Thomas Hopko made a distinction in a podcast way back here that I find very helpful. For a long time I have been uncomfortable with the idea of the permissive will of God. “Permissive” and “God” don’t belong together in the same sentence as far as I’m concerned. Technically it simply means “to permit,” but the force of the word is rather different. Permissiveness implies activities that are tolerated but outside the norm.
The “permissive will of God” suggests that God is winking at errant human activity. God knows it will all take a bad turn before long, but being “longsuffering,” he does nothing while we head down this eventually disastrous path. The doctrine of permissive will of God may seemingly get God off the hook for being responsible for evil, but in the process reduces God to a debilitated and impoverished caricature of the Almighty. It’s not a picture of God that I am comfortable with.
St. John of Damascus (an 8th century theologian sometimes called “the last of the ancient fathers”) uses different terminology more in accord with the Semitic manner of thinking about God, Hopko explains. According to John, if we think about God from an ontological or foundational perspective, he does not cause or will any suffering sickness, death or evil. God created all things good and he redeemed and saved all things so that good would ultimately prevail. God saved us from our own evil and from the evildoers. Furthermore, only God could do that ultimately because in order to overcome evil one has to overcome death (which only God can do) because death is the direct cause of evil, sin, and wickedness.
But this foundational understanding of God ought not let God off the hook for evil. He is the Creator, after all, and in a sense, the Creator is responsible for all he creates, even if he designs freedom into the creation. So it is, according to John of Damascus, that God providentially did will a world in which there would be evil. He created the world knowing that all this evil would occur.
This is not to say that God is the cause of evil, but he does orchestrate evil in such a way that good, and more precisely, redemption and salvation, will be the end result. John calls this the Providential will of God (in contrast to the Permissive will of God).
Hopko then reminds his listeners of Hannah’s Song (1 Sam. 2) where Hannah says that God kills and makes alive; God casts down and raises up. God is manipulating the evils of men in a way that would ultimately be for the salvation and good of those who desire salvation and the good, truth and beauty. This is why Jeremiah is free to call the evil king Nebuchadnezzar “God’s servant” (Jer. 43:10). Ontologically or foundationally, Nebuchadnezzar only served himself and he did great evil in the world in the process. But providentially God was able to use Nebuchadnezzar’s self-will to serve the divine ends of truth, redemption, and even beauty.
According to Hopko, John of Damascus adds another warning to Christians in regard to the providential will of God: This is not a doctrine of retribution; God’s people must always search for God’s merciful hand in the midst of calamity. It is an utter necessity that we see the world through the prism of the Cross of Christ. Great evil does not befall us or our enemies because God’s anger is roused against them. Such an idea might seem obvious and Old Testament writers came to that conclusion on occasion because they did not have the fullness of the truth nor the completeness of divine revelation. From the prism of the Cross of Christ, we recognize that great calamity and disaster come from God’s love and his desire to draw all people to himself, no matter what the price.
Metaphysically, foundationally, and ontologically, God created all things good and redeemed and saved all things so that good, the truth, and beauty would ultimately prevail. And the path to this good, truth, and beauty of redemption is human freedom. And freedom is (as some might think) a terrible price to pay for good, truth, and beauty. This is the sorrow, pain and loss of divine Love, which is expressed in God’s providential will, guiding his servants, the well-doers and evil-doers alike, toward his ultimate ends, in spite of our often misplaced and often evil intent along the way.