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.

  • I’m not sure of your premises. Here are some thoughts regarding your setup:

    1. God allows evil that good may come of it.
    2. Death is not the worst thing that can happen to us.
    3. Testifying to the resurrection of Christ is the best thing we can do.
    4. Temporal life is not the best thing we can have.

    Lazarus suffered a minor evil for a greater good. He did not suffer the ultimate deprivation, which is Hell.

    Does this perspective change anything?

    • I respond again: “…if every event must pass by God’s divine checkpoint, he has a horrible, even sadistic, system of checking things through.” When I say this, I refer to unimaginable suffering experienced by, for example, victims of the holocaust and the saints of old who “died without receiving what was promised.”

      In the case of Lazarus, it troubles me deeply to imagine God as a calculating deity who opts to allow one of his dear friends to suffer and die purely so that his followers may believe in him, even though he is going to die and be raised from the dead very shortly anyway. This seems like unnecessary suffering.

      You argue that death is not the worst thing that can happen to us, and, while this seems accurate from a strictly evangelical God–might-send-you-to-hell-for-all-eternity perspective, I’m not sure that it is the case.

      The worry here is the argument against God from evil:

      1. A good God would want to prevent needless suffering.
      2. An all-powerful (all-p) and all-knowing (all-k) God would be able to prevent needless suffering.
      3. Therefore, an all-powerful and all-knowing good God would be both willing and able to prevent needless suffering.
      4. If (3) is the case, then said God would prevent needless suffering.
      5. Needless suffering exists.
      6. Therefore, a good, all-p, all-k God does not exist.
      7. If God does exist, then God must not be either all-powerful, all-knowing, or all-good.

      Naturally, we can switch the argument up a bit.

      1. Jesus wanted to prevent needless suffering. (It is obvious that this is the case from the gospels).
      2. Scripture describes Jesus as being powerful enough to prevent needless suffering (including later in that chapter).
      3. Scripture indicates that Jesus knew that needless suffering was occurring.
      4. Therefore, Jesus was both knowledgable, willing and able to prevent needless suffering.
      5. Jesus did not prevent needless suffering.
      6. Therefore, one of the above premises is not the case.

      If (1) is not true, scripture no longer makes sense and Jesus cannot be trusted because he is a deity of dubious moral character who sometimes causes (or allows) people to suffer for no reason.
      If (2) is not true, the deists are right.
      If (3) or (5) is not true, then we have a problem with scripture.
      (4) arises from 1, 2, and 3, and (6) is inescapable given 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5.

      I am confused how point 3 fits into your overall comments.

      • My point 3 is the center of my case, so if it is unclear that is why my comment seems ineffective.

        If you say Christ died to prevent needless suffering, it can be understood in a true way — but Christ did not remove the suffering but the needlessness. Instead, Christ made it purposeful. We share not just in the Resurrection but the Crucifixion. (I say this without presuming that I will be end up with God.)

        Every time we suffer, we can give that suffering to God, who will sanctify it and us in the image of the Redeemer.

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  • Ann Schell

    I tend to agree with you, but on a larger scale I believe God did approve all things because He knew what would happen when He created man with a free will, and He did it anyway. The choices people make have consequences. When we choose evil, the consequences of suffering affect us and a lot of times the people around us. If there was no evil, good would be meaningless. And if we weren’t free to love, love would be meaningless. When Jesus came, He joined us in our suffering; and part of following Him is joining others in their suffering. I know these thoughts are kind of randomly strung together, but if you consider all of them together I think they should make sense.

  • I do believe that God can be good and all-knowing and all-powerful because of the Free Will/Original Sin factor. It also helps if we consider that to God time is not necessarily linear. It may be more a ball of “wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey” stuff where to achieve the desired omelette outcome, a few eggs must be cracked.

    • This is all well and good unless yours are the eggs that are cracked – or unless you are yourself said cracked egg.

      The other deal is that as soon as we introduce free will / human freedom, God loses all-powerfulness to control literally everything. God ceases to control what humans do, or allow what humans do, which opens up a nice big gaping crack in the universe of something that God neither controls nor checkpoint-allows.

      Though I appreciate the Doctor Who reference. 😀

      • Believe me this egg has some pretty big cracks. The way I’m looking at it is that God is all-powerful, but He chooses to give us free will because without it we cannot have a meaningful relationship with Him. He doesn’t want the suffering, but the world was broken by original sin. That is why the cross was necessary. I take the theory that we are living in an in-between state, some call it the tension, between what was begun with the cross and what is promised to be finished at the second coming. A wound that is healing still hurts.

    • I’m all for the logical approach, but there may be factors we can’t see. If one does not have all the data even an answer based on logic may be incorrect.

  • Did Lazarus die a second time? If we are all appointed to die once, maybe Lazarus has paid his dues and is just hanging back, waiting for Christ’s return

  • Since God is unknowable, how could any of these six views be true? As to the story of Lazarus, here’s my $0.02: I think the point of this story gets lost in a literal interpretation that Lazarus’s corpse came back to life. I personally believe that this passage was meant to illustrate the transformational nature of death, and how being a close friend of Jesus will also change the nature of what we transform into.

  • Layne

    Who decides whether or not it is ‘needless’?

    Point 1. is shaky…sure Jesus wants to prevent suffering, but there are cases when causing suffering is the most loving thing to do. Spiritual pruning for example, also detailed in John, is a kind of loving exposure to suffering, in order that we grow closer to God. We can suffer here on Earth if our house burns down, for example, but perhaps this can bring us away from materialism, maybe we can find more peace the less we have, etc.

    Paul talks about this when he refers to how God caused His children to reject His son, so that the Gentiles could be grafted in to the kingdom. Seems needless, but it is not, in the big picture.

    Sometimes the ‘right thing’ doesn’t feel good. But that doesn’t change the fact that it is right.

    God is not bound by our conception of whether or not anyone ‘deserves’ or needs suffering. He is not bound by our conception of fairness or quality of life. If God Has not the power to stop my suffering, how does He have the power to stop sin and death? When you call the omnipotence of God into question, you call Judeo-Christianity into question as a whole. Which is fine, I guess, questioning can be healthy and essential…but I believe that your train of thought can only lead to an impotent God.

    I do grant that some things in the world cannot be bent to achieve ‘good’. So many people die for no reason….this, I don’t really have an answer for. But I can’t allow this to shake my faith in the omnipotence of God…I have to just dwell in the uncertainty here.
    Perhaps the randomness and desperate state of suffering in our lost world exists due to sin, and was caused by God in order that we can fully experience His love. How can you save that which is not lost? Just an idea.

  • Brian J. Hall

    Excellent article, but 2 small points stuck with me:

    “View III gets me nowhere, and Views V and VI are not consistent with historical Christianity. IV is my only option.” No, technically VI is still on the table. I guess you’re not ready to entertain that (not yet, anyway)?

    and also

    “I can’t worship a God who is responsible for evil. No thank you.”. If God created everything, then he also created evil (implicitly or explicitly). At the very least, he allowed it to happen. So doesn’t that invalidate his omnipotence?

    Thanks!

    • As far as I know, all Christians believe that God causes at least some things (creation at least), so I don’t think that’s an option for me, but if you’re a Christian who believes VI, I’d be fascinated to hear your perspective!

      • Brian J. Hall

        Ha! Sorry, I should have written that better. I mean your take that option VI was the atheist belief. I meant, technically speaking, atheism (or some form of agnosticism) was still an option. Former Christian here; dealt with a lot of these questions myself, back in the day.

        • Haha yeah, I understand where you’re coming from now. Half the time I do consider VI as an option. The way I’ve explained it to my pastor and others is this: “I affirm the creeds, and sometimes I believe them.” Sometimes I do believe VI, but on (what I consider to be) good days, I don’t.

          • Brian J. Hall

            Well, I can certainly respect that position. I wish everyone were as intellectually honest about it as you were. Might actually open the floor to meaningful dialogue and mutual understanding. Thanks for the article and the replies!

          • My pleasure. Thanks for the discussion 🙂

  • Natasha Diane Witt

    This was a well thought-out article, but you missed one point: What if Jesus let Lazarus die and have his sisters weep so that a couple days later, he could show his ULTIMATE POWER OVER DEATH? I mean, that’s what he did with the ressurection and with many other people in his day, he came when they were dead to show that he is powerful and can raise anyone from the dead. I would consider that the next time you create a skeptic article.

    • I did indeed consider that point as (A), and I found it horrible. Though I didn’t enumerate this point, I found it horrible for any reason, including Jesus showing his power over death. “It’s cool, I’m going to let my friend die and his sisters suffer so I can show the world that I’m awesome.” Ummyeahno. I can’t worship someone who’s that self-absorbed and image-obsessed.

  • Rachel Nelms

    i haven’t really fleshed this out, but reading your post prompted a thought for me: perhaps Jesus did not intend to resurrect lazarus whose sickness may not have been a surprise (something like, say, cancer or some other terminal illness). and so he didn’t hasten. but he did come to bethany to be there for mary and martha in their time of grief and after seeing the depth of their suffering, and his own, he decided to resurrect him either literally or as ascendancy manifest.

    i think one challenge for those trained in the evangelical tradition is to allow that changing one’s mind or making decisions in time (which, after all, Jesus chose to enter into when he became man) is neither sinful nor unholy. therefore, it is possible for a sovereign, holy, omni-x God to change his mind without invalidating previous decisions, committing a sin, or besmirching his power, authority, and God-ness in any way.

    if this notion is something we’re prepared to accept, then it seems possible that Jesus could’ve been overwhelmed by empathy and changed his plan, deciding–in time–to bring lazarus back.

    (a note on time: i suggest time matters during Jesus’s time on earth. i also suggest that God created time *first* and then placed the rest of his creation *in time*, so time matters inherently, objectively, outside of Jesus’s biography. but this is for another conversation.)

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  • Josh Johnson

    Heresies like Calvinism, eternal torment, and the lust comment I made in your other thread do not originate with the apostles or anybody from the bible. They originate with the true father of Christianity, Augustine. Augustine was not the first to have these views or to bring them into the church, but he WAS the first to do so succesfully. Eternal torment in particular was born out of the immortal soul theory. That our souls are immortal. Augustine learned this from greek philosophers and brought it into the church. Unfortunately his writings gain influence and you know the rest. Christianity is not a creation of Jesus or the apostles. Christianity was shaped largely by 4 men. Augustine, Calvin, Luther, and Constantine. Near every influential Christian figure from history right on to today was influenced heavily by these men. And since Calvin, Luther, and Constantine got most of what they taught from Augustine, then Augustine is Christianitys true creator. But the teachings they taught are not in the bible.

  • flamingmoderate

    As an Evolutionists, I believe that the world is the way it is because that is the only way the world CAN work. Plate tectonics create mountains, deep oceans, and buffer the carbon cycle that makes life on this Earth possible. Oh, yeah, it also causes earthquakes, volcanoes and kill millions of people.