God’s control over creation can be both re-assuring and confusing. It is re-assuring because one can trust in God in any situation. At the same time, it can be confusing when evil affects one’s life. What should the Christian’s response to God’s control of evil be? Nothing could be more practical in Christian ministry than this question. Of the three competing models of God’s providence, it can demonstrated that the Reformed model provides the best answer to the question, “what should the Christians response to evil be”.
I. Models of Providence
The most widely discussed models of providence in the church are the Arminian model of providence, the Openness model of providence, and the Reformed model of providence.
A. Arminian View
The Arminian model of providence teaches that while God foreknows all things, He does not control everything that comes to pass. Consequently, God is not responsible for what happens in nature and human free choice. However, God can act in nature, if He deems it necessary.
One of the major benefits in this system is that God cannot be held responsible for morally evil acts nor for natural evil, since He is not in direct control of these events.
Vital to this model is the concept of libertarian freewill, which briefly can be defined as the ability to choose otherwise in any give situation.
In other words, decisions are not based upon internal or external causes. Choices spring from nothing, found only in the agent making the choice. Likewise, natural evil is not caused by God (although God can work in nature if He so chooses). The normal process by which God governs the world is one of quiescent observance.
The Arminian model of providence has serious challenges to overcome. First, this model would imply that God is not involved in moral and natural evil, which is not the position taught in Deuteronomy 32:39, Isaiah 45:5-7 and Ephesians 1:11. Second, there is tension in the Arminian model of providence because it holds to libertarian freewill, which is in opposition to God’s meticulous foreknowledge. Many have seen this tension and adopted the Openness model of providence. For example, Clark Pinnock, an Openness advocate notes that God’s foreknowledge, “would make the future fixed and certain and render illusory the sense of our making choices between real options.”
B. Openness View
The Openness view of God distinguishes itself by denying God’s foreknowledge of the future. An Openness proponent, Richard Rice, comments of God that “Instead of perceiving the entire course of human existence in one timeless moment, God comes to know events as they take place.”
For Openness theology, “love is the first and last word in the biblical portrait of God.”
This love necessitates God giving his creatures libertarian free will. But, unlike the Arminian view, Openness proponents teach that God cannot see the future.
Openness theologians teach that God is not in control of human choice or natural events. Although God can choose to work in nature, he does not normally do so. On this model, God can prevent evil, but does not. Openness theologian, John Sanders explains, “God cannot prevent all the evil in the world and still maintain the conditions of fellowship intended by his overarching purpose in creation.”
A loving relationship between God and men, in this view, requires that God not interfere in most human affairs, even to prevent evil.
The Openness model of providence also has significant hurdles to overcome, and there are valid arguments against this model First, Scripture affirms that God does see the future (cf. Isaiah 46:10-11; Daniel 11), while the Openness model deny this truth. Second, it is not at all clear that God’s acting in history to prevent evil would be a factor that would impede God’s relationship to His creatures, as John Sanders claims above.
C. Reformed View
The Reformed view of providence is all encompassing. God controls everything whatsoever. There is not one thing that is outside God’s control. Bruce A. Ware gives this definition of divine providence: “God continually oversees and directs all things pertaining to the created order in such a way that 1) he preserves in existence and provides for the creation he has brought into being, and 2) he governs and reigns supremely over the entirety of the whole creation in order to fulfill all of his intended purposes in it and through it.”
That God “governs and reigns supremely” over creation means that He is involved in both natural events and human choices. This definition controverts both the Arminian and Openness views of providence.
While the Reformed Model of Providence does not suffer the same challenges that the other two models do, it does have problems to overcome. One of the significant challenges is that since God controls all things – and these for his people’s good (Romans 8:28) -, then how can evil be used for the Christian’s good? Only Scripture can answer that question.
The Reformed model, out of the three models discussed above, has the most to commend it. However, Scripture is the final arbiter in any matter of doctrine. Thus, the following discussion will analyze some key texts on God’s providence that relate them to His control over the world, including evil.
II. Scriptural Data
God’s providential control over creation is essential to understand. Answering the question, “Why did it happen,” is essential for comfort ministry. According to one pastoral counselor, this is one of the first questions asked in cases involving loss.
Consequently, It is necessary to answer the question of “why” to effectively minister to one another.
Imagine that Ted has been robbed and beaten, resulting in the loss of his possessions and physical injury. He is a salesman who needs to make a business trip soon to sell his wares. In this scenario, he no has resources to finance his trip. Thus, Ted is in quite the dilemma. A number of questions come to mind. What is the purpose of his suffering? Is the evil done to him meaningless? Is it something God doesn’t want to happen to him but is impotent to stop? Most importantly, how should Ted respond to God? After all, the orthodox understanding of Scripture teaches that God is in control of everything, including Ted’s situation. Looking at the relevant scriptural passages, will answer these questions.
A. General Texts
The Bible speaks in terms of God knowing the future because He planned and controls it. For example, Isaiah 46:8-11 says,
8Remember this, and be assured; Recall it to mind, you transgressors. “9 Remember the former things long past, For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like Me, 10 Declaring the end from the beginning, And from ancient times things which have not been done, Saying, ‘My purpose will be established, And I will accomplish all My good pleasure’; 11 Calling a bird of prey from the east, The man of My purpose from a far country. Truly I have spoken; truly I will bring it to pass. I have planned it, surely I will do it.
That the basis of God being God (v.8) is that he declares the end from the beginning (v.10) strongly favors the Reformed view of providence. Notice it is not that God only “knows” what will happen in the future, but that He “declares the end from the beginning.” This nuance would negate the Arminian understanding that God simply ‘knows’ the future and the Openness understanding that God does ‘not know’ the future.
B. Specific Texts
What are the limits to God’s control of the world? Does God control evil? The answer to these questions is yes. God controls evil. Isaiah 45:5-7 says,
5“I am the LORD, and there is no other; Besides Me there is no God. I will gird you, though you have not known Me; 6 That men may know from the rising to the setting of the sun That there is no one besides Me. I am the LORD, and there is no other, 7 The One forming light and creating darkness, Causing well-being and creating calamity; I am the LORD who does all these.
Notice that the basis for God being God (vv. 5-6) is the fact that He both forms light and creates darkness. He causes well being and creates calamity. Think about what it means to say that God creates darkness and calamity(!). It is far easier to say that God brings about all the good in the world (James 1:17), but to say that He brings about evil is much more difficult. Nonetheless, Scripture speaks authoritatively and clearly. As God has said, “It is I who put to death and give life. I have wounded and it is I who heal” (Deuteronomy 32:39). God puts to death and He wounds. Hence, Job‘s family consoled him “for all the adversities that the LORD had brought on him” (Job 42:11).
Scripture teaches that God both plans and works in creation, weakening the Arminian and ruining Openness model of providence. However, the Reformed model providence continues to best accounts for the Scriptural data. It articulates the correct response to evil, and hence will answer Ted’s questions about God and evil. In this model, God will be shown to use evil to bring about greater good.
III. The Response to Evil
The question of how to respond to evil should be understood in relation to the problem of good. The problem of good asks: “How can a just God see all the wickedness of humanity and not judge it?”. In other words, how can God show kindness and benevolence to all (cf. John 3:16) if He is a just God? The answer to that question is Jesus Christ. The penal substitution of Jesus allowed God to be both just and merciful to humanity. Those who believe in Christ are given His righteousness, and their unrighteousness is transferred to Christ. On the cross, the wrath of the Father was unleashed upon the Son for the sins of those who would believe in Him. Because of the substitutionary atonement of Christ, God can show kindness to men if He pleases.
In this understanding, two categories of people are revealed. The first category of people are those outside of Christ. It is fitting that evil comes upon them (cf. Luke 13:1-5). In fact, when the wickedness of humanity is reflected upon, it is surprising that more evil doesn’t come upon humanity (cf. Luke 13:1-5). Even more surprising is the fact that God withholds final judgment from those outside of Christ.
The second category of people are those in Christ, or Christians. Why does calamity fall upon them? If God has not totally destroyed evil, then there must be a reason it exists. If Ted, the salesman is a Christian, then there must be a reason that he was robbed and beaten. But what is it? What good reason is there for evil to exist?
A. Evil Exists For a Greater Good: God’s Glory
It would be presumptuous to explain all the intricacies of how God controls evil and its purposes, since Scripture is silent of some of these topics. However, Scripture clearly teaches 1) that all things exist and live for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31); 2) That God’s glory is for the benefit of His people (Romans 8:28); 3) that God is not the author nor approver of evil (Psalm 5:4); 4) that evil exists to glorify God (Romans 11:36); 5) Since God’s glory is connected to His people’s joy, that evil is for His people’s benefit.
Consider the truth that all things originate in God and serve to glorify Him (Romans 11:36; Isaiah 48:11). God’s glory is manifested in giving joy to His people (Isaiah 43:6-7; 60:21; 61:3). His glory is concurrent with human joy. Look at the context of Isaiah 43:6-7, 60:21 and 61:3 to see that God’s glory is manifested in fulfilling promises to His people for their joy. Jonathan Edwards comments , “…it will appear quite unnatural to suppose that God’s glory here is spoken of only as an end inferior and subordinate to the happiness of God’s people. On the contrary, they will appear rather as promises making God’s people happy, that God therein might be glorified.”
Thus the world exists to glorify God by joyously accepting His good promises.
Evil exists to glorify God and bring joy to His people. Since God’s glory is the end for which He created the world, and this glory is manifested in benefiting His people, then evil must serve to glorify God and benefit His people. Before proceeding, it should be understood that God is not the author nor approver of evil. James 1:17 says, “Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.” God gives good and is good. Psalm 5:4 says, “For You are not a God who takes pleasure in wickedness; No evil dwells with You.” Indeed, God is not evil nor does he approve of evil. Yet it is true that evil exists.
For example, Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery to Egypt. Surely, this was a great evil committed against Joseph. Yet many years later Joseph reflected, “As for you [his brothers], you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive (Genesis 50:20) .”The evil committed against Joseph (sold into slavery) served to benefit him and God’s people (his brothers). From this, one can see the purpose of evil in someone’s life. Evil serves God’s purpose of manifesting His glory for the joy of God’s people.
B. Evil And The Christian
There many difficult texts in the Bible, which speak of trials coming upon Christians for their joy. For Example,“In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials…you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory (1 Peter 1:6,9). Peter says that trials come, yet receive them with Joy while awaiting the glory at the coming of Jesus which results in “joy inexpressible”. James 1:2-5 says, “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, 3 knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. 4 And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” It is a joyful thing when adversity comes because one’s faith is tested, producing an enduring faith. Trials and persecutions – things commonly called evil – come upon Christians to test and confirm their faith so that their joy may be maximized in Christ. God uses evil for His and the Christian’s glory and joy.
How then should Ted react when evil comes upon him? He should know that God is control of what has happened to him, and realize it is for his benefit. Ted should realize that in the end it is for his joy which is the glory of God. And so, Ted should glorify and rejoice in God even in the midst of his trials
After reviewing the Arminian, Openness and Reformed views of providence, it is the author’s view that by careful biblical study and plain reason based on the total biblical word view the Reformed position provides the only sufficient explanation in answering the question: “How should one respond to evil?”. This model answers the question in two ways. For the non-Christian, evil is only what he or she deserves. For the Christian, evil refines and strengthens his or her faith, which will result in joy. It is more common to ask the question “why does evil exist” than “how should one respond to evil.” Yet, the latter question is what Scriptures addresses. Consequently, it is of vital importance that this issue is understood and embraced for the truth and glory of God, leading to the joy of His people.
Edwards, Jonathan. “The End For Which God Created The World. God’s Passion For His Glory Living The Vision of Jonathan Edwards. Edited by John Piper. Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1993.
Elwell, Walter A., ed. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001.
Olson, Roger E. Arminian Theology: Myths And Realities. Downer Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006.
Richard Rice, John Sanders, Clark H. Pinnock, and William Hasker. The Openness of God. Edited by Clark H. Pinnock. Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994.
Sanders, John. The God Who Risks: A theology of Divine Providence, 2nd ed. Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007.
Ware, Bruce A. God’s Greater Glory: The Exalted God of Scripture And The Christian Faith. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004.