After the attack on our nation on September 11, 2001, I wrote the following article for my church family. It was published in issue 46 of the Founders Journal.
Where was God September 11, 2001? That’s the question. Packed into it are numerous other questions, like “Why didn’t God stop this from happening?” “Could God have stopped it?” “What is God really like?” “How can we trust God anymore?”
The answers depend on which deity is in mind. We have been told by the radical Muslims who celebrate the mass murder in New York City and Washington D.C. that Allah, whom they claim to be the true God, was smiling with great approval at the brilliantly executed attack in the jihad against the Great Satan, America. Others of the Islamic faith decry such portrayals of Allah. But their answers in defense of a sovereign, detached, despotic ruler offer no comfort, either.
Allah is conceived as one who rules over but has never come among people. He is equally the author of good and evil. One Muslim creedal statement declares:
God’s one possible quality is His power to create good or evil at any time he wishes, that is His decree…. Both good things and evil things are the result of God’s decree. It is the duty of every Muslim to believe this…. It is He who causes harm and good. Rather the good works of some and the evil of others are signs that God wishes to punish some and to reward others. If God wishes to draw someone close to Himself, then He will give him the grace which will make that person do good works. If He wishes to reject someone and put that person to shame, then He will create sin in him. God creates all things, good and evil. God creates people as well as their actions: He created you as well as what you do.
Allah simply wanted to kill thousands of Americans that day. It is his right to do so. Deal with it.
The Bible teaches the absolute sovereignty of God but gives no room for the rationalistic fatalism of Islam. God is not the author of sin. “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone” (James 1:13). People are responsible for their actions and thus are held fully accountable for their thoughts, words and deeds. God’s judgment at the end of history will not be a sham but an execution of exact justice (Matthew 25:31-46).
Islam’s answer to the questions–whether spoken from “moderate” or “radical” Muslims–offer no lasting comfort and cannot be reconciled with the Holy Word of God. Sadly, many of the answers coming from the Christian community are equally unhelpful and unbiblical. Granted, they don’t assault our modern sensibilities as much as Islam’s portrayal of Allah, but at best they offer cold comfort and tenuous hope to those who stare honestly into the face of evil as it was portrayed in the latest terrorist attack on the USA.
“God had nothing to do with this.” “He wanted to stop it be He couldn’t.” “In order to be fair to the free will of the terrorists, God had to let this happen.” These answers, born out of real sorrow and desire to protect the reputation of God as good and loving (which He most certainly is) unwittingly line up with a relatively new and disastrous teaching within evangelicalism known as “open theism.”
Open theists read the Bible to portray God as in some ways contingent on His creation. His omniscience is redefined to allow the claim that “God knows all that there is to know, but the future by definition is unknowable.” Therefore, for the open theist, God was caught off-guard by the terrorist attack. He was as surprised when the airplanes crashed into the buildings as the men and women who went to work that day in the World Trade Center. Thus, the god of open theism is able to feel our shock and pain and commiserate with us. This view, which gets God “off the hook” in the face of evil is the polar opposite of Islam. However, it is no more satisfying to those who are committed to living out a biblical worldview east of Eden.
Some truth is beyond our abilities to rationalize. That does not mean that it is irrational, but rather that it is supra-rational. It is above reason. We can know it because it has been revealed. We cannot explain it because our minds are affected by the fall.
The incarnation is one such truth. Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man. A committed rationalist will never accept this. To him it is as speaking of a shape that is fully circular and fully square. Since his mind cannot rationalize it, he will not accept it. The Christian accepts it because God has revealed it in His Word. This does not mean that we check our minds at the door of the church but rather that we reason from faith. In Anselm’s famous phrase, our faith seeks understanding.
This is similarly true with the doctrine of the Trinity. Any well-trained Jehovah’s Witness can marshal impressive logical arguments against this doctrine if his rationalistic presuppositions are granted. But if we start not from what our minds can conceive but from what God has revealed in His Word, we will find ourselves bowing to the God who, in ways that we cannot fully explain, has revealed Himself as Father, Son and Spirit. Furthermore, we will love to sing with Charles Wesley,
‘Tis mystery all, the Immortal dies:
Who can explore this strange design?
In vain the first-born seraph tries
To sound the depths of love divine.
Providence is another revealed mystery. How can God sovereignly rule over a world of truly responsible creatures? How can He be both good and sovereign when terrorists murder thousands of innocent people? No answer will satisfy the demands of rationalism. Nevertheless, faith directs the heart to the sovereignty and goodness of God that blazes across eternity in the death of Jesus Christ.
Was the crucifixion of Jesus the will of God? He was the only righteous man who has ever lived. He was innocent not only before His murderers but also before God. His death was the most heinous crime in human history. Did God have anything to do with it? Where was God when His Son was hanging on the cross? Could He have stopped it? Why didn’t He?
God was there, and not merely as a casual bystander. He was the Master of Ceremonies at the crucifixion. Jesus Himself told His disciples as much as He prepared them for His coming death. After the fact, the Apostle Peter spelled it out clearly in his sermon at Pentecost. Of Jesus he said, “Him, being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death;” (Acts 2:23). God was sovereign: they were responsible.
In that wicked, tragic death, God was doing His deepest work of love and mercy. He was reconciling the world to Himself (2 Corinthians 5:19). The crucifixion reveals to us the depth of both the wisdom and power of God. It shows us His love and goodness. It reassures those who have come to know Him through faith in Jesus that He is God and is “for us.” It guarantees us that He will work all things together for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.
In times of sorrow and when confronted with horrific evil, God’s children should resist the temptation to rest in rationalizations, whether on the right (Islam) or the left (open theism). Rather, we should run to the crucified, risen Savior. Let faith be renewed at the foot of the cross. The certainties revealed there give strength to face the mysteries of life without despair.
1 Qur’an 37:94, cited by Normal Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999), 374.