COVID-19. Unjust lock-downs. Churches shuttered. Threats to religious freedom. Election fraud. Rampant rioting. Civil unrest. Police defunding. False prophets of social justice. Gender confusion. Sexual degeneracy. Cancel culture. Fake news. We are living in dark days and there is every indication that they will get darker. Adding to these societal ills, many are experiencing increased personal woes. Broken marriages. Wayward children. Lost jobs. Financial failures. Church splits. Fatal illnesses. Fear and uncertainty are on the rise. Anxiety is permeating the air we breathe. If our society had any notion about the inherent goodness of humanity, those notions are being shattered. Invoking the word “evil” is no longer regarded as naïve or misguided. Like the many heads of Hydra, evil is rising in multiple directions and it has everyone on edge, including faithful followers of Christ.
How are we to make sense of the black clouds that seem to be descending over the landscape? In the last year we have been shoved straight into a thorny theological conundrum called the problem of evil. How can a supremely good, wise, and powerful God allow all manner of sin, calamity, disease, corruption, decay, death, and mayhem to defile the creation He made with such singular beauty and perfection? What He created in the beginning was good—“very good” (Gen. 1:31). Now it is bad—very bad. Why did God permit the fall of our primordial parents? Why didn’t He prevent the sinister serpent from slithering into the garden of Eden to tempt Adam and Eve? Surely God could have intervened, to keep the couple from ruining everything. Or after the damage was done, He could have started all over—not unlike like He did with Noah—and created a new and improved humanity incapable of defection.
God did none of those things. Instead, He let evil, pointless suffering infect every element of His creation. Why? What good plan could He possibly have?
Providing definitive answers to the classic problem of evil is known as a “theodicy,” a word which comes from the Greek terms for God (theos) and justice (dike). A theodicy is an attempt to “justify God” and the reasons He has for permitting, and dare we say, ordaining evil to ruin His good creation. Examining the problem of evil and searching the Scriptures for a theodicy is not an empty exercise in speculation. Rather it is a way to consider precisely who God is and why He created the world in the first place. A theodicy need not be a morbid focus on evil and its myriad expressions of malevolence. Ironically, evil serves to highlight the supreme glory of the Creator and Lord of the universe. The revelation God has given of Himself in the pages of His divinely inspired Word helps us not only make sense of the existence and ubiquitous presence of evil in the world and in our lives, but places God’s plan for the creation on full display before His creatures so that we might marvel at God’s magnificence. No theodicy will be effective unless it rightly represents that nature of the God who is.
God is Holy
A good theodicy must start with a close look at God’s attributes, particularly His holiness. God’s holiness speaks of His otherness, His separateness. God is holy in that He is set apart in His unbridled righteousness, but He is also holy in that He is set apart in His very being as the transcendent God who dwells in “unapproachable light” (1 Tim. 6:16) far above the creation and His creatures. The seraphim of heaven cry out, “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of His glory” (Isa. 6:3). All creation stands in subservience and awe of the Almighty One. The limits of God’s being are beyond discovery (Job 11:7). God is knowable, but His depths are far beyond our capacity to fathom. “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!” (Rom. 11:33). When encountering such a God against the black backdrop of evil, we are bound to run into unexpected tensions and mysteries.
God is Good
For example, we know that God is marked by pure goodness. Nothing can impede His “abundant goodness” (Psa. 145:7). As the Belgic Confession says, He is the “overflowing fountain of all good.” God can have no evil thought. He cannot even be tempted by evil, nor can He tempt others to the same (James 1:13). Furthermore, God is all-wise and the very source of all wisdom and knowledge (Col. 2:3). He knows every detail of every movement of everything and all that transpires in space and time from beginning to end without exception. Nothing has escaped His notice. The serpent’s sinister plan did not surprise the omniscient One. God was not caught off guard by the disobedience of Adam and Eve. In fact, quite the opposite is true.
God is Sovereign
These attributes help set the stage for grappling with the all-encompassing sovereignty of God. Listen to Isaiah as he records God’s revelation of His Lordship over creation and history.
Remember the former things long past,
For I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is no one like Me,
Declaring the end from the beginning,
And from ancient times things which have not been done,
Saying, 'My purpose will be established,
And I will accomplish all My good pleasure';
Calling a bird of prey from the east,
The man of My purpose from a far country.
Truly I have spoken; truly I will bring it to pass.
I have planned it, surely I will do it. (Isa. 46:9-11)
God begins this revelation of Himself by framing His words in the context of His transcendent holiness. He alone is God. There is no other. None can be compared to Him. For that reason, He alone can ordain all things from beginning to end, and providentially ensure His plan for history unfolds precisely as He planned it to “accomplish all” His “good pleasure.”
We know that everything good must be attributed to the Father of Lights (James 1:17). However, we might wonder, could God’s plans possibly include evil? Isaiah does not leave us in the dark on this question. A few pages earlier He records God’s revelation concerning this very matter:
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. (Isa. 45:6-7)
God frames His statements here the same way He did in Isaiah 46. He is Yahweh, the transcendent Lord of all. There is no other God. The Sovereign of the universe indicates His total control over the events of history by using a merism, which is a common Hebrew literary device expressing completeness. A merism contrasts two polar extremes as a way of highlighting everything in between. In this case, “light” is contrasted with “darkness.” There is a second contrast between “well-being” and “calamity.” These indicate all that is good and evil. In fact, the word translated “calamity” is the standard Hebrew term for “evil” (see also Job 2:10; 42:11; Lam. 3:38). Thus, God’s plans encompass the full spectrum of light and dark, well-being and calamity, right and wrong, good and bad, peace and war, true and false, beauty and ugliness.
What About Evil? A Defense of God's Sovereign Glory by Scott Christensen
Turning to the Bible's grand storyline, Scott Christensen examines how sin, evil, corruption, and death fit into the broad outlines of redemptive history. He argues that God's ultimate end in creation is to magnify his glory to his image-bearers, most notably by defeating evil through the atoning work of Christ.
The Bible is clear. God sovereignly ordains all things that come to pass, including all instances of evil. If some evil does not fit God’s plan and purpose, then He will not permit that evil to transpire. Because God is also supremely good and wise, we can only draw one conclusion: God must of necessity have some supremely good and wise purpose for any evil he determines to transpire. God sovereignly authors the entire story of history but cannot himself be held culpable for evil when it occurs. Moral responsibility for evil in Scripture is always located in the intentions of the heart (Prov. 16:2; Jer. 17:9-10). Humans always have evil intentions for the evil they commit. Yet, in the mystery of God’s transcendent, good, and wise purposes, He can ordain that such evil occur while never having anything but good and wise intentions for its occurrence (Psa. 5:4). If God cannot achieve some greater good from a particular evil, we can be certain He will never permit it in the first place. For example, Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery, and yet we learn that God ordained this same event (Gen. 45:5, 7-8). Joseph rightly told them, "As for you, you meant [intended] evil against me, but God meant [intended] it for good.” (Gen. 50:20).
History’s greatest evil was committed against the Son of the Living God. The Jews crucified Him, knowing full well His divine identity and complete innocence. This was an unfathomable evil and a supremely gross miscarriage of justice. Yet every detail at Calvary was planned and carried out by God (see Acts 2:22-23; 4:27-28). Furthermore, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ shows us the profound intersection of God and evil, as well as God’s ultimate purpose for the fall of humanity that necessitated a curse on all creation.
God is Creator and Redeemer
Here we must ask, why did God ever create the world, particularly us lowly humans? God was under no obligation to make anything. He certainly wasn’t lonely. He had enjoyed perfect love and fellowship among the members of the Trinity for all eternity. Historically, Christians have understood that God created the world to supremely magnify the riches of His glory, especially to us, His image-bearing creatures. But how has God done so? In what way has He magnified His glory so that nothing else could exceed it?
We need not look beyond the cross or the empty tomb of the incarnate Son of God. There is no world we could imagine whereby God’s glory could exceed the glory of the cross and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Why the cross? Why the empty tomb? These were the central means God used to redeem a broken, corrupted, despised world. The redemption that Jesus Christ achieves through His incarnation, death, resurrection, exaltation, and eventual return to establish His eternal kingdom brings God maximum glory. However, and this is what we must see, God could have never received such glory for His redeeming grace had Adam and Eve never fallen; had the serpent never tempted them; had they never thrust the very good world into the throes of sin and corruption. Redemption is unnecessary without that crisis. And redemption for fallen sinners would be impossible without the person and work of the Son of God who was sent by the Father to achieve this supremely glorious work. Thus, evil exists to magnify the redeeming grace and glory of God through the unparalleled atoning work of Jesus Christ.
This does not answer every question about every instance of evil we see in the world, or the pain and suffering we endure, but it helps us place the dark storm of evil in perspective. All those who put their faith in Christ for the redemption of their souls from sin and death and hell can be assured that no evil that befalls them is gratuitous. It has a purpose. All things, both good and evil, work for a greater good for those that are sovereignly called by God; for those that love Him and fit into His supremely wise plan of redemption (Rom. 8:28). Because we have suffered the crisis of sin and the Edenic curse, we can truly appreciate the gloriousness of the transcendent God of both justice and mercy, of power and grace; of the incarnate Son who defeats sin, Satan, death, and every last vestige of evil that has afflicted God’s magnificent creation. Everything, even evil, exists for the supreme magnification of His glory—a glory we would never see without the fall and the great Redeemer Jesus Christ.