Roger Olson, “Where Was God when the Fertilizer Plant Exploded?”

, posted by SEA

If what many Christians believe about God is true, then the West, Texas disaster (like every disaster) was actually good–”designed, ordained and governed by God” necessarily means “good” in a Christian worldview. Something God designs, ordains and governs (the key is “designs”) has to be good in the larger scheme of things. I say “in a Christian worldview” because I take it for granted that every true Christian believes that God is absolutely, unequivocally good. I have only heard of one Christian theologian who believed in a “dark side” of God to explain evil and innocent suffering. Needless to say, he was widely dismissed as a crank by liberals and conservatives alike. The vast majority, ninety-nine and forty-four one hundredth percent of all Christians the world over, Calvinists and Arminians, Lutherans and Catholics, Pentecostals and Eastern Orthodox agree on one thing–God is good.

But what does “God is good” mean? To some Christians “God is good” means “whatever God does is automatically good just because he’s God.” I call that view “nominalism/voluntarism.” Not all who hold that view use that label, but it seems to me the best one–drawing from the stock of philosophical and theological terms and concepts. So that’s the label I will use for it.

Other Christians mean that God is eternally, immutably good in himself and his good character governs what he does. He can’t lie, for example. It’s not that he just chooses not to; he literally can’t because he is truth itself. Whatever God does is good because he is good; he cannot do wrong. However, some who hold this view (“realist” with regard to God’s nature) believe that things we perceive as disasters and evils are designed, ordained and governed by God. To them, the West fertilizer plant explosion (which devastated a nursing home and killed several first responders and injured children and wiped out a large portion of a town) was from God in the sense that it was designed, ordained and governed by God. God didn’t just know it was going to happen and didn’t just permit it; God planned it and wanted it to happen (even if he regretted its necessity) and directly or indirectly caused it. Many would say God didn’t cause it because they appeal to secondary causes, but if one asks about it’s ultimate cause they will explain that God is the ultimate cause of whatever happens.

Relational sovereignty is a collection of views of God and worldly events that makes room for things to happen that God does not design, ordain or govern except (with regard to govern) to permit. In my opinion, relational sovereignty includes many perspectives about the details but all agree that not everything that happens, and especially not evil, is designed, ordained and governed by God.

I call the belief that everything that happens is designed, ordained and governed by God “meticulous providence” by which I mean “divine determinism.” Why not just call it “divine determinism?” Because many of its adherents hate that terminology. I try to avoid it as much as possible and only use it when I have space (as in Against Calvinism) to explain what I mean by it. (R. C. Sproul objects strongly to anyone calling his view “determinism” because he equates that with belief in external coercion. However, the dictionary definition of “determinism” does not limit it to that.)

Now, to my point about the West, Texas explosion (and all things like it): IF meticulous providence is true (viz., that God designs, ordains and governs whatever happens), then God was orchestrating it and rendering it certain (necessary) for a good purpose. (Or, for the nominalist/voluntarist, it’s “good” just  because God designed, ordained and governed it.)

What I have found in my (now becoming rather) long life is that many people who say they believe that falter in that belief when they mature and experience really bad things in their own lives–especially happening to loved ones.  It’s easier to believe that when it’s not your town, or your race, or your family it happens to. But I’ve also noticed that few, if any, of those who believe that actually follow through with that belief. Instead of celebrating what happened because God designed it, ordained it and governed it they express grief and sorrow and regret over it (especially when it happens to someone they know and love or their own town or family or whatever).

If I were a believer in meticulous providence, divine determinism (and still a Christian) I would feel duty-bound to thank God for whatever happens. I might feel great grief and sorrow, but I would follow through the logic of what I believe and say, publicly, that “This is from God and therefore good and I thank and praise him for it.”

I suspect, however, that IF more consistent Calvinists and others who believe in meticulous providence/divine determinism actually did that, many people moving toward that view would turn away. Is that why they don’t? I can only suspect that’s a reason why they don’t. (Some do and I give them credit for it.)

Another reason many don’t is because they know some people would ask them “So what good purpose can you imagine for such a disaster from God?” Of course, they can always appeal to mystery and just say they don’t know. That’s respectable. Still, “inquiring minds want to know” what are some possible reasons why God would design, ordain and govern (render certain, cause, make necessary) something like what happened in West, Texas two days ago. I suspect that deep in the recesses of their minds some believers in meticulous providence who live within a 100 miles radius of West, Texas are thinking it might have something to do with the annual “Czechfest” which is like an “Octoberfest” held in the Czech-settled town. Lots of drinking goes on there. Or they might know something else about the town that they think justifies such an act of God.

The problem with such explanations (and a reason people who think them often draw back from saying them) is that so often, as in West, the brunt of the disaster affects the weak and those trying to help the weak (e.g., nursing home patients and first responders trying to put out the fire). Frankly, to put it bluntly, if meticulous providence is true, God would seem to have bad aim (e.g., the hurricane and flood that devastated much of New Orleans left Bourbon Street in the French Quarter almost untouched!).

So where does a believer in relational sovereignty think God was when the fertilizer plant exploded? Many will simply say “We can’t know–unless God gives a revelation explaining his ‘place’ in it EXCEPT that God was and is there among the suffering offering grace, comfort, strength, pardon, hope.”

[The original posts and comment on it may be found at Dr. Olson’s website here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2013/04/where-was-god-when-the-fertilizer-plant-exploded/