As I read Mark Talbot's chapter on God and suffering in Suffering and the Sovereignty of God (edited by John Piper and Justin Taylor) a thought occurred to me:
Since most Calvinists are harshly critical of the novel The Shack (which takes a similar approach to theodicy as Greg Boyd in Is God to Blame?) because of its alleged undermining of God's glory and sovereignty, why don't they (or one of them) write a similar novel in which God explains to Mack (or someone like him) why his daughter was kidnapped, raped and murdered--and avoid language about God permitting or allowing it (which is really Arminian language)? I challenge a consistent "high Calvinist" such as Piper or Talbot to produce such a novel. I would like to see what the popular Christian reaction would be to what God would have to say about such atrocities in such a novel. Talbot pulls no punches; he says that God foreordains such events and is their ultimate cause; they are willed by God and not merely allowed or permitted by God (although even he occasionally uses such language--as do all Calvinists in my experience). At crucial points he pulls back a little and uses language such as God "governs" such events, but the context makes clear he means God renders them certain because they fit into his plan and purpose and are necessary for the full accomplishment of his will.
I look forward to the publication of such a novel; I think it would go far toward turning people away from Calvinism.
Olson’s challenge raises a number of important issues, not only for Calvinism, but equally so for Olson’s alternative.
1.It’s true that learning more about something can be a major turn-off for certain people. For example, there were some erstwhile disciples of Jesus who, the more they heard, the less they liked what they were hearing. Put another way, the less they knew about Jesus, the more they admired him. But when they found out what he really stood for, they stopped following him (Jn 6). He wasn’t what they thought he was. He wasn’t their kind of Messiah.
Likewise, some churchgoers have never read the Bible from cover-to-cover. All they know are the inspirational tidbits which make it into the lectionary. The greatest hits.
If they ever read the Bible from cover-to-cover, they’d be so shocked and appalled by what they found that they’d resign their church membership in disgust and never look back.
Indeed, there are apostates who tell us that reading the Bible for the first time destroyed their nominal faith in Christianity. They were coasting along just fine until the fateful day when they decided to sit down and read the Bible all the way through from Genesis to Revelation. They never recovered.
2.Then there’s an important truth of practical and pastoral theology. Sometimes the right explanation is the wrong explanation. It may be correct. It may be orthodox. But some people just aren’t ready to hear it.
That’s one of the lessons we can derive from the book of Job. Some of what his friends told him was unobjectionable in its own right. But it was tactless to say those things to a grief-stricken man.
Sometimes the truth doesn’t help. Sometimes it’s futile to explain things to an individual. And that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with the explanation, as such.
Suppose, for example, a soldier died in a friendly fire incident. You were there. You were his comrade. You know what went down.
However, his parents are under the mistaken impression that their son died from enemy fire. And they take comfort in that mistaken belief. They take pride in that mistaken belief.
To them, it’s more honorable to die from enemy fire than friendly fire. To their way of thinking, if he died in a friendly fire incident, then he died in vain.
Now, that’s irrational. Either way, their son died serving his country. Had he not volunteered for combat, he’d still be alive. So, however he died, they should be proud of their son.
But they don’t see it that way. And no amount of patient reasoning will ever make them see it differently.
Now, you’re in a position to correct their misimpression. And you could also explain to them that that’s nothing to be ashamed of.
But what’s the point? If you know your words would be hurtful, then why contribute to their loss?
Take another example: suppose an absent-minded teenager forgets to lock the house on his way out the door. As a result, an intruder gains easy entry, and murders the teenager’s 3-year-old brother, who’s playing by himself in the bedroom. And older sister is also in the house, but she’s easily overpowerd by the intruder.
The homicide detective is aware of the fact that the intruder didn’t have to force his way into the house. But he withholds that information from the grieving teenager because, if the boy knew how it happened, he’d unfairly blame himself for the rest of his life. So the detective spares his feelings.
Olson makes it sound as though Calvinists are dishonest and hypocritical. We lowball what Calvinism really represents.
But even if Calvinists are sometimes hesitant to state what their position implies when dealing, let us say, with the victim of some horrendous tragedy, that, of itself, is not an act of dissimulation.
There are many situations in life where discretion is a virtue. Where it’s best to hold your tongue and say less than you know. There are times when we need to take people’s feelings into account. To make allowance for the effect of our words, and let some things pass without comment. To pull our punches.
This isn’t limited to Calvinism. And it in no way impugns the truth of Calvinism.
3.Before we take up Olson’s challenge, let’s discuss his own position. This is how Olson has framed the alternatives. On the one hand, there is the Arminian position, according to which God merely “permits or allows” some atrocity to happen.
On the other hand, there is the Reformed position, according to which “God renders them certain because they fit into his plan and purpose and are necessary for the full accomplishment of his will.” That stands in contrast to the Arminian position.
Well, that comparison raises a number of questions:
i) Assuming, for the sake of argument, that God merely allows it to happen, I should think a novel written from that perspective would also go far toward turning people away from Arminianism.
After all, when folks blame God for some tragedy, what’s the first question they ask? Don’t they ask, “Why did God allow it?”
They don’t regard divine permission as a solution to the problem of evil. Rather, they regard divine permission as the source of the problem. That’s how they state the problem of evil in the first place–in terms of permission. “Why did God allow it?”
That’s why they are angry with God. Because he allowed it to happen.
So how in the world does Olson think that’s a promising theodicy?
ii) By the way he’s chosen to contrast Calvinism with Arminianism, Olson doesn’t think that God renders an evil certain because it fits into his plan and purpose, as a necessary means to accomplish of his will. So Olson’s alternative would break down as follows:
a) The occurrence of an evil event is uncertain.
b) The occurrence of an evil event is unnecessary.
c) Evil events don’t fit into God’s plan. God has no purpose in allowing them.
iii) Assuming, for the sake of argument, that this is an accurate description of what Arminian theology represents, how is that a plausible theodicy?
How does it exonerate God to say that God has no purpose for allowing evil? That evil events are gratuitously evil. That they don’t fit into his plan for the world?
Doesn’t that make God blameworthy rather than blameless? Shouldn’t God have a purpose for allowing evil? Shouldn’t evil fit into his plan?
Olson makes God sound like an absentee landlord whose apartment complex is a firetrap. If it goes up in flames due to faulty wiring, and dozens of tenants die in the fire, can the landlord plea innocent on the grounds that he allowed it to happen? Can he plead innocent on the grounds that the fire was a gratuitous hazard?
Can he plead innocent on the grounds that it was uncertain to occur? As long as there was a possibility that the firetrap might not catch fire, then that lets him off the hook?
Isn’t the landlord’s negligence the very thing which makes him culpable?
You have to wonder what intellectual cocoon Roger Olson inhabits to seriously imagine that his alternative is any solution to the problem of evil.
iv) But we also have to question the accuracy of his depiction. If he thinks (as he must) that God foreknew the outcome; if he thinks (as he must) that God was free to prevent the outcome, but went right ahead and made a world with that foreseeable outcome, then didn’t God intend that to happen? Indeed, didn’t God foreintend that to happen?
And how can the outcome still be uncertain if God makes a world in which that foreseeable outcome occurs? If God knowingly makes a world containing that foreseeable outcome, then, at that point, how can the outcome still go either way? If it went another way, then that wouldn’t be the same world which God foresaw.
v) Finally, how should a Calvinist respond to Olson’s challenge? Let’s take a concrete example. The case of Tamar (Gen 38). This is one of those tawdry incidents in the OT which offends the easily offended.
The story is rife with evil. Tamar was probably a Canaanite (Cf. Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch, 827). The life of a Canaanite woman would have been pretty grim–even in the best of circumstances. It’s not as if women were valued in heathen civilizations. No code of chivalry back then.
In addition, Tamar was wronged by two different men: her brother-in-law and her father-in-law.
In the ANE, the situation of a childless widow is pretty desperate. As a result, Tamar resorted to the desperate measures that women are prone to when driven to desperation–in this case, incestuous prostitution.
Her ruse resulted in the birth of male twins (Perez, Zerah), fathered by the chieftain. And that, in turn, immediately lifted and secured her social standing.
Yet good things came of this. Good consequences of evil antecedents.
Tamar had a very hard life. But she had a life. Apart from the Fall, she wouldn’t exist. She was the sinful issue of sinful parents. No sin, no such parents, no such offspring.
She also married into a Jewish clan, which gave her the opportunity to come to a saving knowledge of God–something denied to most of her heathen forebears and contemporaries.
And her twin boys were beneficiaries of this evil transaction. It wasn’t evil for them. To the contrary, it was good for them. It gave them life. And, what is more, life among the Chosen People. Both the gift of life and a gifted life. A life gifted by God.
It also served a larger purpose in God’s redemptive plan. As a result, the tribe of Judah became the line of promise (cf. Ps 78:59-72; 1 Chron 5:1-2). And, for her part, Tamar became a link in the chain leading all the way up to Christ (Mt 1:3).
Of course, that’s with the benefit of hindsight. We know how the story ends. We know how things turn out. But from within the story, from Tamar’s timebound perspective, it may seem utterly bleak.
And, of course, future Christians are to us what we are to Tamar. The past makes more sense to those living in the present. Our present is someone else’s past. Our future is someone else’s present.
As timebound creatures, we all find ourselves in inexplicable situations. What was bad at the time may be a future good. What was bad for one man may be good for another.
And that’s how God often operates. Making the best of the worst. This isn’t just an afterthought, either. Rather, it’s a divine strategy which underlies much of human history.
If that’s too much for you to stomach, then you might as well become an atheist. You can sit there on your pink cloud, with your can of air freshener, and rue the terrible things you see below–or else you can agree with God’s way of doing things, and learn to see the hidden wisdom of his ways.