When we start talking about evil and God’s relationship to it, especially in the light of national tragedies and terrorism and personal, evil acts that have befallen us, it tends to be a very emotional conversation. I want you to understand that I’m sensitive to that. I get that. I, too, have had evil acts done to me. We have all been touched by evil. When we try to determine the truth of something, oftentimes our emotions don’t always serve us well. They can be an important source of information, but ultimately, they should not drive the day. When we look at scripture about this topic, I encourage you to keep an open mind, to let God speak for himself, and let’s not round off edges that are sharp in scripture, just to find something that may be more comforting, because ultimately, what we should want to find is the truth, whether it’s emotionally satisfying now, or not.
To start talking about evil and our approach to tackling this from scripture, I actually want to talk about the trinity. Here’s why: Oftentimes, Christians think about the trinity like it’s a problem. But it’s actually a solution, like we’ve looked at before.
The Bible teaches 3 things about God. It teaches that there’s one God. It teaches that Jesus is God, the Father is God, and the Spirit is God, and it also says that Jesus is not the Father, that Jesus is not the Spirit, and the Spirit is not the Father. The trinity’s a way of bringing those things together and saying, “These are 3 statements that seem to be somewhat, perhaps, paradoxical, but they’re all taught by scripture.” All of the heresies involving the trinity involve denying 1 or more of those. Someone might say, “Well, yes Jesus is God, and the father is God, and the spirit is God, and there’s 1 God, but there actually is just 1 person in God, so Jesus, actually, is the father, before he comes to Earth. And after Jesus goes away, he comes back in the form of the Spirit. That’s called modalism, where’s there’s just 1 being and 1 person in God.
I want us to take the same approach to looking at what the Bible has to say about God and evil. We’re going to pull out the 3 statements and then wrestle with them. We can’t shave off the sharp edges, which leaves us with some tension, often times. This is a tension scripture does not always try to resolve for us.
Here are the 3 things scripture teaches.
- God is sovereign over everything and his will is always done.
- Man is responsible. He makes choices. He, as a result of sinful choices, incurs God’s wrath. As a result of submitting to God, he receives salvation. Man makes choices. He’s an actual moral agent.
- God is good.
God is sovereign over everything, his will is always done, but man is responsible. These 2 things, obviously, seem to stand in tension. If everything God wants, happens, well then raises the question, “How is man responsible?” Well, the Bible doesn’t try to resolve that. If everything God wants to happen, happens, then what about evil? Well, that’s where the point about God being good comes in.
What we must always do, is come back to these 3 points, these 3 pillars. Any solution that we try to arrive at cannot involve reducing one of these, or redefining its terms. To make this clear, I think the best case study for looking at evil and God’s relationship to it, is the cross. Let’s look at a few passages.
“In Christ, we, too, have been claimed as God’s own possession. Since we were predestined, according to the one purpose of him, who accomplishes all things, according to the counsel of his will.” Ephesians 1:11
There’s a lot in that verse and I’m not really endeavoring to talk about salvation today and God choosing things or that type of thing so much, thought that’s certainly related. What I want to look at is the second part of that verse.
It says, “We were predestined according to the purpose of the one who accomplishes all things, according to the counsel of his will.” “All things,” not some things. There’s nothing in the context here that makes it seem like Paul’s just limiting it to the good things. No, God is actively accomplishing all of the things he wants, according to his own will. Since these things are coming out of his will, and they’re ultimately done, what this means is God’s will is always done, in every single instance. There’s nothing that happens that is outside of the will of God.
On this podcast, we haven’t talked the 2 wills of God. There are 2 ways God’s will is spoken about. Here, we are saying what you might call God’s “sovereign will”, the fact that every single things that happens is a part of the active will of God, that he is ultimately accomplishing it, according to the counsel of his will. This would include evil. Now, we haven’t really gotten specific here, or said, “Well, how do we deal with this?”
Let’s look at a great example, Acts 2:22-23. Here, we are looking at a passage about the cross. This is what Peter says.
”Men or Israel, listen to these words. Jesus, the Nazarene, a man clearly attested to you by God with powerful deeds, wonders, and miraculous signs that God performed among you through him, just as you yourselves know this man, who was handed over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you executed by nailing him to a cross at the hands of gentiles.”
This is kind of a mind boggling passage, in a way. There’s a lot there, but what is very clear is that a group of people are being held accountable for killing the son of God, that they literally nailed him to a cross. They caused his death. That was an evil act. Surely, we must be able to affirm that the crucifixion, the murder, of the only perfect man who ever walked the Earth, was a horrible evil. What does Peter also affirm in this passage? That it was the predetermined plan of God.
We don’t necessarily understand how to reconcile those things, but we can’t deny one of them, to arrive at something that’s more comfortable. It was the predetermined plan of God that Jesus would be murdered. You cannot water this passage down and say, “Well, it was the predetermined plan of God that Jesus would come to Earth and he would freely choose to go to the cross, that God simply determined (meaning he looked out and saw that man would choose to kill him.)” No, that’s not what God is saying, here.
God is making it clear that he actively was working a plan to go to the cross and when we try to say that that’s not what happened, “it was just the result of only one will” — man’s will — we rob God of trying to take the credit for the cross. Was it evil for God to predetermine the cross? No; God is good. As Psalm 1:19:68 says, “You are good and you do good, and there’s no shadow in God.”
However, when God ordains that an evil act will happen, it is not evil for him to do so. When man chooses and does that act, it is evil. It was murder for the gentiles to nail Jesus to the cross, but it was a perfect act of love when Jesus went to the cross. Do you see that in working out the plan for salvation, that from God’s perspective, he was accomplishing something for his own glory, first and foremost, and for the good of people who would come to put their faith in Jesus? The accomplishing of that from man’s perspective was evil. Man did something evil in accomplishing something God also intended and predetermined, for good. We must let those 2 tensions stand. Man made a choice. He was accountable. I would not want to be the man who pays the penalty for crucifying God in the flesh, but that action was also predetermined by God to happen.
Now, another passage that speaks about the crucifixion would be Acts 4:27 and 28.
”For indeed, both Herod and Pontius Pilot with the gentiles and the people of Israel assembled together in this city against your holy servant, Jesus, whom you anointed, to do as much as your power and your plan had decided beforehand, what happened.”
Wow, what is the writer saying, here? Well, everyone involved — Herod, Pilot, gentiles, Israelites — assembled together against Jesus to do what God had determined beforehand would happen, to do what his plan was. God didn’t have a passive plan, where he saw what people would do and said, “Oh, oh I’ll claim that. I see what you’re going to do. We’ll call that my plan,” because who’s actually sovereign in that example? Man is. If God is simply looking out and seeing the free will decisions of man and then putting the label, “My plan,” on it, God is not sovereign in that example, man is.
That’s one of the interesting things about this topic. When people talk about God and sovereignty, and human responsibility and freedom, many times they want to grant a type of freedom to man they won’t even give to God.
Surely, that can’t be the impression we get from scripture, where man has a level of autonomy that God does not even have, where man’s will is done at the expense of God’s will. Surely, that cannot be something we would say about the all powerful creator, God, who is glorious and holy, of scripture.
But Getting back to our passage, isn’t this interesting? This is the second passage in Acts where we see that everyone did what they did and it was according to God’s plan. It was accomplished by his power and he had decided beforehand that Jesus would go to the cross, that Jesus would be crucified and killed. God decided that Jesus would be killed, and it was murder for them to kill him. Scripture does not try to harmonize that for us, but when we say, “No, God doesn’t ordain evil,” what we’re also saying is, “God doesn’t ordain the cross,” so to make my position a little more clear, I do think God ordains evil. I think these 3 passages leave us no other option. Now, we are left with, “How do we square that with human responsibility? How do we square that with God’s goodness?”
We can’t reason from man and what it means for him to be free, and then say, “Well, what’s left over is what we give to God” in terms of control. We must start with what scripture says about God and his sovereignty and as Ephesians 1:11 says, “He accomplishes all things according to his will” Acts 2 says that Human beings killed God and it was the plan of God for them to do it.
God claims responsibility for the cross. It wasn’t a happy accident. He glorified himself in that action, but it was murder for people to kill him.
Acts 4 says the same type of thing. It just expands the group: Herod, Pilot, gentiles, Israel, everyone came together against Jesus to do what the power and plan of God had decided beforehand would happen. We have a God that doesn’t just see evil as a liability. It’s not evil for him to ordain evil, but it is evil for us to carry it out. No one makes us do evil acts. We choose according to our will, according to our desires.
Now, how do those 2 things harmonize? I don’t know, but they’re not logically contradictory. Scripture affirms that man is responsible (for the wages of sin is death). Man makes choices. Man can surrender to God. Man rebels against God. God is ultimately sovereign over all of that. Evil’s not a liability to him. Here’s the interesting thing. If you say that God does not ordain evil, what you’re actually saying is there is evil in this universe, this world, and in people’s lives, that is kind of a liability to God.
When we believe God ordains evil, that takes a great trust from us. It stretches our faith. It forces us to rely on what scripture has said, as opposed to our intuition and fallen emotions. You know what that leaves us with? That leaves us with nothing happening that is outside of God’s control. That leaves us in a position of trusting our sovereign, heavenly father, to be able to believe that when some evil befalls us or someone we know, that it wasn’t an accident. It wasn’t a liability to God. He was behind it. He is ultimately using it for good. It is a part of his good will and counsel, that he is accomplishing.
We may not understand how that happens. It, in no way, detracts from the responsibility of people who create and commit evil. We cannot remove God in an attempt to save him, because God doesn’t try to remove the position of standing behind evil, in a certain way. Because if we remove God from ordaining and planning evil (even in some limited capacity), we remove him from planning and accomplishing the cross. That cannot be.
The cross was not an accident. It was the predetermined plan of God. Jesus was the lamb slain before the foundation of the world. He came, not to be a pinball in the free will decisions of man, but to accomplish a plan that God had been working out, all the way from before creation even began. We cannot, in attempting to save God, rob from him the glory that has due his name for accomplishing the cross. That’s, oftentimes, what happens when we deny that God ordains evil.
Now, I understand this is a very hard truth to accept, and I can think back several years in my own life and remember how much I railed against this view. The Spirit has been working on my heart to trust God at his word, that when he says that he works all things, that that’s not just the things I like. That when scripture says that he planned the cross and accomplished it by his power, I do not have the authority to reframe what scripture has said, in terms of saying, “It was purely and only the result of the free will choice of man.”
Yes, man made a choice, and he’s responsible for it, but God also accomplished the cross. I want to leave you where we started. When we think about the trinity, we have these 3 points that don’t necessarily seem to fit too well to us. Scripture teaches all 3. Scripture teaches 3 other things, too, and we shouldn’t reject any of them, just like we don’t reject the parts of the trinity.
Scripture teaches that God is sovereign over everything. His will is always done. We can’t shave any part of that off. It also teaches that man is responsible. We make real choices that we are really accountable for. It also teaches that God is good, really, truly good.
When we dive in and examine this topic, we’re tested. We’re stretched in our faith, in our ability to trust in his goodness, or in his sovereignty. He is God and we are not, and we cannot collapse the God/Man distance in trying to work through what scripture has said. We have to humbly submit ourselves to his word, to his spirit, and ask him to work on us, to accept these truths that the Bible teaches which are some of the hardest things we could ever think through and have to accept.
Well, I hope this has been helpful. I hope it has helped you think about God, in a different way, where he is bigger. He is over evil. He stands behind it in a way (not in the same way he stands behind good), but he is ultimately using and working all things actively, according to the counsel of his will.
I will talk with you next week on Unapologetic.