It’s been brought to my attention that some of my recent posts haven’t been totally clear. In particular, two posts are kind of unresolved: (1) ‘providence and the absurdity of evil’, and (2) ‘is God conflicted?’.
Now, I could get all high minded and insist that the fuzziness, ‘unfinishedness’ and provisionality of these posts is simply a result of the genre of blogging. It’s not meant to be all stitched up and neatly settled. What’s more I am quite deliberately trying to leave the door open for collaboration (and correction). I don’t pretend to have the final, authoritative perspective on the topics I turn my attention to.
I could say all that… But looking back over them, those two posts are in fact not just a little ragged around the edges — they’re flapping wildly in the breeze. So, to try and strike a blow for clarity, I want to have a go at tying down some of the loose ends. And, significantly, I think it’s only in relation to each other that I can achieve this…To begin with, I think I totally forgot to spell out what I meant by the ‘absurdity of evil’ in my post on God’s providence. I want to speak of evil as absurd because I want to hold on to three things:
- The undisputed sovereignty of God
- The undiluted goodness of God
- The undeniable existence of evil (I understand evil to be whatever is opposed to God’s good and sovereign will)
As much as we may need to be careful not simply to call everything that’s unpleasant or uncomfortable in our experience of life evil — unless we want to label as evil things falling into the categories either of ‘discipline’ (exercise, disciplining a child, not indulging our every whim) or of ‘justice’ (both distributive and retributive justice often entail some discomfort for some) — I think it’s hard to avoid regarding something like human sin as evil. In our pride and ingratitude we attempt to live as god of our own lives, defying or simply ignoring the One who is our rightful and loving ruler. That’s evil.
And it’s absurd because in a world where God does not cease to be God — he remains both sovereign and totally good — this evil rebellion still unfolds. It doesn’t fit, it doesn’t belong, it has no future (unless you call everlasting wrath a future). But it’s here. Mysteriously. Inexplicably. In a way that resists being integrated alongside good within some kind of cosmic harmony in which good and evil both find their place, even acquiring some kind of beauty like carefully applied strokes of a master artist’s brush.
Of course, none of this is to say that God can’t — or doesn’t — bring good out of evil. The Bible insists that he does often enough. But it is to say that when he does so, he doesn’t render it somehow less evil, less criminal, less non-sensical. The cross is still a profound tragedy, a travesty of justice for which the powers and authorities are justly blamed — the fact that God used (and even planned) it for good notwithstanding. In his great love, God redeems the world and us from sin and evil, triumphing over it, frustrating it and turning it on its head — and supremely so at that moment where it thinks to have achieved its greatest victory, with Jesus nailed to the cross.
All of which brings us — on an admittedly circular root — to the loose ends of my other post, ‘is God conflicted?’ The problem there is that I seem not to have answered the question with which I began: Does God hate the sin but love the sinner?
While it’s right to emphasise the tremendous personal cost borne by the holy God as he lovingly draw us into fellowship with himself in Christ, it’s worth being clear about what this does not mean:
- God does not love us because he has redeemed us. Rather, he redeems us because he loves us. It does costs God — massively — to redeem and sanctify sinners to share in his own holy life and fellowship. But it was his plan and settled intention to do so. It didn’t sneak up on him so that he ends up saying, ‘Oh, all right! You’ve been purchased by Jesus’ blood. I guess I have to love you then.’
- This means that it’s not that Jesus loves us while the Father is angry at us, as though the two were at loggerheads. That’s just not how the New Testament talks. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are perfectly united in the work of redemption. It is the one action of the one Triune God, motivated by love to redeem and sanctify a people for himself.
- Thus, God does not love us through gritted teeth — it’s really not quite right to speak about God loving us and hating us at the same time. Love is essential to God’s being. ‘God is love’, John tells us. In the purity of shared joy and delight in the fellowship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, love goes all the way down. Wrath, by way of contrast, only flares up where his holiness comes into contact with sin and evil.
- What’s more, we’re actually intended for fellowship with God. We’re designed to be freely and graciously included in and embraced by the love shared by Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Not because he owes it to us or because we’re somehow worthy. But because (if I may speak this way) he owes it to himself. It is in character for God to love us like this, whereas judgement is his ‘strange work’.
This then is how my thinking about the absurdity of evil and the love of God dovetail with each other. Both are two different angles on the one reality: God’s sovereign intention is for us his creatures to share in perfect fellowship with him, adopted as children of the Father and sanctified in Christ by the Holy Spirit.
That’s what the cross proclaims once and for all — the Father didn’t even withhold his own son for our sake for crying out loud (Rom 8.32)! What’s more, that was always the plan. That’s what expresses God’s heart most truly and faithfully. That’s where he wins the decisive victory over sin, death evil (and the evil one, the ‘strong man’ who’s bound us). That’s where his holy love, his sovereignty and goodness are vindicated. God loves us and bears the cost of that love in himself.
And that’s what we were made for. To share in that. Thus to fall out of that, to find ourselves at odds with that as we take upon ourselves God’s own role as ruler and arbiter of life, is to place ourselves in a position of absurdity, at odds with ourselves. It’s to entangle ourselves with the absurdity of evil — the sin and injustice and violence which God hates, and to which he is unswervingly opposed. such that the wrath of God remains on us (John 3.36).