The Doc File

The online journal of Luke Dockery

Tag: God (page 1 of 3)

The Honesty and Courage of God

For whatever reason God chose to make man as he is—limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death—He had the honesty and courage to take His own medicine. Whatever game he is playing with His creation, He has kept His own rules and played fair. He can exact nothing from man that He has not exacted from Himself. He has Himself gone through the whole of human experience, from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair, and death. When He was a man, He played the man. He was born in poverty and died in disgrace and thought it well worthwhile.

(Dorothy L. Sayers, Christian Letters to a Post-Christian World, 14)

Suffering and God’s Knowledge of the Future

Theological Suffering

This is the first post in a loosely-united series called A Theological View of Suffering.

As a grad student, I do a lot of fairly technical theological reading and study. As a minister, one of the things I try to do is talk about theology in an understandable way. Because, after all, no one really likes trying to wade through technical jargon, but anything that helps us to understand God better is a good thing.

When it comes to looking at suffering from a theological perspective, and specifically what God’s role in suffering is, it is important that we first have some understanding of how God interacts with the world. Put in a different way, does God determine all of the “bad” things that happen to us, or does He simply allow them? Or, is God surprised by some of the things which happen to us and unable to do anything about them ahead of time?

All of these questions are related to the nature of God’s providence, or how He interacts with the world. In this post, I want to look specifically at the issue of foreknowledge, or, God’s relationship to the future. To what extent does God possess knowledge of the future? Is His foreknowledge exhaustive, or does He only possess knowledge of those particular events which have been settled as part of His divine plan? And, does God know the events of the future because they will happen, or will they happen because God has determined they will happen?

These questions help to introduce some of the differences between the Calvinist/Reformed, Open Theist, and Arminian perspectives on God’s foreknowledge.[1] To be clear, thousands upon thousands of pages of ink have been spilt on this topic, so this post will, by necessity, abbreviate and oversimplify at times. But my hope is that I will still be able to do an adequate job of summarizing the different perspectives.[2]

Calvinist/Reformed

The Calvinist/Reformed perspective of God’s foreknowledge suggests that God himself determines everything that will happen, decrees every event, and thus, is the cause of all things. In other words, nothing that happens in life happens without God explicitly determining that it will happen. He directly causes all things by virtue of his decrees.

From this perspective, God’s exhaustive knowledge of future events is grounded in his determination of what those events will be. God knows everything that will happen in the future, not because He “observes” those events ahead of time; rather what will happen only happens because God has determined that it be so. As part of this idea, God specifically chooses which individuals will be saved and which will be lost.

Reformed thinkers generally acknowledge that there is tension between God’s foreknowledge and human free will, but ultimately hold that the relationship between these two things is mysterious, and they subordinate the idea of free will to the (in their minds) clear biblical teaching on God’s exhaustive foreknowledge based on His determination of all things.

Calvinist thinkers hold that this view of God’s foreknowledge provides great comfort for the sufferer: we may not know why God chooses the tragic events which unfold during life, but because He causes all things, we can trust that there is some divine purpose which is being worked out. Personally, I’m not so sure.

I think the Calvinist suggestion that God decrees every single event which happens is problematic for at least two reasons. First, it seems to necessarily make God the author of all evil in the world. God doesn’t just allow evil actions to occur; he actively causes them to happen. To be sure, the scriptures present God as someone who uses events which cause great suffering (the flood, for example) to bring about His purposes, but a Calvinist understanding of God’s determinism goes beyond this, and even places God as the cause for the evil actions of individual humans. To me, this raises serious questions about God’s love.

Secondly, the New Testament repeatedly depicts the results of final judgment being contingent upon the things we do (or don’t do) in this life. If ultimately we have no ability to choose what we do because God has ordained every single event of our lives, then the judgment is a sham. Why should we be held accountable for decisions we did not make? So, the Calvinist perspective also seems to raise serious questions about God’s justice.

Open Theism

On the opposite side of the debate is the Open Theist perspective, which holds that God does not possess exhaustive knowledge of the future. Two key arguments lie beneath this perspective.

First, as opposed to Calvinism, Open Theism affirms the reality and importance of human freedom. For Open Theists, God created out of love, and the only way that human beings could genuinely love God in return was for that love to be freely chosen. So, out of his love, God gives humans the ability to choose for themselves, and He honors those choices which we make. One popular Open Theist metaphor is that God’s providence is something like a Choose Your Own Adventure book where the future is partly settled and partly open: God determines the overall structure of the story, the different possible story lines, and even certain events which will follow if certain human choices are made. But within this framework, humans are given the ability to make choices which drastically effect the story. Compared to the Calvinist perspective, in Open Theism, God determines very little, as much of what happens occurs because of the choices of free creatures.

This leads to the second key argument, which is that divine foreknowledge inherently involves a determinism which undermines human freedom. In other words, Open Theists argue that if God were to know ahead of time which choices you would make, then you wouldn’t really be free to choose something else. Thus, Open Theists deny that God knows which free will choices we will make until we make them.

This might seem to undercut God’s omniscience, but Open Theists argue that God is omniscient in that he knows all things that can be known; God has exhaustive knowledge of the past and present, and knows those parts of the future which are settled. What He does not know are those parts of the future which are still open, because they are inherently unknowable. Unlike Back to the Future or all of those crazy Star Trek time-traveling episodes suggest, Open Theists argue that the unsettled future has no true existence; until free creatures make choices which bring the future into existence, there is simply nothing to know. Interesting stuff, right?

I should mention that the Open Theist perspective was largely developed as a response to the Problem of Evil (How can God be powerful and good and permit the existence of evil in the world?). From an Open perspective, suffering occurs because of the evil choices that people make from their own free will, and God does not know that these things will happen until they do. He is disappointed in them just as we are.

There are aspects of the Open Theist perspective which are appealing to me: I appreciate the emphasis on God’s love and the freedom of humans. I find the Open Theist understanding of the future (it is not a “thing” which exists) and the resulting understanding of the nature of God’s omniscience to be interesting, and even possible.

But ultimately, I think Open Theism fails to take seriously the degree to which the bible indicates that God does, in fact, know the events of the future (think for example, of Jesus predicting Peter’s denial and Judas’s betrayal). And in many ways, this seems to me to be indicative of the entire Open Theist approach: rather than starting with the text of Scripture and then determining how God acts providentially in the world, it begins with the desire to save God from the blame for suffering in the world and tries to shoehorn that desire into Scripture. For sure, that is questionable biblical interpretation but more than that, I’m not sure it works, either: if God is limited to the point that He is surprised by the bad choices we make and legitimately cannot do anything about them, how can we be certain that He will ultimately “win” in the end and defeat evil and death?

Arminian

Between the Calvinist and Open Theist points of view is the Arminian perspective, which upholds both the foreknowledge of God (unlike Open Theism) and the ability of humanity to make free moral decisions (unlike Calvinism). Arminians hold that God does possess exhaustive foreknowledge, but that God knows the future because it will happen. God’s foreknowledge of the future actions of people does not somehow mean that He causes those things to happen. For Arminians, God is not bound by time, and is simply able to see the future decisions that humans will freely make without determining those decisions in any way.

Reformed, Open, Arminian

Related to the issue of suffering, Arminians (like Open Theists) emphasize the importance of human freedom and argue that much of the suffering which occurs in our world is related to the bad choices that people make. However, since Arminians (like Calvinists) believe that God possesses exhaustive foreknowledge of the future and that He is not caught off guard by the decisions we make, they can also believe that God can plan around the bad decisions that people make and work through those things to bring out good (Romans 8.28 comes to mind).

I think that the Arminian idea of simple foreknowledge makes the most sense and also best reconciles the biblical tension between God’s omniscience and human freedom. I struggle to understand the arguments which suggest that God’s foreknowledge necessarily implies determinism. In my own very limited foreknowledge, I can occasionally predict future events without somehow determining that those events take place. If I see a child take an egg out of a carton and drop it on the concrete floor, I can be confident that the egg will break without that “foreknowledge” somehow causing the egg to break. Based on my limited knowledge and experience, I can almost “see” it happen. How much more would an omniscient God who is not bound by time be able to look into the future and see the events which free creatures freely choose without that knowledge somehow determining the choice?

There are some questions which we simply cannot answer this side of eternity, and each of these perspectives have their weak points, but to me, Arminianism supplies the best response to God’s knowledge of the future, and also His relationship with suffering. God does not specifically cause every bad thing which happens (but certainly He causes some: the Flood), but He knows that they will happen, and is thus, best equipped to work through those things in order to bring about our good and His glory.

_______________________

[1]To be clear, the Calvinist/Reformed, Open Theist, and Arminian perspectives are not the only options, and we could talk about the ideas of Deism or Process Theology as well. Generally speaking though, those last two options are considered to be outside the confines of orthodox Christianity, and are not covered here.

[2]If you are interested in reading more, a couple of good resources are Perspectives on the Doctrine of God: 4 Views, edited by Bruce A. Ware, and Four Views on Divine Providence, edited by Dennis W. Jowers. The essays presented in those books largely comprised the sources for the material I present in this post.

Is All Sin the Same to God?

Scales of Justice

Scales of Justice Mosaic; photo by Flickr user eflon

During my years of ministry, I don’t know how many times I have heard someone claim, in one form or another, that “all sins are the same in God’s eyes”. Basically the idea is that we as humans distinguish between different types of sin and consider some to be worse than others, but that God doesn’t do that—He is holy, He doesn’t tolerate any type of sin, and therefore, to him one type of sin is just as bad as any other.

This idea has certainly become a basic tenet of pop theology, but is it biblical? I would humbly submit that it is not, and it’s an idea that I wish could be put to rest.

Why Isn’t All Sin Equal?

First off, we should mention that all sin is equal in the sense that it separates us from God. Romans 6.23 says that the wages of sin is death—we can’t have any relationship with God until we do something about the sin in our lives. So all sin, any sin, is a big deal because it damages our relationship with the Father.

So why, then, isn’t all sin equal?

(1) The Bible teaches that there are different degrees of sin.

There are a whole lot of examples that could be used here, but just consider the following:

  • In John 19.11, when speaking to Pilate in the context of his arrest and trial, Jesus  says,“You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above; for this reason he who delivered Me to you has the greater sin.” Here Jesus explicitly says that one sin is worse than another.
  • Speaking to the Pharisees in Matthew 23.23-24, Jesus says that they had neglected the “weightier provisions of the law”—justice and mercy and faithfulness—and had instead focused on minor issues. To me, if some parts of the law were more important than others, then the implication is that neglecting those portions was a greater sin.
  • In Matthew 7.3, in the context of being careful about the way we judge others, Jesus says, “Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” The clear indication here is that the log is a bigger problem than the speck, and should therefore be dealt with first.
  • Luke 12.10 talks about sinning against the Holy Spirit, and how it is unforgivable. People debate all the time about exactly what this sin refers to (and I have my own thoughts on this), but if there is a certain sin that is unforgivable, doesn’t that mean that it is worse than others?
  • Ezekiel 23 compares the cities of Samaria (the capital of Israel) and Jerusalem (the capital of Judah), and clearly states that Jerusalem was more corrupt than Samaria (v.11) because of her greater degree of unfaithfulness.
  • When the Israelites worshiped the golden calf at Mt. Sinai (Exodus 32), Moses charged them with committing a “great sin”. If all sins are the same, why is this one specifically referred to as “great”?
  • In Paul’s first letter to Timothy, he emphasizes how terrible it is for a Christian man to neglect his family. In 1 Timothy 5.8, he says, “But if anyone does not provide for his people, and especially his own household, he has denied the faith, and is worse than an unbeliever.” If one can be worse than someone else, doesn’t that imply greater sinfulness?

(2) Some sins have harsher consequences than others.

When you think of the earthly consequences of sin, do all sins seem to be the same? Committing lust in your heart is undoubtedly a sin, but does it have the same consequences as committing adultery? In one case, the sin is limited to yourself, while the other necessarily involves another person and could potentially destroy an entire family. Stealing a piece of gum is a sin, but it is unlikely that it will cause great damage to the person you steal it from. On the other hand, committing murder destroys a life and affects an untold number of people. In short, some sins might not have long-lasting temporal effects, while others literally destroy people’s lives.

This can also be seen in the Bible—if all sin is the same, why did God decide to basically reboot the whole system in the days of Noah and start from scratch? At no other point did God decide to do this, so the indication is that things must have somehow been worse in the days of Noah.

What about Sodom and Gomorrah? Undoubtedly every city on earth is plagued by a great amount of sin—why were these cities singled out for destruction? I would submit that it was because their sinfulness was so widespread—in just the small glimpse we get of Sodom, it appears that the majority of people were guilty of homosexuality, inhospitality, violence against strangers, and sexual assault. It seems that the sinfulness of Sodom was worse than in other places.

There is also some indication in the Bible that different types of sin may have different eternal consequences as well.

First, in Matthew 11.20-24, Jesus pronounces woe upon cities which had witnessed the signs He had performed but failed to repent (particularly relevant parts in the following scriptures are emphasized in bold):

“Then He began to denounce the cities where most of His mighty works had been done, because they did not repent. ‘Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you.’”

Now, granted, Jesus seems to be personifying entire cities here and it’s difficult to draw firm conclusions based on passages of figurative language, but the implication is that condemnation will be worse for some in the Day of Judgment than for others. If some persons/cities merit greater punishment in the Day of Judgment than others, that certainly indicates to me that all sins are not equal.

Secondly, in Luke 12.35-48, Jesus tells a parable about the importance of being ready for the (second) coming of the Son of Man:

“‘Stay dressed for action and keep your lamps burning, and be like men who are waiting for their master to come home from the wedding feast, so that they may open the door to him at once when he comes and knocks. Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes. Truly I say to you, he will dress himself for service and have them recline at the table, and he will come and serve them. If he comes in the second watch, or in the third, and finds them awake, blessed are those servants! But know this, that if the master of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he wold not have left his house to be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.’

Peter said, ‘Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for all?’ And the Lord said, ‘Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom his master will set over his household, to give them their portion of food at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will set him over all his possessions. But if that servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed in coming,’ and begins to beat the male and female servants, and to eat and drink and get drunk, the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know, and will cut him in pieces and put him with the unfaithful. And that servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating. Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.’”

Again, Jesus is speaking in a parable here, but the parable does deal with His unexpected return and the accompanying judgment. Once again, the indication is that in the Day of Judgment, some sins will have worse consequences than others, as some who are guilty and bound for punishment will receive “severe beatings” while others receive “light beatings.”

Finally, Hebrews 10.26-29:

“For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace?”

Here the Hebrew writer suggests that those who had come to know Christ and then subsequently forsaken Him would merit worse punishment than others. Furthermore, to underscore why such persons would receive harsher treatment, the author uses extreme language to emphasize the severity of such an action, describing it as trampling the Son of God, profaning His blood, and outraging the Spirit.

Perhaps none of these three passages are crystal clear, but taken together, they suggest at least the possibility that there will be different “levels” or “degrees” of eternal punishment for different people.

(3) Some sins are harder to repent of than others.

Biblically, repentance isn’t just being “sorry” for sin, it’s a conscious turning away from the sin in your life. From that perspective, some sins are harder to repent of than others. It’s one thing to turn away from a sin that you commit by accident; it’s another thing entirely to repent of a sin that you plan out ahead of time and intentionally commit—in other words, it’s easier to turn away from sins we are already trying to avoid than those we seek out.

Hebrews 6.4-8 conveys a similar message, saying that for those who have “tasted the good word of God” and then fallen away, it is “impossible to renew them again to repentance.” This is a much-debated passage, but at the very least, the indication is that the sin of these people places them in a category that makes repentance more difficult than for others.

Furthermore, sinful addictions that destroy people’s lives are much harder to repent of than single, isolated sins.*

(4) Simple logic tells us that not all sin is the same.

To reiterate what I said above, all sin is the same in the sense that it separates us from God, but if it was the same in every sense, then that would mean that stealing a piece of gum is just as bad as stealing a car, which is just as bad as killing someone, which is just as bad as killing 20 people. Does that really make any sense?

Put another way, that would mean that in God’s eyes, Mother Teresa and Adolf Hitler are exactly the same, because they both committed sin at some point in their lives. If it’s so easy for us to see the difference in the goodness of those two people, does it make any sense at all that God would look at them in exactly the same way (where do you think our moral code comes from in the first place?)?

Then Why Do So Many People Believe This?

If the idea of all sins being equal didn’t come from the Bible, where did it come from? I don’t have any proof of this, but I suspect it came out of the desire to emphasize two ideas about sin that are very true:

(1) Every sin, no matter how small it seems, is a big deal and requires forgiveness.

Sometimes, in an effort to emphasize the grace of God and His willingness to forgive, some people effectively minimize the magnitude of sin. The idea here is that it doesn’t matter what kind of language you use, it doesn’t matter if you live a sexually immoral life, it doesn’t matter if you are a chronic gossip, because you can just ask for forgiveness and it’s that easy.

The thing to remember is that while grace is free, it isn’t cheap. The sin of mankind is such a big deal that it required the death of the sinless Son of God to make grace possible. Sin—all sin—is a big deal.

(2) Even the “big” sins that we think of as being terrible can still be forgiven.

Sometimes, when people commit very public, very damaging sins, we tend to write them off. A girl gets pregnant out of wedlock or a man divorces his wife, and too often, they are treated like their lives are over and that God has no use for them anymore. The idea here is that only especially saintly people who avoid all “major” sins can ever hope to have a relationship with God.

As mentioned above, it cost God a lot to forgive sin, but thanks to the work of Christ on the cross, He is able and eager to do just that, regardless of how “bad” your sin is (Prodigal Son, Apostle Paul, etc.).

With these two ideas in mind, it’s easy enough to imagine where the “All Sin is Equal” idea came from: simultaneously wanting to underscore that even the “worst” of sins can be forgiven but that even “minor” sins are a big deal and separate us from God, it’s not a huge jump to just declare that all sins must be the same from God’s perspective.

Hopefully, as I’ve explained above, that idea doesn’t make sense logically, and it doesn’t square with the teachings of Scripture either. As we move forward, let’s emphasize that all sin is a big deal, but that it can still be forgiven.

I want to be clear that my intention in this post is not to maximize or minimize any specific sin, or to encourage active reflection on how some sins “rank” in comparison to others. Instead, I am simply calling for people to quit saying, “All sin is the same in God’s eyes”, because biblically, that just isn’t a true statement.


*I’m not intending to debate addiction as sin vs. addiction as illness. Really, I think it’s a moot point—even if addictions affect the body and mind like illnesses do, they still begin with sinful behavior.

Scripture Reflections 2: Abraham Bargains with God

Scripture Reflections-01

As I mentioned before, this year I am writing a lot of notes in my journaling Bible as I do my daily reading, and I thought I would share some of those thoughts from time to time.

The end of Genesis 18 contains an interesting interaction between Abraham and God: after Abraham learns that God intends to destroy the wicked city of Sodom, he decides to intercede for Sodom, asking the LORD, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?”, implying that there are some righteous people in Sodom who don’t deserve to be destroyed with the rest of the city.

And so, a bargaining process begins (my paraphrase of Genesis 18.24-32):

Abraham: God, will you destroy Sodom if there are 50 righteous people in it?

God: If there are 50, I will spare the city.

Abraham: Hmm, it’s not my place to tell you how to do things, but what if there are 45 righteous? Five can’t make much of a difference, right?

God: If there are 45, I will spare the city.

Abraham: What about 40?

God: If there are 40, I will spare the city.

Abraham: Don’t be angry with me for haggling, God, but what if there are 30 righteous people?

God: If there are 30, I will spare the city.

Abraham: Be patient with me; what about 20?

God: If there are 20, I will spare the city.

Abraham: OK, let me ask one more time: what if there are 10 righteous people?

God: If there are 10 righteous, I will spare the city.

And at that point, the haggling comes to an end.

This episode is interesting to me for at least three reasons.

First, it’s interesting to me that in Genesis 18.23, Abraham seems to mildly reprove God for being willing to destroy an entire city that might contain righteous people, and yet, it seems that Abraham’s mercy was exhausted before God’s was. At least, Abraham quit asking to lower the bar for how many righteous people would save the city. Would God have been willing to spare the city if five righteous people were found? Or three? Or one person? We don’t know, because Abraham quit asking before God quit agreeing. It’s a helpful reminder to me that God is always more merciful than I am.

Related to the first point, the things we ask of God have the potential to change His plans. Depending on where you are on the spectrum of how God’s sovereignty works this is a debatable point, but a straightforward reading of the text certainly indicates that Abraham’s requests were influencing God’s plans regarding the destruction of Sodom. And again, it seems possible that Abraham could have continued to bargain with God until He relented from destroying the city altogether. So this is helpful as well, because it brings about a certain degree of resolve in my life: if the deep desires of my heart are denied to me (like, for instance, the healing of my daughter), it won’t be because I am not asking God for them.

And finally, I’m left to wonder: why is it that we assume that God grows impatient with our repeated requests of Him? Abraham certainly assumed and feared God’s impatience: four times he apologized or asked for patience in some way. I think we often do the same thing. But over and over again God tells us to come to Him in prayer, and in the New Testament, Jesus praises the persistence of a widow and uses her as an example of how we should repeatedly come to the Father in prayer. So I am also reminded by this narrative that I should not project my impatience on God: he patiently (and eagerly) hears my repeated requests. 

This is a famous passage: what does it bring to your mind? Would you disagree with any of my reflections above?

God and Government

I go back and forth quite a bit in my thoughts on the relationship between God, government, Christians, politics, etc. I read this yesterday in a journal article and found it helpful:

“Jesus lived in a conquered province in an empire whose imperialistic ruler stood for everything that was antagonistic to the revealed faith of the Jews. Jesus was not a revolutionary but instead conformed to the laws of civil government. Nowhere did he denounce the legitimate power of the state. Jesus paid his taxes (Matthew 17.24-27). He recognized the authority of Pontius Pilate, even when Pilate unjustly delivered him over to his enemies (John 19.11). Jesus reminded him, however, that his authority was not autonomous (John 19.10-11) but that it was delegated from the One who was above. Thus, in practice and precept Jesus recognized that the government under which he lived was ordained of God.”

–David Plaster, in Grace Theological Journal 6 (Fall 1985), p. 437.
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