First, some cautions. Believers should be very careful about attempting to interpret providence just as we should be careful about seeking to know his hidden will. The truth is, according to Jesus (Luke 13), we don’t know why God permits evil in the world. More on this below. Where is God when bad things happen? Right where he always was, comprehending everything in his providence.
Second, there is more to say and know about how God relates to the world and evil in his mysterious providence. In Westminster Confession of Faith 5.2 the Reformed churches confess:
2. Although, in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the first Cause, all things come to pass immutably, and infallibly; yet, by the same providence, he ordereth them to fall out, according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently.
Here is wisdom about how God operates in the world but it will take some time and meditation to begin to grasp what this little section means. The first thing we must say is that whatever happens in the world occurs within God’s foreknowledge and decree. Remember, Scripture says: “In the beginning God….” We cannot account for Divine-human relations without that datum. We must not try to explain how God relates to the world in a way that effectively overturns the reality that there was when there was God and nothing. God alone simply is (Exodus 3). Everything else is created and dependent or contingent upon God. God spoke (Gen 1; John 1) into the void and made all that is. This is why catholic Christians (i.e., those who confess the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Athanasian Creed) say “I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” There are accounts of divine-human relations, e.g., so-called “Open Theism“ or “Process Theology” or even “Middle Knowledge” that, in different ways, seek to overturn the catholic (universal) Christian understanding of Holy Scripture. They would make God contingent upon his creation. Ultimately, any view of God that makes him dependent upon us is a species of paganism.
There is also a temptation to react to these errors by flattening out the story of divine-human relations. Sometimes the way Reformed folk talk popularly about the how God relates to the world fails to account for everything that Scripture says and everything we confess. So, whatever happens does so within God’s foreknowledge and decree. It happens “immutably” (unchangeably) and “infallibly” (without deviation). Nevertheless, God uses what are called in the Confession “second causes.” What are they? A second cause is a created thing. God, who is uncreated, is the first cause. In rough terms think of dominoes (for those under 30, here’s a video). The person who pushes the first domino is the first cause. Creatures do what they do because God decreed what he decreed. That is the clear teaching of Exodus 9 and Romans 9 and Job 38.
Now, it’s not as if God pushes the first domino and then walks away. Not at all! The God of Scripture is actively and mysteriously working through, in, and with his creatures to accomplish his good purposes. He uses “second causes.” in three ways: necessarily, freely, or contingently. Some things God wills to accomplish necessarily. They could have come to the end they did in only one way. Our salvation is an example of God using second causes to accomplish an end necessarily. God willed from all eternity that each of his elect will come to faith where they shall, when they shall.
He does not, however, will everything to work out in that same way. When we use the adjective “freely” we recognize that humans make free choices. They do not have the ability to will the contrary to God. That is a pagan notion. Humans do, however, make free, uncoerced choices according to their natures. Those free choices are comprehended within God’s secret providence and God works through them to accomplish his purposes unchangeably and infallibly. Our choices are not a surprise to God. Yet, we, as we experience things, are making free choices. Consider Felix the cat. He may walk across the street or he may not. Impulsive cat that he is, he does not know whether he will cross until he chooses to do so. If Felix is hit by a car as he crosses the street, that will be a great surprise to him but not to God. Yet, Felix willed freely (no one made him will to cross the street) and yet that free choice was comprehended in God’s providence and decree in a way that operates differently from necessity.
When we say “contingently” we are saying that Felix might have willed not to cross the street. Elmer Fudd, who hit Felix, might have chosen not to text whilst driving. If Elmer had chosen to sleep in rather than to go hunting, he would not have been behind the wheel to become distracted by the text from Bugs Bunny. These are contingencies. Things might have been other than they were. However the events surrounding Felix’s street crossing worked out, they were all comprehended in God’s eternal foreknowledge, decree, and providence and yet Felix, Elmer, and Bugs each made a free choices and the chain of events was, relative to second causes, contingent (things dependent on other things), and, at the same time, God was mysteriously working out his purposes in all of them.
What does this all mean? The caricature of Reformed theology is that it reduces humans to “stocks and blocks” (Canons of Dort 3/4.16) is false. Even with respect to salvation, we confess,
so also this grace of regeneration does not treat men as senseless stocks and blocks, nor take away their will and its properties, or do violence thereto; but it spiritually quickens, heals, corrects, and at the same time sweetly and powerfully bends it, that where carnal rebellion and resistance formerly prevailed, a ready and sincere spiritual obedience begins to reign….
The Reformed account of the human will relative to the divine will does not minimize or eliminate it. Quite the opposite is true! The Reformed account actually makes our free choices meaningful. Those choices do not occur in a random, chaotic (pagan) universe where nothing has meaning. Our choices occur within the context of God’s interpretation and design. They have meaning because God assigns meaning to them. They have value because God uses them to accomplish his purposes. They have moral significance because God holds us morally and legally liable for our choices. Can we explain exhaustively how this all works? No. If we press Paul for an answer he says, “How can the clay say to the Potter, why did you make me thus?”
As we continue to meditate on Boston and other apparently random acts of evil let us remember that human beings made free choices to attack, maim, and to murder. Those choices were not “fated.” The evil actors who planted those bombs could have chosen other than they did and those evil actors are morally and legally culpable for their choices, actions, and consequences. We must not shake our fist at God for the bombing. In his mercy he sent brave authorities to rush into the midst of the chaos to bring aid to the wounded and to defuse two devices. We cannot raise our fist to God and then thank him for his mercies without schizophrenia and without assuming a posture as judge over God.
Then there is the cross. Pilate might have chosen to dismiss the charges. One of the Jewish authorities might have chosen to speak up in defense of Jesus’ innocence but no one did. Why not? It was necessary that Jesus die. God the Son freely chose from all eternity to be our redeemer, to interpose himself for us sinners. He took on true humanity. He involved himself intimately, personally, and completely in the mess that we made. He was utterly innocent and wholly and perfectly just and yet he died. Our free choices cost God’s only begotten Son (John 3;16) but it was not for nothing. It was for salvation and life. Perhaps Boston will convince some that humans made sinful choices because we are sinners? Perhaps Boston will cause some to look to the God-Man for salvation from the wrath to come?
So, we humbly bow our heads in the face of another difficult providence and ask for grace to trust and restraining mercies and for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit to soften hearts and for the quickening power of the Spirit to bring Christ’s lambs to faith and for light in the darkness.