Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Hezekiah and the Plans of God

"So...God actually changed his mind as a result of Hezekiah's prayer?"

That's what a friend of mine asked as we were discussing 2 Kings 20. I've written about this before, and it really is one of the most important passages in my understanding of prayer and how it interacts with God's plan.

So: Back to my friend's question. Did Hezekiah's prayer cause God to "change his mind"? During the initial conversation, I responded almost off-the-cuff, saying "I don't know if God necessarily had a mind to change." And after a lot of further reflection, I think that might just hold up.

I don't think it's correct to say that God planned for Hezekiah in particular to die from that particular illness at that particular time. I definitely think that God knew that Hezekiah would die with all those particulars. And I think that God had worked that event into his plans for the future. But I don't think that God planned the event itself: I don't think he designed it, or desired it to happen, or had so constructed the universe in such a way as to render it certain.

Instead, I think that Hezekiah was going to do of that particular illness, at that particular time, as a result of the natural laws that God put into place at the creation of the universe, and as a result of the free will of humanity interacting with those natural laws, and likely as a result of a bunch of other things that don't directly have to do with God explicitly planning that event.

I don't think that God "changed his mind" in healing Hezekiah. I don't think that in this particular situation, God had a mind to change. Hezekiah was going to die not because God planned it or caused it to happen, but because that's what happens in a fallen world where our bodies break down and fall prey to sickness and disease. It does not happen outside God's knowledge or control, but neither does it happen as a result of God's sovereign plan and active will.*

God's working and plan first becomes evident not in Hezekiah's disease, but in his response to Hezekiah's prayer. That is where God first takes action: That is where God steps into history and changes what is supposed to happen. He breaks the chain of natural cause-and-affect, and as a result, Hezekiah lives for another 15 years. And I actually think this is a pretty great way of understanding how our prayers can affect genuine change in the world: It's a time where God takes not just his own purposes into account, but also our own desires.

*Did God have a purpose in using Hezekiah's illness? Almost certainly - and in the same way, he also has a purpose in using our own illnesses and misfortunes. And sometimes, that purpose may be more active and deliberate, as is the case with Job. But I think it's wrong to say with certainty that any specific misfortune is "planned" by God....nothing happens without divine permission, but not all things happen by sovereign decree.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

A (Hopefully) Simple Explanation of Simple Foreknowledge

"If God knew that mankind would sin, why did he still create us? Why didn't he prevent it? Doesn't that mean that he wanted the sin to happen?"

Those are some of the questions I've heard concerning the origin of sin and God's role in it: The much-discussed Problem of Evil. Why did God still create us, when he knew we were going to sin?

There are a lot of different answers to that, of course...but one that I'd never heard of before a few months ago (and I'm guessing you never have either) is Simple Foreknowledge.

Here's SF in a nutshell: God only knew that humanity would sin, after he made the decision to create humanity.* Speaking of God knowing what humanity would do, before he decided to create humanity, is nonsensical...because before he decided to create us, there was nothing for him to know about us. We didn't exist in any way, not even potentially, and God doesn't have knowledge of non-existent things.

Let me put it another way: Asking if God knew we would sin, before he decided to create us, is like asking if God knows where the leprechaun's gold is. It's like asking if God knows the color of next Friday. It's a nonsense question: There's simply nothing for him to know.

God only knew what humanity would do after he decided to create us. And if that's a viable option (and it is), then it becomes a very useful idea. We no longer have to wonder if the mere fact of the fall means that God wanted it to happen all along; We no longer have to wonder if God chose to create us even knowing that we would all fall short of his glory. It means that God decided to create us, and then had foreknowledge of the Fall and everything else that comes with it.

There are a lot of places we could go from here, one of the most interesting being how this allows for a really cool picture of God looking through human history and preparing his amazing plan: Taking the history of a doomed race and turning it into a story of glory and love and redemption. But I wanted this to be a short and quick post, so I'll just say one more thing.

This post came into being because I was thinking about the role of sin in God's plan, and whether the Fall and Cross was, as I've heard asserted by some Christians, God's "Plan A." And there are a lot of ways to answer the question of whether God knew mankind would sin before he created us, and the order of all that, and the role that his foreknowledge plays in it, and a whole lot more. But if your answer ends up asserting that the Fall was Plan A, then you have answered it wrongly.

If you end up asserting that God never had a plan for unfallen humanity, and that everything that has happened thus far - from the Fall, to the Flood, to systematized slavery and genocide, to the World Wars and the Holocaust - is all going exactly according to God's original Plan A, then you have taken a wrong turn, and you need to try again. It's fine if your answer is "I don't know." It's fine if you can't fully articulate it (although I think it's one of those things where you should look into some possible answers). But there is at least one answer that I feel to be so wrong as to taint literally every other area of your knowledge of God, and that is it.

This is not Plan A. God wanted something so much better for us, and I think that it should be impossible to read through Genesis - to read the glories of Eden, the curses in Genesis 3, and God's grief and regret in Genesis 6 - and come to any other conclusion.

"Is [God] a beast that we can stop His path, or a leaf that we can twist His shape? Whatever you do, He will make good of it. But not the good He had prepared for you if you had obeyed Him. That is lost for ever. The first King and first Mother of our world did the forbidden thing, and He brought good of it in the end. But what they did was not good, and what they lost we have not seen. And there were some to whom no good came nor ever will come.”

CS Lewis, Perelandra

*Note that the language of "before" and "after" is very tricky to apply to an eternal God existing in eternity: This is best understood as a logical order, not a temporal order.

Addendum: I struggled for a while to overcome my immediate Devil's Advocate response to this: "Why couldn't God just perform some sort of divine thought experiment and arrive at a hypothetical universe identical to our own?"

But the answer is actually pretty simple: Because free will doesn't work like that. If free will were the type of thing that could be exactly predicted like that, it wouldn't be free will anymore. That would mean that it was 100% dictated by the cause-and-effect of history and environment, and that everything we do is the inevitable reaction to something else that happened to us. But if free will is really free, then it most definitely is not the kind of thing that can be predicted in a thought experiment. No: It has to be done for reals.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Sin is an Episode

"The atonement accomplished in Jesus Christ is God’s retort to the sin of man and its consequences. And the sin of man is an episode. It is the original of all episodes, the essence of everything that is unnecessary, disorderly, contrary to plan and purpose. It has not escaped the knowledge and control of God. But it is not a work of His creation and not a disposition of His providence.

It really comes about and is only as that which God did not will and does not will and never will will. It has its being only in the fact that it is non-being, that which from the point of view of God is unintelligible and intolerable. It takes place only as the powerful—but, of course, before God absolutely powerless—irruption of that which is not into the fulfilment of His will.

It takes place, therefore, only under the original, radical, definitive and therefore finally triumphant No of God. It is not a limitation of His positive will. Rather it exists as it is completely conditioned by His non-will. It is alive and active in all its fearfulness only on the left hand of God.

But the atonement accomplished in Jesus Christ, like creation and the providential rule of God, is a work on the right hand of God, a work of His positive will. It is so in the highest possible sense, in a way which gives it priority and precedence over creation and providence. In Jesus Christ God comes to grips with that episode. Jesus Christ is in fact God’s retort to the sin of man."

Karl Barth, The Way of the Son of God into the Far Country

When I read these words for the first time, years ago in my Trinitarian meta-torrey with Dr. Sanders, a shiver ran down my spine. I thought I had never before read such a clear accounting of the origin and being of evil, and its relation to the will of God and his Providence.

I still think that.

Let's break it down a bit:

Barth calls the sin of man "an episode." There are several potential definitions for this, but I think the most likely is "an incident or period considered in isolation." That is, an event that is not continuous with the events before or after it. And indeed, Barth explains it further in his next sentence:

  • Sin is "unnecessary": It is not needed or required - specifically, not needed or required by God's plan or providence. 
  • Sin is "disorderly": It goes against God's order, and is indeed the essence of disorderliness. 
  • Sin is "contrary to plan and purpose." This is the clearest statement so far. Barth directly states that sin goes against ANY plan or purpose of God's
Finally, he clarifies and summarizes exactly what he means:

"It has not escaped the knowledge and control of God" .Sin is NOT something that exists outside the knowledge and control of God. God is not confounded or befuddled by sin. He is not left helpless by it, and he is not powerless against it. He knows it, and he is in control over it.


"It is not a work of His creation and not a disposition of His providence." This is the point of the entire paragraph. Here, Barth seems to reject, in the strongest possible manner, the idea of felix culpa,, "Happy Fault," the idea that God uses evil to accomplish greater good than would have been possible without the evil.

Note the "greater", because it's important. God can clearly use evil for good, and in fact we see that idea throughout the entire Bible. But there is a HUGE difference between that, and the idea that there is a GREATER level of good that requires evil in order to be actualized.

This is what Barth is fighting against. And that is why he says, over and over again, that evil, in and of itself, is disorderly, contrary to plan and purpose, and unnecessary.

His language grows stronger: "It really comes about and is only as that which God did not will and does not will and never will will."

Sin is something that God did not desire or cause to exist; It is something that God does not will or desire or cause to exist: And it is something that God never will desire or cause to exist. In the strongest possible language, he lays it down that sin is something that exists entirely outside the active will of God. Instead, sin exists "as the powerful—but, of course, before God absolutely powerless—irruption of that which is not into the fulfilment of His will", and ultimately "under the original, radical, definitive and therefore finally triumphant No of God."

In other words, sin is a temporary disruption of God's plan, existing only in so far as God does not actively destroy it...which he eventually will, as he "comes to grips with that episode" in Jesus Christ.

So... why is this important?

Because it makes a huge difference whether God allows sin to happen, or causes it to happen.

Because it makes a huge difference whether the ultimate cause of sin lies in the sinner, or in God's will and providence. 

And ultimately, because it makes a huge difference in whether sin can rightly be regarded as an enemy.