Why Does God Allow Evil?
During our last Family Bible Study on October 17, 2021, a question was asked regarding the activities of Satan and his demons, “why does God let that happen?” The context of the question was in regards to our study through Revelation 12:7-17. In that passage, we see a war in heaven between Satan and his demons and Michael and his angels. Michael prevails, and Satan is cast down to earth where he promptly begins to persecute the Woman (the people of God) and her offspring. The question, a fair one, was asked, “Why does God allow that to happen?”
This goes to the greater question of theodicy, or the so-called “problem of evil.” The problem of evil is one of the atheists favorite arguments to use against Christians because, in their mind, it’s their “slam dunk” argument. The argument goes something like this: If God is both all-good and all-powerful, why does evil exist? Either God is all-good and wants to destroy evil, but He can’t, thus He’s not all-powerful, OR He’s all-powerful and doesn’t want to destroy evil, thus He’s not all-good. Either way, this argument (so say the atheists) disproves the God of the Bible. Or does it???
The flaw in this argument can be summed up as a “false dilemma.” In other words, it reduces the problem of evil to a binary problem, an either/or. It fails to consider the possibility that God can be BOTH all-good AND all-powerful and still have a good purpose for allowing evil to exist. In other words, there is a third option.
First, we need to define “evil.” It does us no good to discuss this topic without first defining what it is we’re discussing. Let me begin by distinguishing between moral evil and physical evil. Moral evil are those things that go against some prescribed set of moral values. For example, things like murder, stealing, lying, cheating, etc. Physical evil are those things that we consider bad, but not in a moral sense. For example, an earthquake that kills thousands is bad, it’s an evil, but not a moral evil because there was no agent acting with evil intent. You might be thinking, isn’t God in control of natural disasters? Yes, He is, and we’ll consider that as we go along. For the moment, we’re going to limit our discussion to moral evil.
Second, we need to understand that moral evil is not a positive thing. By that I mean, moral evil has no substance, rather it is the lack or privation or a moral good. In other words, you cannot speak of evil without also referring to the corresponding good. Murder is evil, because preserving life is good. Stealing is evil because respecting the property rights of others is good. Just as cold is a lack of heat and darkness is a lack of light, so too evil is a lack of a corresponding good.
Okay, with that out of the way, why then would God, who is both all-good and all-powerful, allow and tolerate evil? Going back to what was said earlier, we need to look at God’s purpose in creation and subsequently allowing evil to invade His otherwise good creation. At the outset, we need to understand that we are delving into the things of God, and as such, we need to recognize our limitations as finite creatures to come to a full understanding of these things. We need to be okay with mystery. While this answer may not satisfy the hard core atheist, we need to understand that unbelief is first and foremost a matter of the heart, not the head.
To answer this question, we need to look at the doctrine of God’s providence. In historic reformed theology, providence is one of two ways (along with creation) in which God carries out His decree (i.e., His sovereign will). God ordains all things that come to pass, and He carries out that plan through creation (bringing things into existence which previously didn’t exist) and providence. Providence can be defined as follows: [God’s] most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all His creatures, and all their actions (taken from The Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q11). The Westminster Confession of Faith gives a more robust answer in chapter five (“Of Providence”) where it declares that the purpose of God’s providential actions is “to the praise of the glory of His wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy” (Westminster Confession of Faith, 5.1).
So the reason why God does anything is for the praise of His glory. You might think, “that seems self-serving.” For a human being, it is, for the divine being who is worthy of all praise and glory, it isn’t. So if praise is the purpose for which God does anything, that must also include allowing evil into the good creation, and that’s what the authors of the Westminster Confession of Faith say:
The almighty power, unsearchable wisdom, and infinite goodness of God so far manifest themselves in His providence, that it extendeth itself even to the first fall, and all other sins of angels and men; and that not by a bare permission, but such as hath joined with it a most wise and powerful bounding, and otherwise ordering, and governing of them, in a manifold dispensation, to His own holy ends; yet so, as the sinfulness thereof proceedeth only from the creature, and not from God, who, being most holy and righteous, neither is nor can be the author or approver of sin. (WCF 5.4)
With an exceptional economy of words, the Westminster divines detail how God’s providence includes not only the original fall (by which Adam plunged the whole human race into a state of sin and misery and introduced sin into the creation), but also the actual sins of men and angels. God’s providence governs all our actions, even our sin. Furthermore, providence isn’t just a “bare permission.” In other words, God doesn’t just leave us to our own devices, but our sin is governed, ordered, and limited by God’s most wise and holy providence. Yet God does so in such a way that we, and we alone, are responsible for our sin. God is neither the author of sin, nor does He approve of our sin. Yet He governs, orders, and limits our sin for “His own holy ends.”
The classic Biblical example of this is found in the story of Joseph in Genesis 37-50. We all know the story well how Joseph’s brothers conspired to have him killed, but instead decided to sell him into slavery in Egypt. How Joseph was falsely accused by Potiphar’s wife of rape, and how Joseph was left to languish in Pharaoh’s prison for years after interpreting the dreams of Pharaoh’s servants. At the end of the ordeal, Joseph tells his brothers, “But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive” (Genesis 50:20). The brothers intended evil to happen, and what happened was evil. But God governed, ordered, and limited the brother’s evil actions for His own holy ends. This is no more beautifully displayed than in the gospel itself. The most heinously evil act in the history of the world, the unjust execution of the very Son of God, was allowed and used by God to bring about the greatest good the world has ever seen, salvation and eternal life for all who believe.
Now I’m going to add my own reflections on this issue, so take them with a grain of salt. The Bible makes it quite clear that the road to glory goes through suffering, the path to exaltation goes through humiliation. We will praise God more after going through, what Paul calls, our “light affliction, which is but for a moment,” than we would without having gone through that. Paul says in Romans 8:18, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” If we don’t go through suffering in this age, I believe we will not fully appreciate the glories of the age to come. But having passed through the cruciform life (suffering then glory, humiliation then exaltation) will not only make us appreciate the glories of the age to come more fully, but will also redound even more to the praise of God and His glory — which is the ultimate purpose of all things.