As I write this, Hurricane Harvey appears to be fading at last—but not before wreaking hundreds of billions of dollars worth of damage, causing at least 40 deaths and displacing tens of thousands in Texas, Louisiana and throughout the Caribbean.
As I write this, 24 people have been reported killed in a building collapse in Mumbai; a man in his 20s is dead after a daylight shooting in a Toronto shopping mall; a 32-year-old husband and father has finally died after being struck in the head by a softball during a charity slo-pitch tournament in Courtenay, British Columbia two weeks ago.
As I write this, North America’s opioid crisis goes on claiming hundreds of lives every week, the State of Nevada contemplates using Fentanyl as an execution drug, and—years after the Cold War ended—we face a fresh nuclear threat from North Korea.
What is our world coming to?
Or, to ask a more uncomfortable question: “Why does our good God allow evil things to happen?” Things like murder and terrorism and earthquakes and cancer. Motor vehicle accidents. Misfortune both random and designed. Tragedies you’d think the Lord would want to prevent.
So, why doesn’t he?
Why doesn’t he stop suicide bombers, mass murderers, and drunk drivers? Why doesn’t he “rend the heavens and come down?” (to ask the prophet Isaiah’s question).
There are at least a couple of time-honoured answers to questions like those. One of them appeals to the sovereignty of God—saying, in effect: “God is in charge. When suffering and misfortune come into our lives, it is not accidental. And since God is good, even our severest suffering must be—somehow—for a good purpose.”
Honestly, I do not like that answer very much. Because I find it impossible to believe that the God I know would deliberately cause suffering—especially the suffering of innocent children.
Another traditional answer appeals to the concept of free will. God gave people free will, and they chose evil instead of good. I like that answer better. I find it more agreeable. I would rather pin the blame for evil on the will of human agents.
But, however much I prefer that answer, I have to acknowledge that it creates a big problem. And it has to do with the aforementioned sovereignty of God. Because, inescapably, it leads us to the conclusion that human beings can circumvent God’s will. This calls into question the whole idea that God is in control of absolutely everything.
God knows everything that happens—and he knows everything that will happen … right? That’s what we believe … isn’t it?
Certainly, that is the view of “classical Christianity.” But how can there be such a thing as “free will” if the future is already written out like a screenplay? If we’re just actors on a stage—playing out a predetermined script—then we really don’t have any free will at all … do we?
Let’s back up a bit. Why is free will important, anyway? A theologian named Alvin Plantinga has stated the case better than I ever could:
A world containing creatures who are significantly free (and freely perform more good than evil actions) is more valuable, all else being equal, than a world containing no free creatures at all. Now God can create free creatures, but He can’t cause or determine them to do only what is right. For if He does so, then they aren’t significantly free after all; they do not do what is right freely. To create creatures capable of moral good, therefore, He must create creatures capable of moral evil; and He can’t give these creatures the freedom to perform evil and at the same time prevent them from doing so.1
In other words, without free will, we’d just be robots, carrying out our programmed behaviour. And if that is not what we are—if we are not robots, or characters in some kind of divine novel—then that must mean that the future is not predetermined. But if the future is not predetermined, how can it be known by God?
One proposed solution to this problem is known as “Open Theism.”
Open Theism is, to be sure, controversial. It holds that God does not and cannot know in advance the future choices that his free creatures will make. Or, to put it another way, open theists claim that—while God can know in advance what he has planned to do, he cannot know what his free creatures will choose to do. In other words, the future is a blank page. It really is open—and not available to foreknowledge, even on the part of God.
Wait! Is this not heresy? How can we say that God doesn’t know the future? That’s like saying that God can change his mind!
Hmmm. Consider the story recorded in 2 Kings 20:1-6. Through an inspired prophet, the Lord tells King Hezekiah that he will not recover from his illness. God says that Hezekiah’s days are numbered: “Set your house in order” is God’s message to the king.
But Hezekiah pleads with the Lord. And what happens? The Lord reverses his stated intention!
“I have heard your prayer,” God says. “I have seen your tears; indeed, I will heal you … I will add fifteen years to your life.”
That’s quite a reversal. And it’s not the only example in Scripture of God apparently changing his mind. There are many. One of them is from the 26th chapter of the Book of Jeremiah, where the Lord tells Jeremiah to warn Israel that they should repent, saying: “I may change my mind about the disaster that I intend to bring on them because of their evil doings” (v. 3).
Okay. So God changes his mind, sometimes. So what?
Here’s what! If God can change his mind about certain things, it must mean that the future is not absolutely fixed. Or at least, there are some aspects of the future that are not absolutely fixed.
Not only that, but it suggests that at least some things—certain outcomes—truly are in human hands. What’s more, it means that prayer really does have a purpose. It actually can have an effect. Prayer changes things.
Gregory Boyd has written a book about open theism. It’s called God of the Possible. And in it, he says this:
Open theists … maintain that God can and does predetermine and foreknow whatever he wants to about the future. Indeed, God is so confident in his sovereignty [that] he does not need to micromanage everything. He could if he wanted to, but this would demean his sovereignty. So he chooses to leave some of the future open to possibilities, allowing them to be resolved by the decisions of free agents.2
Now, I’m not saying that I’ve completely bought into the “Open Theism” school of thought. I don’t believe it provides all the answers to all our questions about good and evil. And I’m certainly not saying that our prayers always bring about the kind of changes we desire.
In John 12:27, we hear Jesus ask a rhetorical question: “What should I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’?”
Immediately, he answers his own question: “No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.”
That sounds like Jesus thought everything was fixed—that his fate was sealed. And maybe it was. But even he must have thought that maybe—just maybe—there was a possibility of changing the outcome. Because later—in Gethsemane—this was his earnest prayer: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).
So what can we make of all this?
Here’s what I think. However we may try to wrap our heads around the paradox of suffering in a world made by a good Creator, it seems clear—from Scripture and from our own experience—that human agency makes a tremendous difference.
Whether it’s the prophet Isaiah bringing God’s message to the king, or Jesus bowing to his Father’s will—or you and I choosing to do the right thing, even when that costs us—what we do upon this earth matters! Our actions matter. Our prayers are never futile. God chooses to work through us—to combat evil, to do justice, to make real the compassion of Jesus.
As a very wise six-year-old once said, “Jesus does things in the world because we do them. So we better do good things.”
Amen. Let’s do them!
1Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), 30.
2Gregory A. Boyd, God of the Possible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2000), 31.