Does God know the future? Furthermore, has God declared the future? How much control does He actually exert over His creation? Questions of this sort often seem to be relegated to the "ivory towers" of theologial conjecture. But when the kind of chaos that has recently affected our nation encloses itself around our lives, those deeply philosophical questions quickly become the ones for which we seek answers.
While we try with all our being to think of God as good, right and just, we look at the soaring energy prices at home, with the devastation that was once the city of New Orleans against the backdrop, and ask in anguish the age-old question best coined by the prophet Amos: "Does disaster come to a city unless the Lord has done it?"
Philosophers of Religion call this question one of "theodicy," or an attempt to explain and justify the actions of God. Why would He allow such devastation? Yet when disaster of this magnitude strikes, any attempt to verbally express what God is up to seems to fall short, and those who claim to have a handle on God's plans (think Jerry Falwell after September 11) seem as naive as they really are.
Still others, such as an AM talk show host here in the Washington D.C. area, assume that God must simply be "asleep at the wheel." Last week, the host of the 9 AM to noon program stated definitively to a caller that "God can either be all-powerful, or all-good, but he cannot be both." As the average American surveys the landscape in our country today, it would be easy to come to the same conclusion, regardless of how ahistorical and unBiblical such a position would be.
The ironic thing is that now many like this talk-show host have suporters inside Christendom! A relatively recent theological movement called open theism, which has been afoot in the church for a little over a decade now, takes the side of this populist view of God: namely, that He doesn't control everything that happens in the world, and that He too is often caught off-guard by the chaotic events of our planet. Such a view goes beyond the historical debate between Calvinists and Arminians, which deals primarily with the extent of God's sovereignty over against the extent of man's freedom. The current debate moves beyond the issue of "free-will" to suggest not only that God doesn't predetermine events in history, but that He sometimes is competely unaware of these events!
Gregory Boyd, Senior Pastor at Woodland Hills Church in Minneapolis and Open Theism's most vocal proponent, introduced this view of God to the church in masse via his 2000 book God of the Possible. Boyd's intentions were honorable. Seeking an explanation for the seemingly inexplicable suffering many Christians are forced to experience in life, Boyd simply suggested that perhaps our concept of God as omniscient (all-knowing of all past, present and future events) was in error. Says Boyd, "The open view, I submit, allows us to say consistently in unequivocal terms that the ultimate source for all evil is found in the will of free agents rather than in God."
On the surface, this view seems to serve as the ultimate and final answer to the question of theodicy: God isn't causing the affliction because He is love, and would never send something like this on a person. This is not to say that open theists believe God is ignorant of the possibility of catastrophe, but rather does not know that something will actually happen. Therefore, catastrophes like Hurricane Katrina and her chaotic aftermath aren't something caused by God. It just happened! In reality, God is just as surprised as the rest of us, because often He simply doesn't know about coming affliction, much less how severe it will be. Similarly, the squeeze you and I have felt over this past week as gas prices have risen by double-digit percentages, and the accompanying anxiety over whether we will be able to afford transportation are not the result of a God-ordained event. They can't be, because God is just as much in shock over these things as we are!
Furthermore, it must be asserted that the Scriptures do indeed place the responsibility for evil squarely upon the will of man. The lawlessness America witnessed in New Orleans last week was simply human depravity within a context most conducive to its development. And let's face it: the price of gas must be due at least in part to the careless way in which we have wasted God's natural resources. But is this where the questions end? Is there no higher purpose behind chaos and catastrophe? In the end, Open Theism's attempt to "get God off the hook" leaves the seeker with little hope, and little incentive to look to the God of Scripture for an answer. To seekers of truth, a deeper investigation must ensue.
Contrary to the claims of open theists, the historical view of God, while not answering every question definitively, gives great hope to the one who truly believes. The Scriptural teaching concerning God's sovereignty can basically be boiled down to three truths:
1. All that God decrees or permits is ultimately for good, because God cannot sin, nor does He tempt others to sin.
2. All evil falls upon the shoulders of men.
3. Evil is thus allowed by a sovereign God, but He is not responsible for the evil permitted.
One Biblical example among many that could be given summarizes these truths well. In Isaiah 10, the prophet foretells of the destruction of the nation of Assyria. In the 8th century B.C., Assyria was to the world what the United States is today to the world: a lone superpower. Yet because of her disdain for and mistreatment of the people of God in Israel, God through Isaiah foretells of their ultimate demise.
Still, this demise did not come until after the Assyrian armies invaded Israel, killed, raped, maimed and scattered God's people, and settled in the land to intermarry with the leftover Israelites and create a new, Samaritan race. Furthermore, God through the prophet declares that the plan to invade Israel did not belong first to Assyria, but to God Himself as punishment for Israel's idolatry. This ironic juxtaposition is revealed by the grammatical structure of the text: "Ah Assyria, the rod of my anger; the staff in their hands is my fury! Against a godless nation I send him, and against the people of my wrath I command him to take spoil and seize plunder, and to tread them down like the mire of the streets. But he does not so intend, and in his heart does not so think; but it is in his heart to destroy, and to cutt off nations not a few." (10:5-7 ESV)
The text could not be any more clear! God ordained that His own people should be utterly and embarrasingly defeated at the hands of enemies even more godless than they were! Yet while the evil actions of the Assyrian armies is used by God to correct and ultimately bring His people back to Himself, the evil desire behind those actions is the fault of the Assyrians. In this passage, Isaiah has struck the correct balance between divine sovereingty and human responsibility, and he has done so without diminishing God's knowlege and power, or man's culpability and free choice to do evil.
How can the prophet do this? Ultimately because his prophecy is based within a more fully-orbed picture of a God who really does control everything, even those unimaginable and horrific events that boggle the human mind. That true and Biblical picture of God is given by the Lord himself to Isaiah later in the text, and in a way that reminds His followers in the midst of seeming chaos to stand on the promises of His sovereign will: "Remember this and stand firm, recall it to mind, you transgressors, remember the former things of old; for I am God and there is no other; I am God and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things not yet done."
Such a picture of God gives people hope in times of uncertainty. But it also does far more than this.
As our nation struggles to address what the media now calls "the most horrific natural disaster to ever occur on American soil in American history," followers of Jesus Christ are called upon to be the feet, hands, voice and compassion of God Himself. And the church for the most part has responded beautifully, as is but partially evidenced in the more than 500,000 meals a day served by my own denomination's disaster relief efforts in the area.
But how do we connect the relief efforts with the above lessons on a sovereign God? What hath Isaiah 46 to do with Matthew 25:31-46? I will speak to this issue more particulary next week. But for now, suffice it to say that it is not only Christians who need a sovereign God in times of crisis. Now, more than ever, the people of Louisiana, Mississippi, and surrounding areas need a God who is sovereign! Receiving the truth about this God means that we also accept the hard truth that Hurricane Katrina was His storm, traveling His path, and accomplishing His purposes!
But what purpose? How could those purposes have possibly included the thousands of innocent lives lost? How can we conceive of a God who allows newbon infants to die of dehydration while waiting for a rescue that will never come?!?! These questtions have no easy answer, and what His purposes were will likely never be fully known on this side of eternity! But this much we know--the same great God who controls the weather commands that we give shelter, food and clothing to the homeless, hungry and naked. And with these supplies, He also commands that we communicate to the victims of this disaster that God is not only great. He is also good!
How can this be? Reflection on this question will come next week.