Update: This post is embarrassingly incomplete, and because I set it to an automatic uploading schedule, it was published prematurely. I hope to expand and complete it in the coming days. Rather than deleting, I’m going to leave what I have so far up until I can get to finishing it.
Update 2: Finally finished this piece.
According to the Church Calendar, 40 days after Easter (this year, that was Thursday, May 25) we celebrate and remember Christ’s Ascension to Heaven. During this time, we contemplate the implications of the Ascension–including our faith that He has been enthroned, and now rules Creation.
In the Book of Acts, the disciples are given a picture of the Ascension of Jesus Christ from the standpoint of the world.
Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.
They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”
In the Old Testament, Daniel is given a picture of the Ascension from the viewpoint of Heaven:
“In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.
Daniel 7:13-14. The letters of the apostles confirm that with the Ascension, Jesus Christ was enthroned in Heaven and now rules over Creation, judging it and extending His reign until all powers submit to Him.
“Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.” 1 Peter 3:22.
“The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ; and He will reign forever and ever.” Revelation 11:15.
“Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Philippians 2:9-11.
“Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” 1 Corinthians 15:24-26.
It is through the lens of Ascension, and Jesus’ overcoming of opposing powers, that I want to examine the second question raised in response to my post from two weeks ago, The Resurrection and a Multi-Faceted Gospel. To recap, here were the questions:
- How can justification by faith be reconciled with your critique of an overly individualistic Gospel? (I tried to answer that in last week’s post, The Resurrection, Justification by Faith, and the People of God.)
- How can capital-E Evil as a rebellious force be reconciled with the sovereignty of God?
- So what? Why does your critique matter in the big scheme of things for our worship or mission?
Again, today I’m going to focus on the second question: How does Evil fit with the Sovereignty of God?
Please remember that these thoughts are offered in the context of continued learning and dialogue, not an arrogant belief that I have everything figured out.
My proposed argument follows this outline:
- God, as Creator, is the ground of all being, “Being itself,” and so He is the fountain of all existence.
- But as Christians, we confess God is Father, Son, Holy Spirit; because God is Trinity, “Being itself” must be understood as “being-in-relation.”
- Evil is the absence of God, not an independent power in itself.
- But there are forces of evil that are genuinely in opposition to God and His purposes.
- Although the biblical account of God’s sovereignty does establish His authorship–and therefore, His ultimate responsibility–of all things, it is primarily concerned with God establishing His rule over and against genuine opposition, and it does not neatly reconcile the tension between those two ideas.
- Remember the Trinity! God’s authorship and relationship to time is complicated because He is both a) sovereign over time as Creator and b) committed to time through covenant, Christ, and the Spirit operating in the Church.
- This all matters because it has important pastoral implications, including the way the Church should communicate assurance, comfort, and meaning to people in suffering, and the valid place of lament in the life of the Church.
WHAT MAKES GOD GOD?
Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said,
‘For we too are his offspring.’
Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
Acts 17:22-31. Emphasis added.
In trying to explain who God is to the people of Athens at Mars Hill (the Areopagus), Paul appeals to the poetry of Aratus, who himself was influenced by the philosophy of Plato. Paul quotes Aratus, who is trying to explain that the ruling god Zeus, if he truly were the Creator God, could not simply be a supremely powerful “god” within the cosmos; The universe must somehow spring forth from the Creator God, who stands over and against it, not contained within it.
This is why Aratus writes of this Creator God, whom he identifies as Zeus–“In Him we live and move and have our being.” Paul quotes Aratus to identify this Creator God as the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ.
The Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart, in his book The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, and Bliss,* distinguishes between the different things we mean when we use the word “god.”
(*I highly recommend the book, because every page is brilliant, but it’s a tough read. DB Hart has a few annoying tics–1) He repeats profound but difficult to grasp points endlessly, without much unpacking, as if by repetition he can force the reader to understand, 2) he adopts a condescending tone to his intellectual opponents, and 3) his writing is so dense I had to re-read some paragraphs three times just to make sure I was still tracking with the argument. Also, it helps to keep a thesaurus handy.)
According to Hart, all of the world’s great religions have distinguished between “gods”– divine beings who reign over some part of the cosmos or even rule the entire universe as the most powerful beings within the universe–and “God”:
“the one infinite source of all that is: eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, uncreated, uncaused, perfectly transcendent of all things and for that very reason absolutely immanent to all things.”
As Hart demonstrates, this insight is indeed shared by all the great religions. Whether we are examining Sufi Muslim poetry extolling the transcendence of Allah, the Hindu philosophers discussing the God Brahman in the Upanashids, the Jewish Torah scholar Moses Maimonides, or Thomas Aquinas insisting that God is ipsum esse subsistens, there is basic agreement that the Creator God, properly understood, is not a discrete object within a set of objects within the Universe, but the ultimate transcendental ground of being itself.
Therefore, the quality that makes God “God” is that He is absolute, and all other realities are contingent. By this I mean, all other realities depend for their existence upon Him, whereas He is the ground of being–“Being Itself”–He depends only upon Himself for His existence.
Perhaps you think all the above is less than useful. While it may helpfully show agreement among philosophers trying to understand who God is without the gift of revelation, it does not have much bearing on a Christian who is trying to be faithful to Scripture.
But consider Exodus 3:13-15 (emphasis added):
But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’:
This is my name forever,
and this my title for all generations.
The Covenantal God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, when asked for His Name by Moses, revealed Himself to be the Creator God who is Being Itself, the sheer act of Being without whom existence is not a possibility, the Sustainer of all that is, the Great I AM. This is why Jewish teachers have always identified the transcendent god of the philosophers as YHWH.
But there’s more. As Christians, we confess that the Creator God who is the transcendent Reality that undergirds all other realities is Three-in-One: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, eternally One God in Three Persons. This should complicate and distinguish our understanding of “Being Itself” from that of the ancient philosophers.
This is a major theme of then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in his book, Introduction to Christianity. If God is Being Itself, and if God is Trinity, then that means that at the very heart of Being is “being-in-relation.” Since all things that are in existence are created and sustained by the Triune God who Himself is “being-in-relation,” then that means that at the heart of existence is relationship. And not just any relationship–the relationship within the Trinity is a never-ending economy of self-giving and pouring out to glorify the other. In other words, as the apostle John said in his old age, the covenantal God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who revealed Himself as the transcendent ground of being to Moses, is the God who is Love.
Why am I going into this? What does this have to do with evil’s relationship to God?
I think we have to have a very firm understanding of what makes God “God” in order to refute any attempt to make God the author of evil. Evil does not spring from God. God’s “Godness” is fact that He is the transcendent source of all reality, without which no other thing would exist, not from the fact that there are no wills able to oppose Him or resist Him or fight Him.
If we think of God as a Supreme Being within the Universe, then the fact that there are wills able to oppose Him may threaten our confidence in His sovereignty. But if we understand that God is Being Itself, we know that genuine opposition to His Will is no threat to His Godhood. God’s “Godness” is found in the fact that, at every moment, He imparts the gift of being to all that exists. It is not in the fact that no created will can resist or oppose His will. As Christians, we confess that this transcendent God is the Triune God of Love–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–who invites the world He created into His Love. 2 Peter 3:9, 1 Timothy 2:3-4.
WHAT IS EVIL?
But then this raises the question, what is evil and what is its relation to this transcendent God?
The great Church Father Augustine was once a Manichaean, who believed that good could not exist without evil. When Augustine converted to Christianity, he rejected his old Manichaeanism, with its belief that all of life was a battle between two, equal powers of good and evil struggling for supremacy.
However, this left him with a problem. If 1) God created everything, and 2) evil is a thing, then 3) God created evil. This was repugnant to Augustine, not least because it contradicted Scripture:
This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.
Augustine’s ingenious solution was to question the second premise in the above syllogism: “Evil is a thing.” Instead, Augustine came to the opposite conclusion: Evil is not a thing.
This was a brilliant insight. Augustine was not denying that evil is real. He simply insists that evil is not a thing in itself–evil is a privation. This means that evil is an absence or corruption–a deprivation–of something created to be good so that it is less than would it should be.
Just as there is no such thing as “cold,” but a lack of heat, and just as the darkness is really a lack of light, evil is a lack of goodness. Under this understanding, as the apostle John said in his old age, God can never be the author of evil, because He is light and in Him there is no darkness at all. Neither is evil an independent power in and of itself equal to God. Evil is simply how we describe what God is not. Therefore, to the degree that something is not participating in God’s being and purpose–which is the definition of goodness–it is evil.
We must be faithful to the biblical witness that there are forces in the world that do not participate in God’s being and purpose, and that even oppose Him. This is a hard concept to grasp, but it is what I believe we find in Scripture: Evil is real, but it is not a thing. It is an absence of goodness, and there are powers and wills created by God who turn away from God and toward this absence, which means their ultimate obliteration, as God is the source of all being and life.
HOW IS GOD’S SOVEREIGNTY ESTABLISHED IN SCRIPTURE?
I believe the above is important to get straight because otherwise we can confuse understandings of God’s sovereignty as related in Scripture.
God is certainly sovereign as Creator and Sustainer of all things–even the ability of someone to choose to degrade themselves with an evil act is a choice that must be preserved and upheld by God, who creates and sustains all things by giving them the gift of their being. This is the kind of sovereignty Paul was talking about in Acts 17.
As the philosopher Herbert McCabe wrote in Faith Within Reason, pp. 75-76:
God’s activity, then, does not compete with mine. Whereas the activity of any other creature makes a difference to mine and would interfere with my freedom, the activity of God makes no difference. It has a more fundamental and important job to do than making a difference. It makes me have my own activity in the first place. I am free; I have my own spontaneous activity not determined by other creatures, because God makes me free. Not free of him (this would be to cease to exist), but free of other creatures.
The idea that God’s causality could interfere with my freedom can only arise from an idolatrous notion of God as a very large and powerful creature—a part of the world. We see an ascending scale of powerful causes. The more powerful the cause, the more difference it makes. And we are inclined to locate God at the top of the scale, and to imagine that he makes the most difference of all. But God does not make the most difference. He makes, if you like, all the difference—which is the same as making no difference at all.
And again, in God Matters, pg. 13:
So neither motives nor dispositions are causes of action; it remains that a free action is one which I cause and which is not caused by anything else. It is caused by God. From what we were saying last time it will, I hope, be clear that this is not the paradox that it seems at first sight, for God is not anything else. God is not a separate and rival agent within the universe. The creative causal power of God does not operate on me from outside, as an alternative to me; it is the creative causal power of God that makes me me.
(Both citations taken from an excellent blog post on Divine and Human Agency at the site Eclectic Orthodoxy).
This is heady stuff, but I think if I understand it rightly, it means that I can affirm the thought of some of the Protestant Reformers: Our decisions are 100% our own, and 100% God’s. God’s will is not on the same plane of causation as our own, and therefore His will is not a rival that “crowds-out” my will; Instead, He is the Act of Being that creates, allows, and seals my will to be my will.
Then there is God’s sovereignty as it’s talked about in Psalm 2, where it is established against opposition and conspiracy:
Why do the nations conspire,
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the Lord and his anointed, saying,
“Let us burst their bonds asunder,
and cast their cords from us.”
He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord has them in derision.
Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
and terrify them in his fury, saying,
“I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.”
I will tell of the decree of the Lord:
He said to me, “You are my son;
today I have begotten you.
Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
and the ends of the earth your possession.
You shall break them with a rod of iron,
and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”
Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
be warned, O rulers of the earth.
Serve the Lord with fear,
kiss his feet,
or he will be angry, and you will perish in the way;
for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Happy are all who take refuge in him.
Much of Scripture is caught up in telling us the story of this conflict, which culminates in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and His Resurrection. Scripture tells us of a battle in the Heavens; it shows us Abraham leaving a city of idols for a city that God would architect and build; it demonstrates YHWH’s power over the ten great Egyptian gods with ten plagues; it shows us Joshua cleansing the land of the Anakim; it relays how Solomon succumbed to foreign gods and thereby defiled the land; it tells us how Elijah triumphed over the priests of Baal; and on and on.
Finally, Scripture shows us the Lord’s anointed sweating in blood and agony at the Garden of Gethsamene, preparing for the climactic battle with the powers and principalities–the Sanhedrin, Herod, and Pilate, and the ruler of the world who He would now drive out.
Jesus wages war against the forces of evil. Luke’s Gospel makes a mockery of Rome’s claim to having the greatest military in the world by showing that Jesus’ birth is heralded by a great multitude of the heavenly host. At the beginning of his ministry in the Gospel of Mark, an impure spirit cries out to oppose and attempt to silence Jesus. The Devil faces off with Jesus in the wilderness. Gazing at the Cross, the apostle Paul exults:
And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.
And again, Paul reminds the church in Ephesus that though the decisive battle has been won, the war continues until our Lord’s return:
For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
My point here is that none of this is play-acting. In Scripture, the sovereignty of God that we see is a sovereignty that is established and won as the result of a great struggle and victory in history and time.
Evil is not a thing in itself–it is the absence of God–but it is real in the sense that there are powers and forces that align themselves with this nothingness when they turn away from God. Scripture tells us that this world is in some sense hostage to these hostile forces. Jesus’ Death and Resurrection was a great victory against these dark powers, and the Church as the Body of Christ is implanted with His Spirit so that it can now continue this war to re-take all of Creation for our Sovereign, who will rule until He is all in all.
To the extent the struggle of the Cross to establish God’s sovereignty is overlooked in our preaching and teaching, I think we are being unfaithful to the great drama presented in Scripture, which lives on in the present life of the Church.
I will confess there is a tension here between God’s sovereignty as Creator and His sovereignty as established by the Cross in Redemptive History. As Creator, God holds ultimate responsibility for Creation. Different theologians have proposed different theodicies that attempt to explain why a good God would create a world with evil and suffering as real possibilities within it. These explanations range from Irenaeus’ hypothesis that evil is necessary for humans to mature to the likeness of God, to CS Lewis’ explanation that God must imbue his creatures with some exercise of free will so that their love might be genuine, and the existence of free will necessarily risks evil.
Ultimately, as interesting as these theodicies are, they will probably always be unsatisfying as full explanations this side of the eschaton. Instead, we must remind ourselves that God is Trinity–He is a God of covenant who has committed Himself to history through the Incarnation of Christ, and through the gift of the Spirit that is pulling His Church into a beautiful future where death will be swallowed up by life.
When we look to Christ, we see that he is not very interested in giving explanations for why evil exists. Instead, he goes about the business of crushing it and absorbing it into himself. Christianity doesn’t just tell us that there is evil in the world. We can already know that by the simple act of looking around. Instead, Christianity tells us, in the words of the Catholic writer Pascal Emmanuel-Gobry:
…all of this suffering and evil in the world has been taken by God Himself and utterly destroyed, so that when the Universe is finally realized all will be radiant and glorious and every tear will be wiped from every eye. It says that all suffering and evil is born by the only one who can bear it, who helps you bear it, and can even help you turn it into good. It says that suffering and evil in the world is, indeed, a grievous injustice that cries out for all men of good will to combat it, and it enrolls you in God’s Army in this cosmic battle against evil, a battle where victory is certain.
Christianity is not an explanation for why things are. It is an encounter with the man on the Cross, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Behold this broken form, crowned with thorns, and kneel at the altar of his mighty Cross, and kiss his pierced, bloody feet. That’s your theodicy.
What can I add to that except “Amen.”
A final word on why this discussion of God’s relationship to evil matters so much to me. It seems to me that we do the church and God a great disservice when, in the course of trying to assure the flock that God is sovereign and in control, we simply re-describe suffering and evil as simply the outworkings of God’s sovereign will in accord with a universal teleology.
I encourage you to read the linked-to post by the Anglican theologian Alastair Roberts, but here is a short excerpt:
I fear the tendency to normalize the brokenness of this present order by presenting it as the outworking of the sovereign will of God. I do not believe that my suffering is inherently meaningful. Death, suffering and evil are parasitic and destructive. God may use evil as an occasion for the working of grace and may bring about His good will in spite of the wicked actions of man and the power of Sin and Death, but He does not will the rule of Sin and Death and the wicked actions of man; He merely permits them. I believe that there is an important distinction to be maintained here.
In our haste to give God His due by acknowledging His sovereignty, and to assure fellow believers that He is in control, we fail to acknowledge the destructive, parasitic forces opposed to God against whom we are called to struggle as the Church.
He goes on to write:
I have come to believe that God wants us to feel the tension between His will and the way things are in the world. Arguing that bad events are merely inscrutable manifestations of God’s will eases the deep and painful tension that we should be feeling between the way things are and the way that things were designed to be. However, it achieves this easing of tension at great expense. As we turn a blind eye to raw reality and try to explain it away we end up treating God as one who is not big enough to be confronted with things as they really are. The God of our fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob does not need to be protected from our cries of pain, suffering and despair. We also end up further alienating ourselves in our suffering and other sufferers. No voice is given to the anguish and meaningless of suffering within the Church. Whilst contracting the language of the Church by refusing to voice to the sufferer might make us feel more cosy, it leaves the sufferer out in the cold.
When we are faced with illness, tragedy, and death, we should not first consider them as the indecipherable, mysterious outworkings of God’s will. Instead, we ought to first recognize in them the face of our Great Enemy opposed to God’s holy and good purposes.
God can and will work good out of evil, so that even our scars and wounds will be filled with radiant light, but this is not license to simply re-describe evil as good by encouraging those who are suffering to simply shift their perspective. We must oppose sickness and death with prayers for healing, trusting that our God is able to save. Even if the physical healing is not forthcoming, we must trust that He is still working a great victory over evil in us, even if Satan’s thorn is not withdrawn. And we must always remember that even death has been defanged, as its sting has been taken away forever.
In addition to prayers for healing, God has given the church the gift of lament in the Psalms. The Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann writes that in the laments, Israel goes from articulating its hurt and anger, to submitting its suffering to God, and finally relinquishing control over the suffering to God’s control and authority. After Israel has relinquished its authority over its suffering to God, it fulsomely praises God.
These laments help the Church avoid the problem of re-description. Following the tutelage of the Psalms, we are not supposed to simply re-describe our searing pain at the loss of our loved one as simply part of God’s larger plan for the world. That can sound scarily close to something like, “I’m so sorry, but as you know, your dear sister was just a small cog in the wheel of God’s divine machinery.”
Instead, we are invited to plead with God, wail against God, and even bring our feelings of anger and hateful longing for revenge before God. We are invited to press and implicate God into the present situation of pain, and even to demand that He answer. In the course of doing so, the Spirit will come to bear on our hearts, and we will be given a vision of Christ, the God-Man who does not distance Himself from our suffering, but who willingly enters and takes our suffering into Himself. The Spirit then pushes us out into the world to conquer the world with our co-suffering love in imitation of Christ. As we gaze at the Cross, we become confident in God’s promise to grant meaning to this senseless suffering, and we can trust that in the end all shall be well.
Death has been vanquished; your sister is asleep, but our God will raise her on the Last Day, and you will both be presented in glory before the throne to inherit the New Creation. In the words of the Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart:
We can rejoice that we are saved not through the immanent mechanisms of history and nature, but by grace; that God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable; that He will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature, but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes; and that, rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, He will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes”and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and He that sits upon the throne will say, “Behold, I make all things new.”
I will give Alastair Roberts (and really, you should be reading his blog) the last word:
Our confidence must flow from the knowledge that God works all things together for good for those who love Him. This does not mean that evil is really an illusion after all and that everything takes place exactly as God wishes it to. Rather, this verse teaches us that, even in the face of radical evil and agonizing suffering, God’s purpose is still at work and will finally triumph. No suffering or evil can thwart God’s purpose to deliver His creation into the formation of a new humanity in His Son. In fact, God even uses the weight of suffering and evil against them. Things that Satan designs for evil, God can use to accomplish good.