At a recent conference I heard a reference to a survey that asked people to think of one word that would sum up the 20th Century. Evidently, one of the top words that was given was ‘genocide’. At first this surprised me, but a trip to Google and an attempt to come to grips with even the most conservative estimates of the data changed things. The 20th Century has seen some of the most horrendous acts of genocide ever recorded.
Mao Ze Dong was the leader of the Chinese Republic from 1945 to 1976. It is estimated that over 50 million people were killed under the brutality of his regime. Hitler was the infamous leader of Germany at the time of the 2nd World War. During his rule around 12 million were murdered in concentration camps and in other ways and many others lost their lives as a result of his determination to rule the world. At the same time as Hitler held the reigns in Germany, Stalin was the ruler in nearby Russia. It is estimated that 6 million were killed in the Gulags, the purges and the Ukraine famine. Pol Pot was a revolutionary and later the leader of Cambodia. His death toll, 1.7 million.
(The above figures have been taken from Piere Scaruffi’s list at http://www.scaruffi.com/politics/dictat.html . There is quite a bit of variation concerning the precise figures.)
These figures portray acts of horrendous injustice. These acts come from the despicable treatment of people by those in leadership over them. They brought about needless loss of life to satisfy the greed, pride and power-hungry thirst of those in power. They also raise a very serious question regarding the sovereignty of God: where was God while all this was taking place?
When we ask that question of the Bible, the answer we receive is this: God was in the same place as he always has been and always will be, on the throne guiding and directing the course of history. The evil acts of these evil regimes did not come into existence because God is having an “off” day. Rather, not one of these rulers or their actions occurred outside of the will and permission of a good, sovereign and almighty God.
The biblical proof for this comes in at least three strands that can be summarised in the following three statements. First, God appoints all authorities by his sovereign hand. Second, God is bigger than any empire or power on earth. Third, God allows evil regimes so that his purposes are accomplished.
God appoints all authorities
In Romans 13:1-7, the Apostle Paul is teaching about the right attitude that a christian should have to authority. He begins by urging a spirit of submission and respect and his reason for this is: ‘for there is no authority except that which God has established’ (Romans 13:1). Then, as if anticipating our natural rebellion to authority, he says again, ‘the authorities that exist have been established by God’ (Romans 13:1). Authority is encountered in various forms; a manager at work or a parent in the home all the way through to the prime minister of a country. Yet, each one, as this verse teaches, is established by the sovereign hand of God.
It is also worth noting that this statement doesn’t come with the caveat ‘good authority’ and there is no way of injecting that into the text or the context of the passage. The readers were living in Rome and Nero was the emperor – the same Nero who notoriously persecuted followers of Jesus and is thought to have started the great fire of Rome killing many and destroying homes in order to clear some land to build a bigger palace. Hardly a candidate for leader of the year, yet the Bible teaches he is reigning in Rome because God has established him there.
The same truth is stated in a conversation between Jesus and Pilate not long before Jesus is crucified on the cross. Pilate is frustrated because Jesus doesn’t speak up for himself and blurts out a challenge: ‘”Don’t you realise that I have power either to free you or to crucify you?” Jesus answered, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above”‘ (John 19:10-11). Pilate is in a position of authority in Judea and humanly speaking it has come about due to service and recognition from the powers that be. However, Jesus points out that behind all of this is the sovereign and establishing hand of God. Pilate is there, as with Nero in Rome later in the same century, because God had placed him there.
There is perhaps an ease in accepting this teaching in the case of rulers who lived almost 2000 years ago. We don’t know them and haven’t had to live through the effects of their misused authority. However, if we started applying this to the men named above, those such as Hitler, Stalin and Mao Ze Dong we might find it a little more difficult. Did God really establish them into positions of authority? The Bible confronts us with the answer that, yes, he did. Remember, when Paul wrote he did not do so from a 2000 year viewpoint. He wrote while Nero enacted his injustices upon the city and empire in which his readers lived. Is it any wonder he felt he had to repeat, ‘the authorities that exist have been established by God’ (Romans 13:1)?
God is bigger than them all
Not only does the Bible teach that God establishes all authorities, but it also teaches that no human empire can ever make a serious claim to challenge his rule and reign. Isaiah 40:21-24 makes this point in a powerful way. In this passage we see the reign and authority of God pictured as a throne sitting above the circle of the earth and the heavens stretched out as a tent to live in. Here Isaiah draws on two images from royal life.
The first is the architecture of a throne room. This room would be on at least 2 levels. There would be the main floor where the courtiers stood and then, raised above the rest, there would be the level of the platform where the thrones stood. Height symbolised authority and significance. Isaiah’s point is clear, God doesn’t sit on a raised platform in a throne room on earth, his authority is so overarching he sits raised above the world itself.
The second picture seems to reflect the nation at war. The army is marching out to war and night falls so they set up camp. As you walk through the tents you approach the middle of the camp. Here you find the most elaborate and the largest tent of them all. It is the royal tent where the king stays. Like height in the throne room, here size and adornment symbolise authority and significance. Isaiah pushes us to begin to grasp the grandness of God’s reign, his tent is the vastness and magnificence of the heavens.
The next thing that Isaiah does is draw a comparison with the reign of earthly rulers and the reign of the one true and living God. Or, rather, he shows that there is no comparison. He is the God who can end the reign of earthly princes at a word, he will outlast them all and he blows and they are gone. God issues the challenge, “to whom will you compare me?” (Isaiah 40:25). There can be no answer, at no point can even the greatest prince match or begin to approach the power, authority and reign of God himself.
This truth is played out on the canvas of history as we read about God’s dealings with the world in the Old Testament. At Babel, in Genesis 11, people joined together to exert their will and dominance over God. Did it succeed? Not in the slightest, God sent confusion and from that point on different languages were spoken. In the time of Moses, Pharoah sought to overturn God’s plan, but he could do nothing to prevent the plagues or his eventual destruction. Nebuchadnezzer, perhaps the most powerful king in the ancient world, was humbled by God and made to eat grass like the cattle (Daniel 4) until he acknowledged the sovereign rule of God.
Earthly powers and rulers can seem a formidable proposition to us. What can we do to prevent the mass injustices that are performed on a daily basis in our world today? However, the Bible shows us that they are not formidable foes to God. He is so much greater and so much more powerful than they are. Acknowledging that truth does raise certain questions. For instance, why did God not prevent the emergence of the concentration camp during the 2nd World War? He could, of that there is no doubt, but he allowed them to come into being and be used for such terrible purposes.
These are real and painful questions and we will try and answer some of the “whys” of suffering in a later part of this discussion. This is important for the Bible teaches that God is not only sovereign, he is also good. However, for now try and think of the alternative and see the comfort of what God has told us in his word. Imagine, if these regimes were stronger than God, what then? Imagine what the 20th century would have been like if they really could plot their own path into ever increasing evil? Isn’t there a comfort that over all rulers, bad and good, is the loving, merciful and righteous rule of a sovereign God?
God uses nations – even bad ones
The prophet Habakkuk begins his book with a complaint to God about the situation in Judah (Habakkuk 1:1-4). He describes a scene of injustice and godlessness in the land. He is surrounded by a people who do not love God and things are in a real mess. God’s answer horrifies the stricken prophet. Instead of coming and reviving the hearts of his people God is going to deal with the problem by bringing in the Babylonians. In fact God’s words are stronger and more active than that, ‘I am raising up the Babylonians’ (Habakkuk 1:6). That statement doesn’t cause too much difficulty until it is combined with what God tells us about the Babylonians. They are, ‘that ruthless and impetuous people’ (Habakkuk 1:6) and, ‘they are a law to themselves and promote their own honour’ (Habakkuk 1:7).
The prophet’s response seems perfectly reasonable in the circumstances, ‘O LORD, you have appointed them to execute judgment’ (Habakkuk 1:12 – emphasis mine). He follows this up with the obvious question, ‘Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrong. Why then do you tolerate the treacherous?’ (Habakkuk 1:13). Habakkuk spends the rest of his book wrestling with this tension as God shows him that Judah deserves what he is bringing upon them and calls Habakkuk to trust him.
The first chapter of Habakkuk teaches the sovereignty of God over the nations, even evil ones, but does so with an important qualification. While God is certainly in charge, he is not the source of the evil that these nations perform. As God speaks about the evils of the Babylonians it is very clear that this is what they are, rather than what God will make them. Verse 7, ‘They are a feared and dreaded people’. Verse 8, ‘They fly like a vulture swooping to devour’. Verse 10, ‘They deride kings and scoff at rulers’. Or most pointedly verse 11, ‘they sweep past like the wind and go on – guilty men, whose own strength is their god.’ Here is an evil nation that God is using and raising up for his purposes, but at no point is God to be considered the author of their evil. Similarly, at no point are we given the sense that the nation, its authorities or its armies will not be held to account for their actions.
Isaiah leads us to the same understanding as he pronounces God’s judgement on Assyria a few decades earlier. Here God indicates how he raised up the Assyrians and used them for his good and perfect purposes against Israel and Judah. However, God also says, ‘this is not what he intends, this is not what he has in mind; his purpose is to destroy, to put an end to many nations’ (Isaiah 10:7).
We can summarise this teaching with two questions. First, as the Assyrians marched on Israel who was in charge? The Bible’s shows us that God was. The Assyrians wouldn’t have existed as a nation nor the King of Assyria as their king if God had not established them. The army would not have been able to march a millimetre in the direction of Damascus if God had not allowed it. Now the second question; where did the evil acts of the Assyrians come from? The answer given in Isaiah and backed up with God’s description of the Babylonians in Habakkuk is that the evil came from the wicked hearts of the Assyrian leaders and soldiers.
No Christian ever seems to have a problem in accepting God’s sovereignty when it comes to good authority. A new manager at work who is understanding and sympathetic is seen as an answer to prayer. A politician who fights for what is right and acts with common sense is seen as God’s provision. However, the Bible forces us to see God’s sovereignty even where leadership rises that doesn’t fit the ‘good’ pattern. No leader or authority, good or bad, can be raised up or in fact do anything outside of God’s will and permission.
Where was God during the 20th century as millions died? We must not belittle the pain of these events or reduce the shock that such horrendous evil should implant in our hearts. Neither should we overlook the confusion that such events rightly raise in our finite minds as we try to grapple with the purposes of an infinite God. However, we can and should find great comfort and hope in the truth that the Bible so clearly states, that during all these things God, who is perfect and holy, was in the place where he has always been, on the throne of all history. None of these events happened because God had lost his grip on the world and Satan had gained the upper hand. Just think how scary that would be as we face the years to come.