Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (34) Is evil part of God’s purposes?

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddWe continue our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015).

We are in Chapter 10 ‘The Descent into Hell’

In this post we are going to look at Rutledge’s answers to two big theological questions concerning God and evil.

What do you say to someone who is suffering? What is your theology of where is God in the midst of human suffering?

Does the ‘argument from evil’ Disprove or Discredit God?

The popular ‘argument from evil’ posits that God is either not all-powerful or not good:

  • If God is both good and powerful, he would not permit evil
  • Therefore, he is either powerful and not good, or good but not powerful.

Or perhaps, God may have some good moral reason to permit evil but we do not have access to it.

But Rutledge comments, that despite much sophisticated philosophical debate about the problem of evil, most discussions are so abstract and rarefied that they offer little help to ordinary people facing the reality of evil in their own lives and experience.

Rutledge refers to the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004. I remember in Ireland, as elsewhere around the globe, there was a blizzard of interviews, articles and letters asking ‘Where was God?’ and ‘How could God allow this?’ – with most (as I recall) concluding that belief in God is simply unintelligible and should be abandoned as a primitive, intellectually incoherent and self-deluding belief system.

Rutledge is indebted in her discussion to David Bentley Hart and his Doors of the Sea: Where was God in the Tsunami?

Two cataclysmic events in the modern period have made a lasting impact on this question

The Lisbon Earthquake of 1755: before it was possible to view natural disasters as within the providential working of God. Afterwards, nature tended to be seen as a morally neutral and inscrutable force.

The Holocaust: before it was (perhaps) possible to imagine that humanity was ‘improvable’ and fundamentally orientated towards the good – with the right education people would behave well. Afterwards, such Enlightenment optimism about humanity progress is dead – along with millions of Hitler’s victims.

Following Hart, Rutledge concludes that no rational and philosophical theodicy (explanation of God and evil) ‘works’

“… God cannot be discovered by human logic” (432)

The bigger question for the Christian is not whether evil ‘proves’ or ‘disproves’ God, the real question is around the goodness of God.

Is Evil Part of God’s Purpose?

This is controversial territory. Can sin and suffering somehow be justified by a ‘greater good’ that emerges from it? [Any good Harry Potter theologians will recognise this question that surrounds the relationship between Dumbledore and Grindelwald]

Rutledge mentions some examples in the main text and footnotes. To give a flavour:

Alvin Plantinga

Suffering can have ‘salvific meaning’. While he works hard to avoid the idea that suffering is a ‘good thing’, for Rutledge

“his is a philosophical argument and therefore … theologically and pastorally useless and, indeed, positively harmful.”

His is an abstruse version of the ‘free-will defence’. You can’t say Rutledge is afraid to give an opinion – especially of one of the most influential Christian philosophers working today.

Popular Piety

‘Everything happens for a reason’. But this trivialises evil and its effects and diminishes the reality of suffering. Try saying this to people who have suffered / are suffering. There are some lives that you wonder ‘were they worth living?’

Rutledge gives examples, but I am sure you can think of many yourself. The fact is that evil is often horrific

‘and it is a form of deception to say otherwise.’

This is why Rutledge likes Hart – his book is pastoral in focus and he is angered at the insensitivity and lack of empathy often shown by those who have ‘explanations’ for evil. Rutledge quotes him here

“It is obscene to seek to mitigate the scandal of suffering by allowing hope to degenerate into banal confidence in ‘God’s great plan’ … such confidence all too easily blinds us to the spiritual universe of the New Testament … even if by economy God can bring good from evil; it can in no way supply any imagined deficiency in God’s or creation’s goodness; it has no ‘contribution’ to make.” (Hart, 69-70, 74, quoted 434).

The Sovereignty of God

Rutledge only comes at this in a footnote which is a bit surprising since it is a classical fault-line that still divides many Calvinists and Arminians.

Was Adam’s original sin ‘necessary’?

In other words, are we better off because of Adam’s sin? For Calvin, God’s absolute sovereignty will ensure his good purposes work out even in the face of sin. The difficulty is, however, that this

Seems to suggest that God’s original plan lacked something that was then supplied by the occurrence of Sin. (433, n.113).

Rutledge could say more here. Calvin acknowledged that ‘the decree is dreadful indeed, I confess’ that God foreordained the Fall and the subsequent introduction of sin into the world. [Calvin, Institutes, III.xxiii.7 (2:955) My emphasis].

For Arminians like Roger Olson, who has indefatigably written about this issue for years, such a classical Calvinist framework cannot escape the charge of making God the author of evil. [For a civil and high quality debate see Olson’s Against Calvinism and Michael Horton’s response, For Calvinism.]

A personal comment:

I think Calvin’s speculations here, driven by an utter theological commitment to divine sovereignty, were, and continue to be, deeply unfortunate. Driven by logic, rather than respecting the limits of biblical revelation, they go far beyond what the Bible itself says. In doing so, they do, I think, link God with sin in such a way that Calvinist theology has been in contortions ever since trying to square the circle that God is utterly good and also not the author of sin.

Way back at the start of this blog, we discussed Chris Wright’s wrestling with these questions – if you have time they are worth a read.

Theodicy as a dead end?

For Hart, and Rutledge agrees,

“the whole enterprise of theodicy is misbegotten. Philosophical ‘defenses’ flounder” (434)

There is no rational explanation. Certain truths must be held on to,

“Evil is in no way part of God’s good purpose”

“Evil is neither rationally or morally intelligible and must simply be loathed and resisted.”

Evil is “a prodigious negation that must be identified, denounced, and opposed wherever it occurs.  (434)

Do you find this both understandable and helpful? How might this feed into pastoral work? Preaching? Teaching? Having coffee with a friend who is dying?  

In the next post we continue within chapter 10 and this discussion of God, evil and the cross.

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