After last Sunday’s message on divine sovereignty from Daniel 4 (“Clawing His Way To The Top” [Daniel 4]), I received a note from a young woman and her boyfriend who had talked at length about the sermon. At is turns out, they both struggled with the idea that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes (v. 17). “Does that imply that God put Hitler and Stalin in their positions of power?” this couple asked. “Can you give us some help here?” Here is what I wrote in response:
Well, you guys, to venture into the topic of God’s sovereignty versus our free will is to take up an issue that theologians have wrestled with for years! Some people (maybe you would fit into this category) lean strongly on the free will side of the debate, precisely because of the kinds of issues that came up in your conversation together. The problem with this (as noted by many) is that to put the responsibility solely in our hands (or Hitler’s and Stalin’s) doesn’t really get God ‘off the hook.’
This is because God as portrayed throughout the Bible is both all-powerful and all-good. Consider the logic: if God is all-good, of course He is gonna want to stop the likes of Hitler and Stalin (whether he put ’em in power, or they got there by their own free will), and if He is all-powerful, He certainly has the ability to do so. So, even if we take a free-will position in the debate, it appears that God remains ‘on the hook’, since (a) he has the power to intervene to prevent the likes of the Hitlers and Stalins of the world, and (b) he should want to do so, if he is also good, as the Bible teaches.
This leaves us, I think, with but a few options (there are surely others, but the following stand out as the most obvious):
1. Redefine ‘God’ — Here we (a) compare the pain and suffering in our world with the biblical picture of God outlined above, (b) conclude that there is a glaring disconnect between the two, and then (c) reject the biblical portrayal of God, and define God in other terms.
Maybe God is not all-good and uses his power in harmful ways (like some of the ancient Greek and Roman gods). Or maybe God is all-good, but not all-powerful, so that God is actually unable do anything about the Stalins and Hitlers of this world, though he would love to get rid of them, if he could. Both positions have been taken by various persons throughout history, but you have to ditch the Bible’s understanding of God to go there.
2. Reject God — We simply dump the idea of God entirely, and adopt an atheistic, naturalistic worldview. But then we confront the problem of making moral judgments about the Hitlers and Stalins of this world to begin with, since we no longer have an external basis of authority on which to base our morality.
Do we really want to live in a world like that? Think about it. A naturalistic, evolutionary model of the universe assumes a ‘survival-of-the-fittest’ understanding of reality—an understanding which correspondingly generates a ‘survival-of-the-fittest’ morality. The strong survive. The weak are eliminated. Just watch animals go after each other on the African plains. No moral constraints there. The fittest survive to propagate the species.
Well, according to the naturalistic model, human beings are not created in the image of God. We are simply higher evolved animals. So the same ‘morality’ of the African plains logically extends to us. If a Hitler or Stalin effectively seizes power, then, hey, according to a naturalistic worldview, he has proven himself to be the ‘fittest,’ and the elimination of people whom he dislikes is thereby morally justified. One might reply that the pain Hitler and Stalin caused others was wrong. According to who? Pain and suffering are key ingredients in the evolution of the species. Just look at the rest of the animal world. This is certainly not the kind of social world that I want to live in.
3. Receive God — Receive God, as revealed in Scripture, that is. Our final option is the biblical one: to embrace the idea that God is both all-powerful and all-good and, by extension, to assume that God is somehow involved in everything that happens on this planet (whether knowingly permitting it or actively causing it—Christian theologians continue to debate this issue), including who governs the nations and who does not.
The biblical worldview is certainly not without its problems, as honest Christian thinkers will readily acknowledge. But, in the final analysis, it seems to make more sense of the chaos of reality than any other worldview. For built into the biblical worldview is the promise that God will somehow use his power to turn the heartaches, evils, and sins of the human race (as well as natural disasters) into good in his divine economy, that is, in the big picture of things, once life on this planet is all played out.
How can we be sure of that? We can be sure because this is precisely what God did at the crucifixion of Jesus. The crucifixion of God’s Son was the most heinous, evil crime ever perpetrated by human beings on this planet: God comes to visit us in the person of Jesus, and we hang him on a Roman cross. Was God the Father somehow involved in that horrendously evil deed? Yes. Acts 4:27-28 reads as follows (Peter is praying to God): In this city, in fact, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.
The important thing to note here is what God was able to DO with that infinitely evil crime: he turned it into the greatest good that humankind has ever experienced. By means of the crucifixion of Jesus, our sins are forgiven, we are clothed with the righteousness of Christ, and we enter into an eternal love relationship with the God who created us and with our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Where we struggle with all this, I suspect, is that unlike the crucifixion we don’t get to see all the ways in which God turns bad into good in the ongoing suffering of people in our world today—not in this life, at any rate. Sometimes, however, we do get a glimpse. For example, after months of stonewalling and red tape, two families in our church are suddenly bringing home their adopted kids from an orphanage Haiti—something that would not have happened apart from a horrible natural catastrophe. But, of course, this is only a little glimpse, and a tremendous amount of suffering in Haiti remains unexplained.
This is why we must always return to the cross. For what God did in the face of evil by using his power for our good (and for his glory) at the crucifixion of Jesus assures that he is the kind of God who will someday make sense of a tragedy like the earthquake in Haiti, as well. That is the message of the Bible.
You two are obviously wrestling with a big issue here, one that has tremendous ramifications for how we understand reality and how we live our lives. In closing, I would only add that, if you choose to reject the biblical picture of God, you will by default (if not consciously) have to replace it with another. And I do not think you will find another way of looking at life, and at ultimate reality, that accounts for our world as well as biblical Christianity does.
Continue to ask questions. Seek honest answers. God will reward your search. Christianity is intellectually credible enough to have survived the poking and probing of both believers and skeptics (and some of us that happen to be both!) for two thousand years.
The above is my attempt to bring the cookies of the free-will-versus-divine-sovereignty debate down to a shelf where a couple young adults who are not trained theologians can reach them. I would greatly appreciate some comments in response. [I know you’re out there, because I see your hits on my blog log! And this is an issue about which many of us have some pretty strong convictions. 🙂 ]