Adventures in Theodicy – A Response to Piper, Platt, and Chandler

Folks over at The Gospel Coalition posted an interesting conversation between some of the most well known among the neo-puritan leaders: John Piper, David Platt, and Matt Chandler. The conversation centered on the topic of the goodness of God in the midst of suffering.

Left to Right: David Platt, John Piper, Matt Chandler

To start on a positive note, I appreciate their encouragement to have faith in God’s ability to work things out for our good. Much of the conversation centered on glorifying God. I like that.

I fear, however, that in their desire to glorify God, they credit him with inglorious things.

In sum, all three commenters agree that God not only allows all suffering, but also ordains and causes it to happen. This, according to the trio, is better news than if God had nothing to do with it. According to Platt, if God did not cause suffering it is, “horrible news because, if he didn’t, then he’s not in control and he’s not able to ensure that this is going to work together for good.”

Elsewhere, Piper argues that sin and evil are ordained by God.

I would like to offer a rebuttal.

A Rebuttal from Scripture:

We know from Scripture that it is possible for things to happen that are against God’s will (Lk 7:30; 1 Tim 2:4; etc.). This means that for us to reduce the happenings of the world to God’s “passive” or “active” will is to reduce the biblical narrative itself. Things happen, such as evil and suffering, that God does not actively or passively want to happen. The redemption narrative shows us that God is actively working against evil and suffering. According to Jesus, It is the very reason for the Incarnation:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Lk 4:18-19

All things need to be understood in light of the cross, including God’s relation to evil and suffering. There, God wages war against them. (Spoiler alert: he wins.)

We see throughout the biblical narrative that God has bound himself to our will. This is not to say that we can control God, but we can certainly motivate him to act (cf. Ex 32:14; Jon 3:10)—even against his own will! The Old Testament is overflowing with examples of this. For instance, Lam 3:33 shows us that, although God sometimes brings grief on people, it is decisively not his will. In this story, he brought grief to the Israelites because of their disobedience. Our disobedient wills and actions can cause God to do things he does not want to do; namely, discipline. What good father wants to discipline his children? Would he not rather desire for his children to do the right thing and not incur discipline?

This does not imply that God is not sovereign; it means that God has created a world in which he has limited his own sovereignty (he can do that…he is sovereign over his own sovereignty). It means that his will in the world is directly connected to our will to work with him. 1 Cor 3:9 tells us that we are “co-laborers with God.” In the words of Richard Foster, “…we are working with God to determine the outcome of events” (Celebration of Discipline, 35). This is perfectly in line with the whole of Scripture as God consistently acts and changes his mind according to the wills and actions of humans. The sovereignty of God is not employed by asserting his will over against ours, but by empowering ours when it is aligned with his. His will against evil and suffering is carried out when we join with him.

A Rebuttal from Logic:

Platt states that if God did not cause all suffering, he is not sovereign and therefore cannot ensure that all things will work for good. This is reductio ad absurdum. God can (and did) make a world in which his will could be (and was) rejected. It is a far greater display of sovereignty and wisdom that God could take a situation in which his will is rejected and still bring good out of it for his people. To say he cannot ensure blessings in the midst of suffering is to reject his sovereignty! In the words of Greg Boyd, “God doesn’t cause messes for a purpose, he brings purposes to the messes.”

But, how can God’s will be rejected? If God does not cause it, then he must allow it, right? Thus, we have a “passive” will of God.

This is a false dichotomy. There are not only two choices here.

To put it bluntly, there are some things God cannot do. Boyd explains this very well here and here. God cannot make a circle square or a married bachelor. By virtue of being a circle, a thing cannot also be a square. A bachelor, by definition, cannot be married.

God’s will is not the sole determining factor of all events. This is how he—in his sovereignty—created the world.

God can do that.

He is sovereign over his sovereignty.

There are almost infinite causes that bring about any particular act, whether natural or human. The flap of a butterfly’s wings, under the right conditions (with almost infinite other causes for each of those conditions), can cause a hurricane on the other side of the world. We can never ever, ever, ever possibly know all of the things that cause a particular act. Some of these things can deny or give God opportunity to intervene in a situation. It could be the availability of angels (Dan 10). It could be the will (Jn 5:6), obedience (Jn 9:11), faith (Mt 8:13), or prayers (Ja 5:15) of humans. The multiplicity of causes denies the right to tell someone why they suffer. We must set down our judgments and simply react with grace to their suffering as Jesus did in saying, “Niether this man nor his parents sinned. But let the works of God be manifested…” (Jn 9:3)*

One could argue that, since God has the sovereign power to override any of these causes, and yet chooses not to do so, he passively allows it to happen and, thus, it is his will. Otherwise, he would have stopped it.

I would agree only to an extent. While at times this may be true, the issue is more complex than, “God could stop it, but he doesn’t, therefore he wants it to happen.” God doesn’t want his will to be rejected. That doesn’t make sense, and it goes against the testimony of Scripture. He wants the world to operate as he intended in the Garden of Eden. He wants a people who love him enough to rule the world under his design. Love requires choice. And choice, by definition, cannot be revoked or forced—just as a circle cannot be square or a bachelor married.

Before you get hot and bothered over the fact that I believe God is “limited,” consider this: any view that suggests that God either causes or knowingly allows all events necessarily implies that God is bound by the future. He knows the future as an actuality and, therefore, the future cannot be changed. The future—including all suffering and evil—cannot be changed because it is either what he either allows or causes. In this view, God cannot escape his own future. He has no free will.

Contrary to Scripture, he cannot genuinely react to us and, therefore, cannot have a genuine relationship.

Contrary to Scripture, he cannot change his mind or be moved to action.

Contrary to Scripture, nothing can happen that is against his own will because it is all ordained either actively or passively.

A view which holds that the future is open for possibilities keeps in line with a high view of God’s sovereignty because it holds that God placed limitations on himself for the purpose of creating a free agent that has the potential of true love and true choice. The suffering and evil that occur in the world happened as a result of the choice he gave humanity. To revoke that choice would be logically impossible.

All evil and suffering is the result of humanity struggling against God’s will. The world, as it stands, is not due to God’s active or passive will. God does not partner with evil (2 Cor 6:14). God gave us authority over this world and we gave it to Satan. Now, he is the god of this age. But the True God calls you and me to join with him in the war against Satan, suffering, and evil. This is how we bring the Kingdom—the reign of God—to Earth. We deny the authority of evil. We reject suffering and death for what they are: enemies to be defeated (1 Cor 15:26). Our hope is not in the idea that God causes suffering for our good, but rather that God has the power to bring good out of our suffering. The god of this age, even though he destroys or mangles our bodies, cannot destroy our souls.

*The common interpretation of this passage either implies or states that God caused the man’s blindness in order to glorify himself. Greg Boyd argues against this interpretation, stating, “The verse should not be interpreted as suggesting that God’s will is behind this man’s blindness… The original verse does not say that ‘he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed.’ The Greek simply has hina with the aorist subjunctive passive of phaneroo (“to manifest”) and can readily be translated as, ‘But let the works of God be manifested.’” God at War, 233.

A Rebuttal from Experience:

We have an ingrained desire for justice. Not the kind of retributive, courtroom justice of post-enlightenment thinking, but the kind of justice spoken of in the Bible. When the Bible speaks of justice it refers to freedom from oppression—spiritual, emotional, physical, or otherwise.

In the twelfth chapter of his letter to the Romans Paul speaks of true worship. There, he tells us to mourn with those who mourn. And Jesus did that very thing (Jn 11:28-37). Why? Because something happened that was not good. It is a denial of the work of the cross (and indeed, scripture) to say that everything that happens is God’s will. Jesus came for precisely for the reason that the world was out of sorts. There is suffering, death, oppression, illness, and disobedience. Even the pagan knows in his heart that we need something better. That intense desire for a better world comes with being made in the image of a loving God. The memory of Eden is written on our hearts.

That is what makes the gospel “good news.” There is a better world. There is victory over—not compromise with—suffering and evil.

God gave Israel the task of showing the fallen world what it means to be human. They failed. Jesus came and accomplished what they could not. He is the true Israelite. He began to put the world to rights, but he leaves the work to us, just as the Father did in the Garden. He has not given up on what he started. As John so brilliantly structures his account, the gospel is a story of re-creation. God has set the pieces in place and tells us to be fruitful. Multiply. Build the Kingdom.

The mind of Christ motivates us to respond to suffering with tears of sadness. It motivates us to become angry when evil is committed. It motivates us to call upon our Father to change the situation and bring good out of the mess. This is what it means to be human in a world where evil and suffering exists. This is the human experience.

Evil and suffering cannot be accepted. That is an offense to the cross.

By the power of the cross and the indwelling of the Spirit we have the authority and the power to see evil and suffering and say, “This is unacceptable.” And we can join with God in bringing good from the mess.

On account of God’s calling to join him in putting the world to rights, I am filled with righteous indignation that a woman would be told that it was God’s will (whether actively or passively) for her own good that she was raped. I am heartbroken that a woman whose baby died in labor would be told that she should be joyful that God gets what he wanted.

Piper, Platt, and Chandler are completely right in explaining that our understanding of suffering and evil come from our understanding of the nature of God himself.

God looks like Jesus.

No more. No less.

Jesus came to end evil and suffering.

He calls us to do the same—not to accept it and call it good.

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9 responses to “Adventures in Theodicy – A Response to Piper, Platt, and Chandler

  1. I haven’t had the time (and I’m not sure when I next will) to watch an hour and half lecture. But I look forward to watching it. However, I still have a question regarding your answer. Could God know the future if He chose to?

    • Sorry for such a long delay in response! I was super busy at the time (moving to another state) and just saw that I never responded to you. To answer your question: no, I don’t think God could look into the future. At least, not at this point. I fully believe he could have created a world in which the future was settled, but he didn’t. If he could do that, then the future would be exhaustively settled and that would revoke the possibility of free will.

        • Richard Rice has a good section on that in “The Openness of God.” Basically, he explains that there are several different ways God can prophesy: 1) He can predict his own actions and guarantee that they will happen, regardless of human decisions. 2) He can see that the present conditions are such that it is impossible that a certain thing will not happen in the future (this goes back to the Greg Boyd lecture where he explains that God can see all possibilities). 3) He can express what he intends to do as a response that is conditioned on human decisions (such as when a parent says to a child, “I’m going to spank you if you keep doing that!”).

          Side note: #3 is a major supporting argument for Open Theism. Conditional prophecy (which is abundant in Scripture) suggests that God doesn’t know whether humans will obey. The word “if” shouldn’t exist in the vocabulary of a God who knows or causes the future.

            • I think he can steer our actions, but not our desires (or if he can, he wouldn’t because that would make the whole “relationship” thing meaningless). I’d have to study it more. There could be exceptions that I’m not aware of. But, in general I don’t see God doing that kind of thing. For instance, God made it nearly impossible for Jonah to avoid Nineveh. So, Jonah caved in, preached repentance, and the city turned to God. Jonah hated God for sparing the city from destruction (they were horrible, especially to Jews). God couldn’t/didn’t change Jonah’s mind or force Jonah to preach (in fact, his “sermon” was intentionally pathetic), yet he went to great lengths to “push” Jonah to act.

              I wouldn’t use this story as a “rule” for how God works since that’s not the point of the story. But I think it shows that God can use our surroundings to influence us to act without forcing us to think or desire something different. It also shows that God is willing to “override” our free will by limiting our choices when necessary. In this case, the fate of the nation of Nineveh was more important to him than Jonah’s desire to see them perish.

  2. I have a question about the logic of Open Theism. Open Theists tend to say it opens the future to possibilities. However, they also say God’s knowledge is limited because He has limited His own sovereignty. If that’s the case wouldn’t the future still be “foreordained” God just doesn’t know what it is because he hid it from himself. It would be like if I were to read a book I don’t know the ending, but that doesn’t make it possible for the book to change. So just because God hid the ending (by not reading ahead if you will) from His view doesn’t make it possible to change the outcome.

    I really love your blog and look forward to seeing your response.

    • Aaron, great question! Open Theism doesn’t suggest that God wrote the story and then hid it from himself. Rather, he began the story and entered into it in order to experience it with us. I think the idea that God has “limited” his knowledge is helpful, but not completely sufficient in explaining the theory. I see it more in terms of God’s participation in the realm of time. Other views see God as being outside of time, looking at it as one would look at a road map—seeing all of it at once, from beginning to end. The Open perspective is that God has become a participant in time. So, just as God became a human being and limited himself to the body, he has become a participant in creation and limited himself to work within the nature of time. It is not that our actions are already “written” and God just hasn’t gotten to that part of the book (or that he has written the book and used one of those memory erasers from Men In Black so he’d forget). That implies that our decisions are exhaustively settled and cannot be changed, which means that possibilities don’t really exist. Rather, he wrote the introduction and the conclusion to the book; made intelligent, creative creatures; and gave them the book and said, “Here. Write the middle with me.”

      I hope this helps. Also, this lecture by Greg Boyd is what convinced me to embrace the Open view. He explains things MUCH better than I do.

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