Sovereignty: Confronting the Horror of John 11:6

“So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days.”

Kristen and I visited a local church last night where a visiting pastor unintentionally brought the horror of this verse home. The pastor pointed out that  Jesus has, as best we can tell, two options for healing his friend Lazarus:

1. Heal him remotely as he did for the centurion in Luke 7 and Matthew 10
2. Rush to his home and heal him in person (as he often did other times and for other people).

Jesus takes neither course of action. He stays where he is and does nothing. Meanwhile, Lazarus dies. Then Jesus goes and raises him from the dead.

“What’s so horrifying about that,” you ask. “Obviously Lazarus was in the grave for four days, so Jesus couldn’t have gotten there in time anyway.” Perhaps. But with Option #1, arriving on time would not have been an issue anyway. And with Option #2, Jesus could easily have saved Mary and Martha, whom scripture describes as his friends, two days of horrible grieving over a lost brother. Anyone who’s ever lost a sibling knows just how painful those two days must have been. And notice also that scripture doesn’t say that Jesus did anything remotely important during those two days. He just “stayed.”

As I see it, this leaves us with a number of options for Jesus.

A. Jesus could have prevented Lazarus from dying or the sisters from suffering, but chose not to.
B. Jesus could have prevented Lazarus from dying, but was told not to by God the Father.
C. Jesus could not have prevented Lazarus from dying or the sisters from suffering.
D. Jesus didn’t know that Lazarus was going to die and the sisters were going to suffer at all.

(A), which was the premise of the sermon, is deeply troubling because scripture says that Jesus loved Lazarus, and would he not have saved his friend from suffering and dying if he could have?

(B) saves us from the issues inherent with (A), but in reality it simply transfers the responsibility to God the Father.

(C) seems problematic because Jesus is recorded in the other gospels as having healed several people on the brink of death, and remotely at that!

(D) saves us from the issues inherent in (C) and (A), but in John 11:14, Jesus tells his disciples that “Lazarus is dead” before they arrive. (D), then, implies that God the Father knew Lazarus would die, but kept it from Jesus until Lazarus was already dead. And this is no better than (B).

All four options are problematic, and they lead back to a number of views of God, which, at the risk of causing further boredom, I will outline below.

Six Views of Sovereignty

I. God causes all things (the puppeteer view)
II. God causes some things but approves all things (the checkpoint view)
III. God causes some things and approves some things (the pointless view)
IV. God causes some things but has no role in approving things
V. God caused the beginning and has caused nothing since. (the clockmaker view)
VI. God causes nothing.

View I is most famously held by reformed theologian John Piper. He takes it to the extreme in this post:

It’s right for God to slaughter women and children anytime he pleases. God gives life and he takes life. Everybody who dies, dies because God wills that they die.

I can’t believe in a God like that. Peter Enns has a lovely response to that comment, but for me it is sufficient to say that if someone causes something, they are responsible for it. E.g., if I cause a baseball to fly through and break a window, I am responsible for it. One philosopher wrote an extensive argument in which he tried to argue that God can be the cause of evil but not be responsible for evil, but it strikes me as theoretical wrangling on the level of “that depends on your definition of the word ‘is.'” I can’t worship a God who is responsible for evil. No thank you.

View II, the perspective espoused by the pastor last night and indeed by most evangelicals, appears a great improvement over view I.  God does not cause evil, but God does allow it. Its most famous phrasing is “God will never give you more than you can handle,” which is a modification of I Corinthians 10:13: “…God… will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear.” I call this the checkpoint position because it imagines every occurrence as needing to go through the checkpoint, as though every event passes by a divine checkpoint where God decides whether or not an event can happen.

I reject view II because if every event must pass by God’s divine checkpoint, he has a horrible, even sadistic, system of checking things through. Admittedly, it is an improvement over the puppeteer view, but not by much.

View III is pointless, but I included it for the sake of exhaustiveness.

View IV is the closest to my perspective. God does cause some things. It still has some problems because why does God intervene to help us find our car keys but not to stop genocide in Sudan? An improvement would be to say that God is always everywhere making things better, and that the resurrection of Christ is the greatest (so far) example of that improvement.

View V is held by deists. God “sets things in motion” and then walks away. Thomas Jefferson, for instance, created a Bible in which he took the sayings of Jesus and removed the miraculous from his accounts. This is hardly Christianity.

View VI is, of course, held by atheists.

Conclusion

I cannot hold to the certitude expressed by the holders of views I and II because, though they would give me certainty that someone is in control of everything, they give me no reason to believe that being is good and any number of reasons to believe that being is malevolent. View III gets me nowhere, and Views V and VI are not consistent with historical Christianity. IV is my only option.

God plants flowers in prison camps. He plants love in the hearts of the hurtful and gives rain to everyone. He is sovereign in the sense that a king is sovereign, not in the sense that a puppeteer or playwright is sovereign. God makes things better, but God does not run the show as if he were a puppeteer.

But this brings us back to Jesus, standing in front of Mary, who is weeping and mourning and screaming “Where the hell have you been?!”

Why did Jesus wait? John 11:15 makes it worse: “and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Jesus is glad he didn’t make it to Lazarus’s death so his disciples could believe?

What if Jesus didn’t know that Lazarus was dying? What if he assumed that Lazarus would get better? What if he found out, through some divine telepathy or something, that Lazarus was gone? “A disturbance in the force,” so to speak. Jesus makes the most of a horrible situation and goes toward Bethany. He finds Mary and Martha screaming bloody murder. He tells them everything is going to be okay, or, to borrow Max Lucado’s words, “Everything will turn out all right in the end, and if it’s not all right, it’s not the end.” “I am the resurrection and the life.”

Jesus, confronted with his friend in a stone cold tomb, weeps. Death is real and poignant. Someone he especially cared about lays in there decomposing. Maybe he weeps for Lazarus who died, who he didn’t know was going to die, who he couldn’t save. Maybe it’s for himself, who he knows is going to die, who he can’t save either. He wipes his tears and rolls up his sleeves. “Move the stone,” he says. “He stinks,” they tell him. Jesus doesn’t give a care. “Move it.” They shake their heads sadly at the delusional prophet and they move the stone just in time to hear him scream “LAZARUS! COME OUT!”

And of course Lazarus stumbles out of the tomb, wrapped up in his grave clothes, and Jesus tells them to get rid of those grave clothes, probably because he can’t take the sight of his friend looking like he’s prepped for death anymore.

And for me, that is comforting. God is like Jesus, and God is, like Jesus, making inroads and saving lives and raising the dead. Not that God could stop and doesn’t, but that God enters into our suffering and brings redemption.

David M Schell About David M Schell
David M. Schell is a doubter, a believer, and a skeptic. He writes about God and stuff. He is happily married to Kristen, and that's why his posts don't come out as often or as angry.