Continuing my fascinating conversation with reader Christopher in the comments. I quote the entirety of Christopher’s comment in the text of my reply.
I very much appreciate Christopher’s questions. Like all good questions, he’s pushed me to think about some very difficult things — important things that we don’t often hear about from our pulpits because … well … these are really hard questions. And those are the very best kind.
You’re putting me to the test! Let’s see …
“As we lawyers say, you assume a fact not in evidence. Who says that God himself subjects people to the kinds of harm you mention, such as abuse.”
God Himself does:
“I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the LORD, do all these things.” (Isaiah 45:7, NIV)
“Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that both calamities and good things come?” (Lamentations 3:38, NIV)
“When a trumpet sounds in a city, do not the people tremble? When disaster comes to a city, has not the LORD caused it?” (Amos 3:6, NIV)
“…And he still maintains his integrity, though you incited me against him to ruin him without any reason.” (Job 2:3, NIV)
So my first reaction to these verses is that God is not saying that he is the source of all bad things but that, when he is of a mind to punish, he punishes. Obviously, anyone who knows the OT knows that God brings punishment to both Jews and Gentiles when he suits him to penalize their wicked behavior. This is his justice, for which I praise him. So let’s check out some context.
The first passage is from a prophecy directed to Cyrus, king of Persia —
(Isa. 45:1-7 ESV) 1 Thus says the LORD to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped, to subdue nations before him and to loose the belts of kings, to open doors before him that gates may not be closed: 2 “I will go before you and level the exalted places, I will break in pieces the doors of bronze and cut through the bars of iron, 3 I will give you the treasures of darkness and the hoards in secret places, that you may know that it is I, the LORD, the God of Israel, who call you by your name. 4 For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, I name you, though you do not know me. 5 I am the LORD, and there is no other, besides me there is no God; I equip you, though you do not know me, 6 that people may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is none besides me; I am the LORD, and there is no other. 7 I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the LORD, who does all these things.”
God takes credit for Cyrus’s victories and the calamities suffered by his enemies. Parallel
(Isa. 45:17 ESV) 17 But Israel is saved by the LORD with everlasting salvation; you shall not be put to shame or confounded to all eternity.
God is saying: I can make you king and I can destroy you. He is not saying, all evil in this world is my fault.
Next is —
(Lam. 3:38-40 ESV) 38 Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come? 39 Why should a living man complain, a man, about the punishment of his sins? 40 Let us test and examine our ways, and return to the LORD!
Lamentations is about the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon. The author’s point is that God can bless us Jews or curse us (as he had seen and as God had said in Deu 27-29 and Lev 26). If we Jews sin, God said he’ll punish us. Why should we complain? We knew we were sinning! We should rather repent.
Again, the point is not that all evil comes from God but that God does punish as he has said he would.
The Amos passage —
(Amos 3:1-8 ESV) Hear this word that the LORD has spoken against you, O people of Israel, against the whole family that I brought up out of the land of Egypt: 2 “You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities. 3 “Do two walk together, unless they have agreed to meet? 4 Does a lion roar in the forest, when he has no prey? Does a young lion cry out from his den, if he has taken nothing? 5 Does a bird fall in a snare on the earth, when there is no trap for it? Does a snare spring up from the ground, when it has taken nothing? 6 Is a trumpet blown in a city, and the people are not afraid? Does disaster come to a city, unless the LORD has done it? 7 “For the Lord GOD does nothing without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets. 8 The lion has roared; who will not fear? The Lord GOD has spoken; who can but prophesy?”
In context, Amos is saying that God will punish Israel for its sins. Thus, when he asks, “Does disaster come to a city, unless the LORD has done it?” Well, this makes perfect sense if God has threatened destruction if the people don’t repent. When the city is then destroyed, they should learn their lesson.
Heed v. 7: “For the Lord GOD does nothing without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets.” That is, they know it was God who brought disaster because the prophets said so. “The lion roared.” God is the one who brings disaster to a city when the prophets say so.
I have no interest in the TV evangelists who announce that every disaster is God’s judgment — because there is no prophet who warned us and so they are full of themselves and not the Spirit.
Why doesn’t God heal all the sick?
If God is not sovereign, what is the point of praying to Him, in seeking His deliverance? Why ask Him to give us our daily bread, keep us from temptation and deliver us from evil (as Jesus teaches)? Are you saying that the disease that is in the world is not from God (as part of his curse on the earth and all in it)? Stop and think what horrible diseases afflict the world, afflict even children who do not know enough to choose good over evil. Recall that Jesus said not a sparrow falls to the ground apart from God’s will and that he so trusted in the Father’s sovereignty that he was able to sleep through a storm at sea without a care (and was bothered to find his disciples scared out of their wits).
As a victim of more than one horrible disease, and a chronic pain sufferer, I do not need to told about these things. These issues are very present to me.
I think the Orthodox have a better understanding of the curse of Gen 3 than we Protestants (which we inherited from our Catholic forebears). The curse is the consequence of sin entering the Creation, but it’s not God’s will. Check out http://www.goarch.org/ourfaith/ourfaith8050 for an enlightening perspective (but you can skip the parts about Mary).
I can’t offer a comprehensive explanation, but sin — rebellion against God — affects not only those who sin but the entirety of creation (Rom 8:18-23). Jesus came to reconcile us, to help us defeat sin, and where Jesus is most intensely present, even the creation itself returns to proper balance. The storms on the sea are calmed not just because “Jesus did a miracle,” but because the creation subjected to futility and adulteration returns to submission where Jesus is most intensely present.
The reason why present suffering cannot compare with the coming glory is because the whole creation is on tiptoe with excitement, waiting for God’s children to be revealed as who they really are. Suddenly we have turned a corner. Whereas, up until now, it might have been possible to think that Paul was simply talking about God’s salvation in relation to human beings, from here on it is clear that the entire cosmos is in view. Nor is this a strange oddity, bolted on to the outside of his theology, or of the argument of Romans, as though it were simply a bit of undigested Jewish apocalyptic speculation thrown in here for good measure. No: it is part of the revelation of God’s righteousness, that covenant faithfulness that always aimed at putting the whole world to rights. This is why, as we saw in 4:13, Paul declared that God’s promise to Abraham had the whole world in view. …
And, if one dare put it like this, as God sent Jesus to rescue the human race, so God will send Jesus’ younger siblings, in the power of the Spirit, to rescue the whole created order, to bring that justice and peace for which the whole creation yearns. (This cannot be reduced to the old liberal Protestant “social gospel”–from which the resurrection, which Paul here presupposes, was usually bracketed out.) …
Putting the picture together, in the light of the observable way in which the created order is out of joint, and the clear biblical and experiential belief that the human race as a whole is in rebellion against God, Paul, in company with many other Jews, saw the two as intimately related. After the fall, the earth produced thorns and thistles. Humans continued to abuse their environment, so that one of the reasons why God sent Israel into exile, according to the Scriptures, was so that the land could at last enjoy its sabbaths (Lev 26:34–43 [cf. 25:2–5]; 2 Chr 36:21). But the answer to the problem was not (as in some New Age theories) that humans should keep their hands off creation, should perhaps be removed from the planet altogether so as not to spoil it any further. The answer, if the creator is to be true to the original purpose, is for humans to be redeemed, to take their place at last as God’s imagebearers, the wise steward they were always meant to be. Paul sees that this purpose has already been accomplished in principle in the resurrection of Jesus, and that it will be accomplished fully when all those in Christ are raised and together set in saving authority over the world (see 1 Cor 15:20–28). That is why, Paul says, creation is now waiting with eager longing.
That for which creation is longing is not, then, that it might be “brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God” (NIV) or might “obtain” the same glorious freedom that those in Christ will have (RSV, NRSV). The closing words of v. 21 (lit., “unto the freedom of the glory of the children of God”) could be intended to be run together like that; Greek often expresses adjectival relations through genitives. But here, in the light of the previous verses, the thought seems to be not that creation and Christians will simply all be free and glorious in the same way, together, but that the freedom for which creation longs, and which it will be liberated into, is the freedom that comes about through the glorification of the children of God. Paul never says that creation itself will have “glory.” It will have freedom because God’s children have glory; indeed, their glory will consist quite specifically in this, that they will be God’s agents in bringing the wise, healing, restorative divine justice to the whole created order.
N.T. Wright, “The Letter to the Romans,” in The Acts of the Apostles-The First Letter to the Corinthians (vol. 10 of New Interpreters Bible, Accordance electronic ed. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 596-7.
Therefore, I think it’s a mistake (a very common one) to blame God for the fallenness of this world — a fallenness that cost Jesus his life on the cross. I think the Fall and its consequences are therefore contrary to the will of God, and God is doing his best to defeat them. But to defeat the consequences of rebellion requires that humans give up their rebellion.
The scriptures aren’t the least Pollyanna-ish. They report the horrors of human suffering with incredible honesty. We are naive because we like to read the pretty passages and ignore the full picture.
For example, speaking as someone who spent Saturday in a wheelchair, Jesus healed but one of the many lame people by the pool. In theory, he could have healed them all. He could have healed the entire population of lame Jews or every lame person on the planet. But he healed one. Just one.
Why? Why stop there? Just to show off? Well, to show what is possible — if we’d join him in defeating the principalities and powers, in giving ourselves to him. The point of a miracle isn’t to take away the curse. If it were that easy, Jesus wouldn’t have gone to the cross.
The miracle is a foretaste of the new heavens and new earth. Until then, it’s war — and God makes things better but not everything better. And as more ground is taken and more enemies defeated, things improve. Poverty is pushed back. Diseases are cured. Famines aren’t as deadly. And we credit these things to science and man, when in fact they come from the spread of the Kingdom — I believe. I’m a Kuyperian to that extent. There’s a common grace from God. He makes it rain on the just and unjust. And he defeats the Enemy a little at a time — and things get better. But the final victory will only come as people follow Jesus, defeat sin in their lives, and as a result, spread a common grace that will be beyond our imagining.