Monthly Archives: January 2013

O God, Why Did You Let Esther Die?

This article is based on a paper that I wrote in the summer of 1984 while working on a M.A. in Humanities with California State University Dominguez Hills. That paper paved the way for other papers in which I expressed open theistic views, two of which (“God’s Omniscience and Man’s Freedom” and “From Everlasting to Everlasting”) will also appear here. Shorter and longer versions of the paper appeared as articles in the February 1998 issue of “Good Tidings” (the official publication of the Pentecostal Assemblies of Newfoundland and Labrador) and a few years later in Bob’s Corner at Suite101.com. I’ve consulted them in preparing the paper for sharing here.

“O God, why did you let Esther die? Was it because you couldn’t help her or was it because you wouldn’t help her? Whichever–I don’t think much of you! Of what value is a God who either can’t or won’t help His children when they need Him?” Such were the questions that my anguished heart poured out to God after my first wife’s death from complications following successful open-heart surgery in 1971.

Both during my wife’s months in various hospitals and after her death, well-meaning Christian friends offered many words of consolation to me. Although at least one suggested that God’s not healing her indicated some shortcoming by her or me, either of insufficient faith or of actual sin, most were encouraging. Some focused on the thought that God knows and brings about what is best for His children and others, after her death, talked about how much happier she must be now that she was in heaven and free of her suffering.

However, none of these suggestions proved satisfying to me. The first I felt had long ago been shown by the book of Job to be inadequate to explain the sufferings of the righteous, which Esther certainly was both in faith and in practice. The other two I did not think fit the circumstances. How was it better for a young woman who loved life to be dead, even if it meant being in heaven, than to be alive and enjoying the life that God had given her here? How was it better for her little girl and her husband to be left motherless and wifeless than to enjoy the love and care of a good mother and wife? I could not (and, 41 years later, still cannot) accept the view that Esther died because of her or my shortcomings or the view that she died because God saw that her death was best for her or for her family.

With no answers coming from God or from friends to ease my grief, I found myself praying, “O God, if You are really there. . . .” But the faith in Jesus Christ that had been an integral part of me since my childhood since childhood kept me from denying him. Yet I continued to question His letting Esther die. To try to find an answer, I read whatever I could regarding God’s allowing evil in the world that He had made.

One of the ideas that I encountered in my reading was that maybe God was limited in power or in will to prevent evil. For it is possible that God is limited in power to prevent evil. Perhaps He is but one in a group of tribal gods, each supporting his particular people in their relationships with others and thus bringing good to his people and evil to their enemies. Or, perhaps He is one of two opposing forces, He being good and the other evil, who have involved us in their ongoing struggle with each other. Or, perhaps He, as the only or chief god, is responsible for our being created but is unable to control His creation. All of these view–polytheism, dualism, and finitism, respectively–have been held by religious groups or thinkers.

And it is possible that God is limited in will to prevent evil. Perhaps He made the world so that He could play with His creation as I used to play with my toy soldiers when I was a boy, finding pleasure in their sufferings as well as in their happy experiences. Or, perhaps, indifferent to what would happen to His creatures, He is busy at something else or taking a rest, as Elijah mockingly suggested to the prophets of Baal that their god might be doing (I Kings 18:27). Although few have seriously believed God to be a cosmic sadist, the viewpoint that He is uninvolved in the operation of the universe that He created was argued for by deists.

However, my belief in God’s existence was based on my faith in Jesus Christ and he clearly believed in a God unlimited in power and in goodness. For example, he told his disciples, “With God all things are possible” (Mark 10:27), and the rich young ruler, “There is none good but one, that is, God” (Mark 10:18). This ruled out my accepting that God is limited in power or in will to prevent evil. It also brought me face to face with what scholars term the “problem of evil”: if God is all-powerful, He can prevent evil; if God is wholly good, He wants to prevent evil; thus if God is all-powerful and wholly good, evil shouldn’t exist; however it does exist.

In my search for a solution to my problem, I discovered that several theodicies, attempts to justify God’s allowing the existence of evil, have been proposed by Christian thinkers. Amongst them are the aesthetic, the soul-building, and the free will defences. According to the first view, evil is permitted by God in order that good may stand out as beautiful in contrast to it. According to the second view, evil is permitted by God so that humans will develop morally in confrontation with it. And, according to the third view, evil is due to the bad use by humans of the freedom given to them by God. Because the free will defence seemed to me to be the most consistent with traditional Christian theology, I narrowed my search for a solution to the problem of evil to a consideration of it.

The free will defence is rooted in the Genesis account of the creation and fall of man. According to that account, God made the first man and the first woman “in his own image” (1:27). However, unlike Him, they did not “know good and evil” (3:6,22). God provided them opportunity for such by commanding them not to eat of “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” at the same time warning them that they would “surely die” if they did eat of it (2:17). Tempted by the serpent (Satan, according to Revelation 20:2), Adam and Eve disobeyed, bringing moral and physical evil into man’s world (chapter 3). Thus, evil exists in the world, according to the Genesis account of the creation and fall of man, because God gave man a choice between obeying or disobeying Him and man chose to disobey Him.

Why would God give man a such a choice, knowing that man could choose to disobey Him, thus bringing evil into the perfect world that He had created? Certainly, being all-powerful, He not only could have prevented introduction of evil into the human world but also could banish it from our world or at least make a new home for us where it could not enter (Revelation 21-22). And, surely, being wholly good, He did not and does not want evil. The answer to this question, according to the proponents of the free will defence, is that God wanted to create the best possible world that He could and a world containing free, moral creatures is better, all else being equal, than a world not containing free moral creatures. Accordingly, God created a world in which there originally existed no evil and He created human beings capable of free moral choice.

Knowing that mankind, rather than God, is responsible for humanity’s miserable condition, did not completely removed my complaint against God. As the Bible and history reveal, God has intervened and continues to intervene for His children in answer to their prayers to Him. Why didn’t He answer our prayers for Esther? I still can’t answer that question. However I no longer bewail Esther’s death or even seek a reason for God’s allowing it.

Why not? Because meditation upon the Son of God’s voluntarily laying aside His divine life in Heaven to enter our world as a human and to suffer the most agonizing of deaths on the cross of Calvary–so that mankind might be reconciled with His Father and have an inner peace now and a place in Heaven in the future–has impressed upon me how much God cares about us. Moreover, God gave my daughter and me a good life together and when it was time for her to leave home gave me a new wife and blessed her and me with two children. Surely if He would do all this for me, I should be willing to accept Esther’s death as part of her and my life in this world and to trust Him “that all things work together for good to them that love God” (Romans 8:28).

In my next post I’ll consider the fifth (and final) point in John Sanders’ summary of openness theology at Open Theism Information Site.

Libertarian Freedom

In this post I’ll consider the fourth point in John Sanders’ summary of openness theology at Open Theism Information Site:

Fourth, God has granted us the type of freedom (libertarian) necessary for a truly personal relationship of love to develop. Again, this was God’s decision, not ours. Despite the fact that we have abused our freedom by turning away from the divine love, God remains faithful to his intentions for creation and this faithful love was manifested most fully in the life and work of Jesus.

John M. Frame identifies the concept of libertarian freedom as the criterion by which open theists test other doctrines and devotes an entire chapter of No Other God to it–chapter 8, “Do We Have Genuine Freedom?”. Whether or not it is the criterion by which open theists test other doctrines, libertarian freedom certainly is an essential element in open theism. In this post I’ll define it and the alternative view of freedom proposed by some classical theists, compatibilism; identify some of the criticisms made of it; and present an apology for it.

Libertarian Freedom

Libertarians hold that a person is free with respect to a particular action only if he or she can perform the action or refrain from performing it. They maintain that if a person’s decision to do or not do the action is caused by anyone or anything else, including God, then the decision is not properly his or hers and he or she cannot be held responsible for the action. Thus they claim that, since according to the Bible God holds people responsible for their actions, people must have libertarian freedom.

Compatabilist Freedom

Compatabilists hold that a decision is free with respect to a particular action as long as it is free from external constraint. They maintain that it is free even if God so influences the person’s beliefs and desires that he or she has to make the decision that God wants him or her to make. Thus they claim that God can be in complete control of a situation by influencing the participants’ beliefs and desires and yet hold those participants responsible for what happens.

Some Criticisms of Libertarianism

A common criticism made of libertarian freedom is that the Bible doesn’t explicitly teach its existence. However neither does the Bible explicitly teach the existence of compatabilist freedom. Thus the question is which view is more consistent with the overall teaching of the Bible.

Another common criticism made of libertarian freedom is that it undermines the sovereignty of God by allowing humans to do or not do what God wills. However open theists argue that God’s allowing libertarian freedom and yet ultimately accomplishing His purposes enhances rather than undermines His sovereignty.

A criticism of libertarian freedom made by Calvinists is that it is inconsistent with their belief that God foreordains all that happens. However the Bible seems to support both the belief that God foreordains all that happens and the belief that man has free will. Most of the church fathers held a position similar to that of the libertarians until Augustine challenged it, since which there has been a contest between his and their views. In Protestantism the two views are generally associated with Calvin, his following Augustine, and Arminius, his asserting libertarian freedom.

Arminians resolve the apparent inconsistency between God’s foreordaining all that happens and man’s having a free will by asserting that God foreknows everything, including the free actions of humans, and foreordains what He sees. Calvinists object that God’s foreseeing everything means that the future is settled and thus humans can’t have libertarian freedom. They resolve the apparent inconsistency by arguing for humans having compatabilist rather than libertarian freedom.

Open theists resolve the apparent inconsistency by claiming that humans’ having libertarian freedom implies that the future is at least partly open and by affirming at the same time that God retains control and will accomplish His purposes. Naturally both Calvinists and Arminians reject this way of resolving the apparent inconsistency. I’ll discuss further these three solutions to the problem referred to here shortly in a post called “Divine Omniscience.”

An Apology for Libertarianism

Personally, I came to open theistic views while searching for an answer to the question of why God caused or allowed my first wife to die at only 26 leaving behind a husband and four-year-old daughter. John Sanders’ introduction to The God Who Risks suggests that he came to open theistic views while doing a similar search, his being prompted by the tragic death of his brother. Our experiences illustrate one of the values of libertarianism, its role in dealing with the problem of evil.

Another value of libertarianism is that it reflects best our instinctive feelings that we freely choose our actions and thus are responsible for their results and yet that God is in ultimate control.

Another value of libertarianism is the attractiveness of the concept that God loves us so much that He gives us libertarian freedom even though He knows that some will use it to reject Him and His will.

In my next post I’ll share a paper that I wrote in 1984 describing my search for an answer to the question of why God allowed my first wife to die, “O God, Why Did You Let Esther Die?”.

General Rather Than Meticulous Providence

In this post I’ll consider the third point in John Sanders’ summary of openness theology at Open Theism Information Site:

Third, the only wise God has chosen to exercise general rather than meticulous providence, allowing space for us to operate and for God to be creative and resourceful in working with us. It was solely God’s decision not to control every detail that happens in our lives. Moreover, God has flexible strategies. Though the divine nature does not change, God reacts in contingencies, even adjusting his plans, if necessary, to take into account the decisions of his free creatures. God is endlessly resourceful and wise in working towards the fulfillment of his ultimate goals. Sometimes God alone decides how to accomplish these goals. Usually, however, God elicits human cooperation such that it is both God and humanity who decide what the future shall be. God’s plan is not a detailed script or blueprint, but a broad attention that allows for a variety of options regarding precisely how these goals may be reached. What God and people do in history matters. If the Hebrew midwives had feared Pharoah rather than God and killed the baby boys, God would have responded accordingly and a different story would have emerged. What people do and whether they come to trust God makes a difference concerning what God does–God does not fake the story of human history.

What I’ll do in the rest of this post is to define and comment briefly on meticulous and general providence, guided by “Specific Versus General Sovereignty” in John Sanders’ The God Who Risks. For those readers of this post with access to that book, such as my family, I’d recommend your reading the complete section (pages 211-217).

Meticulous Providence

According to meticulous providence, God ordains everything that happens. Even acts that we view as evil happen because God wants them to happen and serve a good purpose in God’s plan. Thus there are no such things as accidents or tragedies.

Sanders quotes the following passage by Alexander Pope to illustrate this:
All Nature is but Art, unknown to thee;
All Chance, Direction, which thou canst not see;
All Discord, Harmony not understood;
All partial Evil, universal Good:
And, spite of Pride, in erring Reason’s spite,
One truth is clear, WHATEVER IS, IS RIGHT.
(Alexander Pope, The Nature of Man, I, 289-294)

Such divine control seems to rule out human responsibility. However proponents of meticulous providence claim that it doesn’t, arguing that meticulous providence and human responsibility are only apparently contradictory, redefining freedom so that it is compatible with being ordained, or asserting that God ordains on the basis of His supposed foreknowledge of all is going to happen including the free acts of humans. Sanders doesn’t discuss their arguments in “Specific Versus General Sovereignty” but refers to his consideration of them at other places in The God Who Risks–pages 34-37 (“The Appeal to Antinomies”), 220-224 (“Human Freedom”), and 194-206 (“Excursus on Omniscience”). He concludes that their arguments are unsuccessful, and I agree with him.

Sanders also observes that meticulous providence rules out certain experiences that the Bible attributes to God, such as His being sorry that He had made man (Genesis 6:6).

General Providence

According to general providence, God sets up general structures and within them allows things to happen, both good and bad, not specifically intended by Him.

God may act to bring about a specific event, but even when He wants humans to do some particular thing He persuades rather than forces them to do it. For example, He chose Moses to free the Israelites from Egypt but persuaded rather than forced him to do it (Exodus 3:1-4:20). Sanders suggests that if Moses had continued to make objections God would have had to find some other way of achieving his goal.

Sanders observes that although the meticulous and general views of providence are clearly different, many Christians switch back and forth between them, depending on the situation. He gives the example of Susan. Many would thank God for her having a good job, but would condemn the rapist/murderer if she were raped and murdered. Their thanking God would imply that God has complete control over what happens (meticulous providence), but their condemning the rapist/murderer would imply that things happen not intended by God (general providence). This is inconsistent.

God’s allowing things to happen not specifically intended by Him may suggest that He is not in control. However although God does not control everything, He is in control in the sense that He initiated the divine project, set the rules under which it operates, and is guiding it towards fruition.

Conclusion

As observed in the third point in the summary of openness theology quoted at the beginning of this post, open theism holds that “the only wise God has chosen to exercise general rather than meticulous providence, allowing space for us to operate and for God to be creative and resourceful in working with us…. God’s plan is not a detailed script or blueprint, but a broad attention that allows for a variety of options regarding precisely how these goals may be reached. What God and people do in history matters.”

In my next post I’ll consider the fourth point in John Sanders’ summary of openness theology at Open Theism Information Site.

God’s Give-and-Take Relationship with Us

In this post I’ll consider the second point in John Sanders’ summary of openness theology at Open Theism Information Site:

Second, God has, in sovereign freedom, decided to make some of his actions contingent upon our requests and actions. God elicits our free collaboration in his plans. Hence, God can be influenced by what we do and God truly responds to what we do. God genuinely interacts and enters into dynamic give-and-take relationships with us. That God changes in some respects implies that God is temporal, working with us in time. God, at least since creation, experiences duration. God is everlasting through time rather than timelessly eternal.

book 2In preparation for commenting on the above, I reread several times chapters 3 and 4 of Sanders’ The God Who Risks, which examine the Old and New Testament material supporting the “risk” view of providence (God’s care). From each chapter I’ve selected an event considered by Sanders that illustrates the above point, from chapter 3 the establishment, breaking, and renewal of the Covenant (pages 61-66) and from chapter 4 the inclusion of the Gentiles in the Church (pages 117-124). Although I won’t consider in this post whether God’s being eternal means that He is everlasting or timeless, after I finish examining the five points in the summary of openness theology at Open Theism Information Site I’ll share three papers that I wrote in 1984 on freewill theism (another name for open theism), one of which concerns the nature of God’s eternity.

The Establishment, Breaking, and Renewal of the Covenant

While the Israelites were camped at Mount Sinai, God established a covenant or agreement with them. “You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all people, for all the earth is mine, and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:4-6, ESV) God freely established the covenant, but it involved obligations for both the Israelites and Him–they were to obey His word and He would bless them. Thus although the establishment of the covenant was unconditional, its continuance was contingent upon the Israelites’ obeying God’s word.

The breaking and renewal of the Covenant in Exodus 32-34 illustrates this. When God informed Moses of the Israelites’ worshipping the golden calf, He told him that He was going to destroy them and start over again with him. However as a result of Moses’ intercession for the Israelites, God changed His mind and didn’t do what He had said that He would do. After Moses visited the idolatrous scene, he returned to God and asked Him to forgive the Israelites. This time God refused his request and said that an angel, rather than God, would accompany the Israelites. However as a result of the Israelites’ taking off their ornaments as God instructed them to and of Moses’ continued intercession for them, God again changed His mind and said that His “presence” would go with them. He then renewed His covenant with the Israelites.

The Inclusion of the Gentiles in the Church

Sanders comments on what Acts 10-15 and Romans 9-11 show about God’s attempt to include the Gentiles within the Church without first having to convert to Judaism. I’ll limit my consideration to Acts 10-15.

In Acts 10 God showed Peter that Gentiles should be included in the Church as Gentiles by having an angel tell Cornelius, a Roman centurion, to send for Peter; by granting Peter a vision of ceremonially unclean food and commanding him three times to eat it; and by giving the gift of the Holy Spirit to those listening to Peter’s message about Jesus in the house of Cornelius. In Acts 11 Peter explained the situation to Jewish Christians who took issue with him and they concluded that God had accepted the Gentiles into the Church.

Acts 13-14 describes Paul’s first missionary journey, in which some Jews and many Gentiles came to faith in Christ. Acts 15 narrates how certain Jewish Christians told the Gentile Christians that they couldn’t be genuine Christians unless they practiced the law of Moses and how Paul and Barnabas disagreed with them and it was decided to take the matter to the leaders of the church in Jerusalem. It also describes that meeting, in which Peter recounted what had happened in the house of Cornelius, Paul and Barnabas told of signs and wonders among the Gentiles, James suggested certain minimum requirements that Gentiles should observe, and those in the meeting agreed to his suggestion.

Sanders observes that to accomplish His plan to develop both Jews and Gentiles into a body having faith in Jesus God was dependent on the people involved, especially Peter and Paul, to correctly interpret His actions in the events described in Acts 10-15; that although His plan met initial success, God did experience some setbacks, such as the incident at Antioch described in Galatians 2:11-21; and that despite His resourcefulness, God did not achieve everything that He wanted to accomplish regarding the Jews, most of them rejecting Jesus as their Messiah.

Conclusion

The two events considered above illustrate that, as Sanders puts it in the second point of his summary of openness theology at Open Theism Information Site: “God has, in sovereign freedom, decided to make some of his actions contingent upon our requests and actions. God elicits our free collaboration in his plans. Hence, God can be influenced by what we do and God truly responds to what we do. God genuinely interacts and enters into dynamic give-and-take relationships with us.”

In my next post I’ll consider the third point in John Sanders’ summary of openness theology at Open Theism Information Site.