Romans (Part 09) - Chapter 9: Sovereignty
The problem of evil has plagued Christian thinkers for centuries. Atheists use it to attack the existence of God. Theists grapple with it in trying to understand the balance between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. Some Christians “resolve” the problem with a shrug of the shoulders and an exhortation to trust God. And where God is silent, we should take a lesson from God’s response to Job—trust the almighty, omniscient Creator. However, the multitude of commands to read, study, and know the Bible should also encourage us to exhaust our resources before declaring that we cannot know.
The problem of evil includes three propositions: (1) An all powerful God could prevent evil; (2) an all good God would prevent evil; but (3) evil exists. The atheist concludes, therefore, that there is no all powerful, all good God. The Christian often replies hastily that God will ultimately punish and imprison all sin doing away with evil. But eventual elimination of evil is not the point. The point is that it exists now—at that same time that the all powerful and all good God exists. The answer, I believe, lies in a misunderstanding of one of our propositions. Let’s try to approach the problem through the examination (as much as we can) of God’s sovereignty.
Sovereignty means supreme rule in power and authority. God is sovereign because He rules with supreme power and authority. But sin or rebellion to that rule of God exists. Does this mean that God is not sovereign? Two logical answers result—God either allows evil (for some purpose) or God causes evil. Some (all of whom are Calvinists, but not all Calvinists believe this) may argue that in God’s determinism, He ordains sin to occur. The logic is that if God is sovereign, everything that happens is determined by God. It will eventually lead to the highest good—the most glory for God. And so, while we may not be able to reconcile the current existence of evil or God’s hand in its cause, we know that God, being good, will eventually work it for that highest good end.
I find that reason incoherent. As I mentioned in the previous installment, the definition of evil is that which violates God’s essence (goodness, righteousness, justice, mercy, etc.). God is also equal in His essence and existence. In other words, He does good because He is good. He can’t do otherwise. Therefore, God cannot will to violate His will. It makes no logical sense, and our God is a God of decency and order.
But denying that God is the cause of evil throws us back into the soup of befuddlement in understanding why then does evil exist. The other logical answer is that God allows evil to exist for some good purpose. Let’s move back to consider God’s decision in eternity past as He prepared to create. Eternity, of course, has a different set of rules—it does not progress chronologically in the sense we understand movement through time. Additionally, the omniscient God is never in a state in which He does not know, evaluates, and then knows. But since we have no reference to understand how God operates in eternity, we’ll use the biblical example and discuss this in anthropomorphically-constrained time terminology. So then, God in eternity past determines to create. His purpose? He wants the highest, purest relational bond with His creation to bring about the highest joy and glory forever. The highest, purest relational bond requires love in its purest, highest form, in other words, it cannot be coerced. Therefore, in order for God to bring about this ultimate goal, His creation must be able to offer that love freely. He knows, too, that this freedom will produce sin, will require sin’s just eradication, and that He will have to actively involve Himself in that eradication. Yet, still the end result—this highest good—is of more value than choosing not to create. Therefore, He creates. He sovereignly chooses to create to obtain the highest good by forming image-bearing, relational creatures who through loss of faith will eventually move away from God, but will ultimately, again through faith and God’s own pure, just removal of evil, be restored to that perfect love relationship to enjoy for eternity to come.
This, then, is why the problem of evil as defined above using the three propositional statements is not an actual dilemma. One of the propositions is not true in an unqualified sense. Yes, God is all good. But His goodness does not necessarily mean He will immediately prevent evil if in His ultimate plan, it is the only way to bring about the highest good—that which is of highest worth. Thus, God maintains His sovereignty by determining the course of creation, including the existence of evil, without being the immediate cause of it.
Here’s the point. I don’t know how you can resolve the problem of evil in any other way. Those who believe that God must determine every action fall headlong into the problem of an inconsistently good God. While my answer brushes awfully close to this scenario since God chooses to create existence that He knows will produce evil, it nevertheless is still on the other side of the wall from identifying God as the direct causation of evil. Remember, evil is not a thing to be created. It is a possibility that is actuated by rebellion to authority. If I leave the keys in my unlocked car, I am not the cause of its theft. The thief stole it. Through my action, the possibility existed, but it was actuated by the thief.
This background discussion of God and His sovereignty will play prominently into our conversations as we continue into Romans 9. This chapter deals with the sovereignty of God in His choices. The topic will, therefore, figure significantly into our consideration of salvific predestination.