Friday, October 5, 2018

Evil and God's Providence

"And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose" (Romans 8:28).

If God is good and sovereign, how can He allow evil in His world? First of all, what is evil? Christianity teaches that sin is any lack of conformity to God’s standards of righteousness. In philosophical terms evil is defined in terms of the negation of the good, a lack of goodness. In other words, the only way we can describe evil is in negative terms. Thus, evil, by its very nature, is a parasite.

Augustine put it this way: Only something good can do something evil. He meant something happens in a good being so that he has lost that goodness. When God created angels and men, He created them good. But the difference between the Creator and the creature is that God is unchangeably good, while the creature can fall away from good. It is possible for the creature to become wrongly related to the Creator. God cannot do evil because He cannot deny Himself.

Now we come to a second question: Does God ordain evil? There is only one possible answer to this question. Yes. If God did not ordain evil, there would be no evil. If there is evil going on and God did not ordain it, then God is not God. If there is something going on over which God is not in control, then something other than God is the sovereign of the universe—and this simply cannot be.

Here we encounter a great mystery--as great as any mystery in time or thought. We have said that nothing falls outside the providence of God, which extends to all creatures and all actions.  This is evident from the very Godness of God, as well as from many statements that Scripture makes about his sovereignty. Yet this raises a difficult and obvious question: If God governs everything that happens, does this make him the author of evil and the approver of sin? The Westminster Confession is helpful here:

WCF 5.4 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.

The Confession begins its answer by asserting that sinful actions--everything from Adam's first rebellion to the "little" sins of omission and commission that I commit every day--are inside (not outside) the providence of God. Otherwise, God could not really be in control.

Nor does God simply permit these sins. On the contrary, in His wise providence, He sets limits on the destructive power of sin and uses our misdeeds to accomplish His holy purposes. When considered from the perspective of eternity, what Joseph said about the ungodly actions of his older brothers may rightly be said of all human sins: "You meant evil . . . but God meant it for good" (Gen. 50:20).

This does not mean, however, that God is implicated in humanity's sin. God does not commit any sin; the guilt belongs only to the sinner. Here it helps to remember a distinction that was made in section two--the distinction between God as the First Cause and all the other causes that operate within his world. The will of the sinner is one of the "second causes" that accomplishes God's purposes. We cannot blame God for what we do. In choosing to sin, each of us bears moral responsibility for our own actions.

None of this completely resolves the mystery, of course.  God foreknows and foreordains everything, including evil; nevertheless, He is not the author of sin. The Westminster Confession refuses to give ground on either of these truths because both are taught in Holy Scripture. We sometimes think that if God ordains evil, it means He imposes evil on people. However, when we say that God ordains evil, we mean He is mysteriously sovereign over all things that take place, including evil, yet without ever being the author of sin.

If the universe simply is, then there is no such thing as good or evil, justice or injustice. There is only “yin and yang,” or some other meaningless distinction. Only Christianity can give meaning to the world and explain the reality of evil and God’s victory over it in Christ. While the Christian view of evil is difficult to understand, think of the difficulties encountered by non-Christian perspectives.