The Sovereignty of God

In the first few pages of The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien invents a creation myth for Middle Earth, the fantasy world in which the action of The Lord of the Rings takes place. He describes how the Ainur, who are like the angels of Middle Earth, are commissioned by Illuvatar ( the god of Middle Earth) to make music based on a theme established by him. This music becomes the “design plan” of creation. “Then Illuvatar said to them: ‘Of the theme that I have declared to you, I will now that ye make in harmony together a Great Music. And since I have kindled you with the Flame Imperishable, ye shall show forth your powers in adorning this theme, each with his own thoughts and devices, if he will. But I will sit and hearken, and be glad that through you great beauty has been wakened into song.’”[1]

However, as the music starts, one of the Ainur decides to do things his own way. Melkor had been nursing thoughts and designs of his own of what to do with the empty world or the “Void”, that were “not in accord with the theme of Illuvatar.”[2] This created discord. Some of the Ainur grow despondent and others of them start to make music in accord with Melkor’s theme. Illuvatar stands up three times to create a new theme in response to Melkor’s discord.

“Then Illuvatar spoke, and he said: “Mighty are the Ainur, and mightiest among them is Melkor; but that he may know, and all the Ainur, that I am Illuvatar, those things that ye have sung, I will show them forth, that ye may see what ye have done. And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.”[3]

What is God’s Sovereignty?

The Bible routinely teaches that God is sovereign. What does this mean? It can mean many things, depending on the type and the extent of the sovereignty. For example, a king in the Early Modern period would have been sovereign of an “absolute monarchy.” This obviously didn’t mean that nothing happened against the king’s will, but that the king had absolute authority to determine what happened in the country. But what about God’s sovereignty then? It at least means that God is the being with the highest authority and that he has the authority to legitimately say what has to happen in even the smallest detail in any part of the universe. The Bible declares that God “rules” over the earth and everything in it. So God’s sovereignty means that everything that happens in the universe is either decreed or permitted by God. There is nothing that happens that God does not know about and that couldn’t be stopped by God. But does the fact that God has the authority and the power to determine every single little detail, mean that he actually exercises this power? Does the fact that God rules over everything mean that he determines everything to behave according to his will? That is what some Christians believe. They are typically Calvinists. However, the claim that God rules over everything does not necessarily mean that he determines everything to happen that does happen. It can also mean a king who oversees, who judges and holds accountable rather than one who decrees every single thing to behave as he wants. So the idea that God rules over everything can imply both of these ideas, but I will argue that the “overseer” model makes much more sense in light of the action and events of the Biblical story. God is portrayed throughout the Bible, from the judgment at the Flood and throughout the prophets, as first watching what people do, and then judging them for it. The most obvious point against the deterministic idea of God’s sovereignty is that people clearly do act against God’s will for them in the Bible, and we are explicitly told that this is against God’s will. This means that God does not determine everything to happen according to his will, because there are people, throughout the Biblical story, who clearly do behave against the express will of God. And, on the deterministic conception of Divine sovereignty, there is the added difficulty of explaining why God judges and punishes people for behaving in ways he’s determined to behave. In short, to think that God’s sovereignty entails that he determines everything that happens makes very poor sense of the way God does things in the Bible.

The Principalities and Powers

This becomes even more apparent when we are told repeatedly in the New Testament that this world is under the power of evil spiritual beings. Jesus talks about the “prince of this world” who needs to be cast out by him (John 12:31). We are told in 1 John that this world is a domain of evil and that “friendship with the world is enmity with God.” Paul talks about the “elemental spiritual forces of this world” that we are liberated from in Christ (Colossians 2:20). In the well-known verse in Ephesians 6:12, we are told that we do not struggle against flesh and blood, but “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” When demons are referenced in the New Testament, it is often with language that suggests they have some sort of domain or established power on earth. Similarly, in Revelation it is suggested that the earth is where the Devil makes his abode (Revelation 12:12). And we are told that the church at Pergamum is where “Satan’s throne is” (Revelation 2:13). In the book of Job, when God asks Satan where he came from, he responds, “From roaming throughout the earth, going back and forth on it.” (Job 1:7)

This part of Biblical teaching is difficult to plausibly explain with a deterministic idea of Divine sovereignty, but even with a different idea of Divine sovereignty, with God as overseer rather than puppet master, this becomes difficult to explain. Why would God allow such a state of affairs if he is sovereign? The answer to that question, I believe, lies in the concept of stewardship.

The Model of Stewardship

In Genesis 1:26, God creates humanity and blesses them:

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals  and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

 So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

The interesting part of this passage is the fact that human beings are called to “rule” the earth and “subdue it.” But in other Biblical passages, we are told that the earth still belongs to God, such as in Psalm 24:1: “The earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof.” So in other words, human beings are called to rule the earth and have been given authority over it, but it still belongs to God. Human authority in the earth is a delegated authority and we will have to give an account to the one it belongs to.

This stewardship model is constantly reemphasized in the teaching of Jesus. In many of Jesus’s parables there is some person in authority ( representing God) such as a king, or the “master of the house” or a landowner. This person in authority has servants who he entrusts with his possessions and they are commissioned to manage the things that are important to him. Usually, this person in authority then goes away somewhere and leaves the servants to manage the master’s possessions. But the master always comes back and judges the servants for how they did managing what is his. They have authority over the master’s possessions, but it is a delegated authority and they will have to give an account to the master for what they did. As a human being, you have been entrusted with everything you have any power over. None of these things really belong to you and you have to give them all up whether at your death or before that. They are only borrowed to you. This includes your money, your job, your family and your relationships, your pets and animals, even your own body with which you are an agent in the world. All of it will be taken away from you and there is Someone, the one to whom all these things really belong, who will hold you accountable for how you’ve used them.

The stewardship model is the best way to conceive of the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human will. It makes sense of why things on earth can be screwed up and evil and why people can routinely act against God’s will. God prefers for the earth to be ruled by people in free submission to him, even when they sometimes do it wrongly. It also makes sense of God’s hiddenness (Isaiah 45:15). In Jesus’s parables, the character who represents God always goes away somewhere and the stewards of his possessions are apparently left to do things on their own. It seems to me that Jesus implies with the Master’s absence, not that he is not watching or aware of what’s happening ( because when he returns he is usually perfectly knowledgeable about what each servant has done), but that he is not micromanaging, that he appears to the servants to be gone. Enough time passes like this for the servants to feel and to think that they can do what they want if that is what they truly wish. The Master’s absence makes them feel that they are safe from his judgment. Similarly, the hiddenness of God and the absence of any obvious display of his power make evil people feel safe from his punishment so that the evil that is in their hearts can be made manifest. “…Whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops.” (Luke 12:3)

So how did demons end up with power on earth? We are not explicitly told that in the Bible, but if we have the concept of stewardship, we can read between the lines. If human beings have God-given authority on earth, then whenever we sin and yield to temptation, we give our authority away to the beings who tempt us. Our sin gives these beings a claim on us and allows them to manipulate us, basically making our God-given authority their own. Jesus casts out the “prince of this world”, because he provides the way for human beings to break free of these demonic powers. By dying for our sin, Jesus removes the claim they have on us, if we repent. This is a version of what is commonly called the “Christus Victor” theory of Atonement. This is controversial in the Christian world, but I think it is needlessly contested. Sometimes, defenders of the Penal Substitution view of the Atonement worry that the Christus Victor view minimizes human sin and Divine judgment. And the Christus Victor view is (wrongly) used as a corrective to the Penal Substitution view by some other Christians.  Rather, I think we should see the two theories of the Atonement in the same way that the writers of the New Testament arguably saw them: as two sides of the same coin. The Christus Victor view does not minimize human sin and Divine judgment because it implies or presupposes them. Here’s why. Why would Jesus need to die to release the demonic claim on human beings? It is because God’s justice recognizes that there is something legitimate about that claim. Why is there something legitimate about it? It is legitimate because human beings are sinful and their enslavement to demonic powers is merely the consequence of their own evil. So Divine justice, or God’s wrath, recognizes that this terrible human fate is just. But by dying for our sin, Jesus provides the opportunity to escape from this fate. In other words, Jesus provides a way to escape from a terrible fate that God recognizes as just. That is the same thing as to say that Jesus saves us from the wrath of God by dying for our sins. If the two theories are two sides of the same coin, then they simply emphasize different parts of the same thing. What is explicit in one will be implicit in the other. If you prefer one over the other, then you are forced to ignore the biblical motif that is  expressed in the New Testament for the other view. This means your view will be less Biblical. There is a motif in the New Testament for both views. The Christus Victor view shows in Jesus’s victory over God’s enemies which is constantly portrayed as something Jesus did at the Cross and through the Resurrection. Greg Boyd provides a convenient list of passages which show this: Mt 22:41-45; Mk 12:35-37; Mk 10:45; Lke 20:41-44; I Cor 15:22-25; Heb 1:13; 5:6, 10; 6:20; 7:11, 15,17,21; Heb 10:12-13, 14, cf. . Mt 26:64; Mk 14:62; Lke 22:69; Ac 5:31; 7:55-56; Rom 8:34; I Cor 15:25; Eph 1:20 4:8,  Col 2:15, 3:1; Heb 1:3; 8:1; 10:12-13; I Pet 3:22; Rev. 3:21. We’ve already looked at Jesus’s conception of himself as casting out the “prince of this world” (John 12:31). Support for penal substitution comes from Isaiah 53:10, Romans 3:25 and Hebrews 10:12.

Elisha and the Bears

 The episode described in 2 Kings 2:23 is sometimes used as an example of God’s “immorality” by atheists. In this passage, Elisha curses children who mock him in the name of God. Bears come and maul the children to death. My belief is that if that is God’s will in that circumstance, then it should have happened, regardless of the reason. Also, I have addressed the irrationality of atheists claiming that the Old Testament God is immoral, because moral intuition, which they rely upon to make this judgment, is extraordinarily unreliable in pointing to morality, given how malleable and easily manipulated it is. Not only that, objective morality cannot plausibly exist in a world without God.  However, these points are not my focus here, but I’m thinking of the possibility of a theological explanation of this episode based on stewardship. This is the idea that God gives power and authority to human beings to do his will. It is clear that God prefers to do his work through human beings who freely follow him. But this opens the possibility of the abuse of the power that are given to those human beings. Similarly, the church is given authority on earth to “bind and loose”(Matthew 18:18) and an authority to “forgive” (John 20:23). It is controversial what these passages mean. Personally, I think the authority of Christians to forgive comes from their “possession” of the Good News and their ability to choose where to take that Good News. This concords with the idea of “shaking the dust from your feet” ( Matthew 10:14) after people reject the gospel, and of Paul’s declaration against the Jews who refused to accept the gospel (Acts 18:6). However, regardless of what exactly these passages mean, the point I’m making is merely that some human beings have been given some sort of spiritual authority by God and with that authority comes the potential for abuse. When God gives gifts he doesn’t quickly take them back, which means that if Christians abuse their authority, God will not quickly snatch that authority away. The situation will be allowed to play out for a while until God comes to judge. But it is delayed. “Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil” ( Ecclesiastes 8:11). It is also interesting that in many of Jesus’s parables, the people who are judged are already identified as servants of the Master, i.e. they are servants of God. In the context of Jesus’s teaching this could either refer to the Jews or to Christians. At least sometimes, I believe this refers to Christians, who will be held accountable for using what they have been given.

The Existence of Satan

When I spoke about the power of demons and evil spiritual beings on earth earlier, it’s probable that at least some people who read it thought it silly or weird or insane or a combination of the three. It is true that even among people who are comfortable with talking about God, there is discomfort with idea of an evil spiritual being ( or Satan). Why should this be? It looks to me like this is more of a mood or a feeling than a particular rational objection. Whenever there is mockery for the belief in the existence of the Devil, there is never really a clear reason expressed for why the idea is experienced as so implausible. In short, people never say why they find it preposterous, but it is clear that many people feel strong that it is. They may think that God exists but the notion of an evil supernatural being is a step too far. Perhaps they think it is paranoid or conspiratorial that there is such a being working behind the scenes to your disadvantage and destruction. The Devil may also strike some people as implausible, because many people today find the idea of intentional evil implausible. Twentieth-century psychologists, like behaviourists, and materialistic and deterministic philosophies,  have inculcated the idea that nobody is ever really evil, but only sick. They have mental illnesses, they weren’t parented properly, or weren’t socially conditioned in the right way. Many people feel that it is not compassionate to think people responsible for the wrong they do. We should blame their social circumstances, or label their dysfunctional behaviour as a mental disorder. The idea that there are bad people and good people has given way to the idea that there are only really sick and healthy people. It is true that one form of compassion does involve not being quick to blame people for things and to take into account the circumstances that gave rise to their actions. However, compassion has little to do with how responsible people are and everything to do with how we act toward them, regardless of their level of responsibility. The Christian ethic of mercy means we love people regardless of whether they have done evil or not. It is very strange and ultimately very nihilistic to think we must do away with moral responsibility in order to be compassionate. Perhaps people are also resistant to the idea of the Devil, because they are truly afraid of such a being and know they would have to submit to God in order to be protected from him ( which they don’t want to do).

But the reality is that there is nothing implausible about the idea of an evil supernatural being if you have already admitted that at least one supernatural being exists ( namely, God). If one supernatural being exists ( God) it is certainly not a stretch to think that there are other such beings. And if human beings can disobey God’s moral law, it is not a stretch to think that some of these other supernatural beings can disobey God too.

Sometimes atheists who criticize the idea of the Devil imagine that Christianity is a type of Manichean or Zoroastrian dualism with an evil god and a good god of equal or almost equal power, locked in an eternal, irresolvable conflict. But this has never been what Christian theology taught about the Devil. The Bible, especially the New Testament, tells us about the objectives and intentions of the Devil, but his “origin story” is left mostly mysterious and almost nothing is said about it. What we can say about is gained mostly by filling in the blanks. Christian theology normally teaches that the Devil is an angel who rebelled against God and therefore a creature of God or something created by God. This means that the Devil is nowhere near to God in power and could not present any meaningful challenge to him. This is shown for example in the book of Job, where Satan must get permission from God for everything bad he does to Job ( Job 1:12). Satan is also presented as a person with objectives and purposes, not (or not only) some symbol for evil. The Bible does not say that Satan is the source of all evil, but is presented as tempting people to do evil. This means that if God were to kill Satan, evil would not disappear. When God judges Adam and Eve in Genesis 3, The serpent is held responsible for tempting Eve, but Adam and Eve are held responsible in their own right for yielding to Satan. In other words, human beings are responsible for their own evil and not everything can be blamed on Satan. Throughout the Bible, the persons most often held responsible for evil are human beings, and this evil is not blamed on Satan. Finally, The Devil will be punished along with evil human beings at the Final Judgment: “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” Matthew 25:41

So the question that is always asked then is this. If God is so much more powerful than Satan, why doesn’t he simply destroy Satan? The question of why God doesn’t kill Satan but allows him to continue his evil activity is the same as the question of why God doesn’t destroy evil human beings but allow them to continue their evil activity. This means this question is the same as the problem of evil more generally. There are many great philosophical responses to the problem of evil here and you can take a look at them. However, I want to focus here on more theological answers to that question.

God uses evil to punish evil

 One theological answer to the question is that God uses evil agents to punish other evil agents. For example, in Isaiah 10:5 God calls Assyria, the “rod of my anger” which he uses to punish Israel. But in Isaiah 10:11-12, God declares that he will punish Assyria after he has used their designs to punish Israel. Is that fair? God did not determine Assyria to do the evil that they did, which means that they are still responsible for it and can be justly punished for it. They did that evil freely, but God arranged events so that it would work for his purposes. Similarly, Joseph tells his brother that they intended evil against him by selling him into slavery “but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive as they are today”( Genesis 50:20). So the fact that God used the evil actions of the brothers for his purposes doesn’t mean that the brothers are not responsible for that evil. Also, Satan is presented as performing some sort of function in God’s plan, including disciplining and testing believers. In 1 Corinthians 5:5, Paul said that an unrepentant Christian should be “handed over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.” In a different context, Paul talks about two individuals “whom I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme” (1 Timothy 1:20). Jesus tells Peter “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat. But I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail” (Luke 22:32).

 Stewardship, Again

 Another theological answer for why God allows evil agents to continue their activity has already been touched upon and is related to the free will defense against the problem of evil. We are entrusted and made responsible for our lives, our bodies, and the various things that come into our sphere of influence and power. Have we truly been made responsible for these things if God hovers over us and is ready to snatch away the power he’s given us as soon as we intend to use it wrongly? Our responsibility for our lives and everything we have power over is not absolute but that does not mean that it is not real and substantial. If we don’t have the freedom to do it wrong, then we are not really responsible for it at all.

Conclusion

So stewardship is the best way to understand God’s sovereignty in light of human and supernatural evil. Why bring up the idea of Satan and demons? It is important to explain the place that these beings have given the sovereignty of God. Also, the fact that Christian theology teaches that they exist is sometimes made into an objection against Christianity, which is important to address. Finally, it is important for Christians to understand that their primary opponents are not physical ( other human beings) but are evil supernatural beings (Ephesians 6:12). We are taught by Jesus specifically to pray for protection against the “Evil one” (Matthew 6:13). When you become a Christian and live in obedience to Jesus, there are some powerful spiritual beings who you are making very angry. You are subverting the thrall under which they hold the world in imitating the one who conquered them, and therefore you are subverting  their power. You are reminding them of their coming judgment. So you don’t have to be surprised about any trouble that comes against you, and can know that God will work it for your good if you are in Christ (Romans 8:28). Patiently endure, because you will see the fruits of it. “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” (Galatians 6:9) Keep your eye on eternity, not on this present darkness. Your status in this world means nothing. Your status in God’s kingdom means everything. One way of doing this is the simple act of counting your blessings. Focus on what is right in your life, not on what is wrong. Thanksgiving is a wonderful way to worship God and to produce contentment in all circumstances.  “Rejoice always, pray continually,  give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” 1 Thessalonians 5:16

[1] J.R.R Tolkien, The Silmarillion, (London: Harper Collins, 1999) p. 15

[2] Ibid. p. 16

[3] Ibid. p. 17

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