When Free Will Meets Unfathomable Evil
In the face of tragedy Christians unfortunately tend to recite clichés that attempt to reassure people that, however terrible things seem, everything is unfolding according to God’s mysterious plan. We hear that “God has his reasons”; “God’s ways are not our ways”; “God is still on his throne”; “God doesn’t make mistakes,” and things of this sort. These clichés all reflect what I’ve elsewhere called the “Blueprint Worldview” (see Is God to Blame? and God at War). If this perspective is expressed by a parent whose child has recently been murdered, I would not dream of challenging it. There’s a time and place for everything, and the ministry policy that has served me well for the last thirty years is that whoever is in the grip of a nightmare gets to choose the theology that helps them survive the nightmare.
At the same time, given how pervasive the Blueprint clichés are, and given how often this perspective sooner or later damages people’s relationship with God, it’s encouraging to hear a person express a more coherent and more biblical perspective while in the grips of a nightmare. Robbie Parker is such a person. He is the father of Emilie, one of the precious children murdered last week in Newtown, CT. During the course of an interview with a crowd of reporters, he was asked if he was mad at God for not intervening to prevent the murder of his daughter. He responded by saying this:
Mr. Parker reflects the awareness that the question of why God didn’t intervene is not a question about how powerful God is, as it is usually misconstrued. It’s rather a question of what kind of world God decided to create. If God wants a world in which agents are capable of genuine love, it must be a world in which agents possess the free will to choose love or its opposite, for a coerced “love” isn’t a genuine love. And God can’t – not simply won’t – intervene to revoke this free agent’s ability to choose evil, not because God lacks the power to do so, but because if he were to do so, it would simply reveal that God hadn’t really given this agent the free will to choose love or its opposite. In other words, for God to give free will to an agent means the agent has the capacity to chose love or its opposite, which means that free will must be, by definition, irrevocable.
Having this perspective of course doesn’t alleviate the nightmarish pain that Robbie must endure as a result of his beautiful daughter’s untimely death. But it does mean that his pain at least won’t be compounded by the thought that this demonic nightmare was somehow part of God’s plan from the start. Robbie can continue to trust that God in his infinite wisdom has a plan to bring good out of this tragedy, for the infinitely wise God has been anticipating and preparing for this and every other possibility from the foundation of the world, in case this possibility were to unfortunately be actualized. But Robbie can have this confidence without needing to suspect, even for a moment, that God is to blame for the fact that this possibility ended up being actualized. The responsibility for this falls completely on the choices of agents other than God, both human and angelic, beginning with Adam Lanza (and no doubt Satan) in this case.
Every good and perfect gift comes from God (Ja.1:17). To the extent that anything is falls short of this, we can be assured that it comes from some other source.