Thanks to everyone who read my recent post on anthropogenic climate change (or global warming). Owing to the excellent feedback, I think it best to write another article rather than respond individually to each reader’s reply (yes — your comments were that good!). A preponderant theme of this discussion was the problem of evil (suffering and death), which goes something like this (my paraphrase):
If God is all powerful and all loving, then why is their suffering and death in the world He created? If He is all-powerful, He could prevent suffering and death; if He were all-loving, He would prevent suffering and death. Since suffering and death are undeniable parts of our experience, then God is either not all powerful or He is not all loving (or both).
As I like to tell my students, the problem of evil actually poses an insurmountable dilemma for the atheist – not the Christian – given that the very categories of “good” and “evil” themselves have no real existence apart from an absolute, moral Being (God) who alone is the very standard of good and, conversely, the very antithesis of evil. The “fool” (Ps. 14:1), in rejecting God has forfeited not only objective truth – including moral truth – but also his or her ability to know anything at all. Atheists apparently do not understand that their rational and moral arguments denying the existence of God can only have intelligible meaning so long as God exists; thus, they must rationally rely on God in order to reason against God, thereby proving the existence of God even in their rebellion! In short, the unbeliever “lives and moves” (Acts 17:28) within an intellectual framework – stolen from Christianity – yet employed against the very One who makes logic, reason, and morality possible. Thus, to the unbeliever who refuses to submit to God’s authority, the Christian can easily answer the problem of evil with this critical question: “What problem? – what is ‘good’ and what is ‘evil,’ and how could you ever know?”
Yet admittedly, the fact of pain and suffering can nonetheless induce psychological fits in the Christian. After all, we typically struggle with our finite (and fallen) understanding of God’s character and how we think He ought to act. We seem to have a firm idea of what is good for that moment, but nevertheless lack the omniscience to know what is good in the long term. Even though we know from Scripture “that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28), it is because of our weakness of faith that we wrestle with this promise in the face of horrific tragedy. Nevertheless, even when we are weak, He is strong (2 Cor. 12:10).
And so, to reiterate the foundational theological doctrine undergirding my previous article, the Lord knows everything because He establishes every event of history “before the foundation of the world” was laid (Eph. 1:4, 11; see also, II Thess. 2:13; II Tim. 1:9; Rev. 13:8; 17:8); this, we are told, He does for His own glorifying purpose (Ps. 86:9; I Cor. 10:31). God determined what is possible and impossible in our experiences. He knows the future no less than the past because He has foreordained all events that have happened as well as those yet to transpire. God’s sovereign rule over history, then, is absolute and perfectly righteous, even though His ultimate purpose may be hidden from us at that moment, as was the case with Joseph and his insanely jealous siblings (Gen. 50:20).
Now mind you, God was not caught off guard by the actions of Joseph’s brothers, being suddenly forced to put another plan into action, for God does nothing ad hoc; rather, He had already planned to use the sinful nature of Jacob’s sons in order to accomplish His ultimate purpose of saving Israel via Joseph. God, we are told, will not deviate from His eternal purpose, which is sure and never changing (Heb. 6:17; Mal. 3:6; James 1:17). Owing then to His immutable nature and unyielding will, our Heavenly Father does not change His mind: “God is not a man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?” (Num. 23:19; I Sam. 15:29). Thus, whatever the Lord decrees will transpire; we can bank on it.
But here is where we as Christians face a significant tension in our limited understanding of God’s sovereignty and goodness: our Lord’s foreordination and providential control also includes both good AND bad experiences: “I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and calamity, I am the Lord, who does all these things” (Is. 45:7). For instance, take note of how God worked behind the scenes to accomplish the downfall of a particular ruler in the Old Testament. In order to mete out justice against Ahab for having stolen Naboth’s vineyard, false prophets of the Lord – unbeknownst to them! – became the agents of God’s vengeance against the king of Israel:
Therefore hear the word of the Lord: I saw the Lord sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing beside him on his right hand and on his left; and the Lord said, “Who will entice Ahab, that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?” . . . Then a spirit came forward and stood before the Lord, saying, “I will entice him.” And the Lord said to him, “By what means?” And he said, “I will go out, and will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.” And he [God] said, “You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go out and do so.” Now therefore behold, the Lord has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these your prophets; the Lord has declared disaster for you” (I Kings 22:19-23).
As we can see from this passage, God uses the evil that resides in fallen creatures (e.g. the “lying spirit” and false prophets of the Lord) as a useful foil to advance His righteous purposes that He already decreed in advance. Make no mistake – He is by no means the author of this evil; His creatures are. He does not cause us to sin; we do that freely of our own accord because it is in our nature to sin and only sin (see John 8:34; Col. 2:13; Ps. 58:3; Job 15:14; Jer. 13:23).
So, why does any of this matter to the global warming debate? Well, some who read my most recent article on the subject wondered – based on the logic of my argument – if God was then “responsible” for the millions of deaths resultant of environmental catastrophes that occurred under His watch and control. I submit that the biblical answer to that is “No.” You see, God owes nothing to His creation other than what He promises. He is the Potter and we are the clay, thus He can do whatever He wants with us (Rom. 9:20-23). As such, He is not obligated to be gracious – let alone universally or equally gracious (“I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious” – Ex. 33:19). This is His right and prerogative as the Creator. On the other hand, He is always duty bound to be just in accordance with His righteous nature, which unceasingly demands perfect holiness. And because we sinned in Adam, sin entered into the world (Rom. 5:12).
So no: God is not morally “culpable” for the millions of deaths – human or otherwise – that naturally occur in the creation. Whether we want to acknowledge this truth or not, death is the just penalty for sin. Why He chooses to preserve one creature or species but not the other is entirely His business. All that we can say with confidence regarding each isolated case of good or dark providence is that that particular outcome, despite what we may think, gave Him pleasure and glory (Rev. 4:11; Is. 60:21), which is the only explanation the Bible offers as to why God foreordained that event in the first place.
So what then is our answer to the problem of evil, as Christians? God is indeed all powerful and all loving, and because He is all-powerful, He is able to bring all things to pass. And because He is all-loving, He went above and beyond what was required of Him by sending His Son to take our place in order to pay our eternal debt with his righteous blood. Thus, He foreordained the Fall – including the suffering and death that go along with it – so that humankind can now experience – in addition to the ordinary love of God as Creator – the extraordinary love of God as Redeemer. This redemptive love is a higher love, indeed – a love that surpasses even the angels’ comprehension (I Pet. 1:12). For this reason, we are to give Him all glory and honor for it (Rom. 11:36).