In an August 28 article entitled Calvinist View of Bridge Collapse Distorts God’s Character, Roger
Olson, professor of theology at George W. Truett Theological Seminary, discussed the tragic bridge collapse this year in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In the article, Olson criticizes the Calvinist view of God that sees Him as sovereign even over such terrible calamities. I would like to take a few minutes today to offer a brief response to Olson. I will cite a few portions of the article and offer my own reflections along the way.
Olson: A well-known Christian author and speaker pastors a church within a mile of the collapsed bridge [John Piper?]. To him and his followers, God foreordained, planned and indirectly (if not directly) caused the event.
A popular Christian band sings “There is a reason” for everything. They mean God renders everything certain and has a good purpose for whatever happens. The pastor and the band are Christian determinists. Both happen to adhere to a form of Protestant theology called Calvinism.
This theology is sweeping up thousands of impressionable young Christians. It provides a seemingly simple answer to the problem of evil. Even what we call evil is planned and rendered certain by God because it is necessary for a greater good.
I don’t remember many prominent Calvinist theologians ever offering a “greater good” defense as an ultimate and conclusive answer for the problem of evil, at least not as Olson seems to think of it. I know I wouldn’t. But, then, as a Reformed Baptist — and thus also a committed Calvinist — I do not think we can give an answer to the problem of evil. To be sure, there is an answer, but I do not think that God has revealed it to us in Scripture. He has just assured us that, whatever the answer ultimately is, we can be certain that evil is not outside His plan or control. I, along with most Calvinists I know of, believe that we have to accept a mystery here, as we do with so many issues involving an infinite and sovereign God.
NKJ Deuteronomy 29:29 The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.
As I see it, the ultimate answer to the problem of evil belongs to those secret things that God has chosen not to reveal to us. The most He has given us is a framework within which to understand the problem, and that framework consists of the existence of evil within a universe governed by His sovereign will.
Olson: But wait. What about God’s character? Is God, then, the author of evil? Most Calvinists don’t want to say it. But logic seems to demand it. If God plans something and renders it certain, how is he not culpable for it? Here is where things get murky.
Logic only demands it if we refuse to submit our minds to the truth of Scripture. Consider, for example, the teaching of the Book of Job. After Satan has received permission from God to attack Job and has destroyed all of Job’s possessions and killed all of his family (except for his wife), we are told:
NKJ Job 1:20-22 Then Job arose, tore his robe, and shaved his head; and he fell to the ground and worshiped. 21 And he said: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, And naked shall I return there. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; Blessed be the name of the LORD.” 22 In all this Job did not sin nor charge God with wrong.
Now, we the readers have been informed that it was actually Satan who worked through the Sabeans and through natural means to destroy Job’s family and possessions, having been given permission to do so by God, who had also drawn Satan’s attention to Job. Since we know all this, we also know that Job is correct when he says that, “the LORD has given and the LORD has taken away,” because it all clearly did happen as a part of God’s plan for Job. But, was Job sinning, or was he accusing God of sinning, when he said this? Was his acknowledgment of God as in sovereign control of all these events also an assertion that God was the author of the evil behind them? Absolutely not! For the inspired author of the book immediately tells us that “in all this Job did not sin nor charge God with wrong.”
In other words, the book of Job teaches us that we must acknowledge that evil is ultimately a part of God’s plan and not outside of His sovereign control, but that we must never accuse Him of any evil Himself. However evil fits into God’s sovereign plan, it does so in such a way that God Himself cannot be accused of any evil. This is the framework within which we must understand the problem of evil. We should humbly submit our minds to Scripture in this matter and admit that, although we do not and cannot understand how this can be so, it is so.
This reminds me of the word the LORD spoken through the prophet Isaiah, when He said, “‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,’ says the LORD. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts'” (55:8-9, NKJ). This is something the good Calvinist never forgets!
Olson: Some Calvinists will say he’s not guilty because he has a good intention for the event — to bring good out of it, but the Bible expressly forbids doing evil for the sake of good.
No, we do not say that God does evil for the sake of good. We say that God does no evil at all! As has been shown above, we simply agree with Job that God is sovereign even over evil, but in such a way that He is not guilty of any evil.
But we would say that God can and does have “a good intention” for any evil events in spite of the evil intentions of Satan or other evil doers in those very same events. This was definitely the case in God’s dealings with Job described above, but I would like to offer an additional example for your consideration, which comes from the life of Joseph.
After Jacob died, Joseph’s brothers feared that he had not truly forgiven them after all and that he might seek vengeance on them for having sold him into slavery as a young man. Here is the account of their conversation about the matter:
NKJ Genesis 50:15-21 When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “Perhaps Joseph will hate us, and may actually repay us for all the evil which we did to him.” 16 So they sent messengers to Joseph, saying, “Before your father died he commanded, saying, 17 Thus you shall say to Joseph: ‘I beg you, please forgive the trespass of your brothers and their sin; for they did evil to you. Now, please, forgive the trespass of the servants of the God of your father.'” And Joseph wept when they spoke to him. 18 Then his brothers also went and fell down before his face, and they said, “Behold, we are your servants.” 19 Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid, for am I in the place of God? 20 But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive. 21 Now therefore, do not be afraid; I will provide for you and your little ones.’ And he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.”
Notice that Joseph saw God as having a good intention in the very same actions that were intended for evil by his brothers (vs. 20). This is not the same thing as saying that God does evil for the sake of good, since it is affirmed that God was only doing good the whole time. So, contra Olson, to say that God can have a sovereign plan that includes evil while His own intentions are only ever good does not not entail saying that God Himself does evil that good may come. Such a notion is foreign to Scripture and is expressly denied by Calvinists as well. The reason we say the things we do about God’s sovereignty over evil is because we find these things taught in Scripture. And, even if we cannot ultimately explain such mysteries in a way that would satisfy Olson — or any others that appear to think that God’s ways should be so easily understood by us — we nevertheless assert these things as true because Scripture clearly teaches them.
Olson: The God of Calvinism scares me; I’m not sure how to distinguish him from the devil. If you’ve come under the influence of Calvinism, think about its ramifications for the character of God. God is great but also good. In light of all the evil and innocent suffering in the world, he must have limited himself.
I do not doubt that the “God of Calvinism” scares Olson, but I would assert that it is really the God of the Bible that scares Him, a God who cannot be so easily put into the “limited” box in which Olson wishes to place Him. And if Olson can’t seem to distinguish Him from the devil, it is an indictment on Olson rather than on God (or on Calvinists who are simply repeating what God has said about Himself). Many believers throughout the history of God’s dealings with mankind have had no problem at all making such a distinction, believers such as Job and Joseph… and the Calvinists who believe their word over that of men such as Olson.
To all those who would say that God has to be limited in some way because that is the only way we can fully understand what He is doing — which seems to be Olson’s point of view — I would remind you that it is idolatry to reshape God into our image, into someone who can fit into our understanding, rather than to humbly accept Him for who He says that He is.