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Culture Q&A

John Peckham

Trusting God’s purposes

Theologian John Peckham on God’s sovereignty, evil, and free will

Trusting God’s purposes

John Peckham (Patrick Henry College)

The Nov. 9 issue of WORLD includes editor in chief Marvin Olasky’s Q&A with John Peckham, the author of Theodicy of Love and professor of theology and Christian philosophy at Andrews University, discussing God’s goodness and the problem of evil. Here are more edited excerpts from that conversation, including questions from Patrick Henry College students.

In Revelation 21, Scripture speaks about the end of sin and suffering and the perfect environment in Christ’s kingdom. But if God considers free will necessary for some good, and if free will exists in eternity, can we be confident that no second Fall will occur after Judgment Day? The Bible teaches that God knows the end from the beginning. He talks about wiping away every tear, creating everything new, and ending evil and sin. Based on God’s foreknowledge, we can be confident that rebellion will not arise again.

We can also be confident of this because of what we know about God’s character. In Christ, God demonstrates His righteousness and love by becoming both the just and the justifier. His death manifests supreme love and goodness, proving that He is a trustworthy God who has legally defeated the allegations of the enemy. Many Biblical scholars think that the picture of Satan’s expulsion from heaven in Revelation 12 is an account of what happened when Christ died, illustrating that Jesus won the victory both legally and morally and excommunicated Satan from the heavenly council. God’s irrefutable demonstration of His own character might inoculate the universe from another rebellion.

It’s a demonstration for the whole universe. Alvin Plantinga says that a world in which there is an atonement and resurrection is better than a world with no such thing. In order for atonement to be something worth doing, some evil must exist. Right. But say the only thing we knew about God was that He willingly went to the cross to save us: That would still be enough to trust that He has our best interest in mind.

Everything that happens, including evil, is under God’s control. But how do we know when it’s God’s will for us to allow certain evils and when it’s His will to oppose them? If we make the claim that God doesn’t prevent certain evils because He’s using them to bring about a greater good, we risk falling into the trap Paul warns about: the danger of excusing our own evil acts as a means of bringing about more good.

We can avoid this by distinguishing between God’s ideal will and His remedial will. God’s ideal will is what would happen if every creature always freely obeyed God. He uses His remedial will to remedy situations brought about by the bad decisions of creatures. Even though it might have been better if horrendous evils had never occurred at all, God might still be able to bring good out of them.

Like Job, all of us need to be humble and recognize that even our best answers are only going to be partial answers.

God doesn’t need or want bad things to happen in order to bring about a greater good. More likely, God has commitments that keep Him from preventing certain evils. Doing so might contravene the freedom God has given His creatures, go against His rules of engagement, or lead to worse outcomes. But that doesn’t mean that it’s better for us not to stop it. We should strive for goodness, justice, and mercy, and the Bible shows us what those look like.

I’m intrigued by the idea that Satan’s rebellion is not a military uprising but a challenge to God’s character. Does this imply that the devil thinks he would be a better and more righteous God? Yes, that seems to be one of his claims. In his temptation of Christ in Matthew 4 and Luke 4, Satan offers Christ all the kingdoms of the world in exchange for worship. He effectively offers Christ an escape route from the cross: “I’ll give You this entire world that You’re coming to save if You bow down to me.” All throughout Scripture, he’s trying to take God’s place. Since he cannot rise to the level of God, he does it by trying to knock God down. That’s why he consistently slanders and undermines God’s moral government.

If all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, then why isn’t God’s just punishment a sufficient explanation for suffering? How do you respond to the Scripture verses that show God allowing evil as a way to exercise justice? Scripture offers instances of divine punishment, but punishment cannot explain all suffering in the world because even one instance of undeserved suffering would require a different defense. You’d need an account for why the innocent suffer. Of course, no one is innocent in a broad sense of moral depravity, but many people suffer for things they don’t deserve, and it’s hard to explain why.

According to another kind of theodicy called “skeptical theism,” the fact that we don’t find explanations for evil compelling is not a good reason to reject the existence of God. We’re mere humans, God is God, and we shouldn’t expect to be in a position to understand the reasons behind everything God does or doesn’t do. God might have reasons that we don’t know about, and that might be a sufficient defense. In His response to Job, God says, “Why do you talk so much when you know so little?” Like Job, all of us need to be humble and recognize that even our best answers are only going to be partial answers.

How many limitations can be placed on us before we don’t have free will anymore? Great question. Many philosophers distinguish between the internal ability to make free decisions and the external ability to bring those decisions about. Even if you don’t have the ability to exercise your agency, you still have free will as long as you have the internal ability to make decisions. According to what we know of God’s design and purposes, God gives us enough freedom to have love relationships and to flourish maximally in a perfect world. He doesn’t change those limits, and He promises to grant that much freedom consistently.

Read Part 1 of this Q&A here.