Location: Ireland

Thursday, November 09, 2006

If God is Sovereign and the world is like it is, He is not good.

D. If God is Sovereign and the world is like it is, he is not good – discuss.
This is a statement that God is not good if two conditions are met. The first being that God is sovereign, which He is and the second being that the world is like it is…which it is. Therefore we are left with the conclusion that God is not good …which is false. seems that we have a profound doctrinal difficulty on our hands.
How is the world?
Without wishing to over-simplify, this whole discussion hinges on the way we handle the terms ‘good’ and ‘ungood’[1]. As humans, we like to put things in boxes and categories; sometimes humorously so. How easy it is to put the whole planet and all its inhabitants into a ‘bad’ box just because we are having a ‘bad’ day. And who could possibly decline putting the whole universe into a big heart-shaped la-vie-est-belle box after watching ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ or while listening to Ennio Morricone’s theme from ‘The Mission’?
Tentatively approaching the second half of the conditional element of the statement, we agree that the world is as it is or else we’re in a huge amount of trouble when it comes to discussing anything. If the world isn’t as it is we may soon end up in a hippyish hallucinogenic haze with our thoughts meandering down meaningless metaphors of no-return: “The world isn’t as it is eh?” I think it was above the door of his house in New York that John Lennon had “This is not here” cut into the glass. Deep, man. But enough about the seventies, let’s get onto the more important matter of eternity…
The latter half of the condition, that God is not good, implies that the world then must be a ‘bad’ or ‘evil’ place. We must then consider how we are going to define ‘good’ ‘bad’ and ‘evil’. To be able to define what is ‘good’ we must have some yardstick. However, if we are to quickly say that “Yes, God is how we define what is good”, it defeats the whole discussion without any thought. The other option is to go by man’s definition of what is good. The following example might illustrate what road this will take us down: If I am running across the road and trip in a pothole and break my leg, is it good? Of course not, it is horribly bad and painful. However, if I am running across the road and trip in a pothole and break my leg and then watch as the truck, that I hadn’t seen, speeds through the ‘me-shaped’ space that I would have been occupying had I not been halted, is it then good that I broke my leg? So good seems to be defined by our feelings and circumstances. Now this seems like quite a comfortable pair of shoes to put on so let’s walk around in them for a while… basically what we have arrived at is a situation where we have had the following discussion with man:
Us: “Man, how dost thou define this concept thou speakest of which is called ‘good’? Is it in terms of what thou Creator wouldst hold true?”
Man: “I say ‘nay’, for that would defeat the argument.”
Us: “How then shall man define what is ‘good’?”
Man: “The only way is by man himself; for God and man are the only ones involved in this discussion. Since we cannot include God in this definition, we must centre it around man and his experience(, pomp) and circumstance.”
So now, ‘good’ is a slave to our feelings at a particular time. I think we can state without much disagreement that if, we are to define ‘good’ in this way, then the world is not totally good or totally bad. It seems to be a mixture of both. (It could easily be argued that well, because there is even a little bit of bad in the world, then it is totally bad. Something along the idea that we have all fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). This of course, will have to be founded on the premise that God is good (otherwise how could we fall short of His standard of goodness?) and so if that is the case, we easily dispel the statement that He is not good through simple logic.) So I’m afraid we’re stuck with this idea that there is some good and some bad in the world – it’s not just a black and white view.
From a human perspective, there seems to be two ways that ‘bad’ can happen in the world. There seems to be things that happen to us as a direct result of human decision (whether it be our own or someone else’s). And then there are things that seem to be entirely accidental which don’t seem to be as a result of any human decision. After all, accidents happen! However, the Bible tells us that all human hardship came about after the fall which, incidentally, involved arguably the worst human decision ever. (Although haven’t we all made that choice at some point in our lives?) Now it may be thought that to bring a Biblical statement unquestioned into the discussion is a bit unfair so let’s back away from that for now.
Let’s firstly take those times when bad things happen to good people as a result of someone else’s decision. Most people will understand that yes, human beings have free will. It has been given them by God. (For those of you down the back who are saying “But we never subscribed to the idea of God existing” then you’re in the wrong discussion group!) So what we have built up thus far is that bad things happen to good people through the bad decisions of other humans which are reliant on their ability to make those decisions or their ‘free will’. We have also said that this free will is God given. This begs the question is God then not indirectly responsible for these acts of evil. And there’s the crunch.
What do we think of when we hear the word ‘sovereign’?
I think it is important not to let our own flawed ideas of sovereignty get in the way here. We must hold in tension the fact that God is sovereign but that He has given us free will. God’s sovereignty is clearly not practised with a heavy handed rule over man. He has given man the freedom to do what we will which would enable him to commit wrongdoing. I suppose a question that may reveal the heart of the issue is “Are we willing to give up our free will so that the world would be a totally good place?” And I think if we’re honest, no one among us would say “Yes”. Free will is one of God’s greatest gifts. It is one of the fundamental characteristics that God has deemed necessary for us to be ‘made in His image and likeness’.
So I think it is fair to say that we are agreed that free will is something that is fundamental in the make-up of what it means to be human. The fundamental question is “Why then could not God, who is infinite in His wisdom and power, not create a human race that had ‘free will’ of sorts but could not choose to defy their creator?” (After all, as it is, we have ‘free will’ only within the bounds of God’s universe. We are restricted, for want of a better word, to exist as He has ordained; from a purely physical sense, we have free will but we do not have the ability to grow wings for example, for that is outside the bounds of what God has prescribed in the natural world. From a mental point of view, we have free will to think what we like but only within the bounds of what we have experienced – it is beyond the human mind to imagine something from scratch that doesn’t already exist. Indeed, this can be used to argue for the existence of God: We’ve never experienced something which is infinite, therefore, how could we understand the concept of infinity unless an infinite Being exists.) It truly is a difficult question and one that will most likely never be conclusively answered during our experience here. The important thing to take from this is that, as humans, we tend to learn through experience much more effectively and thoroughly than we do through reading a book; an idea that I will come back to in a while.
Trust in Him
I think that we should not think that we ultimately know what’s best. This whole discussion has built on the idea that ‘good’ is defined by what man thinks is good. And the Bible tells us that it is this very sin that resulted in all of mankind being cast into a state which required them redemption through Jesus. If we allow ourselves the luxury of starting with the premise that God is good and work from that, we can use the knowledge that God is our Father to understand why seemingly bad things happen to people. As children, there were many things that happened in our lives that seemed unfair or bad and our earthly fathers often rebuked us or disciplined us. At the time, we felt hard done by but with mature wisdom, we realise that it was for our good. We are told repeatedly in the Bible that our faith will be tested or that we must endure trials.
Granted this idea is relatively easy to apply to situations in our Christian lives where we can see the results of the rebuke but I believe that we should also apply it on a much larger scale. We must view it through God’s eyes. We cannot possibly understand all that God does or how He works in our world. As humans, it is just beyond our comprehension. We must simply trust in the promise that all things work together for good to those who love God (Romans 8:28).

Having come this far, I think there are a few lingering questions:
1. Why could God not have created a world in the first place where the issue of rebellion against Him wouldn’t even have come into our minds and yet we would have had free will?
I suppose the way I see it is that we have to trust in His wisdom. We will never be able to answer it fully on this earth but just think of that hymn
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind but now I see.
Think of how the wretch knows of such sweet grace. It is because he knows what it is to be a wretch. Think of how he can appreciate what it is like to be found…it is because he was once lost. Think of why he thinks it such a great thing to be able to see…because he knew once what it was like to be blind.
Angels will never know what it is to be redeemed by the body and blood of the Son of God.
2. If God is totally Sovereign and brings to Him those whom He will, where does that leave everybody else?
This is a huge question. We will never grasp how God brings His children to Himself and yet never violates their free will (and of course on the other hand, hardens people’s hearts). However, as C.S. Lewis puts it, if we are worried that we might be left outside, the most common sense thing to do would be to get inside.
3. If God causes evil to come about, how is He not held responsible for it?
We must accept that God does indeed cause evil to come about. As Grudem points out, “the most evil deed of all history, the crucifixion of Christ, was ordained by God – not just the fact that it would occur, but also all the individual actions connected with it.”[2] However, as Jesus says in Luke’s gospel, “It is impossible that no offences should come, but woe to him through whom they do come.” And so it is he by whom the offences come that will be judged for them. If we are to trace the reason for Jesus’ death back through the Bible, ultimately it is for the salvation of man, the need for which came about through the fall of Adam.
So what will we say? Indeed that God brings about all purposes according to His will, through the actions of His creatures and creation. However, it is the creatures that are held responsible as they choose to do these things of their own free will.
Any kind of all-encompassing solution to this essay is impossible but let’s just say that when we are in heaven, we will understand with absolute clarity the methods which God used to bring us there and it will suddenly dawn on us that no, we couldn’t have done it better ourselves. We will be glad for this fact because the very essence of goodness is defined by our God and thankfully not by us. In the meantime, let’s not get discouraged by not understanding everything about our Father. Rather take joy from the fact that we will spend eternity finding out more and more of Him who saved us and so it is nice to think that we haven’t exhausted our knowledge of Him already!
[1] Which is more commonly known as ‘evil’ or ‘bad’. (For the purposes of this essay, I shall use the word ‘evil’ when referring to the antonym of ‘good’ as I think ‘bad’ has lost some weight lately)
[2] Grudem, Wayne, Bible Doctrine, 1999, Intervarsity Press, Great Britain, p. 148


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