I often listen to podcasts in the morning as I shave, shower, brush my teeth and get ready for work. Today I was listening to Dr. William Lane Craig respond to some questions about free will and suffering, and his comments prompt this blog piece.
He made the following statement
“Natural suffering forms the arena in which the drama is played out of people being freely called to come into the kingdom of God and find an eternal relationship with God. It is not at all improbable that only in a world infused with natural suffering would an optimal number of people freely respond to God’s gracious initiatives and come to enjoy a relationship with God and eternal salvation.”
Dr. Craig represents the Molinist view of the tension between God’s sovereignty, knowledge and power and man’s free will. On the Molinist view, God knows the future, but he does not determine it. Knowing the future, God chose to set the universe in motion, but he does not determine every aspect of it, including the choices that people make.
Knowing the future, God chose to set the universe in motion, and to that extent, He determines the outcome, because He knows the outcome. He does not determine it, however, to the extent of interfering with the free will He gave humans who are created in His image.
The fact that he knows the outcome, does not mean that He determines the choices each person makes. Each person is free to choose as they will, but God knows how they will choose from the beginning, and so He can be said to have willed it.
This is (my simple version of) the Molinist view. It respects God’s sovereignty, while acknowledging the clear implication of free will and moral responsibility to which God holds us that is reflected from beginning to end in the Bible.
I tend to like the Molinist view, but I am always somewhat cautioned in my own thinking not to be overly concerned with doctrinal nuances on matters that are, frankly, beyond us. I don’t want to die on a Molinist hill, or any other hill than the Gospel.
The Calvinist resurgence in the church today stands in contrast to a more Armenian view of inviolate free will. Many have been the discussions and debates between these two views. I fear we spend too much time and energy on debating when we should spend more time living out the Gospel. I think Paul might lump these debates in the category of vain discussions.
Still, I think it is good to chew on these things as they may be beneficial to our knowledge and understanding of God. As I thought about Dr. Craig’s comment above, I could not help think that this is a kind of divine utilitarianism – what is optimal for generating the most free will responses of love for, relationship with God, and eternal life with God.
Dr. Craig’s thesis is an attempt to explain why suffering exists in the world when God is supposed to be good, all-powerful and sovereign. Why doesn’t God stop suffering if He is all those things? Why does he allow suffering at all?
The answer, according to Dr Craig and many others, is that He created man with free will, and He did that for a purpose. He made us with the capacity to love God of our own choosing, freely and without compulsion. This world in which suffering exists is the best vehicle to accomplish the end goal of allowing a loving relationship with the most people – free will being a necessary component of a love relationship.
I do tend to agree with this explanation of the necessity for free will. This has made sense to me since I first read CS Lewis in college, but many people struggle with the idea of suffering and evil. Even people like Albert Einstein.
In Dr. Craig’s response to the question, he pointed out the emotional nature of the question: people have a problem with the idea that a good and loving God would allow suffering. The reaction implies that I would not allow suffering if I were God; so why does God allow suffering?
Of course, I am not God! I don’t know what He knows. I can’t see what He sees, sweeping from before time far out into the future.
I am not a theologian, though I do find theology interesting, as long as it is enlightening and helps in understanding God. I tend to be more like CS Lewis who focused on “mere Christianity” or like Paul who says he aimed to know only Christ and him crucified. I always try to come back to the Gospel.
Though we may have logical explanations, we can’t ignore the emotional component of the question of suffering. It is a real problem for many people. Dr. Craig’s answer is hyper-logical. He is a philosopher. That is to be expected. Divine utilitarianism may satisfy the logic, but it leaves the heart empty and unfulfilled.
We need to love God with our hearts and souls in addition to our minds.
And so, it occurs to me that there is an answer that is more emotionally satisfying. The answer is Jesus.
God became one of us. He divested himself of all of his power and glory and privilege and became a human being, experiencing human emotions and frailties. He subjected Himself not only to the natural “evils” that exist in the universe, but to human evil – even to the point of dying on a cross at the hands of His own creation. He did these things in a grand demonstration of His love and care for us.
What I come back to is this: We can trust that kind of a God. Jesus is the emotionally satisfying answer because, through Jesus, we know that God understands. He identifies with us. He was willing to experience what we experience, and He didn’t hold anything back.
But it’s not just the fact that God experienced suffering. He rose from the dead in the flesh, and that gives us hope. Not only can we know that He loves us, we know that He understands us, and we know that He provides for us a real hope of eternal life in relationship with Him. He offers us eternal salvation, and He has shown that He can deliver what He has promised.
God offers us eternal fulfillment in place of all the fragmented and shattered dreams and hopes that we experience in this life. He offers eternal life in place of this temporal life, and the suffering we experience here helps us make the better choice.
The better choice is God, of course, and eternal life.
If we were comfortable and content in this life, albeit that contentment is temporal, we might be strongly tempted to embrace it and forgo anything else. In fact, many of us choose the temporary fulfillment we can find in the dust of the earth rather than wait for that which no eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined (what God has prepared for those who love Him). Even in this very imperfect life in which suffering and evil exists, people still choose this life over the next.
Temporary pleasures or eternal relationship with our Creator? That is the choice.
Natural evils, suffering unfulfilled desires, disappointments, difficulties, frustrations – these things help us to make a more eternal decision.
“For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” (Romans 8:20-23)