Small exegetical decisions often result in radically different theologies.
Consider the implications of John 9:1-3 (NIV):
As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.
For many, this passage implies that God gives people sicknesses (like blindness or cancer) in order to work towards a greater good.
In this popular understanding, evil (like sickness) is an unfortunate but necessary part of God’s will. God gave this man blindness so that Jesus would be able to perform this miracle later in his life. Perhaps you have heard this common refrain: “You might not understand right now why God allowed [X] to happen, but it is all a part of His plan.” Representing this view, Matt Chandler (an influential evangelical preacher) found personal comfort during his own fight with cancer knowing that it was part of the pre-determined will of God.
Yet, is this an acceptable view of God and his relationship to evil?
The problem of evil is one of the many issues highlighted in passages like this one. How is God “good” if he causes/allows suffering? Why can’t an all-powerful and all-wise God find ways to accomplish his purposes that do not involve evil and suffering?
For some, like myself, the theology presented above costs too much. It safeguards the sovereignty of God (everything that happens is a result of his will), but at what price? It paints a picture of a God whose character is at best drenched in moral ambiguity. How can we legitimately call such a God “good”? Theodicies such as these also seem to distort the biblical logic of creation and redemption. The biblical narrative portrays a God who does not create nor desire evil (such as death, sickness, and suffering). It also portrays a God at work in history in order to abolish all evil as he establishes a new, eternal creation. Why then would God, in the present, be working against his own purposes?
Is there another way to read John 9:1-3?
Yes! In fact, I think this passage has been mistranslated and thus misinterpreted. It serves as a perfect example of how small exegetical details can end up exerting an enormous amount of influence over important theological conclusions [See also: “N.T. Wright on Matthew 10:28 – Satan or God?”].
A closer reading of John 9:2-3 reveals that the problem of evil is actually a problem of hina.
Hina ( ἵνα ) is a greek particle commonly seen as a form which functions to introduce purpose clauses. Most first-year Greek students have already memorized the primary semantic meaning of hina: “in order that” or “so that” [see this excellent post – Greek Vocabulary: Are We Cooking The Books?).
Let’s look closely at the greek construction of John 9:2-3.
[9:2] καὶ ἠρώτησαν αὐτὸν οἱ μαθηταὶ αὐτοῦ λέγοντες,
Ῥαββί, τίς ἥμαρτεν, οὗτος ἢ οἱγονεῖς αὐτοῦ, ἵνα τυφλὸς γεννηθῇ;
[9:3] ἀπεκρίθη Ἰησοῦς, Οὔτε οὗτος ἥμαρτεν οὔτε οἱ γονεῖς αὐτοῦ,
ἀλλ’ ἵνα φανερωθῇτὰ ἔργα τοῦ θεοῦ ἐν αὐτῷ.
There are actually two hina clauses, one in each verse. The first occurrence of the particle cannot logically be indicating purpose (that the man or his parents sinned in order that he would be born blind). Thus, most translators render it as a “result clause” – a perfectly acceptable reading. In fact, throughout the New Testament and other early Greek literature, hina is regularly used in ways that cannot be understood as introducing a purpose clause. This is why it’s so important to remember that the context and function of a form is more important than any pre-determined semantical meanings.
Margaret Sim has argued persuasively that we should abandon our attachment to associating hina clauses with purpose statements. By her count, only 40% of hina clauses in Luke and 62% in John indicate purpose. This evidence leads her to suggest that we begin to rethink the usage of this particle – not as a container of semantic content, but as a particle that functions to represent what the speaker thinks or expects. Thus, hina can (and does) regularly function to indicate purpose, but it also (not infrequently) indicates commands or wishes.
The second hina clause, in John 9:3, is an independent clause. This creates a problem for reading it as expressing purpose. Most English translations skip over this grammatical conundrum by providing the phrase “it happened.” But this is not necessary or advisable, and as Sim says, “if the primary function of hina is seen as indicating the purpose of the main verb, then it is essential that a main verb in fact be present so that the reader can access such a function. If the main verb or clause is absent, then there is no syntactic context in which purpose can be expressed in a grammatical sentence.” We must let the actual function of the particle and the context of the clause (not a fixed semantical meaning) determine our readings. Thus, Sim renders the verse:
“Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but the works of God must/should be revealed in him.”
The theological implications of this translation are staggering:
“The hypothesis of the imperatival hina . . . releases the text from the fatalism which had obsessed it, and dissolves the picture which had become familiar through all our English versions, a man destined from birth to suffer for the sole purpose of glorifying God when he was healed.”
What if John 9:3 is not a statement about God’s mysterious sovereignty, but about his clear desire to overcome any and all evil that has invaded his world. Such an interpretation would have the advantage of the lager context of the Gospels – where the clear assumption is that sickness and disease are the works of the devil, not God.
David Bentley Hart summarizes the Gospel’s portrayal of Jesus’s relationship to evil nicely:
“It is from Christ that we are to learn how God relates himself to sin, suffering, evil, and death. It would seem that he provides us with little evidence of anything other than a regal, relentless, and miraculous enmity: sin he forgives, suffering he heals, evil he casts out, and death he conquers. And absolutely nowhere does Christ act as if any of these things are part of the eternal work or purposes of God.”
What sort of fragmented view of the Trinity results if we try to reconcile that 1) Jesus establishes the Kingdom (in part) by healing sicknesses (cf. Luke 10:9), yet 2) the Father is the one who has caused these ailments in the first place. Is the Father working against the Son? Perhaps this is why it has taken so long for the Kingdom to be consummated, the Trinity is not yet on the same page! On the other hand, what if Jesus’ opposition to evil is an expression of God’s true will – his desire to bring his reign to earth as it is in heaven? We could then understand the nature of the Triune God as unequivocally good and wholly opposed to all evil. This would require many of us to rethink our concept of “sovereignty” – perhaps sovereignty does not mean that God controls and dictates every action and event of history. Perhaps his sovereignty is more like that of an all-wise, master chess player, who is working towards a goal in which he cannot be stopped, no matter the opponent or challenge.
 See this AP article by Eric Gorski on Chandler’s attitude toward his cancer: http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/2010-02-01-pastor31_ST_N.htm.
 The full paper can be read here: http://www.artsci.wustl.edu/~cwconrad/docs/RT%20and%20independent%20ina%20clauses.pdf.
 See Zerwick, Biblical Greek, 141-142; see also Blass, Debrunner, & Funk, A Greek Grammar, 195-196 (“F – The Imperative, 3).
 Nigel Turner, Grammatical Insights, 145.
 David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami?, 87.