When looking at the question of God’s sovereignty vs. what we understand to be good and loving, we could do worse than looking to C.S. Lewis, who addressed the question briefly in The Last Battle, the final book in his Chronicles of Narnia series.
The argument advanced by the neo-Calvinist wing of the evangelical movement is that God being sovereign can act how he wants, and that those actions by default, regardless of how they are perceived by us mere mortals, are good and loving.
My response – and that of Rachel Held Evans and others – is that such an argument allows the subversion and redefinition of the very concepts of love and goodness. If God cannot be trusted to act in a way that comports to commonly understood definitions of love an goodness, those terms have no meaning. That doesn’t mean we should always be able to understand what God is doing, and I don’t doubt we may somehow misinterpret actions that really are loving and good if we knew the whole picture as God does. But it does mean we can and should question portrayals of God, in the Bible and elsewhere, that turn him into a genocidal monster or a bloodthirsty maniac or a capricious wielder of natural disasters.
In The Last Battle, the crafty ape Shift has coerced the confused donkey Puzzle into wearing an old lion’s skin and telling the other animals the donkey is really Aslan, Narnia’s creator and the Christ figure of the series. Shift then sells the animals into slavery to Narnia’s old archenemy Calormen, forcing the free talking animals to work for Calormene soldiers as they cut down the talking trees and float them downriver to the sea for trade.
When Narnian King Tirian and his old friend, a unicorn named Jewel, stumble upon two Calormene soldiers mistreating a talking horse, they lose their cool and kill the soldiers. After fleeing, they reassess the situation:
“And then,” said the King, “the Horse said it was by Aslan’s orders. The Rat said the same. They all say Aslan is here. But if it were true?”
“But, Sire, how could Aslan be commanding such dreadful things?”
“He is not a tame lion,” said Tirian. “How should we know what he would do? We, who are murderers. Jewel, I will go back. I will give up my sword and put myself in the hands of these Calormenes and ask that they bring me before Aslan. Let him do justice to me.”
“You will go to your death then,” said Jewel.
“Do you think I care if Aslan dooms me to death?” said the King. “That would be nothing, nothing at all. Would it not be better to be dead than to have this horrible fear that Aslan has come and is not like the Aslan we have believed in and longed for? It is as if the sun rose one day and were a black sun.”
“I know,” said Jewel. “Or as if you drank water and it were dry water. You are in the right, Sire. This is the end of all things. Let us go and give ourselves up.”
Meanwhile, the Ape argues that Aslan is sovereign and can do what he likes:
“But why can’t we see Aslan properly and talk to him?” [the Boar] said. “When he used to appear in Narnia in the old days everyone could talk to him face to face.”
“Don’t you believe it,” said the Ape. “And even if that were true, times have changed. Aslan says he’s been far too soft with you before, do you see? Well, he isn’t going to be soft any more. He’s going to lick you into shape this time. He’ll teach you to think he’s a tame lion.”
What makes it more problematic for us is not that some preachers or ministers think God can act violently or murderously and still be loving and good – but that the Bible, particularly certain passages of the Old Testament, portrays God in this way.
Whether that’s Yahweh ordering the slaughter of all the residents of Jericho, or drowning every resident on earth in the Flood, or explicitly ordering Saul through Samuel to kill “children and infants,” there are times when God is portrayed as no better than Hitler or Stalin or any other monster of recent history.
As Dr. Eric Seibert writes on Peter Enns’ blog: Not everything in the “good book” is either good, or good for us.
If we feel compelled to accept what we read at face value, and are forbidden from asking honest questions about the troublesome texts we encounter, we run the risk of using the Bible in ways that may harm others (not to mention ourselves!). …
Thus, if we are going to keep the Bible from harming others, we need to learn to have problems with it. We need to protest what is objectionable and condemn what is immoral.
That’s not easy for a lot of people to do. But the alternative is much worse. A decision to elevate God’s sovereignty – his lack of “tameness,” if you will – over all other considerations is to redefine love and hollow out every expression of it, including the incarnation and sacrifice of God himself.
It is, in other words, to create for ourselves a world without hope or meaning, and to tear down the Cross itself.