Thankyou Shawn for your insights and taking the time to discuss this question. Thinking about what hell is was a very useful addition to my thinking and definitely ties in with the idea of free will. If someone chooses to reject God then this is the logical place for them – a place separated from God.
My son who is 16 and is really questioning his faith is bringing up many hard questions that I know are debated even among theologians. I, myself first looked into these questions in relation to my own suffering and I began to understand more about who God is and how he operates in the world. Here is some attempt to present my thoughts and expand on what my son is asking.
One the one side – God’s Sovereignty and Election
My son is defining God’s sovereignty or “control” as being absolute. In respect to our salvation it is the idea that God chooses us we do not choose him. There are a number of verses that say that God is the instigator of our faith – he has predestined or chosen us “since before the creation of the world”.
Eph 1:4 For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will…
The whole of Romans 9 is very interesting on this point and I can’t see how we can argue against the fact that God’s purpose in election will stand. Paul even covers our objections in v 14 “is God unjust? Not at all! For he says to Moses ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” It does not therefore depend on man’s desire or effort but on God’s mercy.” And again in v 19 “…Then why does God still blame us for who resists His will?” To which Paul responds “Who are we to talk back to God? …”
And then the very confronting Verse 22
Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honourable use and another for dishonourable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction,*
Eph 2:1-10 says that we were dead in our sins and objects of his wrath but because of God’s love and mercy we were made alive with Christ - a gift from God.
I personally find it hard to accept some of these verses and my son has concluded that if all this is true then God may be omnipotent but he is not Good.
My son seems to have also concluded that we have no choice and people who are destined for Hell have no choice because there is nothing they can do if God does not choose them. (the very argument Paul anticipates) So because of God’s sovereignty we therefore effectively do not have free will.
One the other side – Our ability to choose – effectively Free Will
I usually think of the story of Joseph where we are shown the interplay of God’s sovereignty and man’s free will. Joseph tells his brothers - “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” Both God and man are shown to have intentions (will to choose) in the same event. The brothers chose evil but God intendedit for good.
Shawn this is where I am interested in your comments about God’s level of control and that we need to be careful we don’t make God the author of evil. In my example above of Joseph (or any other example – pharaoh, Judas, the Babalonians in Habakkuk…)- not sure if we can in any way gain insight into this but any thoughts on how God intends ( so authors?!) the evil actions but yet man not God is in fact held responsible for them?
This is the part that is a mystery because we cannot seem to reconcile how the two truths can be true. (Both God and man in some way intend the evil but with the added complexity that we can’t charge God with evil itself)
My view is we should not try to explain it away or rationalise it. If the word of God says it then it is true – even if it seems to be impossible for us – or goes against what we would like to think about God.
I attempt to understand this in a couple of ways;
- The idea of “concurrence” or “compatibilism” (D.A Carson). Two things that are true and can be supported by scripture but to our minds seems contradictory. God is both sovereign and yet we have the will to make choices. This is how DA Carson defines it;
The Bible as a whole and sometimes in specific texts teaches that both the following are true;
- God is absolutely sovereign, but his sovereignty never functions in such a way that human responsibility is curtailed or mitigated
- Human beings are morally responsible creatures – they significantly choose, rebel, obey, believe, defy, make decisions and so forth, and they are rightly held accountable for such actions; but this characteristic never functions so as to make God absolutely contingent.
I agree with you Shawn that this topic is so huge and for me it seems to jump from one question to the next. So although I don’t in any way understand how it works I agree that I am free to choose God and His ways or not and I will be held responsible for that choice. And at the same time as God is the one who reveals himself to me and has called me to himself. God wants us to love him and be in a relationship with him ( I think that is obvious from the old testament and God’s pursuit of his people and books like Hosea that show us how jealous God is for our love) but as Sawn pointed out we must be able to freely choose him or it is no longer love but like a robot only doing what it is instructed or compelled to do. That is not love or a relationship.
- Mystery - The fact that God is God and He is the Supreme being and we are His creation. There will inevitably be aspects of God Himself and his actions that we cannot understand.
I’m sure there are more ways to think about this. I don’t really know how to answer the thing that is really troubling my son – that a good God could allow or intend such suffering. I suppose faith comes into it as well - that we need to trust that God has a reason for it.