In the last essay we discussed the problem of evil. A subject that is closely tied to the problem of evil is that of the will of God. When tragedy strikes, people often blame God, because as we discussed last time, they cannot understand why God, who is all powerful, does such terrible things, or why he allows them. In the previous essay we saw that God does not cause evil events to happen. However, he does allow them to happen.
We noted that most evil results from consequences of the freedom of will that God has given humans and angels, including Satan and his fellow-fallen demons. The freely-made decisions of these higher creatures of God interact with God’s natural laws creating millions of contingent events (events that may happen, but not necessarily). God normally does not interfere with the consequences of this multitude of free decisions. Thus the real mystery of the problem of evil is not why God does not interfere with these consequences. Rather it is why God occasionally does choose to interfere.
The best treatment of the matter of the will of God of which I am aware, is a little book published by Leslie Weatherhead, pastor at City Temple in London during World War II. London suffered terribly during the war, especially during the so-called “blitz” in 1940. Nearly every family in England had suffered loss of property and or family members. Therefore many were asking questions about the will of God in all of that suffering.
So Weatherhead preached a series of sermons on the will of God that later was published under the title, The Will of God. In that book Weatherhead speaks of the will of God in three ways, namely, the intentional will of God, the circumstantial will of God, and the ultimate will of God.
First, there is the intentional will of God. It is that which God intends for us, but which is subject to change by other factors such as the free will of individuals, including the evil one. For example, it is God’s intentional will that all human beings be holy, that is, free from sin. But God has given us a free will, and you and I may sin if we choose to.
Second, there is the circumstantial will of God. If and when we do choose to sin, it becomes God’s circumstantial will that we be sinners. God did not intend for us to be sinners; but under the circumstances of our free will combined with a temptation to which we yielded, God permitted us to sin. Thus being sinners is God’s circumstantial, or permissive, will for us.
To take another kind of example, should a little toddler fall out of a third-story window and be crushed to death on the pavement below, that would not be God’s intentional will for the child. That would be God’s circumstantial will for it. God intends all children to live long and happy lives. But under the circumstances of God’s law of gravity, the fact that little children were created by God to be flesh and blood rather than rubber, and the circumstances that caused the child to fall out of the window, the child is crushed on the pavement. If God does not miraculously interfere, and normally he does not, then the child’s unfortunate death becomes God’s circumstantial (or permissive) will for the child.
So then, if the child’s mother asks her pastor if this death was God’s will, she naturally would be asking if God somehow caused it to happen. The pastor truthfully can reply that it was not God’s will in that sense, because God did not intend that the tragedy to occur. On the other hand the terrible event would have been God’s circumstantial or permissive will, because he permitted it to happen under the given circumstances.
Let’s look at another, similar example of a toddler that actually happened. This event took place in Philadelphia, PA. The following account was published in the Lexington Herald Leader on December 11, 1995.
A man turned a street corner, looked up, and made a life-saving catch—a toddler who had crawled out of a third-floor window.
It was all marble steps beneath the window. “I can’t imagine what would have happened to him,” said Michael Springer, who caught 17-month old Dante Barkley on Saturday.
Dante was examined at a hospital and doctors said there wasn’t a mark on him.
Police said the child climbed from a bed out the open, unscreened window. His parents were home but each thought the other was watching the baby.
Thus we see two very similar situations with radically different outcomes. Both were set up by free choices that may even have included some neglect of the children involved. In the first case, God obviously followed his usual practice of not intervening. We might ask if God miraculously interfered in the second. It is possible, but unlikely. God normally does not interfere with the freedom he has given his higher creatures even if they exercise that freedom for evil.
This brings us to the third aspect of God’s will, his ultimate will. The ultimate will of God refers to the fact that God’s final purposes shall be realized. Nothing can keep that from happening.
For example, I can because of my free will, cause myself to miss out on the kingdom of God. But I cannot keep the kingdom of God from coming into existence. That is part of the ultimate will of God, and it shall be done.
I can, if I choose, throw a small helpless child out of a third story window and murder it. But I cannot keep God from redeeming that child for his purposes. God’s final purposes, his ultimate will, shall be done.
A final note that we Christians must remember is the suffering of God. Though God has permitted evil and its attendant sin and suffering to enter into the life of humanity, he also has acted to redeem the situation.
Though God honors the free will of Satan, and of angels and human beings who follow Satan, he has not left us in a hopeless condition. On the contrary, God sent Jesus, his divine Son, to suffer the consequences of our sins and wickedness. Jesus died on the cross to break the power of sin and death over us; and thus we have hope of life eternal.