A young person recently asked me a thoughtful question deserving a careful answer. How can a good God, who is in perfect control of the universe, allow evil to arise?
We know God made everything good to begin with. We know there was no ‘Satan’ at the start. He was a good angel who later rebelled. But how could he rebel? Where did the rebellious ideas come from? How can evil arise in a universe where there is no evil?
The first thing that needs to be said is that this is one of those things the Bible does not tell us. The Bible makes no attempt to explain everything in the universe.
In fact, the Scriptures insist that man cannot know and understand everything. There are gaps (big gaps) in human knowledge. Humans are very limited and finite creatures. The angels in heaven have gaps in their knowledge too.
Only God can know all things, for only God is infinite and unlimited. We need to keep in mind that the existence of good, and the existence of God, are ultimate mysteries to us, as well as the existence of evil
The very first words of the Bible confront us with something (and someone) we cannot fully explain or understand: ‘In the beginning God’.
His ways and thoughts are higher than ours, just as the heavens are higher than the earth (Isaiah 55:9). And since one of God’s ‘ways and thoughts’ was to allow evil to come into the universe, his reason for doing so is so ‘high’ that it is beyond us. We would need infinite intelligence to understand it.
There would be no point God telling us. Even if he did, we would still be in the dark.
So, like Paul, we admit the gaps in our knowledge: ‘O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counsellor?’ (Romans 11:33).
However, that does not mean that we can say nothing about the origin of evil. While we cannot say what the explanation for evil is, we can certainly say what it is not.
In other words we can ‘creep up’ on the correct answer, even if we never quite get all the way to it.
For example, Christians can and should say the following sorts of things.
Firstly, God could have prevented evil from happening. He could have made a universe where evil was an impossibility. But for wise reasons known only to himself, God chose to allow evil.
So evil is perfectly consistent with God’s complete control of the universe. Whatever the explanation may be, it certainly is not that God had no choice in the matter, or that he lost control. It didn’t happen when God wasn’t looking!
God is always looking. He is always sovereign.
He knew the cost
Secondly, God’s choice to allow evil was not an ‘easy’ decision. It was not made lightly or capriciously. It wasn’t like tossing a coin – heads for evil, tails for no evil.
On the contrary, God knew at the start the full and terrible consequences of it. He knew the chain of historical events which would unfold in heaven and on earth. He knew about sin and death and suffering.
He knew it would mean that he himself would be the main target. He would be dishonoured and denied. His truth would be twisted and his blessings despised – and that by his own creatures, using them as weapons against God!
Worse, he knew how costly it would be to rescue sinners from this evil. God himself would suffer the curse and punishment that evil brings. He did so in the person of his Son, the man of sorrows, familiar with grief.
God not only allowed for evil but, from all eternity, he graciously planned to enter into its terrible consequences. He would defeat it and bring great glory to his name by saving sinners from the consequences of their own actions.
So whatever may be the reason for the origin of evil, God did not allow it because he was unaffected by it or callously indifferent.
No darkness in God
Thirdly, in allowing evil, God is not the author of evil, nor does he promote it. He hates evil and warns every creature to do the same.
God is light; there is no darkness or shadow in him (James 1:17). Thus The Westminster Confession of Faith declares: ‘God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures’ (WCF 3:1).
Evil is the complete opposite to God’s nature. So in allowing evil to exist, God is not approving evil or condoning it, nor is he responsible for its consequences.
And it is important to add that God did not allow evil so that he could tempt men. ‘Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and he himself does not tempt anyone’ (James 1:13).
God turns evil to good
Fourthly, the wonderful and amazing thing is that God uses even the devil to bring about his good purposes. God rules and over rules evil, causing it to serve his wise plans.
It is well stated in Proverbs 16:4: ‘The Lord has made everything for its own purpose, even the wicked for the day of evil’.
He makes use of Satan in the same way as a good man makes use of a savage dog. The man doesn’t like the dog, and the dog doesn’t like anyone, but it keeps thieves out.
God doesn’t like the devil, and the devil hates everyone, but God uses his savagery to bring good results. When Satan stirred up hatred to kill Christ, that death of one man became life for millions – eternal life!
In this evil act, the king of evil ‘shot himself in the foot’, for it ensured the salvation of multitudes of sinners, rescued from his evil kingdom. The death of Christ is the death of death.
How this must enrage the devil, that God turns his own evil against him. The more Satan raged against the Christian martyrs, many being burned at the stake, the more people were converted to Christ.
As Satan fanned the sparks of opposition, God made it a bush-fire of faith. God fights fire with fire. Just as the poison of snakes is used to make the antidote that saves from snakebite, so God uses darkness to make the light of Christ even clearer and more desirable.
God’s glory demonstrated
Fifthly, by first allowing and then overcoming evil, certain of God’s characteristics are made prominent. For example, mercy is seen at its fullest when God freely forgives wicked doomed sinners.
Justice is most treasured where injustice abounds. Goodness is seen in its warmest glow against the evil backdrop of malignancy and callous hatred.
Above all, grace comes into its own in an evil world. Essentially, grace is God’s taking the consequences of our evil upon himself so that the unbearable penalty is borne.
What is impossible for man is thereby made possible, namely, a righteous (non-evil) standing with God.
Love is repeatedly defined in the Bible as God giving up his Son as a sacrificial offering on behalf of his guilty people. This supreme love of God could never be displayed in a universe where evil did not exist.
For, ‘What if God, wanting to show his wrath and to make his power known, endured with much long-suffering the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, and that he might make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, which he had prepared beforehand for glory?’ (Romans 9:22-23).
We cannot know why evil exists, but we can see that its existence is neither irrational nor unproductive – for it brings glory to God.