Luke tells us, a few verses later, that “when they heard [that God had made the Jesus whom they had crucified both Lord and Christ] they were cut to the heart” — in other words, they acknowledged the depth of their wrongdoing regarding God’s Christ — “and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ And Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins’” (2:37-38). We only need to ask forgiveness for what we are responsible for. So divine foreknowledge and human responsibility are taken to be compatible in Scripture.
Next, let us consider our Lord’s words at the Last Supper. As his disciples participated with him in his final Passover feast, Jesus told them that one of them would betray him. This made them very sorrowful, and they began to say to him “one after another, ‘Is it I, Lord?’” Jesus answered like this: “He who has dipped his hand in the dish with me will betray me. The Son of Man goes as it is written” — that is, as it was previously predicted — “of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born” (Matthew 26:22-24).
Does this sound as if the disciple who was to betray Jesus was not to be blamed for what he was about to do? Of course not! Acts 1:18 labels Judas’s choice to betray Jesus an act of wickedness; and the phrase “it would have been better for that man if he had not been born” is meant to convey that he is going to face very fearful judgment for what he has done. Moreover, we are told at John 6:64 that “Jesus knew from the beginning . . . who it was who would betray him.” Yet Judas was responsible for the wickedness he chose to do, as he himself recognized (see Matthew 27:4).
Finally, consider Acts 4:24-28, where the believers are praying after Peter and John had been released from custody after they had been arrested for proclaiming the gospel. You may remember that prayer:
“Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them, who through the mouth of our father David, your servant, said by the Holy Spirit, ‘Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers were gathered together, against the Lord and against his Anointed’ — for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.”
Plotting is something that people choose to do, and setting oneself against someone is another thing that a human being chooses either to do or not to do. Here Herod and Pontius Pilate and the Gentiles and the Israelites were all gathered together in setting themselves against God and Christ — and there really is no doubt that they are all being blamed for what they had chosen to do; in other words, they are being held responsible for the choices they made, even though what they have plotted and set themselves to do is what God’s hand and his plan had predestined would take place. Thus it seems that, in Scripture, God’s having foreordained that some human choices will be made is not incompatible with holding those human beings responsible for those choices.
So according to the Scriptures, no matter what free-will libertarians and open theists say, neither God’s foreknowledge nor his foreordination of all things, including all human choices and acts, preclude human responsibility.
Choosing and Willing
Scripture emphasizes that we possess what free-will libertarians call freedom of choice. This comes out in the many passages where our choices and their consequences are stressed, passages such as Deuteronomy 30:19, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live”; and Joshua 24:14, “Now therefore fear the LORD and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve.”
Then there is Proverbs 1:29, “Because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the LORD, . . . therefore they shall eat the fruit of their way, and have their fill of their own devices”; and Proverbs 3:31, “Do not envy a man of violence and do not choose any of his ways.” Again, we have Proverbs 16:16, “How much better to get wisdom than gold! To get understanding is to be chosen rather than silver”; and Isaiah 56:4:
For thus says the LORD: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.”
Finally, there is Luke 10:41, “But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.’”
Many other passages do not mention choice explicitly but presuppose our freedom to choose, such as the command at Leviticus 19:4, “Do not turn to idols or make for yourselves any gods of cast metal: I am the LORD your God”; and the four times the Israelites are exhorted in the first chapter of Joshua to be strong and courageous as they cross the river Jordan to take possession of the Promised Land. There are exhortations such as those found in Psalm 85:8, “Let me hear what God the LORD will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his saints; but let them not turn back to folly”; and Proverbs 4:20, 22-24, 26,
My son, be attentive to my words; incline your ear to my sayings. . . . For they are life to those who find them, and healing to all their flesh. Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life. Put away from you crooked speech, and put devious talk far from you. . . . Ponder the path of your feet; then all your ways will be sure. Do not swerve to the right or to the left; turn your foot away from evil.
Then there are the counsels and exhortations for Christians to walk in the light (see John 12:35 and 1 John 1:5-7) and by the Spirit (Galatians 5:16, 25; 1 Thessalonians 2:12; 4:1-7), because this is what Christ has set us free to do (see Galatians 5:1, 13; Ephesians 2:10). There are also warnings such as those found at Proverbs 3:7, “Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD, and turn away from evil”; and Proverbs 4:14: “Do not enter the path of the wicked, and do not walk in the way of the evil. Avoid it; do not go on it; turn away from it and pass on”; and Ephesians 5:3-21 and Hebrews 2:13, 4:11, and 12:25, as well as the combination of warnings and promises found in Ezekiel 3:16-21 and 18:19-32.
At Ezekiel 33:11, God pleads with the Israelites to turn back from their evil ways so that they may live. In Acts 14:15-17, Paul and Barnabas plead with the people of Lystra not to perform the blasphemy of offering sacrifice to them. In Acts 26, Paul tells King Agrippa of his conversion and how God has sent him to the Gentiles “to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in [Christ]” (verse 18). At 2 Timothy 3:5 and Titus 3:9, Paul commands his readers to avoid specific sorts of people and controversies.
So our freedom to choose, along with our responsibility, is affirmed throughout Scripture. In fact, our ability to listen and to choose and to act in the light of instruction and teaching and counseling is part of what differentiates us from the beasts: “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you. Be not like a horse or a mule, without understanding, which must be curbed with bit and bridle, or it will not stay near you” (Psalm 32:8).
But does Scripture corroborate the claim of free-will libertarians that humans are responsible for their choices and their acts because they possess freedom of the will? In other words, does Scripture endorse Kane’s claim that true freedom — the freedom really worth having, without which (he claims) we are not truly responsible nor truly deserving of praise or blame or reward or punishment — requires us to be free in the sense that we are able to choose not merely which of our wants and desires we will satisfy but are also able to choose what we will want and desire and thus are the ultimate sources or origins of our actions? Does Scripture represent the final shaping of our lives as right now “up to us” and “in us” rather than up to or in something else?
It does not. Indeed, it emphatically denies that we now possess the freedom to shape ourselves in the most fundamentally important way — that is, with regard to whether we will remain slaves to sin or become bondservants to righteousness (see Romans 6:16-19; 2 Peter 2:19). Scripture everywhere asserts or assumes that in this post-fall world each and every one of us is by nature spiritually dead (see Ephesians 2:1-3; Colossians 2:13) and thus helpless to determine for ourselves at the deepest and most crucial level of our existence who we will be. As Paul says, “the sinful mind” — that is, the mind that is spiritually dead and thus enslaved to sin — “is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so” (Romans 8:7, NIV).
To be spiritually dead means to lack the power to choose godliness and thus escape the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire (see 2 Peter 1:3). Yet the spiritually dead are not inactive — indeed, their sinful natures control and even drive them (see Romans 8:8, NIV), for their minds are set on and enslaved to what that nature desires (see Romans 8:5, NIV). In this state, as Peter O’Brien observes, we “cannot respond to life’s decisions neutrally,” for we “are deeply affected by evil, determining influences” that “may be described in terms of the environment (‘the age of this world’), a supernaturally powerful opponent (‘the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient’ [see John 8:44]), and an inner inclination towards evil (‘the flesh’).”
Scripture — and especially the New Testament — drives home the fact that each and every one of us is either still dominated by sin — as Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34) — or has been set free by God to live a life of righteousness — “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36; see 2 Corinthians 3:17). Either we are for the God who is the Father of Jesus Christ or we are against him (see Mark 9:40); there is no middle state (see Titus 1:15), for, to put it somewhat differently, each of us is either a creature of the light or a creature of darkness (see 2 Corinthians 6:14; 1 John 1:5).
Every human being in this post-fall world starts out as a slave to sin (see Romans 6:17; Ephesians 2:3; Colossians 2:7), for this is our inescapable legacy from Adam (see Romans 5:12, 19). Adam’s disobedience has made us all sons and daughters of disobedience (see Romans 5:19 with Ephesians 2:2). As God himself said when looking down upon human beings after the flood, every inclination of the unredeemed human heart is ra from childhood (see Genesis 8:21). So David declares, and Paul reiterates:
The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds, there is none who does good. The LORD looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one. (Psalm 14:1-3; Romans 3:9-20)
“The wicked” — that is, what each of us is naturally, in our “flesh,” as long as we have not been spiritually reborn of God’s Spirit (see John 3:18 with Jeremiah 25:30 and Romans 7:5 and 8:1-14) — “are estranged from the womb; they go astray from birth, speaking lies” (Psalm 58:3). We are all sinful from the moment we are conceived and then we are birthed as iniquitous; this is the truth that adulterous, murderous King David came to realize in his “inner parts” (Psalm 51:5., NIV). The whole world lies under the evil one’s control (see 1 John 5:19, NIV; 2 Corinthians 4:4; Ephesians 2:2) and would remain so forever if it were not for the rich — indeed, immeasurable — grace and mercy of God in Christ (see Ephesians 2:1-10).
Consequently, it is neither “up to us” nor is it “in us” to choose whether we will remain slaves to sin or become bondservants to righteousness. As it was for the Israelites who were born enslaved under Pharaoh, divine deliverance is our only hope (see Ephesians 2:1-10 and Colossians 2:13-15 with Exodus 13:3). As Jesus told Nicodemus, we must be born again of God’s Spirit if we are to see his kingdom (see John 3:1-8). But such a birth comes “not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will”; we must be “born of God” (John 1:13, NIV). “No one can come to me,” Jesus said to the grumbling Jews, “unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44); “no one can come to me,” he reiterated to his disciples moments later, “unless the Father enables him” (6:65, NIV).
God must put his Spirit within us and thus cause us — yes, cause us — to walk in his righteousness (see Ezekiel 36:27). “By his own choice,” James declares to his Christian brothers and sisters, “he gave birth to us by the message of the truth” (James 1:18, New Jerusalem Bible). The Spirit runs along the pathway of God’s holy Word (see John 6:63), but our hearts will open to receive him as the supernatural source of spiritual life only if God enables us to hear the word of the gospel with faith (see Galatians 3:2 with Ephesians 2:8-10 and Acts 16:14). And so it is with all of us as it was with the Gentiles in Antioch of Pisidia: as we hear the gospel preached, just as many of us as God has ordained to eternal life will believe (see Acts 13:48 with Romans 10:14-17).
Like the Israelites enslaved under Pharaoh, we need divine deliverance. Tweet
True freedom, then, is ours only if God has brought us to spiritual life by birth through his Spirit. It is only then that we are set free in a way that makes us able to choose to be bondservants to righteousness (see Romans 6; 8:2-8; Galatians 5:13; 1 Peter 2:16). Perhaps it is not too much to say that it is only after God has regenerated us that we possess true freedom of the will, for it is only after our spiritual rebirth that we are able through the power of God’s Spirit living within us to choose anything other than sin.
Yet, contrary to what free-will libertarians say, even before this, even while we were still unable to help ourselves and still hapless slaves to sin, we were properly liable to punishment (see Ephesians 5:6; Colossians 3:5-10). Indeed, as Paul puts it in Ephesians 2:3, as long as we are unregenerate and precisely because we are unregenerate, we are “by nature children of wrath.” According to Scripture, then, neither praise nor blame nor reward nor punishment depend on our possessing freedom of the will, as free-will libertarians define it.
How can this be? The reasoning of free-will libertarians seems quite plausible: the kind of freedom that we must possess if we are to be held responsible and thus liable to praise or blame and reward or punishment must involve our ability to shape ourselves at the most fundamental level of our personalities — the level of choosing who we will be by being able to choose what our wants and desires are. For if we possess no more than the ability to choose which of our wants and desires we will satisfy, then it seems that the ultimate responsibility for who we are depends on God or fate or physical or psychological necessity or whatever it is that has ultimately determined what are our wants and desires.
In fact, however, the biblical position seems clearly to be both that God has ordained everything that happens in our world of time and space and that it is not now “up to us” nor is it “in us” to choose whether we will remain slaves to sin or become bondservants to righteousness.48 Those who love evil hate good (see Micah 3:2; Psalm 52:3; see also Psalm 45:7; 101). Light can have no fellowship with darkness (see 2 Corinthains 6:14). No one can serve two masters; and so we are either inclined to sin or to righteousness (see Matthew 6:19-24). Yet, as we have seen, to which of these two we are inclined is not ultimately “up to us.” And yet Scripture maintains that we still choose freely and responsibly and thus remain properly punishable for our own wrongdoing.
Short of the accounts of our Lord’s crucifixion in Acts that we examined earlier, Genesis provides us with Scripture’s clearest example of this. This is the point of the story of Joseph, who was born as the first of the two sons of Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel, who then died while giving birth to her second son, Benjamin. All told, Jacob had twelve sons, six by his less-loved wife, Leah, two by Rachel, two by Rachel’s maidservant, Bilhah, and two by Leah’s maidservant, Zilpah. If any family has ever been destined to have family rivalries, it was this one.
Joseph’s story really starts in Genesis 37, where we read of him being his father’s pet. Jacob foolishly lavished things on Joseph, like a many-colored robe. This led Joseph’s brothers to realize that their father loved Joseph more than he loved them and so, we are told, “they hated him and could not speak peacefully to him” (37:4). To make matters worse, when Joseph was seventeen he had two dreams predicting that he would rule over his entire family, and he foolishly told his brothers about them.
These things prompted Joseph’s brothers to plot to kill him, but then, just because the opportunity arose, they sold him into slavery instead. He wound up in Egypt. There he went through a series of ups and downs, including being imprisoned for two years on the false charge that he had tried to seduce his master’s wife. Yet finally he rose to become Pharaoh’s second-in-command. And then Jacob sent Joseph’s brothers to Egypt to buy food because there was a famine in Canaan. Of course, Joseph recognized them, but he didn’t tell them who he was. Instead, he forced them to return home to fetch his full brother, Benjamin, while he held Simeon in prison until they returned. He then tested them to see how they would react to the idea of his keeping Benjamin as his servant and finally, as he watched their grief-stricken reactions to that possibility, he revealed to them who he was.
And here is the crucial point: when he finally revealed to his brothers who he was, he did not deny that it was their sinful actions of many years before that accounted for his being in Egypt. At Genesis 45:4, we find him saying, “Come near to me, please. . . . I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt.” Yet he tries to keep them from getting too dismayed or fearful upon seeing him again in these circumstances — where he really is ruling over them, just as he dreamed — by stating that what they did was ultimately God’s doing: “And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life” (45:5).
God sent Joseph to Egypt through his brothers selling him into slavery. Joseph then reiterates, without again mentioning his brothers’ part in it, that God sent him to Egypt: “God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance” (45:7, NIV). Then he finally concludes, “So it was not you who sent me here, but God” (45:8). Reading the whole story carefully clarifies that Joseph appeals to God’s will as the final explanation of everything that happened to him, and ultimately God gets the credit for all the good that resulted.
Of course, this is not to deny Joseph’s brothers’ part in the whole story, nor the evil of what they did, nor their responsibility, nor their guilt. All of that, it is clear, Scripture considers compatible with the claim that God ordained their choosing to do what they did. Indeed, that very point is made at the very end of the story, in the last few lines of Genesis. After Jacob died, Joseph’s brothers, still haunted by what they themselves call “all the evil that we did to him” (50:15), made up a story and sent it by messenger to Joseph, no doubt because they were afraid to show their faces, for fear he would now exact vengeance on them.
Their story went: “Dad commanded us right before he died to tell you, ‘Please forgive your brothers for their transgression and their sin against you, because they did in fact do evil to you.’ So please forgive us for what we’ve done” (see 50:15-17). So how did Joseph respond when he finally saw them face to face? He said, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? 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” (50:19-20).
Now understanding the construction of this claim — “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” — is absolutely crucial if we are to understand the relationship between God’s will and our wills, between God’s ordaining that someone will do some evil act and some human being’s actually doing it. The word for “evil” here is, once again, the Hebrew word ra. Ra is in the feminine singular case. In languages like Hebrew and Greek, the case of nouns, pronouns, and adjectives indicates the grammatical relations among various words. And the “it” in this claim — “God meant it for good” — is also in the feminine singular.
So by the rules of grammar, “it” clearly takes as its antecedent the previous ra. In other words, the pronoun “it” refers to the noun “evil,” just like “it” would refer to the word “book” if I were to say, “Would you please bring me my book? It is on the table.” But, then, Joseph’s claim is most accurately and clearly translated (with a little expansion to make it clear what is being talked about) like this: “As for you, my brothers, in selling me into slavery you meant evil against me, but God meant that evil event for good.”
In other words, Joseph here referred to just one specific event, namely, his brothers selling him to the Ishmaelites, who then took him to Egypt. Yet he explained the occurrence of that one event in two different ways: his brothers intended to do him harm by selling him into slavery — remember, they hated him and even were plotting to kill him — even as God intended that sale for Joseph’s and many others’ (including his brothers’) good. In the light of what we have concluded thus far, this amounts to God’s having ordained Joseph’s brothers’ evil willing, but as part of a greater good.
Dual explanations like this are scattered throughout the Scriptures. There is one at the very beginning of the book of Job, right after God put Job in Satan’s gunsights and then gave Satan permission to do anything other than lay a hand directly on Job himself. So Satan sent the Sabeans to steal Job’s oxen and donkeys and kill their herdsmen, and then caused lightning to electrocute Job’s sheep and the servants attending them, and then sent the Chaldeans to raid his camels and slaughter their keepers, and then caused a great wind that killed all of his children.
When Job learned of all of these evils, he ripped his clothes, shaved his head, “and fell on the ground and worshiped,” saying, “Naked came I from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD” (1:20). In other words, Job took God’s will to be the ultimate explanation of all of this evil. And the author of the book of Job then makes sure that we understand that this is right, for he adds, “In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong” (1:22).
In other words, it was not sinful or wrong for Job to claim that God had a sovereign, ordaining hand in these evils. God did not do them; Satan did. But the evils that Satan did, he did only with God’s permission, which the Scriptures themselves imply amounts to God’s foreordination. Satan did these things to harm Job, but God ordained them for his own glory and ultimately for Job’s good.
The story of Paul’s shipwreck in Acts 27 involves the same sort of dual explanation. In verses 22-25, God promised categorically through Paul that no one on the ship was going to be lost. Yet later when some of the sailors were secretly trying to jump ship, Paul declared to his centurion guard and his soldiers, “Unless these [sailors] stay in the ship, you cannot be saved” (see verses 30-32). This led the soldiers to act in a way that kept the sailors aboard. And thus everyone was saved, as God had ordained. Since God had previously promised that no one would be lost, we can conclude that the soldiers’ acting to keep the sailors on board was among the events that God had foreordained.
Again, in the book of Jonah we are first told that, at his urging, the sailors on Jonah’s ship hurled him into the sea (see 1:14) and then, when he is in the belly of the great fish, Jonah says to God, “you cast me into the deep” (2:3). In addition, verses like Proverbs 21:1 — “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will” — clarify that, even with kings, whose wills are most sovereign on earth, what they will is what God wills them to will because God governs their hearts. One striking instance of this involves King Saul’s suicide, which the Chronicler describes as a matter of God’s having put Saul to death for his breach of faith in not obeying God’s command to him through Samuel and in Saul’s having consulted with a medium at Endor (see 1 Chronicles 10:1-14 with 1 Samuel 10:8, 13:7-14, and 28:1-19).
So it seems that we can appropriately conclude, with the great theologian Charles Hodge, that “[w]hat is true of the history of Joseph, is true of all history” (Hodge, Systematic Theology, [Eerdmans, 1986], 1:544). All of history is composed of this sort of dual explanation: God foreordains what humans choose. He is never absent or inactive when human beings hurt each other or themselves. In the person of his Son, he is always in our midst, as the one who holds each and every aspect of creation, including all of its evil aspects, in his hands so that he may carry it to where it accomplishes exactly what he wants. Scripture includes verses that, at least on a first reading, and perhaps even on a second or third reading, may seem to imply something else.
History consists of God foreordaining and human choosing. Tweet
But as we have already seen, this is the perspective that is central to Scripture’s interpretation of our Lord’s crucifixion; and it is the perspective of verses like Hebrews 1:3 and Ephesians 1:11, which are clearly intended to cover everything that happens in our world. Of course, our Lord’s crucifixion is the supreme instance of how God ordains real evil for his own glory and his children’s good: in that case, the most awful act ever done — the crucifixion by wicked yet responsible men of God’s only Son, “the Holy and Righteous One” who is the very “Author of life” (Acts 2:23 and 3:14) — was and is also the most wonderful event that has ever occurred because it was through Christ’s utterly unjust and undeserved crucifixion and death that God was reconciling the world to himself (see 2 Corinthians 5:18-21).
God’s Will and Our Wills
It is not accidental that very early in Genesis, long before we get to Joseph’s story, we are told that “every inclination of [the unredeemed human heart] is evil from childhood” (Genesis 8:21, NIV; compare with 6:5). We now know what that means: it means that each of us enters this post-fall world as a slave to sin. Sin, Paul declares, “came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Romans 5:12). Sin reigns among all of Adam’s descendants because he sinned. By his disobedience, he brought evil into the heart of the human race. Except by God’s redeeming grace, it now runs through all of us as our primary inclination.
Every son and daughter of Adam and Eve is now naturally dominated by sin. We know, then, what motivated Joseph’s brothers. We know what they brought to Joseph’s situation. God, as the One who actively sustains all things (see again Hebrews 1:3 with Colossians 1:17), was the source of their being. But they, as Adam’s descendants, were the sole source of their sin. Their sinful inclinations made them the authors of their own sin. And, consequently, they did evil while God did not, for while God sustained them in their sin, he was not its source. This is why Scripture states that God creates, sends, permits, and even moves others to do evil while never doing evil himself. He creates and sustains sinful persons without himself being the source of their sin.
God ordains evil by willing that evil persons and things and events and deeds exist and persist. Joseph’s brothers would never have existed if God had not willed their being. He formed their inward parts and knitted them together in their mothers’ wombs (see Psalm 139:13). They would have had no power to choose or to act if God had not moment by-moment sustained them. God wrote each of their days in his book before time began (see Psalm 139:16). He hemmed them in, “behind and before” (Psalm 139:5; see Job 13:27). Nothing about them or their choices or acts surprised him. God has never fallen prey to a vain trust in the goodness of human beings, as Wiesel did.
Yet, as the guilty reactions of Joseph’s brothers suggest (see Genesis 42:21 with 44:16; 45:3, 5; 50:15-17), we should know that the fact that God has ordained everything, including our free choices, does not remove or lessen our responsibility, our guilt, or our liability to be punished for our sins (see Galatians 6:7).
So what has our examination of the Scriptures yielded? It has yielded this: we find, scattered throughout the Old and New Testaments, cases where human intentions, choices, and actions and God’s intention, choice, and action run parallel, cases where both the human intentions, choices, and actions and God’s intention, choice, and action are taken as referring to and each as fully explaining the same object or event. These intentions, choices, and actions are referred to under different descriptions — the human intentions, choices, and actions are sometimes wicked or evil, although God’s intention, choice, and action is always good, even when he is ordaining an evil event — and the human and divine intentions, choices, and actions are each taken to explain the same reality in different ways. For instance, by their evil act, Joseph’s brothers meant to do him harm; but by means of ordaining their evil act, God meant to do Joseph and many others good. But each choice — the one by sinful humans and the other by our perfectly good God — is taken as a full or complete explanation of the same object or event.
So the biblical view is this: God has ordained or willed or planned everything that happens in our world from before creation, from before time began. God is the primary agent — the primary cause, the final and ultimate explanation — of everything that happens, yet the causal relationship between God and his creatures is such that his having foreordained everything is compatible with — and indeed takes nothing away from — their creaturely power and efficacy.
Unless we are dealing with a situation in which God has miraculously intervened and thus overridden mere creaturely causality, creaturely activity — as “secondary” or “proximate” causes considered simply on the created level — fully explains whatever happens in this world. And all of this is as true of the relationship between divine and free human agency as it is of the relationship between divine and natural — that is, physical and biological — agency.
“But,” you ask, “how can this possibly be? How can Joseph’s brothers have acted freely and responsibly if what they did was what God had previously ordained? How can Pilate and Herod and Judas and the Jewish people be properly blamed for what God had predestined to take place? How can God govern the choices of human beings without that entailing that those choices are no longer free? How can the same event have two complete explanations?” My answer is this: We cannot understand how these things can possibly be. We cannot understand how some human act can be fully explained in terms of God’s having freely intended it without that explanation cancelling the freedom and responsibility of its human intenders. We cannot understand how divine and human agency are compatible in a way that allows the exercise of each kind of agency to be fully explanatory of some object or event.
And yet — and this is the absolutely crucial point — we can understand why we cannot understand it. It is because our attempts to understand this involve our trying to understand the unique relationship between the Creator and his creatures in terms of our understanding of some creature-to-creature relationship. But these attempts, it should be obvious, involve us in a kind of “category mistake” that dooms our attempts from the start. A “category mistake” involves attempting to think about something under the wrong category. How the Creator’s agency relates to his creatures’ agency is to be categorized quite differently from how any creature’s agency relates to any other creature’s agency. This should be obvious merely by our remembering that God has created everything ex nihilo — out of nothing — while all creaturely creation involves some sort of limited action on some pre-existing “stuff.”
When Scripture reveals anything about the relationship between divine and human agency, it merely affirms what Joseph declared in Genesis 50:20 — it affirms both divine and human agency, with both kinds of agency referring to and explaining the same event, but with each kind of agency explaining that event in its own way. Thus Scripture reveals that both human agency and divine agency are to be fully affirmed without attempting to tell us how this can be, because we have no way to understand it, no matter what Scripture would say: all of our analogies concerning different agents or different kinds of agency must be drawn from what holds between and among creatures, and so we necessarily lack the conceptual wherewithal to plumb how God’s foreordaining agency enables and yet governs our own free agency. As David said, after confessing that God knew his every word even before it was on his own tongue, such knowledge is too wonderful for us; it is, quite literally, too lofty for us to attain (see Psalm 139:4-6).
In summary, this means that we should affirm the age-old Christian doctrine of God’s complete providence over all. God has sovereignly ordained, from before the world began, everything that happens in our world, but in a way that does no violence to creation’s secondary causes and in a way that does not take away from human freedom or responsibility.
Beyond All Doubt
If all of this is true, then what should we be sure of when we are hurt by others or when we hurt others or ourselves? When we are thinking about human suffering and its relationship to God’s will and our wills, what should be beyond all doubt?
It should be beyond all doubt that no one suffers anything at anyone else’s hand without God having ordained that suffering. During his first hour or so in Birkenau, Elie Wiesel saw the notorious Joseph Mengele, looking “like the typical SS officer: a cruel, though not unintelligent, face, complete with monocle.” Mengele was asking the new arrivals a few questions and then, with a conductor’s baton, casually directing them either to his left, so that they went immediately to the gas chambers, or to his right to the forced-labor camp. In seeing Mengele, Wiesel was seeing a very evil man whom, nevertheless, God was actively sustaining and governing, nanosecond by nanosecond, through his evil existence.
God ordains all suffering. Tweet
And we can be sure that, from before time began, God had ordained that at that place those moments would be filled with just those persons, doing and suffering exactly as they did. We can be sure, because of what God says in places like Hebrews 1:3 and Ephesians 1:11, that even those persons in those moments did not fall out of God’s “hands” but that he actually brought the whole situation about, guiding and governing and carrying it by his all-powerful and ever-effectual word to where it would accomplish exactly what he wanted it to do.
We can also be sure that when we hurt each other, the God who has made us in his image is watching and will call us to account (see Genesis 9:4-6). Even though he ordains all of our free sinful choices, those sinful choices still “count” and we are held responsible for them. Even though he ordained the acts of a Joseph Mengele, God will not allow the blood of his victims to cry out forever. He will bring Mengele and all wrongdoers to justice (see Deuteronomy 32:35, quoted at Romans 12:19; Psalm 94). He will avenge innocent blood by punishing those who have shed it (Joel 3:17-21).
We can also be sure that, whatever God is accomplishing as he actively carries along all things, it is just and right. As the Scriptures emphatically declare, God is indeed the Rock on which we, in even life’s most evil moments, can rest, the one whose works are perfect and all of whose ways are just. In ordaining the evil works of others, he himself does no wrong, “upright and just is he.”
Of course, this is not to say that we will always know what God is accomplishing through the evils that we suffer or do. We can be sure, as Scripture confirms, that God has made everything for its purpose, even evil persons like Joseph Mengele or Dennis Rader. We can be sure that God has made our lives’ most evil moments as well as their best. Yet why he has ordained that particular evil persons do particular evil things may be as unclear to us as his sufferings were to Job.
Yet if we are Christians, then we can be sure beyond all doubt that God is causing all things — including all of our suffering at the hands of evil persons — to work together for good because he has called us according to his purpose (see Romans 8:28). We can be sure that even the worst of our suffering will someday be revealed to be an integral part of “all the good that is ours in Christ” (Philemon 6, RSV). For God has promised this. And God’s promises are as deeds already done. As the apostle Paul has written:
For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. (Romans 8:29-30)
Our future glorification is so sure that it is viewed by Paul as having already taken place, and so he puts it in the past tense. And out of this assurance comes Paul’s great exclamations:
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? . . . Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No! In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
As the New Living Translation renders verse 37, “No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ,” who has loved us with a timeless love and who will therefore be faithful to us forever (see Jerermiah 31:3).
Yet sometimes these great exclamations certainly don’t seem to be true. Sometimes it seems as if what is happening to us or to Christians whom we love or even to Christians, such as Boyd’s Suzanne, whom we just heard about — sometimes it seems that what is happening is so bad that it seems impossible that God could be ordaining them for our good.
I myself find it very difficult to understand how this can be with some of the worst things that human beings do, like sexually abusing young children or raping or torturing someone mercilessly. And, of course, something much less horrible than these sorts of things can happen to us and still leave us wondering how God could be ordaining it for our good. I have seen marriages break apart after thirty-five years and felt to some degree the grief and utter discombobulation of the abandoned spouse. I have watched tragedies unfold that seem to remove all chance for any more earthly happiness.
But, of course, none of this is new. In Scripture, there is much sorrow and tragedy, with a great deal of it caused by other people. And, as we read the Scriptures, we can hear the moanings and groanings and roarings of God’s people:
I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping. My eye wastes away because of grief; it grows weak because of all my foes. (Psalm 6:6) My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring?
And then there are these utterly poignant words of Job, early in his book, after he has lost nearly everything, including his children:
Why is light given to him who is in misery, and life to the bitter in soul, who long for death, but it comes not, and dig for it more than for hidden treasures, who rejoice exceedingly and are glad when they find the grave? Why is light given to a man whose way is hidden, whom God has hedged in? For my sighing comes instead of my bread, and my [roarings] are poured out like water. For the thing that I fear comes upon me, and what I dread befalls me. I am not at ease, nor am I quiet; I have no rest, but trouble comes. (Job 3:20-26)
Could any words be more poignant than these? — Perhaps only those of our Lord as he was forsaken of his Father on the cross.
But it is of these sorts of things that the apostle Paul is writing when he cries, in Romans 8, that nothing in all of creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Paul was not speaking in the abstract here; he was speaking out of his own experience, as it is clear when he is defending his apostleship:
Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one — I am talking like a madman! — with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant? (2 Corinthians 11:23-29)
Paul reports afflictions so severe that he and those with him “despaired of life itself” (2 Corinthians 1:8; see verses 8-11).
Many of us have tasted such grief. I have known afflictions far worse than my paralysis. I have had seasons of perplexity about God’s providence that have been so deep that night after night sleep has fled from me. Yet these griefs have been God’s gifts. For only by such severe suffering has my loving Father broken me free of some of my deeper idolatries. In the nights’ watches, while others sleep, my wakeful heart must find its rest in him or it will find no rest at all.
“Be gracious to me, O God,” David prayed when the Philistines seized him at Gath, “for man tramples on me; all day long an attacker oppresses me; my enemies trample on me all day long, for many attack me proudly. When I am afraid,” he states,
I put my trust in you. In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I shall not be afraid. What can flesh do to me?
“All day long,” David continues, “they twist my words”;
all their thoughts are against me for ra. They stir up strife, they lurk; they watch my steps, as they have waited for my life. (Psalm 56:1-6)
But God, David knows, has kept count of his nightly tossings; he has numbered his futile wanderings; he has kept track of all of David’s sorrows. He has put David’s tears in a bottle and written all of his anguish in his book. And David knows that the God who cares for him that much will never abandon him. “This I know,” he declares, “that God is for me. In God, whose word I praise, in the LORD, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I shall not be afraid. What can man do to me?” (Psalm 56:9-11). David knows that God will keep his feet from sliding so that he may still walk before God “in the light of life” (Psalm 56:13).
I would not pretend to tell someone who has been sexually abused as a child how God means that evil for her good. But I know some men and women who have found their own abuse to be God’s gift. I would not tell an angry Suzanne that I can clearly see how God has meant her husband’s sin for her good. But I know some who trace God’s hand even through such sorrows. It would not be my place to tell Elie Wiesel that the ten thousand who sighed out their prayers of praise to God on that Rosh Hashanah now long ago took the better part than he did as he stood apart from their faith. But perhaps Corrie ten Boom could witness to him of God’s providence and loving goodness, even in such straits.
The mystery of why God has ordained the evils he has is as deep as the mystery of the evils in our hearts. And just as only God can plumb the depths of our hearts, so only God knows how the hurts we do to each other and to ourselves figure into his loving cure of us who shelter ourselves under the blood and righteousness of his Son. It is not always our place to attempt to give an answer to those who are questioning God’s goodness because of the evils that others have done to them or that they have done to themselves; sometimes we should just stand silently by their sides. Moreover, we will not always, right now, have these answers for ourselves. But in glory the answers will be clear, when we will see Jesus face to face. Then we will see that God has indeed done all that he pleased and has done it all perfectly, both for his glory and our good, for in the light of Jesus’ countenance — in that “light of life” — we will see that through our sufferings our loving Father has been conforming us to the likeness of his Son.
As David said, “Weeping may last for the night, but joy is coming in the morning” (Psalm 30:5).
More Messages from Desiring God 2005 National Conference
The Suffering of Christ and the Sovereignty of God (John Piper)
Sovereignty, Suffering, and the Work of Missions (Stephen F. Saint)
The Sovereignty of God and Ethnic-Based Suffering (Carl F. Ellis, Jr.)
God’s Grace and Your Sufferings (David Powlison)
Hope . . . the Best of Things (Joni Eareckson Tada)
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