In the previous post we discovered that if we assume that God is all-powerful then philosophically he must be involved in every single thing, whether by actively willing it, or by passively allowing it. Are these philosophical ideas consistent with Scripture? What does any of this mean regarding God’s desires and his heart? Is God like a cold machine that simply permits things to happen without caring about them? Does God really have all this power over everything and everyone? Below we will synthesize and systematize what Scripture says in response to a collection of questions.
CAN GOD WILL ANYTHING?
First of, is God even all powerful? Can he do absolutely anything that he pleases? Yes, the Bible shows a God for whom nothing is impossible (Luke 1:37; Matt. 19:26). Nothing is too difficult for him (Gen. 18:14; Jer. 32:27). No human could ever tell God what to do (Dan. 4:35). This begs the question, if God wants to accomplish a thing in a city, and all of the humans there (of their free will) have chosen to refuse God will, who’s will would be victorious? We could safely assume that God’s will could easily override the human will. God’s will cannot be thwarted and what he decrees shall come to pass (Isa 46:10). Ultimately “He does whatever He pleases”(Psa. 115:3; 135:6). Yet does that mean that everything that happens is what God wants or wanted? Or perhaps God only at times involves himself with human affairs, accomplishing what he wants, and then everything else happens apart from God’s involvement? Just because he can, does not mean that he does, right?
DOES GOD WILL EVERYTHING? 5 AREAS OF GODS CONTROL
1. God rules over all natural phenomenon
Scripture shows God as one who rules over everything, not merely over some things; all of the time, not some of the time. Proverbs shows us that even chance encounters are divinely orchestrated; even the dice that falls is not outside of God’s influence (Prov. 16:33). All of the natural world around us, though it follows natural laws and physics, is governed by God, through the natural laws and supernatural involvement (Matt. 5:45, 6:26, 6:30). So profound is Gods governance that even tiny aspects of this natural world like the hairs on our heads, which are often unnoticed, are carefully counted by God (Matt. 10:29, 10:30). Can you imagine the amount of knowledge, presence, and power required to keep track of every stand of hair on every person’s head? From this passage we can easily see (at least for Christians) nothing “natural,” like aging or disease can happen that is not God’s will.
2. God rules over all of civilization
What about that which is not naturally occurring? Like human actions and reactions? The direction of society and civilization? Again, Scripture shows Gods direct involvement in this as well. It is God who decides where every single person lives, in what society and family they are born, and how long they will live (Acts 17:26; Psa 47:2-4). It is also God who is in charge of human civilization, from appointing kings and rulers, to disrupting and replacing their plans (Daniel 2:21; Psa 33:10). Another interesting thing to note regarding the flow of civilization is that multiple times God uses invading nations to chastise his people (the Hebrews). In one particular example, God calls the Assyrian nation his “rod” to be used in the chastisement of Israel (Isaiah 10:5-7). Elsewhere, God speaks of, by himself, bringing the heathen to attack Israel and possess their land and home as a punishment (Ezekiel 7:24; 28:7). In these examples, and many others, we can see that God is using human civilizations for his means. Interesting to note is that God speaks simply of using these nations as his tool, he does not talk of reacting to their choices and figuring out some way to make use of their inevitable plans. He simply says he will bring one nation to destroy another without discussing their free will to stay or go. However, in the same prophetic book (as well as others), God clearly outlines human responsibility for sin (;Eze 18:20; 18:1-31; Deut 24:16).
So who caused the Babylonians to sin by attacking, robbing, and pillaging the Israelites? The Babylonians own will and choice? Or God’s will and choice? If we want to be fair to scripture, we have to admit it was both. Neither party simply reacted to the first, both made a willing choice. In some unfathomable way the Babylonians made their own choices, not as brainless robots or people forced against their “free will,” and yet it was first God who made his choice to punish the Israelites this way. God did not simply respond to the Babylonians and say “Oh, they chose to do that, I will then as a result claim it as mine and do my best to use it,” no, he speaks before it happened and said “I am going to bring foreigners against you” (Ezek 28:7). Yet, the “foreigners” were still responsible for their actions otherwise God lied ten chapters earlier when he spoke about human responsibility for sin (Ezek 18:20). The tension here is dangerous, we desperately want to minimalize one side of this Scriptural equation and either make God the only cause, while the Babylonians merely respond, or prove that only the Babylonians made a choice while God simply responds. Don’t! The Bible gives us this fragile picture of two separate wills, both making real choices, don’t try to overthink it into removing (1) God’s sovereignty or (2) human responsibility. Losing either one from this equation throws Christianity into more contradictions than even God could answer.
A final note about satan, the “god of this world” (2 Cor 4:4). Scripture does obviously talk about Satan as a ruler of civilizations, yet this only means he is like the king (leader and representative) of any anti-God society, however, God is the king of kings and the only one who can really do as he pleases. Satan does ensnare people and dictate the philosophies and lifestyles in our world (2 Tim 2:26) however only within the boundaries that God allows him. Satan may have been the king of Sodom, being worshiped by their people (knowingly or not-knowingly), and driving their worldviews, yet only God is truly the rule that can judge and destroy the city with fire, showing an even higher form or authority. Another example of this is that in the book of Job, Satan cannot do what he wants to without asking for God’s permission.
3. God rules over all of life and death
It is perhaps common sense to some, but the question of where do people come from, is also closely under God’s scrutiny and control. In the Scriptures we can see descriptions of God creating people, even while they are birthed through the natural processes that God set up. In the tales of Adam and Eve, as well as Boaz and Ruth (among many others) we see the descriptive language of attributing new births to God (Gen. 4:25, Ruth 4:13). This means that even the creation of people is God’s will. If God permitted Ruth to conceive, he could have not permitted this. One can ask many questions, such as, did God let Hitler’s mother conceive? Did God know the future actions of her child? Nonetheless, the growth of families, cultures, and societies is wholly from God (Deut. 10:22). And even more so, it is ultimately God who gives life and takes it away (1 Sam 2:6). Though we might ask about those that commit suicide or are murdered. It appears as if a human takes the direct initiative in ending a life. Yet, strangely enough, the Old Testament speaks of some killing as “God let him fall into [your] hand” (Exo 21:12). And finally God speaks of this himself, in a way that is unmistakable and unavoidable, saying “there is no god besides Me; It is I who put to death and give life. I have wounded, and it is I who heal” (Deut. 32:39). Ultimately the time of birth and the time of death for every person is in the hands of God.
4. God rules over all good things
Most of us already assume that God is directly the source for every single good thing in your life and this universe. This is not a hard thing to believe and this is fully consistent with our concept of God. For those that are not sure, James does well to establish this beyond doubt, saying that “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights” (James 1:17). I would imagine that any Christian would readily admit “every good thing the exists was God’s will” and it’s the bad things that we all have trouble with. Therefore we will avoid discussing this in detail.
5. God rules over all “bad things”
When I was younger I met certain Bible passages that created a confusing and contradictory picture of God. I gave up on them and did what everyone else does, put them out of mind by giving a brief surface explanation that did not take them into serious consideration. Doing anything other than that would have devastated my Christian faith, which was grounded largely in the current popular view of a pacifist God. I remember hearing preachers talk about this hyper spiritualized version of Biblical wars, always spiritualizing the Hebrews brutal bloody victories as spiritual highs and ignoring the blood and guts. They would teach of David’s men killing others for a drink of water as spiritual steadfastness and in the next phrase speak about the horrible evils of violence in literally every possible case. It seemed a contradiction, so I avoided the thought of it as long as I could, but then my desire to take the Bible seriously overcame my fear of losing my prepackaged theological worldview. This is what I would ask us to do right now, to take the Bible seriously and avoid ignoring it because it doesn’t fit with what we think it should say.
This is the hardest question for us. Is it God’s will that bad things happen in this world? Are the things in our lives that cause grief, sorrow, sickness, and pain from God or from Satan? Is it just God’s will or just our sin? First off let us establish something utterly important, namely that God is not a sinner, nor immoral, nor wicked. Conversely Scripture very often tells us that God is good, just, fair, righteous, merciful, and morally perfect (Hab 1:13, Psa 11:7; 89:14, Mark 10:18; Tit 1:2). So when we see the combination of passages that say God is good, and then other passages giving examples of God doing something that appears “not good” we must yearn to find a middle ground where both statements in the Bible are true and meet in the middle to give us a full picture. Understanding our human perspective is what helps us find that middle ground and deal with these uncomfortable passages. When reading of some of the things God did, from our standpoint it appears that God is the cause of both blessings and curses, health and sickness, well-being and calamity, peace and war, light and darkness, good and bad. We must keep in mind that God does not sin, however as a result of our personal sin God responds with “bad things” that are either for righteous judgment or restorative chastisement, both of which are morally good. From our perspective the police officer who carries out a court order and executes a violent serial killer is not breaking the law, but carrying out a good work in bringing justice. Yet from the perspective of the violent serial killer, the officer is doing a “bad thing.” This is the perspective which we must keep in mind as we explore some “troubling” passages.
Joshua “left no survivor, destroying everything that drew breath, as the Lord the God of Israel had commanded” (Joshua 10:40). A nation and people completely wiped out; they were brutally pierced with arrows, lacerated with dull swords, and impaled with spears. Rivers ran with blood. Mangled flesh and broken bones filled the Canaanite countryside as the smell of charred cities wafted into everyone’s nostrils. Bodies of all shapes and sides lay bruised, broken, torn to shreds. And it was God’s will. This is enough to make you go insane and give up on Christianity. Yet it is in the Bible. Many have been broken by this exposition of God’s will and become atheists. Many others have refused to read this and summarize it by saying “God is different in the New Testament.” Both of these views avoid looking at the horrific sins and brutalities of the Canaanites and God’s complete fairness in justly punishing them for their evils, rather than imposing his evils on an innocent people. But the many battle killings in the Old Testament by the God of War (Exodus 15:3) is not the end of God causing “bad things” from a human perspective.
Elsewhere the Scripture says that “good and bad” come from the “mouth of the Most High” (Lam. 3:37-38). This relates directly to the experiencing of bad things in this life. God later speaks to Isaiah and states that He creates both the good and the bad (in many translations “bad” is interpreted as calamity or disaster rather than “evil” as in the KJV). He also declares that He forms both the light and darkness. (Isa 45:5-7). The prophet Amos again speaks of God as the cause of calamity and disaster saying: “If a calamity occurs in a city has not the Lord done it?” (Amos 3:6-7). But beyond grand summaries of God, by God, we also see a few specific cases and descriptions of the type of “bad things” (human perspective) that God does. In Jeremiah 32:42 we see God is the direct and only cause of the punishment of Israel by military defeat and exile. Somehow God moved the Babylonians to cause Israel’s punishment. When Moses met God, one of the first things God explained about Himself is that He is the source of all things. “And the Lord said to him, “Who has made man’s mouth? Or who makes him dumb or deaf, or seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?” (Exo 4:11). Even those sicknesses such as blindness and deafness are explained by God as coming from God. Jesus also once spoke of a sick man who was cursed with blindness by God for a reason that only God knew (John 9:2-3). The interesting thing that this example of God causing something “bad” was not a judgment for the man’s sin, but a situation God created to give Himself glory and the man ultimate joy after pain. There are many such cases in Scripture. Finally the Ecclesiast summarizes that both prosperity and adversity is from God, both are Gods will (Eccl. 7:13-17). Yet in all of this God does not like sin and does not desire for sin to continue. (Ezekiel 18:32; 33:11; 1 Tim. 2:3-4). Is this confusing? That is because there are two wills of God, in theology this is often called God’s permissive will and God’s perfect will. We will discuss this bifurcation and the practical implications in the next post in this series.