Christians very often picture God’s relationship to the unfolding of history – whether human or universal – on the model of an author’s relationship to a finished novel. Themes and morals have been thought out in advance, a plot concocted, characters introduced and developed to play their parts in the unfolding drama. Seasons and locations and climate have all been arranged to suit the author’s purpose of bringing the plot to its satisfying conclusion.
In fact, I don’t think it’s unfair to say that this or some variation of this has been the prevailing background paradigm for Christian theology from the very beginning. We find it even in New Testament scripture, where it is rooted in the same Jewish model. It is what justifies the thought of predictive prophesy in both testaments. It is what we have in the back of our minds when we speak blithely of God’s omniscience extending over time, of seeing the end from the beginning, of knitting, not just the child’s being, but the child’s life together in the mother’s womb. It is blunt in unqualified Calvinism, more subtle but still the paradigm in the many less uncompromising alternatives.
The problem, of course, is that it makes human freedom problematic. The best theology can muster to deal with the problem is to call it a “mystery”, and sweep it under a rug.
Well then, suppose we modify the model. God is no longer the author of a finished novel, but now the playwright who allows the actors the right to improvise. They may speak their own lines, fashion their own characters, invent their own plot devices. We have salvaged human freedom!
But the playwright has still provided the actors with the denouement and the conclusion. The playwright requires of the actors that, whatever they do, they must still serve the determined final end. They are still tools of the playwright’s intention, just tools of a more elaborate design. The freedom the revised model offers is illusory, like that of a caged bird to fly from one perch to another.
Well then, we go to the extreme. Someone gathers people together, then sits back with no further involvement to observe their behavior, opens the cage door to let the bird fly away. Possibly creates a hell to deal (harshly) with the wayward.
But this is not God. This is a voyeur. A birdwatcher. Possibly a sadist.
The problem is the model itself.
God is not like an author at all. God does not see the end because God has not determined the end. Jesus Himself told us what the best model is: that of a loving parent. Parents do not see or know their child’s “end” (whatever that might even mean.) Loving parents can be shocked, disappointed, even appalled, without yet ceasing to love. Parents are always there to help, and always willing to forgive.
Begin with that, in thinking about God; extend those qualities to infinity instead of might and intelligence and ubiquity. And feel sympathy for all those good men and women who have squandered their gift thinking about God as an author.