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On the Legitimacy of Ascribing Certain Evils to God

She sat there in her freshman Bible class and wept. The Bible teacher had just insisted that whatever occurs is God’s will. Glory comes to God through whatever happens, even evil. She wept because her mother had brain cancer. A world where God willed such things for his glory, for the purpose of exalting his own name, perplexed and eluded her. My daughter, a classmate, came home bewildered. This kind of a God troubled her as well. As she understood God, he does not act this way.

A partner of mine has, this past year, battled an aggressive form of oral cancer. Although his own philosophic orientation tracks toward atheism, many of his friends are Christian. He recently confided to me that the harshest part of his process of coping with his disease has been to listen politely as Christians, trying to be helpful and upbeat, suggest that perhaps this cancer was ordained by God in order to “teach” him “something.” Dropping his guard momentarily, he confessed that this phrase, “it’s God’s will,” and the idea of a God who wills suffering both angered and revolted him.

To be sure, a great many Christians find not only solace but also encouragement from the conviction that certain evils come directly from God and are ordained for his purposes. Using the metaphor of trials and sufferings as “refiners fire” and likening them to a “crucible,” the lessons of this quarter’s Bible Study Guide have often demonstrated comfort with this notion.

One lesson, for example states that the test of Abraham was “calculated to exert the deepest possible anguish, for ‘God had reserved his last, most trying test for Abraham until the burden of years was heavy on him and he longed for rest’ (Ellen White, Patriarchs and Prophets, 147).” Here we have a God who not only creates a test for a frail old man who merely yearns to be left alone, but also calculates the timing to ensure the most mental pain. Abraham’s mental anguish, often the worst kind of suffering, is placed squarely at God’s feet.

The belief that God actually ordains evil and incorporates it into the pantheon of tools that he uses to enact and further his purposes on this earth is widespread in Christendom. Adventists are not alone in believing that disasters and loss of livelihood, health, and loved ones are means God employs to purify his saints.

But if this is true, if God really is the originator of certain evils, then we are left with the problem of discerning from the vast variety of evils present among us which come from God and which come from “other” sources. To make sense of this dilemma, some have divided God’s will into two types: his perfect or ordained will, and his permissive will. In God’s perfect will, he actively causes certain things to happen; in his permissive will, although it may not be his preference, he allows evils to occur or exist.

I confess I find this distinction both spurious and harmful.

There is simply no objective means by which to distinguish between God’s perfect or permissive will. If we allow one evil to come directly from God, why not all of them? If we add the qualifier that only those evils that produce some measurable good are from God, then we must face the reality that we are incapable of making such a determination. Are there good results or outcomes that we do not detect? Or are there things we might label “good” that actually are not?

This understanding also includes the implication that certain evils do not occur because God may prevent them. Just think of all the nonevents that God might be preventing. This seems to throw a monkey wrench into the idea that we are to reason from cause to effect. How are we to mature spiritually and grow if our perception of events is clouded by the uncertainty of never knowing the true source of evil events?

Furthermore, there remains a sinister hint that because certain evils happen, God must have wanted them to happen. If God allows or permits events that he wants to happen, we humans end up playing a very peripheral and ultimately meaningless part in the scheme of things. We are outside forces and cannot be said to be truly responsible for our actions. Nothing, by this definition, runs contrary to God’s will. The danger exists with this perception for the human will to be demeaned and neutered if God selectively allows only those activities, choices, or events through which he might exert his will.

To hope that the Bible offers clarity on this dilemma reminds us that Bible believers themselves differ widely on this matter. What are we to make of an inspired book that both does (Isa. 45:7; Amos 3:6) and explicitly does not (Jer. 29:11-13) ascribe calamity to God? God, it also seems, demands credit for everything that happens, and at the same time (James 1:17; John 10:10) wants to be seen as the exclusive source of all that is good.

There is a sentinel event in Christian history that, I believe, sheds dramatic light on this dilemma and offers a proper and satisfying solution. I admit that this solution may not convince everyone, but my hope is that at least everyone will give it thought and consideration.

Many believed that the death of Christ was the will of God. They see God’s plan of salvation demanding the sacrifice of a pure and guiltless victim. But was not crucifixion a great evil perpetrated upon an innocent man? In the context of our current discussion, the question becomes, “was the evil of the cross willed and ordained by God?” I beg the pardon of those who might be offended by this question, but it would follow that if the events of the cross were willed by God then the perpetrators of this horror should be honored as heroes who fulfilled his will and praised for helping to facilitate our redemption!

Such an observation is not only perverse, but also abhorrent. The words of Christ himself confirm that God did not will the death of his son: “he that delivers me unto you has the greater sin” (John 19:11). The killing of Christ was not only a sin, it was also a great sin. Yet from this sin, from this horrible evil, profound and extraordinary good was drawn.

Christ came as witness to God’s character of goodness. When Jesus submitted to the will of his Father, he committed himself to being faithful, even unto death. When evil threw everything it had at him, he revealed a God who does not retaliate or seek vengeance, but who loves even to the end. And though evil killed him, that very evil was rendered impotent in the reality of the resurrection.

This reality provides us the clarity to decisively and boldly declare that all evil is counter to God and does not originate with him. The fact that God can and will bring good from evil need not mean that God designs or sends evil, even as an object lesson. We must not conflate the good that God brings out of evil with the causation of evil itself. We must never assert that evil ever comes from God or originates at God’s hand. It is the nature and character of God to do good, to create order from chaos, to bring peace in the mist of storm.

As it was the will of God for Christ to be a faithful witness, even so his will for us is nothing less. In a fallen world, our faithfulness must contend with evil. But we should know with certainty that the evils, the disappointments, the troubles, the sorrows in our lives are not from God. When the enemy throws us into the furnace of affliction, we should have complete confidence that God will be there with us as he was with the three Hebrew worthies. When we walk through the valley of shadows, we should be assured that God will always be there to comfort us. God delivers, heals, restores, lifts us up, but never does God hurt or destroy.

This is the nature of God. He is the Creator God. He can bring beauty from ashes. But just because God brings good out of evil, we should never, never suggest or infer that the evil comes from God, or that it is God’s will.

Anesthesiologist Bob Rigsby writes from Altamonte Springs, Florida.

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