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Interpreting History Through a Christian Lens: Part 3

As we discussed in Part 1 of this post, the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, depicted in the painting by David Roberts above, occasioned many theological questions. Those questions were troubling. Had the Lord abandoned his covenant people again? Was this siege a sign of the Lord's judgment against the Jews? As we've discussed the broader topic of interpreting history through a Christian lens, inevitably Christians encounter the troubling issue of God's involvement in history. How is it that a good, holy, perfect God seemingly presides over such an enormous amount of evil and suffering in the world? As with the other topics we've discussed, questions like these emerge out of the study of history.

Recall that in this four-part post, I've discussed the following topics:

  • History and Human Nature

  • Finding a Meaning or Significance to History

  • The Problem of God's Involvement in History

  • A Unified Christian Approach to History

In Part 1, I discussed "History and Human Nature." In Part 2, I discussed "Finding a Meaning or Significance to History." In Part 2, I argued that though Christians might subscribe to a speculative philosophy of history that is linear, cyclical, or chaotic depending on distinct theological convictions, there are certain necessary elements to any Christian speculative philosophy of history:

  • History has a beginning and will end with the Second Coming of Christ.

  • From the beginning, history can be construed as a story of God's people (whether Israel or the church) and the world's response to His people.

  • History has a central narrative whose climax is the birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension and exaltation of Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God.

  • Original sin complicates, if not precluding, the possibility of progression or coherent pattern in history.

I called these components of a generic Christian speculative philosophy of history. I recap the previous post here because our generic view will be necessary in a discussion on the problem of God's involvement in history, to which I now turn.

The Problem of God's Involvement in History

One might immediately begin by asking why I've chosen to label God's involvement in history a "problem." What exactly is the issue here? For some, who perhaps have not thought the question through very much, the way I've chosen to label this topic is problematic. Let me begin addressing this question by sharing with you some statistics from the 20th century:

Each one of these statistics is shocking. Taken together, they are staggering. They don't include other wars fought in the 20th century (e.g., the Vietnam War, Korean War, etc.), other lesser-known mass killings (e.g., the Guangxi Massacre), and other pandemics (e.g., Asian Influenza in 1957 and Hong Kong Influenza in 1968). They contribute to the claim that the 20th century is the bloodiest in human history, with the estimated death toll coming in at 187 million.

In light of such unimaginable death and suffering in the last 100 years, it's difficult not to wonder how God could have allowed this to happen. Thus, in one sense, God's involvement in history is a problem because it evokes the problem of evil and suffering in the world. Put simply, the problem of evil and suffering in the world is an objection to God's existence that argues that there is some problem, either logical or probabilistic, with the coexistence of God with evil. Thus, there are two versions of the problem of evil and suffering: the logical problem of evil and suffering and the evidential problem of evil and suffering. I've addressed both the logical and the evidential objections elsewhere, so I won't rehash them here. Suffice it to say that I think that neither objection is successful. Yet the problem of evil can have great emotional weight, especially in the midst of our own suffering, resulting in what's been called the emotional problem of evil and suffering. I've addressed this problem as well elsewhere.

Assuming that the existence of evil and suffering shouldn't cause doubts to arise about the existence of God, it nonetheless raises serious questions for us. For example, how is it that a world that God ordered over which He is sovereign still produces such seemingly egregious evil and suffering? How could God providentially order and sustain such a world? Thus, even for Christians who assume God's existence, moral perfection, holiness, etc., history begs theological questions that can be troubling.

On top of this, we've already discussed in Part 2 that a generic Christian speculative philosophy of history will include the chaotic element of human sin because of the Fall. Why, then, did God allow the Fall to take place? Could He not have brought about a state of affairs in which free human creatures had never sinned? If so, why is that not the world we live in? This is what happens when the facts of the world as-is, what philosophers call the actual world, produces questions about our worldview. These questions, if unaddressed, could lead to doubt that our worldview is in alignment with the actual world. Even if doubt does not arise, it could lead unbelievers to reject the Christian worldview.

Addressing these questions will require us to delve into various topics in philosophy and theology, and the discussion will get technical. But I will try my best to explain everything in a way that is simplified while illuminating the important points in each topic I discuss. In order to address the problem of God's involvement in history, this post will be split into three sections:

  • Modality and God

  • God's Sovereignty and Will

  • The Christian Metanarrative

First, modality and God. In philosophy, modality and modal statements have to do with what could, would, or must be the case. Similarly, they have to do with what could not, would not, or must not have been the case.

Some examples of "could" questions include:

  • Could a Pegasus (a horse with wings) exist?

  • Could the technology for inventing computers have developed sooner?

  • Could Adolf Hitler have conquered the USSR during WWII?

Some examples of "would" questions include:

  • If Pegasi were to exist, would we ride them?

  • How much more advanced would technology be today, had computers been invented sooner?

  • Had Adolf Hitler conquered the USSR during WWII, would he have won the war?

Notice that while both sets of questions sound similar, they are quite different. "Could" questions concern what's possibly true, or what other state of affairs might have obtained. "Would" questions concern what states of affairs obtain, given some antecedent state of affairs that is different from what actually is true. Because both "could" and "would" statements concern what is not in fact the case (what in fact is the case is addressed with "is" statements), these statements are called counterfactual statements. That is, they are statements that concern what is in fact not the case.

Some examples of "must" statements include:

  • It must be the case that 2+2=4.

  • It must not be the case that square circles exist.

Notice that "must" statements concern what is or is not true, no matter the state of affairs. "Must" statements also imply something about what is in fact the case. For instance, if it is true that "it must be the case that 2+2=4," then the truth of that statement implies that 2+2=4 in the actual world. Similarly, if it is in fact the case that "it must not be the case that square circles exist," then square circles don't exist in the actual world. I point this out as a unique aspect of "must" statements because "could" and "would" statements don't necessarily carry an implication about the actual world, For instance, if it is in fact the case that "A Pegasus could exist," the truth of that statement doesn't imply that Pegasi exist in the actual world. Another consequence of this is that statements that are true in the actual world imply that the statement in question could be true. For instance, the statement that "Horses exist," which is true in the actual world, implies that the statement that "Horses could exist" is true as well. We can form a valid argument along these lines like this:

  1. Horses exist.

  2. Therefore, horses could exist.

Notice that the argument below would be invalid:

  1. Horses exist.

  2. Therefore, horses must exist.

But, if we flip premise and conclusion, we find this valid argument form:

  1. Horses must exist.

  2. Therefore, horses exist.

If you've read my post on the Ontological Argument, you may recognize some of this language. In that argument, God's existence is derived from His nature. "Could" statements can also be formulated with the phrase "it is possible that..." Therefore, the statements "Horses could exist" and "It is possible that horses exist" express the same claim in different words. So, the first premise of the Ontological Argument is "It is possible that God exists." Since God is defined as a maximally great being who must exist, that He could exist (i.e., that it is possible that He exists) implies that He exists in the actual world. Therefore, a shortened version of the Ontological Argument goes like this:

  1. God could exist.

  2. Therefore, God exists.

It is argued that this argument is valid because of the nature of the object described in the statements. If this sounds strange, consider similar arguments where the object described is similar in its nature:

  1. The number "2" could exist.

  2. Therefore, the number "2" exists.


  1. The statement that "Murder is bad" could be true.

  2. Therefore, the statement that "murder is bad" is true.

That is one way in which modality and God intersect, but there are other ways. Counterfactual statements about persons are an infamous area of difficulty for philosophers. For example, consider the following counterfactual statement:

  • Had Jones been offered broccoli for dinner last night, he would not have eaten it.

Why would Jones have not eaten broccoli? The first part of the statement above ("Had Jones been offered broccoli for dinner last night") describes a state of affairs much like the one that actually obtained last night, with one crucial change. That change is that Jones is offered broccoli, whereas it is not true in the actual world that he was offered broccoli last night. Therefore, hidden within the first part of the statement is a kind of ceteris paribus (Latin for "other things equal") clause, which expresses that, all else being equal, Jones would not have eaten the broccoli. Therefore, the first part of the statement assumes that all other conditions that were present at that time in the actual world obtained, except for the one change posed by the statement itself. (This includes, for instance, prior states of affairs before Jones decides whether to eat broccoli and any true statements about God's will in that state of affairs.)

So again, I ask, "Why would Jones have not eaten broccoli?" One good guess is that Jones despises the taste of broccoli. If that statement about Jones is true, then we have before us a true statement about Jones that explains why he would not have chosen to eat the broccoli, had it been offered to him during dinner last night. Let's say that we also know that Jones wasn't starving last night and that other kinds of food would have been offered to Jones (i.e., the food that was in fact offered to him). This is part of that ceteris paribus clause mentioned above. Then we can know that Jones would not have eaten the broccoli because (1) he despises the taste of broccoli and (2) other kinds of food would have been offered to him. But let's see what would happen if we changed things slightly with this question:

  • Would Jones have eaten broccoli for dinner last night, had he been offered it and had no other food been offered to him?

With this question, we ask what Jones would have done in a state of affairs slightly less like the actual world than the one posed in our initial statement. The state of affairs posed is less like the actual world because it posits one more change: no other food is offered to Jones. In other words, would Jones have chosen to eat broccoli if no other options were presented? If not, then we know that Jones despises the taste of broccoli so much that he would have been willing to go hungry instead of eating it. If so, then we know that Jones despises the taste of broccoli, but not enough to refrain from eating dinner. Let's assume, for the sake of the example, that this statement is true:

  • Had Jones been offered broccoli for dinner last night and had no other food been offered to him, Jones would not have eaten it.

Thus, Jones despises broccoli so much that he would be willing to go hungry instead of eating it. Now, let's pose yet a third question, one which modifies things a bit more:

  • Would Jones have eaten broccoli for dinner last night, had he been offered it, had no other food been offered to him, and had he been starving last night?

We've now asked what would have happened in a state of affairs even less like the actual world by posing yet a third change: Jones is starving at the time that he's offered broccoli with no other option. If he would choose not to eat broccoli, then he despises it so much that he's willing to die to avoid eating it! If he would choose to eat broccoli, then in spite of the fact that he despises it, he would take the broccoli if his life depended on it. Let's assume that this statement is true:

  • Had Jones been offered broccoli for dinner last night, had no other food been offered to him, and had he been starving last night, Jones would have eaten the broccoli.

Thus, like any rational person, Jones would be willing to eat food he despises if his life depended on it. Notice that we've learned quite a bit about who Jones is from this thought experiment. We've learned that, for whatever reason, he despises broccoli so much that he would go hungry to avoid it, but not so much that he would die of starvation instead of eating it. Jones seems like a rational person because of this. How could someone despise a food so much that he or she would rather starve than eat it? But let's suppose that we learn this about the proposed state of affairs in which Jones is offered broccoli, no other food is offered to him, and he is starving:

  • Had Jones been offered broccoli for dinner last night, had no other food been offered to him, and had he been starving last night, it would have been God's will for Jones to eat broccoli.

From this statement, we now know two things about the possible state of affairs in which Jones (1) is offered broccoli for dinner last night, (2) no other food is offered to him, and (3) is starving. The two things that we know are: (1) Jones would have eaten the broccoli and (2) it would have been God's will for Jones to eat the broccoli. Recall that before we mentioned God's will on the matter, I noted that we now know more about Jones than we did before. We know that though he despises broccoli enough to miss a meal to avoid it, he is not so irrational that he'll die of starvation rather than eating it. But now we also know that God's will would have been that he'd eat the broccoli. This fact about God's will raises yet another question:

  • Had God's will been for Jones to eat the broccoli last night (had he been offered it for dinner, had no other food been offered to him, and had he been starving last night), could Jones have chosen not to eat the broccoli?

If the answer to this question is yes, then it would seem to imply either that Jones had sinned (which is unlikely, given that there is no commandment from God not to eat broccoli), or that he had violated God's will in a deeper way, doing the opposite of what God had intended for him to do. Assuming that God's specific intention cannot be violated in that way by a mere creature, then the answer seems to be no. But then we must ask, have we really learned anything about Jones? Would he have made this decision because of his rational disposition toward broccoli, or merely because it would have been God's will for him to eat it? Whether he had such a disposition or not, he would have eaten the broccoli. This suggests that we must be skeptical about persons in light of God's sovereign will, since His will suggests that whatever happens be in accordance with it. Therefore, in light of God's will, actions of persons are attributable to God rather than those persons.

This conclusion has all sorts of consequences logically. First, assuming that God's will extends to all events, including Jones's eating broccoli in certain circumstances, we're left with skepticism about the personal explanations for choices and events. That is, Jones's willingness to eat broccoli in those circumstances isn't due to his own rational disposition but, rather, God's will. The idea that God's will extends to all events is sometimes called God's exhaustive will. Second, since God's will entails that if God wills event E, then event E could not fail to happen, all past events occurred because it was God's will that they occurred. If we imagine history as a series of past events whose occurrences the historian can discover, we can list them as a sequence wherein E(0) represents the present, E(-1) represents one moment prior to the present, and so on to E(-n). We can visualize this series like this:

The past:

E(-n)…E(-3), E(-2), E(-1), E(0)

Assuming God's exhaustive will over all events, and the fact that events that God wills could not have failed to occur, then the entire series of past events represented above occurred because of God's will. And that series includes the Holocaust and every other mass-casualty event cited above.

If God's will is exhaustive (i.e., if it extends over all events), then God willed every past event that occurred. Therefore, God's will is that the Holocaust occurred. Not only this, but every past event, including the Holocaust, has its explanation in God, not ultimately in the persons involved.

These conclusions are disturbing, to say the least. They claim that God's will includes sin, that God willed sin, and that God is the ultimate explanation for why sins have occurred in the past. The ultimate conclusion is that God is the explanation for why the first sin of Adam occurred, bringing sin into the world. Thus, God is made the author of sin, which is theologically unacceptable. This is what I mean when I refer to God's involvement in history as a problem. It is a problem because it seems to suggest that the evil that occurred in the past could have occurred only because God had willed those things to take place.

For us as Christians, however, this shouldn't cause doubt. If our understanding of God's exhaustive will ends with theologically unacceptable conclusions, then we must modify our understanding of the aspects of the problem so as to preserve what we know of God: that He is morally perfect and holy. This leads me to the next section of this part of the post.

Second, God's sovereignty and will. Typically, the term "sovereignty," when applied to God, is used to denote God's absolute rulership over all that exists. Often, Christians think of sovereignty as if its logically or semantically equivalent to doctrines such as predestination or election, but this isn't quite correct. Obviously, God's sovereignty is demonstrated through His actions in predestining certain things and electing (or choosing) certain people, but the concept of sovereignty is broader than these things. Consider, for instance, Psalm 115, in which the Lord's nature is contrasted with idols. In verses 1-3, the psalmist states (NASB, emphasis is my own):

"Not to us, Lord, not to us, But to Your name give glory, Because of Your mercy, because of Your truth. Why should the nations say, 'Where, then, is their God?' But our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases."

The psalmist is comparing the "gods" of the nations with the God of Israel, and thereby comparing the nations with Israel. The nations, whether out of simple theological misunderstanding ("Our god is right here in this statue. Where is your God?") or because they mocked the Israelites, ask where the God of Israel is. The answer they receive is twofold. First, the God of Israel is in heaven. God inhabits the top of the hierarchy of all things. God is higher than all, more glorious, more great, more awesome. Second, God does what He pleases. This answer follows from God's place in the heavens. Since He inhabits the highest place, He gets to do whatever He wants, and His decision is final. No one can stop Him. His actions are His own prerogative and no one else's. So, we see that God's sovereignty is much broader than mere predestination and election. His sovereignty extends to all that He does.

"All that He does" includes bringing good or calamity upon people. Though God is perfectly good and just, He alone has the prerogative to either give gifts in His mercy or punish if He chooses, and in what way. This is not meant to suggest that God's actions are arbitrary or inconsistent. God is the definition of justice, and all of His actions emerge from His character in the perfect way. Rather, it suggests that God cannot be questioned for what He does. For instance, in Lamentations 3:37-39, we find the author, in the midst of exile in Babylon, expressing faith in the Lord because of His sovereignty. The author writes (NASB):

"Who is there who speaks and it comes to pass, Unless the Lord has commanded it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High That both adversity and good proceed?"

Here, the author of Lamentations is addressing a series of questions that arises from the exile. Had the Lord not promised good to Israel? Has the exile proved that God is too weak to protect Israel? Or are His actions simply arbitrary? The author's answer is a stern no. Israel had been provided with prophets in Isaiah and Jeremiah who had warned of coming punishment if Israel had not repented, and Israel did not repent. Therefore, if, in response to this stubbornness, God chooses to announce punishment, who can question Him? It is His choice alone what He does.

God's sovereignty is absolute. In light of it, mankind has no good reason to question His actions. This is as important for us today as it was for Israel in the midst of her suffering and punishment, since the events of the past raised theological questions. In the mind of the author of Lamentations, a robust understanding of God's sovereignty provided an answer to the questions raised by particular events in the past - and Israel's then-current suffering. That God's sovereign works extend to that which is good and that which is bad (i.e., suffering) is a good reason to trust in Him, not a reason to doubt Him.

The upshot of this very short presentation of God's sovereignty is that the Bible presents God's sovereignty as all-encompassing and exhaustive. Psalm 115:1-3 is very clear; God does as He pleases, and nothing can thwart His plans. Thus, we find in various biblical narratives affirmations of God's sovereignty in ways that can be shocking. For instance, consider Genesis 50:19-21, in which Joseph comforts his guilt-ridden, fearful brothers after the death of their father, Jacob. Years prior, Joseph's brothers had thrown him into a pit with the intent to murder him, but instead he had been captured and sold into slavery to an Egyptian official named Potiphar. Then, after an episode with Potiphar's wife, Joseph is falsely accused of adultery and imprisoned, but his God-given ability to interpret the Pharaoh's dreams lands him in the second-highest position in the land of Egypt. In this place of authority, Joseph could have taken revenge on his brothers for the wrong done to him, but instead he sees God's hand, even through the evil intentions and actions of his brothers. The text says (NASB):

"But Joseph said to them, 'Do not be afraid, for am I in God’s place? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to keep many people alive. So therefore, do not be afraid; I will provide for you and your little ones.' So he comforted them and spoke kindly to them."

Joseph, in a shocking twist, shows mercy to his brothers by indicating that the Lord had used their evil actions for His own purposes. Though what they intended was evil, what God intended was good. With this perspective in mind, Joseph recognizes the Lord's sovereignty, even asking whether He is in the Lord's place, suggesting that punishment is God's prerogative alone.

Another shocking affirmation comes from Acts 4:27-28. In the preceding verses, John and Peter had been arrested for preaching the gospel and taken before the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem. They testified to who Jesus is and are released. After meeting up with the other disciples, they prayed a prayer that Luke recorded. That prayer (verses 24-31) includes a statement of God's sovereignty over redemption history. The text says (NASB):

"'For truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Your hand and purpose predestined to occur.'"

This communal prayer of one of the first Christian congregations is significant and profound for many reasons. But for our sakes, this passage is important for understanding the exhaustiveness of God's sovereignty over historical events. It is so exhaustive that it extends even to the actions of Jesus' enemies in crucifying Him! What His enemies believed to be the overthrow of Jesus' plans was God's plan, so that salvation could come to mankind through Jesus' sacrificial death on the cross.

In both passages, we're told that God's purposes are fulfilled through the evil actions of those who oppose Him or His anointed One, Christ Jesus. As with the events of history that are not covered in Scripture, these passages occasion puzzling questions about God's will and how it extends to all of the events in history, including sinful events. As we've seen in the argument in the preceding section, God's will, it would seem, is the ultimate explanation why any event in the past occurred, suggesting that God wills these actions. Does this entail that God wills evil? If we extend this inquiry far enough into the past, we find that the ultimate explanation why the Fall took place is because it was God's will, suggesting that God is the author of evil. So, the conclusion of studying history, whether in or outside of Scripture, would seem to cast doubt on God's character. This problem needs to be answered.

In engaging in this inquiry, I'm painfully aware that I'm jumping headlong into very deep waters in two ways. First, the subject of inquiry (God) is transcendent and infinite. His nature is ultimately incomprehensibly great. The study of God, theology, is one in which we must be humble and admit that the limits of our intellects cannot fully understand the nature of God. The limitations of language suggest that there will always be a gap between human language and the greatest Being in existence. Because of this, we cannot let the result of an argument suggest to us that God is not good. The problem is our understanding and linguistic framing of the problem, not God. Also, I cannot assume that the forthcoming solution to this problem means that I understand or comprehend God's will perfectly (or even well). By suggesting this solution, I am simply exercising my mind to the best of my ability to uphold the goodness of God that I believe in by faith along with a rational understanding of His nature that is mediated to me via His special revelation in Scripture. Nonetheless, we'll always "see in a mirror dimly" on this side of glory (1 Corinthians 13:12 NASB).

Second, I'm also aware that these issues have been addressed in various ways throughout the history of the church and that any treatment of these issues pails in comparison with those such as Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Erasmus, Molina, etc. I'm deliberately trying to avoid certain infamous theological disputes in my treatment of this issue, but it would be wise for me to state from the outset that my solution to this problem is not consistent with Calvinism. An informed reader will find elements of what I'm about to say that conflict with Calvinism and are closer with someone like Molina, as I find Molinism to be a compelling way of reconciling God's sovereignty and human freedom. I say this because I also need to be humble in recognizing that I write as one who has benefitted from two thousand years of Christian reflection on these issues.

With all of that being said, how do we address God's interaction with history in a way that preserves God's goodness? Recall that our argument above concerning the exhaustiveness of God's will over all events suggests that any proposition of the following form is true:

  • God willed that E(-n).

Where E(-n) is any event in the past, including events such as the Holocaust. The truth of this proposition, which follows from the exhaustiveness of God's will (which we could say follows from God's sovereignty), is inconsistent with God's goodness, since it would involve God's willing evil to occur.

There are, it seems to me, only two ways of avoiding this unacceptable theological consequence. The first would be to downplay the exhaustiveness of God's will. Perhaps there are some actions that God doesn't will, or about which God is ambivalent. This solution is unacceptable to me because it seems to conflict with such strong biblical statements of God's sovereignty as the ones above as well as Isaiah 46:9-10. In this passage, God is calling those who deny Him to acknowledge that He is greater than all. That He alone is God can be seen in His sovereignty. The text says (NASB):

"'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, Declaring the end from the beginning, And from ancient times things which have not been done, Saying, ‘My plan will be established, And I will accomplish all My good pleasure.'"

The Lord is God because He alone works in all events at all times to establish His plans according to His "good pleasure." In light of texts like these, it seems that the Scriptures so strongly endorse God's exhaustive sovereignty that this solution is unacceptable theologically. Additionally, it is an ad hoc solution that is only raised to avoid the consequence of claiming that God's will is exhaustive.

The second solution is to clarify the sense in which we are to understand God's will. You might have noticed that, until now, I have refrained from defining God's will, and I have used it interchangeably with God's sovereignty, as if His sovereignty entails His will in some simple way. Because of this simplicity, the proposition that "God willed that E(-n)" seems problematic because it suggests that God willed my loving my parents in the same way as God willed the Holocaust. And that just doesn't (and shouldn't) sound right. This suggests that we've used the term "to will," when applied to God's will, too simplistically to be helpful. Perhaps, if that usage can be clarified, we can avoid the problematic conclusion that God willed evil actions in the past.

But it might be claimed that this solution is also ad hoc, that there's no reason to conceive of God's will in more nuanced terms other than to avoid theological conundrums. This is a fair objection that I want to answer. Let's address it first by considering a passage in which Scripture says that God does not will something. This passage is 2 Peter 3:9 (NASB):

"The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not willing for any to perish, but for all to come to repentance."

This is such a fascinating verse of Scripture to me because in it, Peter claims not only what God doesn't will but what He does will. In neither case is His will fulfilled. God doesn't will that any should perish, yet some do. God wills for all to come to repentance, yet not all do. In this case, what we have is a situation in which "God willed that E(-n)" includes the deaths of unsaved people in the past, suggesting that God willed what Scripture tells us He did not will. This is a contradiction. Likewise, in those past deaths, it seems that God's will was unaccomplished. What God wanted did not come to fruition. Some would argue that this suggests that God is ineffectual in accomplishing His will, another unacceptable consequence theologically.

Historically, one way of avoiding this problem is by positing a distinction between God's hidden will and revealed will, which Luther makes in his work against Erasmus, On the Bondage of the Will. This suggests that while God's revealed will is that all come to repentance, His hidden will is that some are condemned. Again, I find this solution unacceptable theologically. It suggests that God's revelation of His own intentions and desires are unreliable. We cannot trust that His statement of His will is literally true. At its worst, it seems to suggest that God is deceptive.

So, what we need, it seems to me, is a solution that maintains the trustworthiness of God's statements of His own will without suggesting that His will contradicts itself. The best solution seems to me to be to clarify what we mean when we refer to God's will in a particular situation. The problem is affirming the truth of these two statements without contradiction:

  • God's willing that E(-n) includes the condemnation of unsaved people who have died.

  • God wills that all come to repentance and be saved.

My suggestion for a solution is twofold. First, statements that a particular event in question occurs is God's will do not necessarily imply that His willing is causal. That God wills E(-n) doesn't entail that God caused E(-n). Second, some statements of God's will are not intended to be actualized. Consider the single young man who says (somewhat oddly), "It is my will that I get married." He's stating what he wants, but this may or may not take place. Similarly, a statement of God's will may be intended as a statement of what He would like to be the case, not of what He intends to be the case in a definitive sense. This sense of "will" would apply to 2 Peter 3:9, in which we're told that God is so loving, so merciful that He wants all to be saved, but this simply will not happen. Similarly, statements of God's will that are intended to express what He would like to be the case include His willing that certain good actions (e.g., loving one's neighbor) are done and that certain evil actions (e.g., murder) are not done.

What do we get from the combination of these two claims? First, not every statement of God's will can be understood in the same way. In some cases, His willing is followed by His causal action. He willed to create the universe; therefore, He created the universe. In other cases, His will may operate by permitting the action of others. Thus, we're told in Genesis 50:19-21 that He "willed" the evil actions of Joseph brothers, not in the sense that He caused them to happen, but in the sense that He allowed them to take place for a specific purpose later on. Second, universal statements of God's will do not contradict the fact that evil acts are committed or have been committed. Thus, there is no contradiction between the claims that "God doesn't will that sins are committed" and "sins have been committed." God might have allowed or permitted sins to occur for some morally-good purpose, but He doesn't desire or want sins to occur.

Therefore, it seems to me that to avoid the unacceptable theological consequences of God's exhaustive sovereignty and will, we need to clarify what we mean by referring to God's will. This doesn't get us quite out of the woods yet, for God's sovereignty also suggests what philosophers call contingency, that property of objects and events that means that they don't have to exist. Contingent events are events that could have gone another way, could have failed to occur altogether. God's sovereignty seems to suggest that He could have done things differently. We may be able to avoid God's willing E(-n) to occur by clarifying what we mean by "will," but if E(-n) involves human sin, why couldn't God have ensured that E(-n) had never taken place? This is a much more difficult problem, and it is to this problem that I now turn.

Third, the Christian metanarrative. To recap, I've now proposed a solution to one aspect of the problem of God's involvement in history by suggesting that we need to consider carefully the different senses of references to God's will in such a way that avoids the consequence of making God the author of sin or saying that He wills sin. This solution, if true, avoids the problem in the actual world, or the world as-is. But what of other states of affairs?

Recall that modality and modal statements have to do with what could, would, or must be the case. "Could" statements concern what's possibly true, or what other state of affairs might have obtained. "Would" statements concern what states of affairs obtain, given some antecedent state of affairs that is different from what actually is true. "Must" statements concern what's the case, no matter the specific state of affairs. (If you need a refresher, see the "Modality and God" section above.) God's sovereignty - His absolute rulership over all things and prerogative to due exactly as He pleases - suggests contingency. In other words, God could have done things differently. This question follows: if God could have done things differently from the way things are, why didn't He?

Let's put this a bit more precisely. In his seminal work, Naming and Necessity, Saul Kripke set out a theory of modal logic that involved a way of talking about modality called possible world semantics. Very simply, possible world semantics describes what I have called "states of affairs" as possible worlds, in which a single possible world stands for a total description of all of the propositions that are true in that world. If we were to list these propositions, what we'd get is a massive conjunction of propositions that are true in each world. The list of propositions that are, in fact, true compose the actual world (a term I've already used several times in this post). To illustrate this, let's assign three letters to propositions that could either be true or false:

  • A = "2+2=4"

  • B = "George Washington was the first president of the United States."

  • C = "Unicorns exist."

In this example, A simply stands for "2+2=4" or "it is the case that '2+2=4.'" A expresses the truth of that proposition. So on and so forth with B and C. If any of these propositions is false, then this is expressed with the "not" symbol in logic, or ¬. Therefore, if p is false (where p is any generic proposition), then this is expressed as ¬p. With the symbols clarified, let's posit three possible worlds, where a possible world is symbolized as W(x), and x stands for any number to differentiate that possible world from others:

  • W(1): A & ¬B & C...

  • W(2): A & B & ¬C...

  • W(3): A & ¬B & ¬C...

Notice that the ampersand (&) between each proposition underscores the fact that a possible world is composed of a massive conjunction of propositions that are true in that world. Also, notice that each description of the three worlds ends with an ellipses (…). This illustrates the fact that I have not described any of these worlds exhaustively, since to do would require an enormous conjunction of propositions. I've listed only three propositions in each world for the sake of the illustration.

For the sake of the illustration, let's assume that the actual world is W(2). This will make sense because each of the propositions I've listed for W(2) are true in the actual world. If we were to continue listing propositions in W(2), we would list all and only the propositions that are actually true.

Here are some other interesting things of which we should take note from this list. First, notice that A is true in all three possible worlds. Recall that A stands for "2+2=4." Since "2+2=4" is true mathematically, it could not be false in any possible world. In other words, A must be true (we could also say that A is necessarily true). If we were to list every possible world, we would never find ¬A. Second, notice that B and C are contingent. They could be true or false, depending on the possible world. Third, notice that B is a contingent historical claim. It is contingent in the sense that there are some possible worlds in which George Washington was not the first president of the United States (say, in possible worlds in which the United States of America was never founded, in which George Washington died in infancy, etc.).

All propositions about history are contingent in at least two ways. First, the truth of propositions about history are dependent on the truth of numerous other contingent propositions about history in ways that suggest that one couldn't find a proposition about history that must be true. (I'm fine with being proven wrong about that, but it makes sense to me.) Second, since God must first create in order for history to begin, and since His act of creation is (arguably) contingent, then all true propositions of history that follow from God's contingent, antecedent act of creation are likewise contingent. Therefore, there is no proposition of history that must be true, and that means that any of the events of history that involve evil and suffering could have gone differently.

Why is this a problem? It is a problem because, presumably, God could have actualized a world with less evil and suffering than the actual world. Imagine a possible world very similar to ours, except that the Holocaust never happened. (Very similar possible worlds to the actual world are often called "local" possible worlds.) That local possible world would be an example of a world in which there is less evil and suffering.

Until now, I've described possible worlds in somewhat normal terms, by which I mean in terms that are common among philosophers. Now, I'll turn to a more precise rendering of what we mean when we refer to the "amount" of evil and suffering in a world. Assuming that this concept is quantifiable in some way, let's assign S to stand for the amount of evil and suffering in the actual world. Thus, we find that:

  • W(2) = S

Or, "the amount of evil and suffering in the actual world is equal to S." (Remember that we've already said that W(2) is the actual world.) Now, imagine that we could know the amount of evil and suffering in other possible worlds and compare them with S in the actual world. What we might get is something like this:

  • W(4) = S+1

  • W(5) = S-1

In this case, we have two possible worlds that are similar in their amounts of evil and suffering, but not the same. (Just so we're clear, that the amount of evil and suffering in W(4) and W(5) are close to S doesn't imply that W(4) and W(5) are similar to W(2). They could be remote worlds from W(2), completely different from W(2), yet similar in terms of amount of evil and suffering.) W(4) contains slightly more evil and suffering than W(2), and W(5) contains slightly less evil and suffering than W(2). We can assume (for now) that God wouldn't have brought about W(4) because He knew that it would contain more evil and suffering than W(2). But why didn't He actualize W(5) instead? More troubling yet, why did God not choose alternatives to W(2) with much less evil and suffering than W(2), given that He has absolute sovereignty and can presumably whatever possible world He wants?

At its extreme, this problem casts doubt on why God created anything in the first place. Let's assume that God had instead decided not to create anything, opting for the eternal love relationships between the Persons of the Trinity without change. In this world - let's call it W(6) - no evil or suffering exists at all. Thus, we could symbolize this possible world in this way:

  • W(6) = 0

There is no reason to relate the amount of evil and suffering in W(6) to S because we know the value in W(6); there is no evil or suffering in that world.

One question that emerges from this problem is this: could God have created a world in which the free creatures He had created never freely chose to sin? If there are possible worlds like this, then they would be worlds in which God had created free creatures and in which the total amount of evil and suffering would be 0. One response to this question is that, perhaps, worlds in which God (1) creates free creatures and (2) those free creatures never freely choose to sin are not feasible for God. What is feasibility? Does feasibility limit God's power or sovereignty? I'd argue that it does not. Rather, to say that a possible world is not feasible for God is to say that, though possible worlds in which free creatures never freely choose to sin exist, it is actually the case that in every possible world in which God creates free creatures, they would freely choose to sin. Thus, a subset of possible worlds is unactualizable due to the free actions of creatures, and this result is a consequence of what's called "libertarian free will" (not to be confused with the political ideology).

Let's assume that possible worlds in which free creatures never freely choose to sin are not feasible for God. Thus, if God wants to create free creatures, He must account for the fact that, no matter the possible world, free creatures would freely sin. This is a possible explanation for why God didn't create a world in which free creatures freely choose to never sin, but it does not and cannot explain why God didn't refrain from creating at all. Or, why God didn't refrain from creating free creatures, though He might have created other objects and non-free creatures. Thus, while positing infeasible worlds might get us some way toward a good solution to the problem, it doesn't totally solve the problem. Now, we must account for why God chose to create in the first place.

Here, I think, is where the Christian metanarrative becomes relevant to our discussion. Assuming that we can quantify the amount of suffering and evil in a possible world, we've failed as of now to take into account the amount of good in a possible world. Let's assign the letter G to the amount of good in the actual world, such that now we can symbolize the amount of suffering and evil and good in the actual world as such (again, we've already said that the actual world is W(2)):

  • W(2) = S & G

Thus, W(2) contains a certain amount of evil and suffering as well as a certain amount of good. Notice that one way of addressing the problem of S in W(2) is to suggest that the following claim is true:

  • W(2) = S < G

The claim above is that, though the suffering and evil in the actual world may be great, the amount of good is nonetheless greater. This would suggest, along with our nuanced understanding of God's will, that God allows evil actions to take place for some greater moral purpose, such as we see in Genesis 50:19-21 in the case of Joseph. So, we might argue that S is justified by the greater value of G in the actual world. But one might object that G could have been brought about in a possible world with less suffering and evil. Is there not a possible world in which, say, S - 1 & G? Maybe, or maybe not. It's difficult to say either way, and at that point, I'm inclined to think that it's up to the objector to show that such a possible world exists. I'm doubtful that the objector could prove that one does.

Either way, we're still left at this point without an answer to this question: why would an omnibenevolent God have accepted any amount of evil and suffering, no matter the comparative value of good in that world? To answer this question, I'd argue hat we have to turn to G, not S. What is included in that measure of good in the actual world?

Consider the content of the gospel. We, as fallen creatures created for a loving relationship with God and each other, are undeserving of God's love, destined for divine judgment after eking out a miserable life in a world tainted by our existence. Our foolishness and sin have led us far from God, our one true source of ultimate goodness and joy, and we would rather hate Him in return than admit our prideful stupidity in rejecting Him. Yet He (contingently, I might add) decided to offer us the opportunity to be redeemed, forgiven, justified, saved by His grace by trusting in the work of His Son, the incarnate God, who voluntarily gave up His own life for ours and was raised from the dead to announce and guarantee the end of death and eternal life for those who are His. The evil and suffering the actual world highlights the sheer, indescribable magnitude of divine grace and love, capping off a story of human idiocy and pride with a redeemed mankind fulfilling his divinely appointed destiny by reigning with His Lord and King for eternity (see 12 Timothy 2:11-13). This display of love is the greatest of all time, the greatest of all possible worlds. Nothing else could come close.

In light of the supreme goodness of the Christian metanarrative, I'm willing to make several claims. First, the amount of good in a possible world in which this story is true is so great that the amount of suffering and evil in that world shrinks into insignificance in light of it. Thus, Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4:17-18 (NASB):

"For our momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal."

Second, the goodness in a possible world where this story is true is unachievable in a possible world in which God did not create. This means that if God wants to bring about this supreme good (as I believe He did), He must create in order to achieve that good. It also means that the amount of good in the possible world in which God chooses not to create is actually less than G, an initially implausible result until one considers the Christian metanarrative. Third, the goodness in a possible world where this story is true is unachievable in a possible world without free creatures who freely sin. This means that if God wants to bring about this supreme good, He must create free creatures whom He knew would freely sin. Thus, probably the most controversial claim that I will make in this post is that God created everything with the knowledge of and intention to bring about the fulfillment of the redemption story. He had the goodness of that kind of world in mind and created with it in mind. That may seem like a bold claim, but in this case it seems to me that reason is in alignment with divine revelation (e.g., 1 Corinthians 2:6-9).

We began this section with this question: why couldn't God have ensured that E(-n) had never taken place? The answer, I propose, is this: He could have ensured that E(-n) had never taken place, but He chose to actualize a world like this world (which involves a great amount of evil and suffering) because the amount of good which comes of the truth of the Christian metanarrative far outweighs (perhaps infinitely) the amount of evil and suffering we observe in the actual world. Thus, God's goodness is not impugned by S; it is far more exemplified by G.


At long last, we come to the end of what has become a very long and technical post! This one has been, by far, the most daunting to write. I could tell early on that it would be the most difficult part of this four-part post to write, given that I had to tackle a multifaceted set of complex issues and topics. I wanted to be sure to get as deep as I could into those issues and to walk you through every step of my argumentation until I came to my conclusions. I hope that the path is somewhat clear, and I especially hope that the content will be edifying for those who want to think seriously and deeply about these issues. I also hope, perhaps to spur on discussion, and I'd be happy to hear feedback and even pushback on some of my claims and argumentation. As we know from Proverbs 27:17 (NASB):

"As iron sharpens iron, So one person sharpens another."

I wouldn't dare claim to have definitely solved these problems, but I'd like to think that I gave it my best shot. For those who have read all the way to the end, I humbly thank you. You could spend your time doing anything else, and I trust that you've read through it all because you found it helpful in some way.

To recap, here are my conclusions from this lengthy discussion on the problem of God's involvement in history. First, God's exhaustive sovereignty over all events in the past does not impugn His goodness as long as we adopt a nuanced understanding of what it means to refer to God's will. Second, the fact that God could have created a world with less evil and suffering than the actual world does not impugn His goodness as long as we consider the fact that the amount of good in a possible world in which the Christian metanarrative is true far outweighs the amount of evil and suffering in that world. Thus, the so-called "problem" of God's involvement in history is only apparent; it is not real and should not cause Christians any doubt about His goodness or sovereignty.

That's it for Part 3 of this blog post! I hope that you have found this post intellectually and spiritually stimulating, as well as edifying, as you consider how Christians ought to interpret history through the lens of truth. This post will be long and, at times, technical, but my hope is that it can spur you on, as these issues have spurred me on, to a deeper and more sophisticated understanding of history and theology. If you're interested, stay tuned for the last post, in which I'll wrap up everything I've discussed so far! If you want to reach out, you can comment on this post or find me on Facebook. Alternatively, feel free to send me an email to the address on the homepage. Thanks for reading!

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