I call upon You, Lord, God of Abraham and God of Isaac and God of Jacob and Israel, You who are the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who, through the abundance of your mercy, was well-pleased towards us so that we may know You, who made heaven and earth, who rules over all, You who are the one and the true God, above whom there is no other God; You who, by our Lord Jesus Christ gave us the gift of the Holy Spirit, give to every one who reads this writing to know You, that You alone are God, to be strengthened in You, and to avoid every heretical and godless and impious teaching.

St Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 3:6:4

The Strong Hands of the Potter: A Scriptural Case for Divine Omnicausality

Granting that Rabbi Harold Kushner’s theodicy, When Bad Things Happens to Good People,[1] enjoyed a solid eight months on the New York Times best-seller list, and, since its publishing in 1981, has sold millions of copies in America,[2] there is little wonder that the civil religion in this country largely embraces a view wherein people are too big and God is too small.[3]  According to Kushner, “[T]here is only one question which really matters: why do bad things happen to good people?”[4]  Who cannot appreciate the existential weight of this simple question?  Boyd is correct, “[F]ew theological topics have more practical significance than the topic of divine providence.”[5]  Asking the question, however, presupposes that there is indeed a reason, an explanation for suffering and evil in God’s world. 
            For Kushner, the theological dilemma of the problem of suffering and evil has an explanation: God is good, he’s just too small.[6]  “God would like people to get what they deserve in life, but he cannot always arrange it…God has a hard time keeping chaos in check and limiting the damage that evil can do.”[7]  For Kushner, and millions of others, the omnipotent, Lord over all self-disclosed in Scripture, nature, history, his church, and supremely in his Son is pierced-through on one horn of this dilemma.  God is not the providential Ruler; he is too weak and too small!  Despite his best efforts, Kushner’s neutering of God does little to comfort those who suffer; it heals the hurt of real people only slightly (Jer 6:14; 8:11).[8]
            Although the term evangelical once had firm contours, today it is a self-descriptive label for a number of theological perspectives that deny the once-defining doctrines that gave evangelicals their shared solidarity.[9]  Open theology is one of these perspectives, which “reject doctrines (such as God’s exhaustive foreknowledge) that have never before been controversial in evangelical circles.”[10] Similar to Kushner, and with respect to the doctrine of providence, open theists maintain that God “cannot meticulously control what [an agent with free will] does,” no easier than he can “create a round triangle or a married bachelor.”[11]  Unlike Kushner, however, open theists argue that the restriction of God’s control over his creation is a self-limitation, not some insufficiency in power per se. 
            Against both of these perspectives is the Reformed doctrine of providence, which has been defended by the vast majority of theologians in the historic Calvinistic tradition.[12]  The Westminster Confession of Faith states the Calvinistic position in no uncertain terms.[13]
God from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures, nor the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established (WCF, III: I).  God, the great Creator of all things, doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all things, from the greatest even to the least, by his most wise and holy providence, according to his infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of his own will, to the praise of the glory of his wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy (WCF, V:I).

What follows will argue from Scripture the Reformed view of providence.  Because the plethora of Scripture, which presents God’s general omnicausal control over all, is so aptly surveyed and expounded in many works,[14] the scope of this thesis will be narrowed.  This essay will make the case that Scripture explicitly teaches that God ordains the sinful actions and subsequent suffering of free human agents, yet holds the immediate agents morally accountable for that sin. 
Divine Omnicausality: God’s Foreordination of Sinful Actions and Evil
            Even a cursory reading of Scripture reveals that God’s absolute sovereignty extends beyond the big numbers of mere nature and history to the details of the hearts of men and nations.  As Carson notes, “[I]t is difficult to conceive how Yahweh could thus control even the details of history unless he controls the minds and emotions of men.  And in fact, the Old Testament writers do not hesitate to describe events in precisely those terms.”[15]  Unfettered by modernistic rationalism, the Bible applies this divine omnicausality to even evil and sinful actions and events.  We may only survey a thumbnail sketch of the biblical material here.
The Hardening Motif in Scripture
            Not only does God sovereignly govern free human decisions,[16] but also sin, suffering, and evil.  A particular motif in the Scripture’s storyline is that of God hardening individuals and entire peoples, thus resulting in sin and sinful actions.  The exodus story provides paradigmatic cases.
            In Exodus, the plot turns on a simple change in monarchs within the dynasty, stated in purely phenomenological terms.  “Now there arose up a new king over Egypt, which knew not Joseph” (Ex 1:8).  In their bondage, the Hebrews multiplied greatly and became much stronger than their Egyptian enemies (Ex 1:7, 9; cf. Ps 105:24).  The psalmist interprets this turn in the plot in unambiguous reference to its ultimate personal Cause, YHWH.  “[YHWH] turned [the Egyptians’] heart to hate his people, to deal subtilly with his servants” (Ps 105:25; cf. Ex 1:10).[17]  Likewise, Moses and Paul both interpret Pharaoh’s purpose in God’s providential plan as passive, “[F]or the scripture saith unto Pharaoh, Even for this same purpose have I [YHWH] raised thee up” (the aorist, active indicative of exegeirō [Rom 9:17; cf. Ex 9:16]).  The froward turn in the Exodus plot was therefore the result of YHWH’s absolute sovereign control over the hearts of his peoples’ enemies; YHWH foreordained and acted, making Egypt hate and oppress his people.  Israel’s suffering and “cruel bondage” (Ex 6:9) was YHWH’s perfect will and personal activity. 
Despite the fact that YHWH is the ultimate cause of Egypt’s sinful oppression of Israel and her subsequent suffering, YHWH still holds Egypt morally accountable and judges them for their hateful treatment of Israel and their refusal to heed his word (Gen 15:14; Ex 12:12; Num 33:4; Ps 105:27—38).  Even Pharaoh recognized that he was guilty before mighty YHWH, saying, “I have sinned this time: YHWH is righteous, and I and my people are wicked” (Ex 9:27; cf. 10:16).  Although Pharaoh’s actions were part of the actualizing of God’s all-conditioning, eternal decree, Pharaoh felt no compulsion, and knew YHWH was righteous in his wrath against Egypt and her king.  Similarly, in Deuteronomy 2:30, YHWH does it again, hardening the heart of Sihon, king of Heshbon, making it obstinate against Israel, that he might overthrow them.  During the conquest of Canaan, YHWH also actively hardened the hearts of Israel’s enemies to their doom (Josh 11:19, 20).  Again, the hardness of human hearts is attributed directly to YHWH. 
God’s Providential Control Over Sin
            More specifically, Exodus 4 – 14 presents Pharaoh’s continued obstinacy against YHWH’s word as the result of God’s perpetual hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, making him resist Moses’ commands to release the people.  From Martin Luther and John Calvin to John Piper and Greg Beale, powerful exegesis has been set forward for the conclusion that every instance of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart in Ex 4 –14 was either the active, unilateral, and initiatory work of YHWH or the result thereof.[18]   “And the LORD said unto Moses, When thou goest to return into Egypt, see that thou do all those wonders before Pharaoh, which I have put in thine hand: but I will harden his heart, that he shall not let the people go” (Ex 4:21, italics added; cf. 7:3; 9:12, 35; 10:1, 20; 14:8).  Moses unashamedly presents YHWH as the immediate and continued cause of Pharaoh’s hardening, resistance, and sin. 
            It is not only Israel’s enemies that experience God’s hardening, however.  God’s message through the prophet Isaiah was one of hardening and condemnation toward Israel, presented in what may be called “sensory-organ-malfunction language” (Is 6:9ff; cf. Deut 29:4).[19]  The prophet himself recognized that it is YHWH who has caused his people to sin.  “O YHWH, why hast thou made us to err from thy ways, and hardened our heart from thy fear?” (63:17; cf. 64:7).  Moreover, Isaiah’s hardening motif was picked up and applied to the contemporary Jews by the New Testament writers (Matt 13:14, 15; Mk 4:12; Lk 8:10; Jn 12:40; Acts 28:26, 27; Rom 11:8).  God sends the reprobate “strong delusion” in order to cause them to believe lies (2 Thess 2:11).  As Paul says, God hardens whomever he wills and has mercy on whomever he wills (Rom 9:18). 
Samson’s unrighteous lust for the Philistine women “was of YHWH” (Judg 14:4).  The wickedness of Eli’s sons was the Lord’s will, because the Lord willed to “slay them” (1 Sam 2:25).  After all, “YHWH hath made all things for himself: yea, even the wicked for the day of evil” (Prov 16:4).  God actualizes his plan, in part, by executing it with the basest of means and secondary causes (Judg 9:23; 2 Kings 19:5—7).  There is no shortage of texts, then, which explicitly teach that God’s will is accomplished, even by the evil actions of moral agents, acting as secondary causes.
God’s Providential Control Over Suffering
God also takes direct credit for human pain and suffering.  Isaiah has YHWH making a claim our modern sensibilities find audacious. “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I, YHWH, do all these things” (Is 45:7).[20]  More than that, if woe and calamity befall a city, the prophets cannot fathom any other thought than “YHWH hath done it” (Amos 3:6).  God’s role in human suffering is not merely generalized in terms of nations and cities, but individual persons.  Naomi’s bitter grief and bereavement was from the Almighty (Ruth 1:13, 20).  Both the narrator and Job bluntly attribute all of Job’s misery and vexation directly to God; the book is framed by a divine omnicausal inclusio (Job 1:21; 42:11).  If someone deaf, dumb, or blind is found, it is because the Lord created him thus (Ex 4:11).  In fact, when the disciples seek the responsibility for the man-born-blind’s life-long suffering in the sin of either him or his parents, Jesus’ brings to focus back to its purpose in the divine plan.  The man’s congenital blindness was for the purpose of manifesting the glorious power of God in Christ (Jn 9:1—3).  So it was also with Lazarus.  His sickness and death, his sisters’ and friends’ sorrow, were all intended to glorify the Father and the Son (11:4).  
The quintessential example, exhibiting God foreordination of sin and suffering, what Murray calls “the arch crime of history,” is the murder of the Son of God.[21]  If ever there was an evil act perpetrated, an abortion of all that is just and right, it is found in the trial and death of Jesus of Nazareth.  The crucifixion of Jesus Christ, however, was “Him, being delivered by the determinate plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23a). 
Granted, “both Herod, and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles, and the people of Israel, were gathered together” (4:28) “against the Lord, and against his Christ” (v. 26).  Nevertheless, all that happened to Jesus was “to do whatsoever [God’s] hand and [his] will determined before to be done” (v. 28).  Moreover, when Pilate sought to emphasize to Jesus his authority to determine Jesus’ life or death, Jesus retorted, “Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above (i.e., from God)” (Jn 19:10, 11).  God was in absolute control of both the minutest details and the outcome of the cross event, and that by meticulously controlling every human decision along the way.  Regarding Jesus, “It was the will of the LORD to crush him, he has put him to grief” (Is 53:10 ESV); men, however, are held morally accountable for his death.  As Jesus said, “And truly the Son of man goeth, as it was determined (horizō; cf. “determinate,” Acts 2:23): but woe unto that man by whom he is betrayed!” (Lk 22:22, italics added). 
The good and necessary conclusion from these biblical data is that God stands back of sinful acts of secondary moral agents, he unambiguously takes direct personal attribution of “evil” events, such as cities and nations befallen of calamities; and that, despite God’s omnicausal relation to all these things, the human agency, operating as a secondary cause, is held morally accountable for the evil and sin behind the actions and events. 
The attempts for a theodicy, by Kushner or the openness theologians, fail to do justice to the scriptural data, regarding God’s relation to sin, evil, and suffering.  Moreover, limiting God’s control over all things—including sin and suffering—cannot satisfy existentially.  And for the unbelieving, no logical construct will do.  Even if sinful man was granted the libertarian freedom of the openness theologies, he would still blame God for his troubles (Prov 19:3); and they are those to whom Paul would respond, “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God?  Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?” (Rom 9:20, 21). 
However, for the believing, the Reformed
doctrine of providence is not a philosophical system but a confession of faith, the confession that, notwithstanding appearances, neither Satan nor a human being nor any other creature, but God and he alone—by his almighty and everywhere present power—preserves and governs all things.  Such a confession can save us both from a superficial optimism that denies the riddles of life, and from a presumptuous pessimism that despairs of this world and human destiny.  For the providence of God encompasses all things, not only the good but also sin and suffering, sorrow and death.  For if these realities were removed from God’s guidance, then what in the world would there be left for him to rule?[22]

In this—the strong hands of the Potter—we are contented to rest in faith.


Bavinck, Herman, Reformed Dogmatics, God and Creation, vol. 2, edited by John Bolt, translated by John Vriend.  Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academics, 2004.

Beale, Gregory K., “An Exegetical and Theological Consideration of the Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart in Exodus 4 – 14 and Romans 9.” Trinity Journal 5, NS (1984): 129-154.

______________., We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry.  Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2008.

Boettner, Loraine, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination.  Philipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1932. 

Calvin, John, Institutes of the Christian Religion, translated by Henry Beveridge.  Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing, 2001.

Carson, D. A., Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility: Biblical Perspectives in Tension.  Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2002.

Cunningham, William, The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation.  London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1967. 

Ecumenical Creeds and Reformed Confessions.  Grand Rapids, Michigan: CRC Publications, 1988.

Edwards, Jonathan, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God and Other Writings.  Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000.

Frame, John M., No Other God: A Response to Open Theism.  Philipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 2001. 

Helseth, Paul K., William Lane Craig, Ron Highfield, Gregory A. Boyd contributors, Four Views on Divine Providence, edited by Dennis W. Jowers.  Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2011. 

Kushner, Harold S., When Bad Things Happen to Good People.  New York, New York: Avon Books, 1981. 

Reymond, Robert L., A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (2nd Ed.).  Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1998.

Warfield, Benjamin B., Biblical and Theological Studies, edited by Samuel G. Craig.  Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1952.

Westminster Confession of Faith.  Glasgow, England: Free Presbyterian Publications, 1990. 

[1] Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (New York, New York: Avon Books, 1981). 

[2] Ibid., flyleaf.  

[3] This turn of phrase is largely indebted to Edward T. Welch’s book, When People Are Big and God is Small: Overcoming Peer Pressure, Codependency, and the Fear of Man (Philipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1997), and is a sort of catch phrase among many of the faculty of the biblical counseling group of which Welch is a part, the Christian Counseling and Education Foundation. 

[4] Kushner, When Bad Things Happen, 6.

[5] Gregory A. Boyd, “God Limits His Control,” in Four Views on Divine Providence, Paul K. Helseth, William Lane Craig, Ron Highfield, Gregory A. Boyd contributors, edited by Dennis W. Jowers (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2011), 183. 

[6] Historically, the simplified, deductive construction of the problem of suffering and evil has been as follows:
        1. If God were omnipotent, then he could prevent suffering and evil.
        2. If God were omnibenevolent, then he would desire to prevent suffering and evil.
        3. Nevertheless, evil is the case.
        4. Therefore, either God in not omnibenevolent, or he is not omnipotent.   

[7] Kushner, When Bad Things Happen, 43.  The unspoken, unbiblical premise of these remarks should not be missed.  Kushner’s remarks not only scorn a biblically faithful theology proper, but also a biblical anthropology, for they assume that people living in God’s world deserve only good thing and benefits.  God, or whatever element that Kushner believes is governing the world, owes people only positive benefits.  To put it a bit crass, this is plain morosophy.  “Why do bad things happen to good people?”  This present writer’s 16 year old daughter answers, “They don’t, because there are no ‘good people’ in the sense that Kushner thinks of them!”  (Israel Stevenson, personal conversation, 11 October, 2011). 

[8] One bereaved reader of Kushner’s book offers a blunt, personal appraisal.  “My 5 year old daughter drowned 2 months ago and I'm desperate for a reason why and desperate to feel better. This book made me feel more sad than anything. It basically said that God can't do anything. Well if God can't do anything, why would we pray then - for good things, for miracles for anything? The only thing I agreed with is the thought that, ‘Well this happened to us - what do we do know?’ I hate hearing that God just wanted my daughter or needed her more than we do but feeling that it's part of God's plan feels better than God can do nothing and sucks to be us.” An Amazon review of Kushner’s book, by “Ang ‘AngDaReel1,’” (Brooklyn Park, Maine, posted 20 September, 2011.  As found at http://www.amazon.com/When-Things-Happen-Good-People/product-reviews/1400034728/ref=cm_cr_dp_synop?ie=UTF8&showViewpoints=0&sortBy=bySubmissionDateDescending#R1FEVZVC80J2WH).  It seems that AngDaReel1’s solution is far more consonant with the Belgic Confession’s declaration that the Reformed doctrine of providence “gives us unspeakable comfort since it teaches us that nothing can happen to us by chance but only by the arrangement of our gracious heavenly Father…In this thought we rest” (Art. 13) than it is to Kushner’s.  Ecumenical Creeds and Reformed Confessions (Grand Rapids, Michigan: CRC Publications, 1988), 89—90.

[9] John M. Frame, No Other God: A Response to Open Theism (Philipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 2001), 39.  Such doctrines would include, “the inerrancy of Scripture…justification by grace through faith in the finished work of Christ…biblical supernaturalism, including the virgin birth of Jesus, his miracles, his substitutionary atonement, and his resurrection.” Ibid.   

[10] Ibid., parenthesis original.
[11] Boyd, “God Limits His Control,” 191, brackets added for clarity.

[12] William Cunningham, “Calvinism and the Doctrine of Philosophical Necessity,” in The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation (London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1967), 471—524.   

[13] Westminster Confession of Faith (Glasgow, England: Free Presbyterian Publications, 1990), 28, 33—34. 

[14] For fuller coverage of the biblical teaching of the Reformed view of providence, please refer to the following works: Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, God and Creation, vol. 2, edited by John Bolt, translated by John Vriend (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academics, 2004), 337—47; 393—405; 591—619; Loraine Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination (Philipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1932), see especially 13—57; Calvin, John, Institutes of the Christian Religion, translated by Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing, 2001), 171—205; D. A. Carson, Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility: Biblical Perspectives in Tension (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2002); Jonathan Edwards, “Freedom of the Will,” in Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God and Other Writings (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000), 107—314; John Frame, No Other God, 57—88; Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, 2nd Ed. (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1998), 343—82; 398—413; Benjamin B. Warfield, Biblical and Theological Studies, edited by Samuel G. Craig (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1952), 270—333.

[15] Carson, Divine Sovereignty, 27. 

[16] See, e.g., Joseph’s brothers, Gen 45:5—8; everyone’s heart, Ps 33:15; Prov 16:1, 9, 21; the king’s heart, 21:1; Cyrus, Is 44:28; Judas Iscariot, Lk 22:22; cf. Judg 7:22; Dan 1:9; Ezra 6:22, etc. 
[17] Beale draws attention, respecting the hardening motif, to the strong similarity of language between Ex 14:4, 5 and Ps 105:25.  See Gregory K. Beale, “An Exegetical and Theological Consideration of the Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart in Exodus 4 – 14 and Romans 9.” Trinity Journal 5, NS (1984): 136.

[18] Beale, “An Exegetical and Theological Consideration of the Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart in Exodus 4 – 14 and Romans 9,” 129, fn. 2; see the entire article for Beale’s case for God’s activity in the hardening of Pharaoh. 

[19] Gregory K. Beale, We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 41. 
[20] The semantic range of “evil” (ra‛ / râ‛âh) in the OT precludes the notion of YHWH fiat creating moral evil (as though moral evil is a thing created to begin with).  The King James Version translates this term thus: “hurt” (Jer 7:5); “trouble” (11:14); “affliction” (48:16); “ill” (Is 3:11); “adversity” (Eccl 7:14); “grievous” (2:17); “noisome” (Eze 14:21); “calamities” (Ps 141:5); “troubles” (88:3); “distress” (Neh 2:17), and “grief” (Jon 4:6). 
[21] John Murray as cited in Frame, No Other God, 73. 
[22] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics vol. 2, 618—19. 


  1. Hi Kevin.

    Just wanted to say that I really love your blog. Fascinating topics.

    God bless!

  2. Good day, Mate! (Sorry, Matt, but it's not very often I get to chat with an Aussie :). Appreciate you stopping by, and certainly for the encouraging words. I'm looking forward to browsing your blogs this evening, if school work will allow it (me, my lovely wife, and daughter all are full-time students...with only two computers :/ ). If not tonight, I'll get over there soon. Let me know if you'd like to tease out anything you find interesting. Blessings, brother...and the Lord bless your ministry to Him!