It is hard to look at Christian belief and not see the influence of Augustine, that great 5th Century theologian. Our theology either reflects his thinking or is in reaction to it, but Augustine cannot be ignored. I read recently that Augustine was a theological genius, which means that when he was right he was spectacularly right, but when he was wrong he was spectacularly wrong, and I think that is accurate. Heavily influenced by Christianity’s ascendance as the official religion of the Roman Empire, with the backing—and therefore power—of the Emperor whose will must be obeyed, Augustine viewed God as an all-controlling deity. Nothing occurred that did not have God as its prime mover. Augustine is largely responsible for the blueprint worldview that the church developed, which holds that everything that occurs happens according to a blueprint that God had developed, even before creation, for the history of the world. Every event—good and bad—happens according to this blueprint. The way it is put colloquially is that “everything happens for a reason,” which, in a way, is actually a denial that anything is actually bad. If it happened, it’s a part of a good God’s good plan, so even if it seems bad, it’s not really. It’s just that we can’t see how this seemingly bad thing fits in the blueprint; if we could, we would realize that it’s not bad at all.
Which leads to the inescapable yet absurd conclusion that there is really no such thing as evil. No such thing as sin. Such things would be opposed to God’s will, and in the blueprint view nothing occurs that is outside of God’s will, much less opposed to it.
The concept of sin and evil really is a problem in this scheme. If you hold that God planned everything and controls everything, yet admit to the presence of sin and evil in the world then you cannot but admit that God planned for and controls sin and evil. We sin because God made us this way, and then holds us responsible for it. It is this very concept that has turned many away from the faith.
Augustine’s error, in my opinion, was in looking at empire and emperor as his model for understanding God and his Kingdom. In looking at a human model of power and authority, he came away with a distorted view of God. (In his defense, the power of the emperor at that time wasn’t seen as human but as a conduit of the very power of God. That doesn’t wholly excuse it, but it does explain it.) But the Christian understanding of the God’s power and authority doesn’t derive from a throne but from the cross. The power of the throne is top-down, but the power of the cross is bottom-up. It’s not power over others, but power under others; not coercive power but persuasive power. It is the power of self-sacrificing love, which is the greatest power in the world, for while coercive power can change human behavior, only persuasive power can change the human heart. Coercive power works against human free will (and actually works best when there is no such thing as human free will) while persuasive power both allows for and works with human free will. Persuasive power allows for the time when good is done and God doesn’t have to do it. That is the power of agape love.
The Bible does speak of God’s plan, but it’s not a blueprint view. When the Bible speaks about God’s plan it is saying that God is involved in the world, he has a will and an intention for the world. Just as we do. We can work toward God’s will and intention for the world, or we can work against it. But because God is God, because he is infinitely more intelligent than all of us added together, because he knows all the possibilities, in the end his will and intention for the world prevails. Can anyone be more persuasive than God? Of course not. And he has the patience and perseverance to prevail. In the end, love wins. And when love wins, so do we.