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“How can God let this happen?” That is a comment we often hear as people are afflicted with pain of all kinds from the pandemic. This is an ancient question going back to the book of Job in the Bible. It has become a faith problem because some theologians have taken a determinist view of God. J. Grant Howard has been a frequent writer supporting this view. He wrote:
God has a predetermined plan for every life. It is that which will happen. It is inevitable, unconditional, immutable, irresistible, comprehensive, and purposeful. It is also, for the most part, unpredictable. It includes everything — even sin and suffering. It involves everything — even human responsibility and human decisions. God does it all on his own. He does not react to situations; He creates them. Everything that happens, happens within the predetermined will of God … your career, marriage partner, home location, grades in school, friends, sicknesses, accidents, honors, travels, income, retirement, etc., are all part of God's determined will, but are not revealed to you ahead of time.
(J. Grant Howard, Knowing God's Will and Doing It, page 19)
The determinist view is wrong. It turns humans into robots and makes us incapable of love, which can only exist if we have a choice to love. It violates the whole purpose of human existence, involving the battle between good and evil. The determinist view gives an excellent argument to those who say that all of the evil in the world disproves the existence of a loving and kind God. The fact that many Christians hold to a determinist view is partly responsible for much of the growth of atheism today.
The Bible presents three different ways in which God's will exists.
- God's will according to God's desire and God's decision.
- God's will according to God's desire and human decisions.
- God's will according to human decisions and God's permission.
GOD'S DESIRE AND GOD'S DECISION
(Ephesians 1:1-11; 1 Corinthians 12:4-6)
Some things like the end of the world and judgment will happen. They are set in stone, and God will make them happen. Those things are relatively few and far between, and h umans as a group will have no choice in the matter. But God has always given individuals the right to serve or reject him.
GOD'S DESIRE AND HUMAN DECISIONS
(Genesis 2:24 and Mark 10:5-9; Romans 14:1-3, 5-7; Matthew 23:37)
God instituted marriage as one man and one woman. That was God's desire, but humans decided to violate God's desire. According to Jesus, it was because of the hardness of their hearts (Mark 10:5), and polygamy resulted. Polygamy does not work, and it violates women, but it was not God's desire.
God gave us a day to participate in corporate worship, but people have added other special days like Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter, and others that God did not command but allowed (see Romans 14:5-7). In Matthew 23:37, we see Jesus crying out at the violence and sin of Jerusalem and telling them he wanted to save them, but they were not willing.
HUMAN DECISIONS AND GOD'S PERMISSION
The Bible gives many examples of this, both good and bad, along with the consequences. Israel's desire to have a king is the classic example. Anna decided to be a temple widow until she was 84 years old after seven years of marriage rather than doing the customary Jewish ritual of bearing a child by her husband's brother (Luke 2:36-38). Lydia decided to open her house to the church in Thyatira (Acts 16:40). Sometimes God turns the bad choices of humans into a blessing, as we see in Genesis 45:4-10 with Joseph and his brothers.
Determinists oversimplify how God acts in the affairs of humans. Every evil thing that happens takes place because of human decisions. God gives us the best way to live and warns us of the consequences of our choices if we oppose his instructions. Acts 14:16 (NASB1995) tells us that, “In generations gone by He permitted all the nations to go their own ways.” That happens still today, but the consequences of going our own way have brought pain and suffering to the world.
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Scripture links/references are from BibleGateway.com. Unhighlighted scriptures can be looked up at their website.