Have you ever asked the question, “God, how could you let that happen?” Have you ever wrestled with trying to reconcile the fact that God is holy, sovereign and good with the reality that the world is saturated with people and things that are unholy and evil? Have you ever doubted God because evil exists? If your answer is yes to any of these questions, then I hope you find what follows helpful. That is because in today’s episode, I will provide a biblical explanation for the question, “If God, why evil?” Our Scripture focus comes from one of the hard sayings in the Old Testament book of Isaiah. Take note that the basic thrust of this passage is to elucidate the sovereignty of God. So, in Isaiah 45:5-7, the NASB says:
I am the Lord, and there is no other; besides Me there is no God.
I will gird you, though you have not known Me; that men may know from the rising to the setting of the sun that there is no one besides Me.
I am the Lord, and there is no other, the One forming light and creating darkness, causing well-being and creating calamity; I am the Lord who does all these.
I said these verses were one of the hard sayings of the Bible because, depending on the version you are reading, explaining this text can be very challenging. For example, in the King James Version, Isaiah 45:7 reads as follows:
I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.
So what are we to take away from this verse? That the explanation for evil is that God actively causes and produces evil? May it never be! Because God is holy and without sin, He never sins; therefore, God never directly causes or actively produces evil. How, then, does Isaiah 45:7 help us? Again, if God, why evil?
The fundamental thing to understand is that our English word evil is much broader in its application than the several words for evil in Hebrew. So, in Isaiah 45:7, when the prophet uses the Hebrew word ra (רַע)—which is what the KJV translates as evil and the NASB translates as calamity—in what sense is Isaiah using the word? And the answer is, what is in view is not moral evil. In other words, where the text says that God creates calamity or creates evil, it’s not suggesting that God forms hatred and murder with His own hands and then delivers it to you and me here on earth. The context of the passage tells us that the sense of the word evil being used is that which is antithetical to peace or well-being. Hence, the author’s intent in this text is not to say that God makes moral evil, because God is neither evil nor the author of evil. He also never performs evil. What God has done is create beings that are able to do evil. We must therefore make a distinction between God actively causing or positively creating evil versus permissively allowing it. Accordingly, the author’s intent in Isaiah 45:7 is to say that in spite of a world in which evil exists, a sovereign God reigns above and behind everything that happens. Consequently, the thrust of the text is merely to explain that even when bad things do happen, they happen under the reign of a good God who applies His sovereignty to providentially direct everything toward His good purposes—and directing everything toward His good purposes means even through the bad things.
To explain things further, let us look at how Isaiah 45:7 is constructed. The prophet makes two parallel statements that are synonymous: that is, they say the same thing in different ways. Verse 7a says that God is “the One forming light and creating darkness,” and verse 7b says that God is the One who is “causing well-being and creating calamity.” There is therefore a contrast between light and darkness (7a), and between well-being and calamity (7b). These contrasts depict opposite extremes over which God is in total control. After all, God is Light, and to say that light creates darkness would be absurd. In fact, darkness can only exist in the absence of light. So, what the text makes plain is that just as light does not cause darkness, well-being does not cause calamity.
The sovereignty of God ensures that nothing evil ever catches God by surprise, nor does it fall outside of the Lord’s providential ordering of reality to fulfill His glorious purposes. The sovereignty of God also defines the chief power in control of reality. The goodness of God ensures that the Lord’s intent in ordaining evil is never evil; it ensures that the purpose of everything is virtuous. Now, if we take a step back, we have to ask ourselves: what is the greatest evil ever committed in the history of the world? And the answer is, the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ. He is the One who was innocent, yet suffered the greatest injustice. He is the One who is sinless, yet endured the wrath of God for the sins of the elect. He is the One who was rejected, beaten, mocked, ridiculed and killed. The greatest evil ever committed was first-degree cosmic treason: man killed the God who came to save him. Yet in spite of this, did God allow the Crucifixion to happen? Yes. Was God in complete control of the entire ordeal? Yes. Did God ordain the Crucifixion and allow it to happen to ultimately serve a good purpose? Yes. In fact, God used the greatest evil in the history of the world in order to bring about the greatest good for His own: salvation. Indeed, there is none other besides the Lord. He is the One who forms light and creates darkness; He is the One who causes well-being and creates calamity.
The mental difficulty with evil and the sovereignty of God lies here: that people associate the essence of evil with cause, not nature. Hence, people may not have difficulty with the fact that God is sovereign, but if His sovereignty means He even ordains the things we don’t like, we then have a problem—the problem, of course, is that if He allows bad, He must be bad. I will respond to this by saying, first, God would be unholy and not good if He did not tend to matters of good and evil as they relate to His perfect holiness. Second, only omniscience is able to comprehend that the greatest good can come from the greatest evil. Third, when we think about evil biblically, how do we define it? What is evil? If we allow the Crucifixion to speak for itself, it teaches us that evil is not allowing evil so that good may come. (It would in fact be evil not to allow the greatest evil so that the greatest good could come.) True evil comes from something that is unfit in its own nature and thus does things with an evil intent. For example, the ultimate embodiment of evil is Satan, the father of lies. He speaks non-truths because it is in his nature to do so (cf. John 8:44). From this logic we derive the idea that the essence of evil lies not in its cause but in its nature. Jonathan Edwards devotes an entire section to this idea in Freedom of the Will (Part Four, Section I) titled “The Essence of the Virtue and Vice of Dispositions of the Heart and Acts of the Will, Lies Not in Their Cause, but Their Nature.” Edwards writes:
… a bad effect in the will must be bad, because the cause is bad, or of an evil nature, or has badness as a quality inherent in it.
In other words, the root of evil lies in its cause so long as the cause is the inherent nature of a thing.
So, to summarize, I will ask the question asked at the top: if God, why evil? Because God has ordained evil and has permissively allowed it. Because of original sin (cause), all men have an inclination (nature) to do evil, and these agents actively cause, positively create, and perform evil. Notably, this nature is not a one-option-only slavery. It is the superior inclination of man’s will, because a natural morality is written on the conscience of all individuals. Yes, God exists, and evil exists because the Lord’s holy omniscience understood before our world was created that the greatest good exists concomitant with the greatest evil. What no person can exhaustively explain is why God allows the specific evil acts of specific people, or why specific people suffer from specific evil acts. What can be said generally is that without wrath, there can be no grace, and without sin, there is no necessity for a Savior. Without the Fall of Man, there could be no redemption of man that is secured for eternity based on the shed blood of the Son of God. Without the Crucifixion, there would be no Resurrection.
Dr. C. H. E. Sadaphal