I hold to a high view of providence—what is sometimes called the “Augustinian” perspective. This is essentially the view that God actively governs the entire cosmos, including human beings. The Augustinian view jives well with the Calvinist doctrine of salvation, which I also espouse, but it is much broader than this, affirming that everything that happens in history is somehow part of the divine plan. The Augustinian view of providence is strongly affirmed in the Westminster Confession of Faith, which declares that God ordains all things that come to pass.
This is a hard teaching, and frankly I can see why many Christians reject it. The two principal objections to the Augustinian view appeal to human freedom and the problem of evil. And between these two, the latter seems to me to be the stronger objection by far. How could God ordain such terrible evils as the Holocaust or that a small child should suffer from a brain tumor? Good questions indeed, and I certainly feel their force.
My wife, Amy, is also an Augustinian when it comes to providence. (I distinctly recall when I first learned that this was her view. It was early in our dating relationship, and this revelation, combined with her usual thoughtful articulation of her perspective, floored me. Like so many other issues, she arrived at the same conclusion as I, but via a more intuitive path than my more logical-theoretical approach. This was probably the clincher for me—when I knew I was falling for her. Or was it when she turned me on to the band Cake? Hmm… Anyway, I digress.) Recently, Amy had a long discussion with a friend about providence, and naturally, her friend posed the objection from evil, specifically challenging Amy to explain why God would allow a little child to have cancer. Amy responded by noting that God does everything he does for greater goods, such as to glorify himself and bless others. And sometimes this involves or even requires intense suffering. And if God can bring greater goods through the crucifixion of Jesus, which is the worst evil in history, then why can’t he bring greater goods through lesser, though still horrific, evils, such as cancer? Amy’s friend was not convinced, and they went on to discuss other things.
Later, when recounting their conversation, Amy noted how this same friend of hers affirms the traditional view of hell, known as the doctrine of “eternal conscious torment.” This is the view that those who are condemned to hell suffer eternally. Not only are the pains of hell unspeakably intense, but they last forever, according to this view. One of the many reasons that Amy and I reject this doctrine (in addition to the fact that it is not biblical) is that such endless suffering constitutes infiniteevil for which there is no redemption or sufficiently greater good. (Traditionalists, of course, argue that the greater good is that it demonstrates the justice of God. But how can infinite punishment for finite sins be just? In case you were wondering, we affirm “conditional immortalism,” the view that the damned are eventually annihilated in hell and that only those in Christ live eternally.) Ironically, many of these traditionalists who believe God tortures the damned forever in hell are the same people who reject the high view of providence because it implicates God in our finite suffering here on Earth. As Amy put it, some people can’t accept a God who allows cancer but they glibly confess that he allows infinite suffering in hell.
I suppose part of the explanation for this inconsistency lies in the fact that all (or most) of us have known cancer victims and have witnessed its awful ravages. None of us, however, have personally witnessed the horrors of hell. So, in the end, the problem is that of an existential gap. It’s easier to understand or appreciate what one has experienced than what one has not experienced. And it often takes tremendous effort to close this gap. When it comes to comparing the sufferings of the damned and suffering in this life, I suppose that gap could never truly be closed. We just can’t imagine the pains of hell, while the suffering we witness here among friends and family is all too real and, at times, overwhelming. But we can always do better to put these things into proper perspective, and if we do so, I believe it will help us to better formulate our views on the doctrines of providence and hell, among other issues.