Everybody has an opinion on how this question should be answered. I believe that these opinions or answers are very deeply rooted in our understanding of God, the world, and ourselves. So basically everything that we believe about everything important in this universe is the basis for our answer. Rather than being a simple theological or philosophical question about the divine, such as “can God lift an unliftable rock,” this question and its answer drives down to the core of our systemic view of all of life. Ultimately our answer reveals whether our whole worldview shows a planet in chaos, a world controlled by a sadistic deterministic God, or a raging cosmic battle between good and evil. Also our answers divulge what we believe about fate, destiny, and our own choices or decisions.
In this short series, exploring this all-important question, we will follow a scientific method. First we will make a “hypothesis” using philosophy, logic, and reason, then we will conduct our “experiment” by analyzing what scripture says, and finally we will address the implications of this in a practical way.
Disclaimer: God is not contradictory
While we don’t want to approach God only through human reasoning and philosophical thought, God is not going to contradict the laws of logic. In ways we can’t comprehend God transcends and surpasses our understanding of logic, but he does not contradict it. He cannot be all-powerful and completely powerless at the same time, that is illogical and contradictory. He cannot be called good while being bad, and etc. One such logic statement we need to explore is: Can God be the ruler over every single atom in the universe, and not be the ruler at the same time? Or in other words can God’s will be unchangeable and unyielding and yet be always undermined and changed by others? Even God’s attributes cannot be illogical and contradictory. For example, we can start off by assuming God is omnipotent, or all-powerful, however, this does not mean that God can do everything including contradictory things. God cannot make a square circle, nor a “red-paint” that is pure blue, nor an un-liftable rock that can be lifted, these are logical impossibilities and absurdities. It is this type of logic and the law of non-contradiction that we will use to think about God. Now let us assume God exists and has the classical characteristics of Godhood (infinite, all-knowing, all-powerful, everywhere present, etc).
God vs other moral agents
A very simple statement we can start out with is that if God is truly the all-knowing and all-powerful creator of everything, then he is ultimately he is the reason for everything and everything is his will. However, philosophically speaking, the universe is not that simple for God is not alone. What about, as many would say, the fact that other agents, like Satan, demons, and humans, have freedom? And indeed, these groups have often raged against God, and therefore are not under his rulership, no? So it does appear as if God is not the sovereign ruler, for how can God be that if there are those who are not under his rulership? If I were writing a computer game, and told you that nothing can happen without my allowing it, and then the game evolved intelligence and began doing things I told it not to, would I be a liar? I imagine that you would assume I had lost all or at least some power over the computer game. So it is with God and other moral agents, if God’s will cannot be realized because of others agents interference, then is God’s will really all-powerful and unchanging?
Looking at the pain, sin, and death in our world that leaves us to wrestle with a few very difficult options. First is that God’s will for today is a perfectly sinless world and God simply cannot stop those who oppose his will; He is powerless to enact his will upon the world. Or, the second option, for some reason (perhaps because God is sadistic, or He is loving and has a plan, or he values human freedom above all things) his will for today is that people would be permitted to do what they are doing. So which is it?
Is God absent when moral agents enforce their own will?
As a starting point we can look to our experience in theorizing that this world is composed of human agents that make free choices for which they are responsible for. Or at least this is the appearance of our world. People make choices and as a result of these choices there are consequences. If someone is suicidal, and jumps off of a tall bridge into a river, their choice and action directly results in their death. They own that result and only “reap” what they “sowed,” right? However, human choices don’t always result in the consequential result. A second person may jump off of the same bridge and survive. Which result was God’s will and which was the result of man? Traditionally we assume that the one who survived, was somehow guarded by Gods will and Gods plan for his life. Yet the one who did not survive is seen as having no involvement with God at all, but rather his death is due to the human choice of a suicidal jump. But then, why did God have a will to save one, but not the other? Or, what if we found out that life and death was really about the choice of posture before the jump, one fell feet first, the other headfirst. One person’s accident changed their life, literally. Who “owns” that accident if it’s not really a human free will choice? Is it “fair” that an accident is the difference between a long life and a short one? Most would say “God is the cause of the accident, it was God’s will to save him through that” which brings us an even bigger question. Why did God cause the accident to save one life, and not the second? Was it God’s will that the second not be saved? Did God have a will for one person (to save him from his stupid jump) and completely have no will on the second person (completely ignoring him in his jump)? How is that act of ignoring not an act of God’s will? If you can do something, and you choose not to, is that not an exhibition of your will? If I were on that bridge, and was holding the jumping man back, but later made a decision to loosen my grip and let him fall, is that not my will? First, it was his will to jump, second is my deep desire that he stay and live, but lastly we see my permissive will to let him do what he wants to, no? I was not absent, and in this way, I would argue, that God is not absent from any choice that he allows others to make. I would also imagine that every bad decision ever made is made in the same fashion as this suicidal man, with God holding him back, until God allows him to do what he wants to do.
Can God stop other moral agents to enforce his will?
Here is an even greater question, could God have stopped them from making each free choice or is God limited by peoples free will? If God is truly all-powerful, he could do anything, right? I would argue that He could have probably done it without taking away their free will. I would imagine that God, being God, could have non-fatally struck them with lightning before they jumped. They would wake up shocked (literally and emotionally) to be alive, and having survived a lightning strike perhaps they would rethink their life. Are there other moments when God restrains himself and what does it mean?
Let’s take a look at what the Bible says about our fall into sin. God created a garden with a “sin-tree” and told two people not to touch it. We know from the Genesis account that they did it anyway. Now here is a question, could that have been prevented? I imagine so. God could have surrounded the tree with a magical force field to prevent Adam and Eve from eating its fruit. He could have placed a fearsome angel next to the tree that would frighten humans to avoid it, or perhaps thousands of wise angels to conversationally plead with Adam and Eve to avoid it. He could have at least killed or exiled Satan from the Garden to make it easier to aviod sin without the universes greatest tempter in the neighborhood. He could have deleted their free will desire to sin (in the same way as we humans in heaven will have no free will to sin). An even more fascinating option is that God could have simply not placed the opportunity to sin (no tree of good/evil) into the Garden, and not given Adam and Eve any moral command that could be broken. Here is the logical reality, God could have stopped the fall (perhaps at some cost to human freedom) but He made a choice to allow it. Because He is all-knowing, he knew they would sin and knew how to stop it, and because he is all-powerful he had the method and ability to do it. Yet in bypassing a million places where He could have stopped the fall, we could argue that the fall was in some way’s God’s will; he permitted it though he did not have to. Some might say He “left” Adam and Eve completely alone and let them make their own choices with zero involvement, however, the scenario would stay the same, God knew before he created anything that leaving humans alone would directly result in the fall and that his involvement could change it, but still chose to permit the fall. Again, as a Christian, I would strongly argue that God allowed the fall in the same way as letting go of the jumping man in the bridge scenario, grieving inside, but willing to allow the will of another.
Passive will vs active will
Yet, we would have to distinguish his permissive will with his active will. God did not specifically and actively push humanity into sin, he merely gave them the option, and allowed them to take it. In the bridge scenario, I did not cause the other man to want to jump, neither did I push him. There is a complex joining of two wills, one that is active and another that is permissive. I desired only the best for this man, but I willed to passively let him do what he wanted actively. I believe logic leads us to assume the same relationship in some God/man interactions. So was the fall in some ways God’s will? Yes and no. The act of disobedience was not what He wanted (we can deduce this by his command to avoid the tree). Yet, He was not caught unawares or off guard, but knowingly permitted it (we can deduce this by his omniscience and omnipotence). What is most important to note is that anytime God’s will is permissive of an action or event, another beings wills are active and driving that event. When terrorists took down the twin towers, there were angry radicals with the will and desire to kill Americans, there was Satan with the will and desire to cause chaos and destruction, and finally God with both a desire for everyone to repent and love one another and with a will to permit our chosen self-destruction… for a good reason that will make the ultimate restoration even better.