Sorting Out the Mystery of the Problem with Evil

When you study Scripture at some point you will encounter the problem with evil. By that I mean you recognize that the God of heaven and earth is absolutely sovereign and determines whatever happens (Ephesians 1:11). You also see that man is viewed as absolutely responsible for his sin (Romans 9:18, Acts 4:27-28). Finally,  it is also quite clear that the our God is perfectly holy and cannot do anything evil (1 John 1:5, Isaiah 6:1-4). On the surface this seems to be an irresolvable difficulty. How can a holy sovereign God determine events that are evil in themselves?In our sorting out of this problem we can tend to undermine Scripture in at least two different ways. We first make the mistake of thinking that since God is holy sin cannot be a part of this determined plan. We then make another mistake when we affirm the responsibility of man for his sin and conclude that the sin cannot be a part of the sovereignly determined plan of God. Scripture affirms both man’s responsibility for his sin and God’s absolute sovereignty over all things (Romans 9:19). Fortunately there are a number of biblical examples that teach this very idea. In Genesis 45:4-5 Joseph is addressing his brothers who sold him into Egypt. Joseph states that his brothers were responsible for selling him into slavery, “I am your brother, the one you sold into Egypt.” He then goes on to say that there selling him into slavery was a part of God’s plan to save Joseph’s family from the famine, “And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you.” Joseph’s brothers are responsible for their sin yet the whole affair was a part of God’s plan. We again see this when Jacob dies and the brothers of Joseph are afraid that Joseph will seek revenge now that their father is dead. Joseph’s response is right to the point, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20). In both of these accounts God is absolutely sovereign and man is responsible for his sin. God determines all things, including evil, yet when evil is done only those who do the evil can be blamed.

The ultimate example of how Scripture handles the problem of evil can be seen in the event of the cross of Jesus Christ. The event of the cross is at the same time the greatest evil ever committed and the greatest good ever done. Jesus was the only innocent person to have ever existed (Hebrews 4:15). His going to the cross was the result of the sin of many folks (Acts 4:27) and therefore the greatest evil ever committed. At the same time his death on the cross is the greatest good since it resulted in the salvation of many folks (Hebrews 10:14). The death of Jesus on the cross was a determined event by the God of Scripture (Acts 4:28). God determines all things, including evil, yet when evil is done only those who do the evil are to be blamed.

Some older biblical writers use the word “permit” when they are talking about God and evil. When they phrase things in this way they are seeking to emphasize that man is truly responsible for his sin. But, while they are saying this they are also clear that in a way that we do not fully understand our God does determine all things and evil is a part of his predestined plan.

We are not allowed to blame a holy God even though he has determined the event. This is a true mystery in Scripture for the God of Scripture is not like us in his being. In only some ways are we made like him. He is not like us and he does things that we cannot do. We must affirm what Scripture says and not try to smooth out the problem. When asked to explain this beyond what I have already said I simply give them my “theological shrug” and that is the end of that. I love the God of Scripture even though and I cannot neatly explain him.

14 thoughts on “Sorting Out the Mystery of the Problem with Evil

  1. Geoff, great post.

    My thoughts are not fully developed or thoroughly thought through, but please critique my thinking here:

    God cannot sin nor perform evil actions because… sin and evil are things contrary to His will. His will is the perfect standard of holiness. The same event (such as Joseph being sold into slavery, or Christ’s redemptive work on the cross) can be both God’s will (and therefore perfect and holy) as well as (from the human perspective) sinful. God has the right to do as He pleases (He is the Potter) which includes judging someone for something He determined would happen.

    When Christ was being crucified, God was accomplishing His own will (therefore God was not sinful nor evil), but the humans involved were performing the same action without the consideration of God’s will. Their purpose had nothing to do with pleasing God.

    I appreciate your time.

  2. R. Curry,
    I think that it might be a bit clearer to say that the sovereign will of God contains all things both good and evil (Acts 4:27-28). His moral will (Scripture) reveals the holy life that he requires of us all. Though his sovereign will contains evil acts he cannot be blamed for them because he his a holy God. Those who do the sinful acts and they alone are to be blamed for the evil that is done. This is a tough subject. Not because the the truths are complicated but because we struggle with putting it all together, just like the trinity. I hope this helps. Geoff

  3. I believe God allows evil due to his unbelievable gift of free choice. Our lives cannot work out in God’s plan if we did not have choice. God told us to choose ‘life’ or ‘death’. Unfortunately, the evil of people affect others, innocent others; but , we must see the unbelievable opportunity God has given us to make the choice to walk with Him–or not. If He stopped all evil, then there would not be the working out of the choices He has given.

  4. Wanda, Thanks for your response. Your comments seem reasonable except that Scripture does not view it that way. Those who do evil are responsible for their evil and they cannot blame God. But, in a way that we do not fully understand evil is a part of God’s sovereign plan (Act 4:27-28). Thanks again for your comments. Geoff

  5. Mr. Volker,

    Thanks for your response. Maybe I did not state my thoughts clearly enough. I totally agree
    with you. People are responsible for their evil choices and thoughts-for sure. I don’t think that I indicated otherwise. I also agree that God uses evil in His sovereign plan–in a way that does not annul His holiness. I believe that God decreed it within His eternal plan -without creating it.
    I was referring to Genesis 3–that humans are given a choice to adhere to God’s word or not. In turn, if we miss the mark-then it affects other people (and those people are still responsible to make good choices even if the have inherited a lot of garbage from their forefathers)

    Thanks for your response. I enjoy the site and helps.

  6. This was a helpful treatment of an often perplexing reality. After laboring in prayer one morning, over the presence and horror of various evils in this world, I came away with just this. Considering how very terrible is man’s capacity for and practice of evil, and that our God is sovereign over even this, is this not all the more cause for rejoicing that we/true believers are not condemned to spend eternity bound together with evil. And for the unbeliever, is this not all the more cause for them to greatly fear and realize their need of Christ’s salvation. If only they would.

    Now, when confronted by the predictable question about why God allows evil in the world, my response includes: “Seeing as He is sovereign over evil, and seeing as your eternal fate is in His hands, why would you not cry out to Him for His salvation?” Most unbelievers’ response to my question in return, often opens up a whole new line of discussion about the many proofs of God’s existence. And while we are ready to “defend the hope that is within” us, still the outcome belongs to God.

  7. In Isa 45:7 we read, “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things.”

    This passage does not say God “allow” evil to happen. It says, “…i make peace and create evil.

    Any comments..

  8. Cesar,
    In Isaiah 45:7 “evil” refers to calamity not moral evil. When we say that God “allows” evil we are emphasizing that those who do the evil are to be blamed and God is never allowed to be blamed EVEN THOUGH THE EVIL IS A PART OF HIS SOVEREIGN PLAN.

  9. Geoff,

    The word “evil” in Isaiah 45:7 is from Hebrew word “ra”. In Genesis 2:9 the same word “evil” is used for “ra” So if “evil” refers to calamity, Genesis 2:9 will be rendered like this: “And out of the ground made the LORD God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and CALAMITY . ”

    How will we reconciled this seemingly contradiction, Geoff?

  10. Cesar,
    Thanks again for your comments. Please check other english translations of Isaiah 445:7 and you will find that they do not translate the Hebrew as moral evil (ex. the NIV uses the word “disaster”, ESV “calamity”, NKGV “calamity”, NASB “calamity”. I would suspect that the Hebrew word is capable of more than one meaning. It would be unreasonable to say that all of the translators of these other translations missed the meaning of the word. Bye for now, Geoff

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