Is God in control of the evil that happens in this world? Is He sovereign over evil? Does He predetermine all the evil in the world?
These are pertinent questions that came up recently in one of my Historical Theology classes. We had been discussing Aquinas’ proofs for the existence of God as presented in his Summa Theologia. As Aquinas noted, one of the common objections that are brought up with reference to the existence of God is the problem of evil. How can a good, omnipotent, all-knowing God allow evil to exist?
Eventually, the conclusion was reached by the professor that God does not actively will evil, but rather simply allows it (part of the basis for this was a misinterpretation and translation of Romans 8:28). So that while God is not sovereign over evil, He is sovereign in making evil work out for the good of the believers.
This answer, I would posit, is more based upon our emotional feelings regarding who God is and what God should do: it is not based upon the consistent picture we get of God in the Bible. We do not like the idea that God predetermines the evil in this world. We do not like the idea that the perfectly good God orchestrates the tremendous atrocities that exist in society today and have existed in history. We see the evil in the world and despise the fact that God could have anything to do with that. We, in our pride, like to maintain our own personal freedom and think that God has no control over our actions.
Yet the Bible is consistently clear on this issue; God is in control of all the evil that happens. He is sovereign over it all. Here are a just a few verses that illustrate this fact:
- 2 Thessalonians 2:11-12: And for this cause God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie: That they all might be damned who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness.
- Isaiah 6:10: Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and convert, and be healed.
- Deuteronomy 2:30: But Sihon king of Heshbon would not let us pass by him: for the LORD thy God hardened his spirit, and made his heart obstinate, that he might deliver him into thy hand, as appeareth this day.
- Joshua 11:20: For it was of the LORD to harden their hearts, that they should come against Israel in battle, that he might destroy them utterly, and that they might have no favour, but that he might destroy them, as the LORD commanded Moses.
- John 12:40: He hath blinded their eyes, and hardened their heart; that they should not see with their eyes, nor understand with their heart, and be converted, and I should heal them.
- Acts 2:22 – 23: Ye men of Israel, hear these words; Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you by miracles and wonders and signs, which God did by him in the midst of you, as ye yourselves also know: Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain
- Amos 3:6: Shall a trumpet be blown in the city, and the people not be afraid? Shall there be evil in a city, and the Lord hath not done it?
- Romans 9:18: Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth.
To say that God is not in control of the evil in this world presents numerous interpretation problems with the Bible. How can any of these verses be interpreted if one says that God is not in control of evil? Nor can these problems be done away with the claim of Marcion that the God of the Old Testament is not the same as the God of Jesus Christ. There are numerous New Testament passages, spread throughout the New Testament writings, that state that God is in control of evil and predetermines it by His sovereign hand.
Yet how does God retain His goodness if He causes evil in this world?
God retains His perfect goodness in all this because He is fundamentally good. God is perfectly righteous and holy. He can in no way be morally responsible for our own personal sin. We must not make the mistake of forcing our own rational limited human understanding of moral responsibility on to the infinite Lord and Creator of the Universe. We simply cannot do that.
Furthermore, God retains His moral excellence because He has revealed His will of command to us. We know in our hearts what God demands of us. This is even true of those who know nothing of Christianity and have never read the Bible. The Apostle Paul attests to this fact in Romans 2:14: “For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves.” God demands that we keep that law. It is our duty to keep that law. God holds us responsible to keep that law.
We as humans are responsible moral agents. While God is in control of our actions (He is even in control of all the hairs of our head as Jesus Christ states in Matthew 10:28!), we maintain our moral responsibility. We have a rational intellect that God has given us and we are responsible for the use of it, God is not. In this life, we act as moral agents. We make decisions. We have a will. In this life, we do not notice the fact that God has predetermined all that we will do, yet He has. And yet, we are still responsible for all our actions, for God will judge us on the Day of Judgment. We will be held accountable for all our actions.
Difficult to understand? Yes. Frightening to think of? Yes, especially for the unbeliever. But this is what the Bible teaches. Much of it has to be accepted on the basis of humble faith. This is who God is.