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Most Christians in the past clearly understood the concept of divine providence. Even Thomas Jefferson, a deist, invokes divine providence in the Declaration of Independence. Certainly, the idea that God can order events in certain ways follows naturally from His attributes of omniscience and omnipotence.
But what does it mean that God orders things? Is there a difference between the laws of nature and the providential care of God? And if God orders all things, then what about all the evil that we see in the world today? Couldn't God fix that? James Montgomery Boice encapsulates the discussion well:
"There is probably no point at which the Christian doctrine of God comes more into conflict with contemporary worldviews than in the matter of God's providence. Providence means that God has not abandoned the world that he created, but rather works within that creation to manage all things according to the 'immutable counsel of His own will' (Westminster Confession of Faith, V, i). By contrast, the world at large, even if it will on occasion acknowledge God to have been the world's Creator, is at least certain that he does not now intervene in human affairs. Many think that miracles do not happen, that prayer isn't answered and that most things 'fall out' according to the functioning of impersonal and unchangeable laws.As I've written before2, God, in Hebrew thought, is considered the final authority over everything. If wars or famine happen, then God has allowed that to occur, and therefore controls evil. He does not initiate any type of evil. When a man seeks to sin and commit adultery that is his choice. He should not expect God to protect him, then, from any disease or negative ramification of his choice. God's judgments and the loss of His protection are how he creates afflictions in the lives of men. Judgment is not morally wrong, though. Quite the opposite, judgment is what we expect of a righteous God.
"The world argues that evil abounds. How can evil be compatible with the concept of a good God who is actively ruling this world? There are natural disasters: fires, earthquakes, and floods. In the past, these have been called 'acts of God.' Should we blame God for them? Isn't it better to imagine that he simply has left the world to pursue its own course?"1
What Evil Isn'tEvil and sins are not "things" in and of themselves.3 They do not exist autonomously. Rather, they are the absence of the perfect which God did make. As an example, we have the ability to create a vacuum of space. Now I do this not by making something out of materials, but by removing all the air and particles out of that space. The void that remains is what we choose to label a vacuum. It isn't a thing in itself, but it is a term we use to state that everything else is gone. Likewise we use the term cold to describe a lower temperature. Any air conditioner man can tell you that to cool something down you don't put cold in, but you have to take heat out. Cold is the absence of energy that causes heat.
Sin and evil are regarded the same. These things cannot exist as "things" that are independent of circumstances, but are the labels given to actions or characteristics that do not meet the goal of perfection.
This distinction was first noted by Augustine of Hippo. In his City of God he writes:
For when God said, 'Let there be light, and there was light,' if we are justified in understanding in this light the creation of the angels, then certainly they were created partakers of the eternal light which is the unchangeable Wisdom of God, by which all things were made, and whom we call the only-begotten Son of God; so that they, being illumined by the Light that created them, might themselves become light and be called 'Day,' in participation of that unchangeable Light and Day which is the Word of God, by whom both themselves and all else were made. 'The true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world,' — this Light lighteth also every pure angel, that he may be light not in himself, but in God; from whom if an angel turn away, he becomes impure, as are all those who are called unclean spirits, and are no longer light in the Lord, but darkness in themselves, being deprived of the participation of Light eternal. For evil has no positive nature; but the loss of good has received the name 'evil.'4
2. Taken from "Doesn't Isaiah Say that God Made Evil?" http://www.comereason.org/phil_qstn/phi025.asp
3. Taken from "Didn't God Create Evil, Too?" http://www.comereason.org/phil_qstn/phi020.asp 4.Augustine of Hippo. City of God. Book IX, Chapter 9.