The Omnipotence of God and the Problem of Evil
Introduction: In 1981 Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote a little book that became an acclaimed national bestseller entitled When Bad Things Happen to Good People. The book grew out of Kushner’s own personal loss in the death of his son who was born with a rare disease that eventually took his life at age fourteen. Kushner begins by saying that he had grown up with an image of God as an all-wise, all-powerful parent figure who would treat us as our earthly dad, or even better. If we were obedient and deserving, He would reward us. If we got out of line, He would discipline us, reluctantly but firmly. He would protect us from being hurt or from hurting ourselves, and would see to it that we got what we deserved in life (p.3). As a result of his son’s death, Kushner’s already garbled understanding of God underwent a dramatic change. He concluded that God was not really God-like—He made mistakes, He could not prevent evil from happening and that God was in fact a very limited being.
Kushner summarizes his view with these words, “The author. . . takes the position which neither Job nor his friends take. He believes in God’s goodness and Job’s goodness, and is prepared to give up his belief in proposition (a): that God is all-powerful. Bad things do happen to good people in this world, but it is not God who wills it. God would like people to get what they deserve in life, but He cannot always arrange it. Forced to choose between a good God who is not totally powerful, or a powerful God who is not totally good, the author of the book of Job chooses to believe in God’s goodness” (p.42).
He concluded his book by saying, “Are you capable of forgiving and loving God even when you have found out that He has let you down and disappointed you by permitting bad luck and sickness and cruelty in His world, and permitting some of those things to happen to you? Can you learn to love and forgive Him despite His limitations, as Job does, and as you once learned to forgive and love your parents even though they were not as wise, as strong, or as perfect as you needed them to be?” (p.148). How can God be good when He permits (or does) things that seem so destructive and hurtful to human beings? Surely if we had the power to prevent an earthquake, we would have done so. Just think of the children who are made orphans when a natural disaster strikes, the new widows and widowers, the depleted resources, and the fresh graves. Should we charge God with evil? Or is God simply unable to prevent evil?
The Bible pictures a Sovereign Lord of all creation. Note the following texts: The Lord said to him, “Who gave man his mouth? Who makes him deaf or mute? Who gives him sight or makes him blind? Is it not I, the Lord?” (Ex. 4:11). See now that I myself am He! There is no god besides me. I put to death and I bring to life, I have wounded and I will heal, and no one can deliver out of my hand (Deut. 32:39). The Lord brings death and makes alive, He brings down to the grave and raises up. The Lord sends poverty and wealth; He humbles and He exalts (I Sam. 2:6-7). Consider what God has done: Who can straighten what He has made crooked? When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider: God has made the one as well as the other. Therefore, a man cannot discover anything about his future (Eccl.7:13-14). I am the Lord, and there is no other; apart from me there is no God. I will strengthen you, though you have not acknowledged me, so that from the rising of the sun to the place of its setting men may know there is none besides me. I am the Lord, and there is no other. I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the Lord, do all these things (Isa 45:5-7). Who can speak and have it happen if the Lord has not decreed it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that both calamities and good things come? (Lam. 3:37-38). When a trumpet sounds in a city, do not the people tremble? When disaster comes to a city, has not the Lord caused it? (Amos 3:6). The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord (Prov.16:33). And He made known to us the mystery of His will according to His good pleasure, which He purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment—to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ. In Him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of Him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of His will (Eph. 1:9-11).
I. God does Not Operate on Human Standards
If you were standing beside a swimming pool and watched a toddler fall in and did not pull the child out, your negligence would be cause for prosecution. Yet God watches children drown or, for that matter, starve every day and does not intervene. He sends drought, creating scarcity of food; He sends tidal waves, wiping out homes and crops. We are obligated to keep people alive as long as possible; if God were held to that standard, no one would ever die. He could keep the whole population of the world alive indefinitely. What for us would be criminal is for God an everyday occurrence. Why the difference? He is the Creator; we are the creatures. Because He is the giver of life, He also has the right to take life. He has a long-term agenda that is much more complex than keeping people alive as long as possible. Death and destruction are a part of His plan. ‘“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the LORD, ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts’” (Isa. 55:8-9). Erwin Lutzer poses this question, “Did you ever realize that not all of the Ten Commandments apply to God? For example, He cannot steal, for He owns everything. He does not bear false witness, but having neither father or mother; He must of necessity honor only Himself. God does not often strike a person dead, but through disease, disaster, and various other calamities He does take human life regularly, daily, hourly.” [i]
II. God’s Dealings with Humanity are Long Term
Final rewards and punishments are not meted out in this life (Ps. 75). The Bible clearly teaches that God’s people endure great suffering (Heb. 11:35-38). God is both good and omnipotent, but He always acts from the standpoint of eternity rather than time; He makes all decisions with an infinite perspective, but of this you can be sure, God will punish and reward (II Cor. 5:10). We believe that God has a good and all wise purpose for even the grief we suffer. Indeed, John Piper contends that “he had hundreds of thousands of purposes, most of which will remain hidden to us until we are able to grasp them at the end of the age.” [ii]
III. God does Not Delight in Human Suffering
Surely this would be inconsistent with His basic nature of loving the world. “There is” as Douglas Hall points out, “a conspicuous absence of love in Kushner’s discussion of God and human suffering.” [iii] But God does take delight in executing His judgments. Moses told the Israelites the consequences if they sinned: “Just as it pleased the Lord to make you prosper and increase in number, so it will please Him to ruin and destroy you. You will be uprooted from the land you are entering to possess” (Deut. 28:63). The reason is obvious: He delights in defending His glory; He is jealous that this happens. Contrary to popular opinion (as represented by Rabbi Kushner) “good” people do not populate this planet. Kushner has a very odd notion of “good” because he has a very truncated conception of sin. Morally, Job may indeed be a “good” man. But, as the speech out of the whirlwind later indicates, (Job Chs. 38-42) there is a sense in which none of us, no matter how (comparatively!) good we are, can stand before the Holy without guilt. This sense of our own unworthiness is grounded in the Old Testament. Isaiah’s temple vision (Chap. 6) understood it very well; and the modern Jewish author of The Trial (Kafka) understood it at least as well as did that ancient Jewish convert to Christianity, Paul, who had to confess finally that “There is no one who does good, not even one” (Rom. 3:12).
IV. God is Not Subject to Our Expectations or Judgments
As finite beings, we cannot judge an infinite being. God is not obligated to tell us all what He is up to. It is not necessary for us to see God’s eternal purposes in order for us to believe that He has such a plan and that He knows what He is doing. As Paul reminded an imaginary objector to God’s sovereignty, the clay has no right to judge the potter. It is not necessary for us to know God’s purposes before we bow before His authority. And the fact that we trust God though He has not revealed the details to us is something that delights His heart. “Without faith it is impossible to please God” (Heb. 11:6).
Christians undergoing pain and suffering will be well served by contemplating the Bible’s story line and meditating on the price of sin. We live in an age where everyone is concerned about their “rights.” But there is a profound sense in which our “rights” before God have been sacrificed by our sin. “If in fact we believe,” observes Carson, “that our sin properly deserves the wrath of God, then when we experience the sufferings of this world, all of them the consequences of human rebellion, we will be less quick to blame God and a lot quicker to recognize that we have no fundamental right to expect a life of unbroken ease and comfort. From the biblical perspective, it is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed. Most emphatically, this does not mean that every bit of suffering is the immediate consequence of a particular sin. That is a hideous piece of heresy, capable of inflicting untold mental anguish. It would mean that the people who suffer the most in this world must be those who have sinned the most in this world; and that is demonstrably untrue, both in the Bible and in experience. It is enough to observe that illness can be the direct result of a specific sin (as in the case of those described in I Cor:11:27-34; or in the case of the man in John 5:1-15 who was paralyzed for thirty-eight years), but there is no necessary connection between a specific sin and a particular spell of suffering (e.g., the man born blind John 9).” [iv]
Conclusion: Kushner’s little book made a profound impact on at least one segment of the Evangelical church. Open-view theists, who claim that they are evangelical, also claim Kushner as a kindred spirit. The essence of what Kushner wrote may now be found in all the writings of the Open-View theists—and it is being spread throughout the evangelical church by highly respected evangelical publishers. Open-View theist Clark Pinnock echoed Kushner when he wrote, “God cannot be perplexed but suffers with His people. God’s power is limitless but is deployed in ways that may appear weak. God is not subject to change or decay but can relate to temporal passage. God knows everything but is still learning what the world is becoming. The open view of God stresses qualities of generosity, sensitivity, and vulnerability more than power and control. It allows us to think of God as taking risks. Instead of locating God above and beyond history, it stresses God’s activity in history, responding to events as they happen, in order to accomplish His purposes. Rather than deciding the future all by himself, God made creatures with the capacity to surprise and delight him. Like a loving parent, he rejoices with them when they are happy and suffers with them when they are in pain. In and through everything, God is committed to their welfare and continually works to achieve what is best for them.”[v]
Open View theist John Sanders adds “In my view, God does seek to bring good even out of tragedy, but there are no guarantees. God is working in the lives of those who love God to redeem even evil situations and bring forth something good (Rom. 8:28). But contrary to specific sovereignty, the God of general sovereignty cannot ensure that people who are suffering will respond positively to his redemptive love. Given the fellowship model of providence wherein God does not force his will on us, it is possible that we thwart God’s attempts to redeem suffering in our lives. Considering the personal aspects of the divine-human relationship, though God works to bring good out of evil, God cannot guarantee that a greater good will arise out of each and every occurrence of evil.”[vi]
This is a profoundly different portrait of God than is pictured for us in Scripture. The god of Rabbi Kushner and Open View theism, as Carson rightly points out, “cannot offer us any comfort. Belief in an omnipotent God brings with it all sorts of hard questions about how such a God, if he is good, can permit evil and suffering, but it also brings with it the promise of help, relief, an answer, an eschatological prospect. To abandon belief in the omnipotence of God may ‘solve’ the problem of evil, but the cost is enormous: the resulting god is incapable of helping us. He may be able to give us quite a bit of sympathy, and even groan along with us; but he clearly cannot help us—not now, and not in the future. There is no point praying to such a god and asking for his help. He is already doing the best he can, poor chap, but he has reached the end of his resources. For all that one sympathizes with Kushner’s search for a God he can respect, he has ended up with a god who cannot help.”[vii]
[i] E. W. Lutzer, Ten Lies About God and How you Might Already Be Deceived (Word, 2000), p. 110. I have adopted the substance of my outline from Lutzer.
[ii] J. Piper, World Magazine (Sept. 4, 1999), p. 33.
[iii] D. J. Hall, God & Human Suffering: An Exercise in the Theology of the Cross (Augsburg, 1986), p. 156.
[iv] D. A. Carson How Long, O Lord? Reflections On Suffering and Evil (Baker, 1990), p. 47.
[v] C. Pinnock, The Openness of God (IVP, 1994), p. 123.
[vi] J. Sanders The God Who Risks: A Theology ofProvidence (IVP, 1998), p. 263.
[vii]Carson, op.cit. p. 31.
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