(Letter excerpt to Christian Apologist, Ravi Zacharias)
March 29, 2009
**********Dear Dr. Zacharias,
***Some time ago, I saw a youtube interview of you with D. James Kennedy, in which you stated that the most frequently asked question among university students was how God could be good if there was evil in the world. You gave an example of one such Harvard student who asked this question. And I agree with your answer—that the student was trying to disprove, not prove, God, yet could only pose the question hypocritically, since he had to assume moral law, a moral law Giver, etc., all at the expense of his own system. However, I hope you will consider one other thought, for it ultimately bears on the Christian apologist’s general approach to the skeptic.
***I believe it is possible, based on the decision that Christ faced at Gethsemane, that among the eternal, Divine Persons—The Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit—there could have existed (if history had proven differently) a both/and moral system, not one of either/or. [I use the phrase “among the eternal, Divine Persons,” rather than “with God,” because in the hypothetical case of moral division the Trinity would no longer be a unity in the moral sense [as normally granted and understood in the singular, corporate term “God.” Nevertheless, I hereafter use the term “God” with the assumption (argument following) that He has the possibility of becoming morally divided.] The point is an important one and goes directly to the question of whether in theory God can/could be divided against Himself morally. Arguably, at some level this may have been the sub-conscious question the student was asking you. For even Presbyterian pastor and radio minister, James Boice, facing terminal cancer some years ago, asked the same essential question when he told his congregation that while he certainly believed God was sovereign in his circumstances, he saw that one might nevertheless be tempted to question whether God was a good God.
***Essentially, I think that Christ also mulled over this same question in Gethsemane. That is, facing the baptism of His death, Jesus, in effect, asked Himself whether He would obey the Father so that the oneness of God would remain good. Indeed, this accounts for something of Jesus’ struggle in Gethsemane. And ultimately, it appears He took courage in knowing that the Father would remain true to His own self-sacrificial nature. “Could [the Son] not,” Jesus asked Peter rhetorically, “immediately be granted 12 legions of rescuing angels from His Father if He so asked Him?” I especially note here that Jesus had this confidence of the Father even at the expense of Scripture being fulfilled. That is, the Father would grant the request of Christ’s will even to such a point, not because the Father Himself desired it, but because the Father allowed the free will of the Son to such a point of effect.
***Now the point here about free will goes directly to the word ‘can’ in the New Testament. For a close study of the word ‘can’ in Greek (i.e., dunamai), finds that the verb (contrary to standard lexical assumption) can mean to will, and thus in contexts of the Will, means to power the will, i.e., to choose. For how else can we explain Christ’s other statement earlier in John’s gospel, when He says that He can (Gr. dunamai ) do nothing of Himself, except that which He sees the Father do (Jn. 5:19)? For, as stated, this would seem to contradict Christ’s statement in Gethsemane, when Christ implied that He could avoid death and thus do something which His Father did not show Him nor which the Spirit prophesied of Him*
***The answer, then, to what at first appears to be a contradiction between these two statements of Christ, is that Christ’s will was congruent with His Father’s will at the time Christ made the earlier statement, but undecided about His Father’s will at the beginning of his trial in Gethsemane, hence the Son’s prayer to the Father in the Garden, “Not my desire [Gr. thelo, defined in this particular appearance to be bare desire (apart from intention), as proven by the context], but thine be done.” (A careful observation of the lexical spectrum of thelo in the N.T. shows that the closest quid pro quo word in English is the verb want as used informally in English, which, depending on the context, either implies the presence OR the absence of intention.) In brief, desire and will are not the same things, despite what e.g., Reformed theologians claim, who use these terms synonymously, if slightly distinguished sequentially in regards to their ordo salutis (and thus irrationally). “Irrationally,” I say, because they do this by defining “regeneration” as desire changed prior to “rushing to Christ” instead of defining “regeneration” to be that instant of conversion—i.e., in which God bequeaths His Spirit to the one believing in Christ in the first indivisible instant of that belief. (which, pertaining to the future, the true believer wills to endure unto the ages). In other words, by extension, I am saying that the only basis upon which the Scripture can say that God cannot lie is at it relates to when the will of the Persons of the Godhead are the same. In short, God’s ‘cannot ’ (lie ) is not a question of sheer ability. To put the matter negatively and in human terms, how can a husband be a good husband if he will not to be a good husband? Or stated positively and in divine terms, how can God be an evil God if He will not be an evil God? In Gethsemane Christ thus shows that the whole matter of goodness ultimately lies in the sphere of the will alone (not desire). That is, He denied His greatest desire and chose to act in accordance with the Father’s desire. And this fact—of the sphere of the will alone being that which determines obedience or disobedience to the known, divine, moral law—brings us to the further question about how God could have been good in eternity past if He did not have the possibility of choosing evil. And the answer (far from the Reformed view that evil is merely privative in nature as having no ontological being), is that each Person within the Godhead has, in fact, always had that choice, but has never chosen to act selfishly in regards to the other Two Persons of the Godhead; nor has God changed His ideal that this selflessness within the Three Persons of the Godhead is good. Thus in this sense, God cannot lie, and He does not change. This is the proper understanding of the Trinity—that while the Divine Persons do not always enter conference with the same desires, they leave with the same decision. And thus we properly refer to the Divine Persons under the singular term “God,” and rightly call Him so.
***This fact of God’s eternal love and constancy gives me a newer appreciation for the question about evil asked of you at these universities. As students look at the evil world which so many (Reformed-leaning) Christian theologians nevertheless would tell them is God’s foreordained plan for HIS purposes (one thinks of Baudelaire’s statement, ‘If there is a God, He is the Devil’), they are, in effect, being told that God is the kind of God that God would have been had Christ NOT gone to the cross. That is, if Christ had been selfish and chosen NOT to die, then the Godhead would have been a morally indeterminate Being. And therefore in this world one would expect good and evil (as God has eternally defined these terms for Himself, and to which principles He properly subjects man to judgment) to be God-approved. If the contingent history of what Christ could have chosen had actually happened, God, of course, would have remained One in terms of His shared, eternal past and Creator-hood as Persons. That much, at least, could not change. But He would have ceased to exist as One being morally. In other words, if Christ had disobeyed the Father out of selfishness (and again, let us remember that the Bible demonstrates that such a choice by Christ of such a contingent history was indeed possible) God would have become a selfish/unselfish, i.e., a morally both/and God. And in such a case the definition of ‘moral law’ for God would be both/and, since the Persons of the Godhead would be morally divided. Put another way, moral law would cease to have any meaning as we now (rightfully) understand and know this moral law to mean and to de facto exist for God and for those of us who follow Him. But for any person outside God, he has become his own Lawgiver, as James says (though such persons are subject to God’s punishment because of it), and so I think we must be careful by using the term, “Absolutes,” since they are only universal in regards to divine judgment, not to all persons’ convictions.
***Now, understandably, a God who is claimed by so many Christian theologians to have ordained all events, including all the animus of human experience, confuses university students. As a man of letters, you will doubtless recall that this theological antinomy was a chief complaint of Deists in the 18th century, and remains so today of later skeptics. Possibly, some of these men from the Enlightenment might have even become defenders of the Christian faith, had not Calvinism, which they thought synonymous with (non-Catholic) biblical faith, impressed them as strikingly irrational. Instead, such skeptics [as Benjamin Franklin—in referring to Boyle’s lectures; Thomas Paine—in railing against the Calvinistic interpretation of Romans 9:18-21 (an interpretation he assumed was congruent with Pauline thought); Voltaire—in decrying against Leibniz’s Optimism, an ideology, in fact, identical to the ‘greater good theodicy’ of today's Reformed theology; and Freud—concluding his 2nd chapter in Civilization and Its Discontents, in which he states that the believer’s appeal to God’s ‘inscrutable decrees’ for the purpose of explaining evil is a detour the believer should avoid in the first place, since it is merely an appeal for an unconditional submission] all felt legitimate in walking away from the Bible. They did so because they believed, at least in part, even as in fact R.C. Sproul (in his own way) expressed the matter at the beginning of his book, Chosen By God, that there is NOT a satisfying answer to the problem of evil intelligible to the human mind. But, of course, there is an answer, for Christ stated in the gospel of Matthew that sins arise from man’s heart, i.e., from man ex nihilio (by which I mean without prior cause ). At any rate, the predominance of unbelievers linking Calvinistic principles synonymously with Christian doctrine has always confused students, both young and old. And this linking seems evident whenever students ask you that first question at major universities.
***Even 30-odd years ago, this very assumption—that Christianity was synonymous with Calvinism—was brought home personally to me with special force, when an SAT question asked me to identify the ‘paradox’ of Christianity. I refused to answer the multiple-choice question, since clearly the expected answer was ‘the [absolute] sovereignty of God and the free will of man.’ I realized then, as I do now (though sadly, not for an interim of years subsequent to attending a Reformed College), that the paradox is actually a contradiction of Calvinism, not a paradox of Christianity (as though the Christian faith were dialectical and therefore at odds with itself). And so I hold firmly to what you have implied often about the both/and system not being reality [though I might add that it is God’s reality and the reality of those who follow him (but not the reality, sadly, for those who have become their own Lawgivers and disbelieve God)]. Further, I am encouraged to continue my hope in God, for if ever there was a historical moment when God could have turned away from remaining morally One, it was when Christ was wrestling in Gethsemane; and since Christ was Victor there (in the most trying of circumstances), I may rest assured, as a Christian believer, that He shall remain faithful to me in the future.
***The tragedy, then, is that many past skeptics did not have this same hope because of what so many Christian theologians themselves have often taught about God. Even in our own generation certain influential, Christian apologists (e.g., John Piper) have turned aside to the fable that God exists in ‘self-centeredness’—a term he defines in such a way so that each Person within the Godhead does not have a self-sacrificial role in relation to the other Two Persons of the Godhead. Consequently, his false claim that God is selfish (again, generally expressed by Piper under the more winsome and diplomatic term, ‘self-centeredness’) continues to inform his apologetic while also sharpening the foil of the skeptic’s question: ‘Is God good, evil, or both?’ I do not know your exact position on this general matter of ‘paradox,’ and perhaps I am not even entitled to know; but I hope the histories of Franklin, Paine, et al. will be kept in all our minds in all our exchanges with skeptics who ask legitimate questions about evil. I have been a long-time admirer of you, and hope you share this feeling toward Christian apologetics. Perhaps what I am also expressing here is my real dismay, as I gallop toward the advancing age of 50, to find that only now have I truly become sympathetic to that first question of the skeptic. May we all, then, as Christian apologists, continue to see the legitimacy of questions about evil. And may we also feel ashamed of what excuses Christian theologians have betimes offered, instead of giving the earnest skeptic a full and truthful answer. More than any other public figure in Christian apologetics, it seems to me you have given the proper answer faithfully, and I thank you for that.
***Sincerely in our Savior, Jesus,
******cc: excerpt to www.xCalvinist.com
* (Jn. 5:19 in Gr.) “The Son powers [Himself] to do nothing of Himself unless what He may see the Father doing.” Moreover, though R.C. Sproul believes that “can” ought not to be confused with “may” (Sproul: “Who has not been corrected by a schoolteacher for confusing the words can and may?”), such insistence on the formal English distinction between “can” and “may” (versus the informal English use of “can,” which (to wit) can include “may,”) is not observed in the Greek verb dunamai. For example, when the Athenians asked Paul to share his thoughts, they said, “May (dunamai) we know…?” Substituting the word “can” for dunamai makes no sense here. Or are we to suppose that Sproul thinks the Athenians were asking Paul if they “can” know, i.e., have the mental capacity to understand an argument?!