All of us were shocked as we watched the news unfold on the horrific crash of the New York limousine that took the lives of 20 people. In the days that followed we watched as one family held a funeral for eight family members while attending ten additional funerals for close friends. We listened as one child who lost her father say, “Everybody talks about God, but if he’s such a good person, why would he do this to Daddy?” Another young lady being interviewed wondered how she could remain faithful to a God that would allow something like this to happen.
I think we all can see where they can come to this conclusion. After all if God is all-knowing and all-powerful then it is reasonable to assume that people would come to believe that everything that happens, even horrific events like the crash of the limousine mentioned above, would supposedly fit into God’s mysterious plan and in some way bring him ‘glory’. How many times have we heard someone comfort a person with one of these phrases, “If it be God’s will”, “Everything happens for a reason,” “He won’t give you more than you can handle,” “He gives and takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord,” as if God has sovereignty ordained someone’s suffering as a part of His plan for their lives.
The above paragraphs show the conflict the church often finds itself in as it deals with pain and sorrow. It is not a small issue either, the whole world is watching because how we handle this issue defines to them who God is and how he interacts with his children. It also teaches us how we interact with each other and often leads us into having a faulty and misguided view of God. A God who meticulously shows everyone that he is in control by keeping humanity on a short leash conflicts with a God who is defined by his ‘love’. Scripture states that God is love (1 John 4:8, 16). It also says that the cross is the “wisdom of God” and the “power of God” for those who follow Jesus (1 Corinthians 1:23-24).
The church did not begin by having this distorted view of God, in fact it can be traced to Augustine during the third century. Theologians have come to call Augustine’s concept a blueprint theology and it has slowly replaced the warfare theology that was in place for three hundred years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. Instead of fighting and recognizing evil for what it is, we seek to understand it as an intellectual problem. The blueprint model is seen as a roadmap to God’s ultimate plan for our life. All the good, bad and ugly things ‘including suffering’ is seen as God’s plan to keep us in the center of His will for our life. The problem with this model is it suggests that God has every detail of our lives mapped out and therefore we have no choice in the matter. Within this concept, it would leave us with no free-will and would make God’s love for us to be conditional.
Neither Jesus nor his disciples understood God’s absolute power to mean absolute control. Jesus understood that the cosmos was populated by a myriad of free agents, some human, some angelic, and many of them evil. For example, Paul’s inability to reach Thessalonica in (1 Thessalonians 2:18) had nothing to do with either what He willed or what God willed, in His mind it was simply the result of Satan hindering him. Also in Mark 9:25, the person’s deafness or muteness had nothing to do with what the person willed or what God willed, it was for Jesus, the result of demons. In the books of Mark and Luke, 50% of those Jesus healed were the result of demons being cast out.
There can be however, another reason why bad things happen to good people. If we see ourselves in a world that is at war with evil then we can and should expect conflict. This helps us to understand the verse found in John 10:10 and how it shapes our understanding of the warfare theology that we are facing, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” Our early church leaders taught that suffering and trouble in this world is precisely what a person should expect, especially if they are ‘good’.
Love is the one word that is used to describe God throughout the scriptures. But how does a God that is defined by ‘love’ allow evil to exist? If God is all controlling it would be hypocritical for him to expect us to freely love him. How could we freely love someone if we are in any way programed to do so. Love must be freely received and given or it is no love at all. In fact you cannot have love apart from free-will. Otherwise we reduce ourselves to be nothing more than robots, programed to respond in a manner that contradicts our freedom to choose love. For God to put love in the equation when he created the cosmos was a very risky proposition. When God granted humanity and the angelic host the right to freely accept or reject His love the potential for evil to exist was created. The freedom to choose took Lucifer from being an angel of light to becoming a self-determining, supremely evil being who rules the world with nightmarish evil, despite having been created by an all-good, omnipotent Creator.
If we believe that all the events that make up our lives, even evil ones, are determined in advance by our Creator then the end result of our lives is not determined by the choices we make but by what God has preordained the outcome to be. In a warfare theology it is believed that God knows the infinite possibilities that come with giving mankind the freedom to make their own choices. The first century church understood warfare theology. Satan was understood to be the ‘god of this world,’ ‘the ruler of the power of the air,’ and the ruler of this world’ (2 Cor 4:4; Ephesians 2:2, John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11). He is portrayed as possessing all the kingdoms of the world, and is explicitly said to have control of the entire world (Luke 4:6; 1 John 5:19). He is portrayed as being ultimately the one behind murder, lying, persecution, and even physical sickness and disease (John 8:44; 1 John 3:12; Luke 13:16; Acts 10:38; Ephesians 6:12-13). Moreover, he and his fallen army are portrayed as having supernatural capabilities to obstruct kingdom work, manipulate crowds, choke faith, demonize people and even keep little children in spiritual bondage (2 Thessalonians 2:9; 18; 1 Corinthians 2:8; Mt 13:19; Mark:25; 9:17-22).
We find that God chose or predestined from the beginning to save all those who would be found in Christ, by faith in God. Thus individuals have full freedom in terms of whether they become followers of Christ or not. God’s omniscience or God’s foreknowledge does not determine the outcomes of an individual’s free will.
When someone is killed, like those in the horrific limousine accident, or murdered in the Jewish Synagogue in Pittsburgh the blame is not God’s but Satanic forces at work to destroy mankind. Jesus defined himself and His ministry in terms of aggressively warring against this satanic kingdom. Both he and his disciples recognized that he had come to destroy the devil and his works, thereby redeeming his people from the realm of darkness and setting them free for the kingdom of God. The Good News is that He has given us the power and authority through Jesus Christ and the precious Holy Spirit to combat the assaults as we live temporarily in this world and that He came to overcome the world. Whatever we see happen in this world we recognize that we are foreigners passing through for a short time and we know that He wins in the end. He is victorious overall and we are on the winning side! In the meantime it is not for us to give excuses for the evil but to be there to love and comfort those who mourn as we speak of the hope and eternal life He gives to all who know Him.