Melanie’s True Hope in a Time of Trouble

Gregory Boyd opens his book on God and the problem of evil with a very troubling and all too common pastoral problem. Someone has been facing the unexpected and devastating loss of a child during childbirth. To make matters worse the couple had previously been told that they would probably never conceive naturally. Yet they did. They carried the baby to term, and then the bottom fell out. In the aftermath of the trouble she was told repeatedly not to worry as this was all part of God’s plan for her life, and these were probably the most literate responses. Anyone who has lost a loved one does not have to go far to imagine some of the more inane comments. So Melanie stumbles into Boyd’s church in St Paul crushed with doubt of God’s goodness, deeply disturbed by God’s seemingly evil use of his sovereign might. How could a loving God allow her to miraculously allow her to conceive, then sovereignty take her child as he or she was being born. Melanie’s problem is a very real problem for not only today’s pastor, but for every pastor from every age. “If God is so good,” the mockers shout, “why all this evil and death.” In his discussion with Melanie and in his book Boyd is like any pastor stumbling for words for Melanie and against the mockers. Yet as with any such book and set of answers, such a book begs several questions in and of itself. Does this book paint a true portrait of who God is (Boyd himself argues that this is of the utmost importance)? Does this picture of God bring healing to Melanie’s pain? And if one cannot answer the first two questions in the affirmative, another question is enjoined. Is there another way to answer Melanie’s question that takes care to do justice to both God and Melanie?

Listening to Boyd’s Answer

Any Christian reader would agree with Boyd that the answer to Melanie’s problem rests in the singular person of Jesus Christ. All of the Christian scriptures are a discussion of this unique god-man. Furthermore the cross of Christ represents the defining moment of his glory. About this cross Boyd writes that “the cross refutes the traditional notion that omnipotence means God always gets his way. Rather the cross reveals God’s omnipotence as a power that empowers others- to the point of giving others the ability, if they choose, to nail him to a cross.”[1] In this depiction of God allowing himself to be strapped to the cross, Boyd hopes to locate the problem to Melanie’s pain. First, God understands her pain. He, himself, has felt the overwhelming hurt and frustration of a world that chooses to make fools of us all, a world that would rather strap us to a cross than to love and accept us. Second, God has been working to prevent and overcome the depravations of just such a world. Last, Boyd would argue the power and majesty on display at the cross of Christ gives a present hope that He will be victorious in the end.

An understanding of this unique conception of the cross must come from a careful understanding of how Boyd views the world at large. In a previously published work, Boyd discusses the creation of the world in this way, “the sovereign creator settles whatever he wants to settle about the future…. He leaves open [as possibility] whatever he wants to leave open.”[2] In this book Boyd is elaborating on that which has been left open from creation. Boyd writes,

“God created the world out of love. But as all emotionally healthy people intuitively know, love must be chosen. And choice means that a person can say no. Unless people can choose not to love, they can’t genuinely choose to love…. A creation in which love is the goal must incorporate risk. Creation… must allow for the possibility of evil.”[3]

This is not to say that God created evil. He created man and woman and bequeathed to them the ability to do evil. Creation of the magnitude that Boyd posits allocates a certain responsibility to both man (understood broadly), and God. God is now responsible to accept and allow all the actions of these ‘free agents’ he has created. Man is now responsible to choose wisely and to accept responsibility for the consequences of his or her actions. In the world God has created both God and man have a ‘say-so’ in how things are done.

Despite his carefully argued (and right) assertion that evil comes from a man or woman’s sin. This still leaves Boyd with the same unanswerable question we all face. What about the suffering of the ‘just”? What could one say to Ivan Karamazov railing about the slaughter of innocents? What about Melanie, did she deserve her wicked fate? Boyd answers his critics and Melanie by answering that God answers and works can and does seem to be arbitrary. Boyd writes that God’s intervention is limited not by a lack of power but because of the type of world he chose to create. Boyd’s idea of creation creates limits on his understanding of all concepts to follow. Because of the world created, both God and man are faced with dealing with choices and actions forced on them by the others in the world. True, Boyd argues God has the ability to intervene at anytime, yet often chooses to not. Boyd defends God’s decisions not to intervene by arguing that man needs a stable world in which God does not intervene often. Any intervention of the natural order is chaotic in nature and shakes man’s comfort. Therefore God most strategically choose his interventions. Additionally, God has given man the ability to choose is an irrevocable gift. Much like the mythical spirits of Pandora’s Box, once freedom is out of the box, it cannot be placed back in, even by God. Boyd argues that God’s power is not threatened by this gift as he is easily able to out-think and out-move his opponents. In summation of his argument Boyd asserts these natural actions are constraints that God has accepted from the beginning of creation. They are the ‘rules of the game.’ In the quest to understand the actions of this game, Boyd writes that

“The constraints that God placed on himself… are strong enough to prevent God from always unilaterally intervening to prevent evil. But they aren’t strong enough to prevent God from sometimes intervening. They are strong enough to allow agents to relate to one another and have morally responsible say-so. But they aren’t so strong that the only thing that matters is the say-so of these agents. They are strong enough that his will in particular cases may be threatened. But they aren’t so strong that his overall will for creation is threatened.”[4]

Melanie has no need to worry. God did not cause his baby to die. It was an unfortunate accident of nature of which God chose not to intervene (for reasons no one can understand). Melanie should take heart that God was there when it happened, that God felt her pain on the cross, and that God is working real hard to ensure that any questions of his ultimate purposes will not be thwarted.

Answering to Boyd’s god

One can reasonably ask if Boyd’s solution to the problem is any better. What makes Boyd’s book so frustrating and potentially damaging to Melanie is Boyd’s concept of creation and its implications for free will. Even someone who is sympathetic to Boyd’s concern for justifying man’s free will becomes horrified as Boyd’s god takes shape. “The open theist’s God, despite his precognitive impairment, has perfect knowledge of what is going on now… he has sufficient knowledge (and power) to stop a crime in progress, to rescue the victim and so on.”[5] Boyd’s logic proves an unfortunate instance of supreme irony in that in his attempt to vindicate God and empower his creation, he has neutered God and enslaved his creatures.

If God can be thwarted, frustrated, and confused by the actions of his people[6], then how can anyone be sure that he can be counted on in the End. To use a personal analogy my favorite sports team, the University of Tennessee Volunteers, has been horrible this season. They have not been able to run the football. They have not been able to stop the other team from anything it has wanted to do when they have the football. This very week they are preparing to play a game against one of my best friend’s team. In a conversation over the phone, I asked him to take it easy on men next week after his team has thoroughly defeated mine. He accused me of having no faith in my team. My response was simply that this team has given me no indication of any ability to win, so why should I get hopes up. The fact that over the years we have had more success does encourage me that we have the ‘possibility’ for improvement over time; yet, as any sports fan knows the glory of past deeds can never be the hope of future success.

This is not quite a fitting analogy, but might fit the problems of dealing with Boyd’s god. If Boyd and his views on creation, redemptive history, and the power of God are to be believed, then where can one take solace that God will be ultimately victorious? Nothing from His history shows us that there is that possibility. Where can Melanie place her hope? Does this conception of god do good to her story, or does it perhaps make her experience that much more horrible? One reviewer has remarked of this by saying that in Boyd’s economy “it is that action of God which is causally necessary for salvation but never causally sufficient. The human will can always frustrate the grace of God.”[7] A careful analysis of Boyd’s argument leads me to believe that this is the case. If Melanie’s case is to be the bell-weather for Boyd, then one could argue that Melanie is no better off after talking to Boyd. In fact one could pronounce Melanie’s situation far worse. Not only is there little hope to found in this circumstance, but now she really has no hope for any improvement of her circumstances in the future.

Melanie’s Sure Hope

William Lane Craig has written of Boyd’s work that “Open theology is impotent to explain this coalescence of human freedom and divine sovereignty. Ironically, open theology is forced to revert to a Calvinist determinism to account for God’s providence and thus winds up destroying human freedom.” In an attempt to defend God and protect Melanie, I would argue that Boyd has done both a disservice, and still we have the mockers. “If you truly are God,” they shout, “pull yourself off that cross and show your power.” But praise God, he stays on the cross, and evil is defeated. The power of God is displayed not in weakness of his death. No, the power of God is displayed three days later in the glories of the empty tomb. God is in charge. His creation has not been hijacked beyond His abilities to move and have His being. He is not constrained by forces either created by him or actions taken by those created by Him. True, there is some concern to be seen in the continuing problems of man. Many theologians in the past 50 years have likened man’s situation to that of the Allied armies after D-day in WWII. With the landing on that important beachhead in France, the battle has been won. The fighting may be continuing and worsening as the foe realizes that he is now trapped in a corner he cannot escape, but one can take hope that ultimately victory is at hand. Likewise it has been argued that God has established his victory and is working to obtain it. This is what the South African pastor Derek Morphew has called living a life of ecstatic sadness. In the same sense he refers to the Christian as a victorious failure. Someone who is assured of victory, but whom knows that first he or she must suffer that indignity until death.[8] He argues in print that the Christian can pray and seek God knowing that at any moment victory can be won; yet, pray and seek God realizing that as the ultimate victory has not been won, evil is still a real reality.[9] In this way we as Christians can truly point to God’s good sovereignty while be real about our situations. We can give Melanie an answer she deserves.

It is because of that glorious, wonderful empty tomb that any man or any woman can answer back to the scoffers and mockers, “Just you wait. Today death is on my doorstep, but tomorrow God stands before my tomb commanding, ‘Lazarus, come forth.’ ” So the paradox of our time continues. The battle is won even as the fighting continues. To be sure God is not in the evil. He is not the cause of death, yet He in his greatness has announced to one and all his desire to turn evil for good. This sovereign God is that true hope and true salvation for which Melanie longs. The pain and heartache of life is acknowledged, even as God is seen in his manifold greatness without arguing falsely that God is to blame. In this way Melanie can join with Job in his most paradoxical saying, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust him.”

[1] Boyd, Gregory. Is God to Blame: Beyond Pat Answers to the Problem of Suffering. (IVP Press: Downers Grove, IL), 49.

[2] Boyd, Gregory. “The Open Theism View.” Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views. James Beilby and Paul Eddy, ed. (IVP Press: Downers Grove, IL), 14.

[3] Boyd, Gregory. Is God to Blame, 63.

[4] Ibid, 121.

[5] Hunt, David. “A Simple Foreknowledge Response.” Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views. James Beilby and Paul Eddy, ed. (IVP Press: Downers Grove, IL), 53.

[6] For specific arguments to these points see “Blame,” pp. 81-3, and 66. Fuller arguments along biblical lines can be seen in “Divine Foreknowledge,” pp. 23-37.

[7] Helm, Paul. “An Augustinian-Calvinist Response.” Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views. James Beilby and Paul Eddy, ed. (IVP Press: Downers Grove, IL), 64.

[8] Morphew, Derek. Part 3: Message to Vineyard Pastors of Europe.

[9] Morphew, Derek. Breakthrough. Discovering the Kingdom. (Vineyard International Publishing; Capetown, South Africa), 88-9.


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