Does God cause disabilities and birth defects to bring glory to himself?
I am glad to be emailing you again on biblical matters. I found our conversations quite insightful. I wanted to ask you a question about the cause of disabilities per Exodus 4:11 and John 9:3 (about Jesus healing the man born blind). Some translations render the text in John as “this happened so that the works of God may be displayed”, implying that God caused his illness from birth to display His own power. The same translations render Exodus 4:11 as God deliberately creating disabilities in people. However, the NKJV renders the text differently in both spots, implying that God is sovereign and He creates people with the allowance that their creation occurs within the parameters of a fallen world and, thus, disabilities occur. I find the former view quite disturbing. It, quite frankly, states that God can and will creates disabilities in a person from birth specifically for His own glory to be displayed and not due to any cause other than that. I do not wish to sound blasphemous, but this seems cruel and capricious. Allowing something to naturally occur and using it to glorify God is different from causing it to occur. It would imply that every miscarriage or diagnosis of spina bifida in an innocent baby was designed by God for a specific purpose. I wanted to get your thoughts on the subject. I prefer the NKJV’s rendering, but I also want to be biblically sound in my interpretation.
You are obviously raising an important question. I want to be very cautious about providing an answer because this deals with God’s sovereignty and I certainly would not want to tell God what to do. From the tone of your question I can see that you have the same sentiment.
The problem, as seen by the different translations, is that the situation lends itself to the two interpretations you mention. One interpretation, as you say, is that “things happen,” and Jesus simply used what had happened more or less at random to make a point and to help the man—that God did not actually cause the person to be blind. The other interpretation is that God literally caused the man to be born blind so that, when he became a follower of Jesus, it would be to God’s glory.
First of all, I am not sure we can blame blindness on the fallenness of mankind. Would there have been blindness in the world if Adam and Even had not eaten the fruit? I am not positive, but I am pretty sure that there was blindness, at least among animals, before Adam and Eve sinned. My guess, therefore, is that there would have been blindness among humans even if the “Fall” had not occurred. To me as a human, blindness and illness is a kind of tragedy, but I am not convinced that illness and even death are a tragedy from God’s perspective. To me, if I understand God correctly, the only “tragedy” is sin and its eternal consequences, as well as its temporal consequences in destroying human relationships and our relationship with God even in this life. Blindness is not bad or evil to God.
You can see that I am less inclined to be bothered if God were to “cause” blindness to occur, if it would happen to help lead someone to be more likely to be saved. To me this would not be cruelty or evil on God’s part if I look at it from what I believe is God’s perspective.
But that does not simply remove the question. And besides, I am not sure that God “caused” the blindness of this man. I simply do not know and I believe that the wording of this passage leaves the connotation somewhat open. Was this something that happened because human beings live in a world where illness and death are part of life, and therefore was this blindness completely natural? Or did God actually intervene out of compassion for this man, knowing that if he did, he would ultimately help the man come into a relationship with him which he would not have had if he had gone through life seeing the entire time? I do not know.
Another point is that you imply the possibility that God simply made this guy blind because he chose to—end of story—and this seemingly arbitrary acts show God’s sovereignty and therefore his glory (“God caused his illness from birth to display His own power,” and he “creates disabilities in any person from birth specifically for His own glory to be displayed” using your words). In other words, this happened, not so that the man could be saved, but simply because God chose blindness for this particular man. This would be a rather typical Calvinist/Augustinian explanation, but I completely reject this interpretation because, as is typical with Calvinism, it makes God arbitrary and not a God of love.
So, there are really four alternatives, as I see them:
1. Blindness just happens because in a natural world, as created by God, blindness is natural, and Jesus used the situation to help the man born blind, to help him come to faith and to teach the people.
2. Human blindness happens because of sin and human fallenness and Jesus used the situation to help the man born blind, to help him come to faith and to teach the people.
3. God had an actual role in causing/allowing the man to be born blind—he made him blind, but not out of raw sovereign power, but out of love, so that the man could be more open to faith and to salvation, and so that Jesus could teach the people.
4. God simply caused the man to be blind because in his sovereignty he chooses to make certain people blind because that is his will. The fact that Jesus was able to use this in his ministry has nothing to do with why he was blind.
You seem to have described choices #2 and #4 and to not have considered choices #1 or #3.
For myself personally, I reject choice #4 as it is completely contradicts what I know about the love and compassion of God. I lean toward position #1. This description with my understanding of Christian theology and it is a reasonable interpretation of the Greek. However, I cannot find a reason in the text or from my understanding of theology to reject #3. I realize the difference between #1 and #3 is fairly large in terms of theology, but I simply cannot give a solid reason to reject either choice. Both are consistent with God’s love and with his sovereignty. In favor of option #3, it is a more literal interpretation of the text. I reject #2, not because of anything in John 9, but for other reasons, because it speculates about a result of the “fall” which is not consistent with what I know about the world, but I am willing to admit that I cannot really “prove” this wrong biblically.
In this argument I chose not to deal with the Exodus passage because I do not see a lot of difference in the theological questions with this passage. Let me know if this makes my response insufficient.