Hand on the Wheel

August 27, 2008

We’re discussing the presence of evil in a world presided over by a good God. In the previous post I made the assertion that a man cannot account for this while maintaining both the fundamental pillars of restoration theology and the biblical attributes of God. I want to explore this in detail here.

Staying with the hypothetical scenario in the previous post, a drunk driver blows through a red light and t-bones another car, killing the baby girl in the back seat. Now several things must be observed by us on the front side, especially these two: First, evil has actually occurred. The man in question had been drinking to the point of irresponsible excess, which is clearly sinful; he was driving while drunk, which is against the law, and this willful disobedience compounds his sin; and these sinful acts directly caused the death of another human being, which is murder by God’s standards; and, looking at it from Mamma’s point of view, an innocent child has been killed, a family has been devastated, etc. Evil has occurred, and on that point there should be agreement all around. And second, God was somewhere when this evil occurred. God is not a concept, He is a being. The incarnation is real, the resurrection is real, we’re not Gnostics, and we’re not atheists — God was somewhere when this evil occurred. The question before us now is where was He.

Now if we’re going to affirm with scripture that God is omnipresent, then we must answer by saying that God was right in the middle of it. He wasn’t a distant bystander, a sideline hand-wringer, a horrified spectator in the nosebleed cheap-seats — no, He was right there. This means He wasn’t just in the car with the little girl (like the sappy evangelical platitudes remind us), He was also in the other car sitting next to the drunk. And a half hour earlier He was both at the bar and in the garage watching Mamma buckle her baby into the car seat. That’s what omnipresent means.

If we’re going to affirm with scripture that God is also omniscient, then we must also conclude that God knew what was going to happen before it happened. As He watched the two cars leave the respective driveways, the rest of the evening was already known to Him. There was no mystery there, from God’s point of view. He knew this would happen.

Before we account for God’s omnipotence, let me turn aside into an anecdotal cul de sac. In one of my wife’s classes at the aforementioned Christian college, the professor was discussing the problem of evil, and in order to defend God against liability He used an illustration that went something like this. Imagine you’re standing on a street corner, and you see two cars approaching the intersection. You can see that, based on their speed and orientation, they will collide in the intersection. You can see this ahead of time, and in this way your situation roughly mimics God’s foreknowledge; yet, you cannot be held responsible for the cars colliding. Likewise, the argument goes, God cannot be held responsible for evil, even though He knows exactly how and when it is going to happen.

But this illustration is fatally flawed for one fundamental reason: it completely fails to take into account the omnipotence of God. As my wife pointed out to her professor, the person standing on the corner is free from liability in spite of foreknowledge precisely because he did not set the cars in motion, and anyway he has no power to stop the cars once they’ve started. Yet we can hardly say that about God, so the professor’s argument doesn’t work.

So if we’re going to affirm with scripture that God is omnipotent, we must face the fact that God, at the very least, had the power to stop the evil from happening, but chose not to. Chose, you say? Yes, chose. If God is all powerful, this means that when He was omnipresently with the drunk in the car which He omnisciently knew would kill the little girl, He omnipotently had His hand on the wheel. Now just forget about foreordination for a moment — the kicker is that God didn’t turn the wheel, even though He had the power to do so. This is the big white elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about, and when I finally admitted to noticing it, I found myself to be Calvinist.

Of course there are several retorts to this from the restorationist side of the isle (I know, I used to argue them), and I plan to discuss some of them in the next post. For now I’ll leave you with this spoiler. The retorts fall into three categories: 1) Functional denials of the biblical attributes of God, 2) Explicit denials of the basic tenets of restoration theology, 3) Accidental arguments for other elements of Calvinism.

Anabaptist Lite

August 26, 2008

I spent a couple years in a private college near Tampa, Florida — a small Christian college, the theological leanings of which could be roughly described as Anabaptist Lite.  It is influenced heavily (and operated almost exclusively) by heirs of the Restoration Movement (Stone-Campbell Movement) of the 18th and 19th centuries.  I attended this college because I was raised in this kind of church, as were my parents, my wife, her parents, and so on.  I mention this here because there are certain presuppositions that drive restoration theology, and these presuppositions have an impact on how one approaches the problem of evil.  And since I’m personally familiar with them, I’ll discuss them first.
Back in my restorationist days, if you were to ask me to explain how a good God could preside over a universe in which evil occurred, my answer would have been shallow.  Now this shallowness isn’t the fault of restoration theology — I just hadn’t thought through it as far as I should have.  However, what I’ve since discovered is that the only way I could remain restorationist in my thinking while continuing to affirm biblical attributes of God (omniscience, omnipotence, foreknowledge, etc.) was to stay in the shallow end of the good God/evil world question.  And that is a legitimate criticism of restoration theology.   Those who do drift into the deep end either end up denying some of the attributes of God, or abandoning some of the basic pillars of Anabaptist theology.  This is one reason why we have so many open-theists and pseudo-Calvinists running around.

Let me illustrate.  A drunk driver plows through a red light and t-bones a Geo Metro, killing the two-year-old baby girl inside.  Where is God?  Did He notice?  Did He even try to stop it?  What kind of God lets little girls get killed?  These are all valid questions, and they do come up when something like this happens.  But for the purposes of our discussion now, the important question is this: Can the Anabaptist answer these questions in accordance with his fundamental theological presuppositions without denying one or more of the scriptural attributes of God (omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence, foreknowledge), and without denying the scriptural doctrine of creation ex nihilo?  I say no, he cannot, and in the next post I intend to show the math.

No Stops

August 25, 2008

I’ve recently encountered the argument that there are no stops between Calvinism and atheism, and I’d like to unpack some of the constituent parts of that here.  Since the argument is really couched in the question of the problem of evil, I’ll start there.  Basically, the problem is this: God is here, and so is evil.  Not really a big deal at this level, but the plot really thickens when we borrow attributes of God from orthodox Christianity and start plugging them into the equation: An omnipotent God is here, and so is evil.  An omniscient God is here, and so is evil.  A sovereign God is here, and so is evil.  
If God is all of those things (and He is), and He is also a good God (and He is), then certain questions naturally follow.  Why doesn’t God stop the evil from happening?  In our haste we may find ourselves unwilling to say He doesn’t stop it, and start coming up with thinly veiled ways to suggest that He can’t, although that one requires an artful touch so as to not sound like we’re really denying His omnipotence.  Of course we can’t deny God’s omnipotence, but on the other hand we also cannot have God be the author of evil, because scripture is clear on that as well.  The rabbit hole just goes and goes. 
There is of course a scriptural approach to this question.  Now this is not to say that there is an answer exactly, if by “answer” we mean “a schematic diagram of God’s eternal secret decrees.”  After all, that’s not what the bible is for.  It’s not an owners manual for the Creator — it’s much more like an instruction manual for the creation.  And as such scripture is sufficient to teach us how to approach the question, how not to approach it, and how to settle it comfortably into our faithful expectation of the resurrection.  What I’d like to do in the posts to follow is examine some of the more popular approaches to the problem of evil in light of scripture.  As I do this, it will be important to remember that any approach we take to this question will end up falling into one of two categories.  It will either be an eisegetical subordination of scripture to philosophical presuppositions, or else it will be an exegetical subordination of the mind to revelation.  In any case, how we settle the problem of evil has broad and fundamental implications on how we view the nature of God, and this fact cannot be allowed to escape unnoticed.