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God is sovereign, powerful, and good. Evil exists, and creatures bear moral responsibility for it. Many people deny one or more of these essential truths when trying to make sense of sin and the injustice and suffering it causes. People postulate that perhaps God is not truly in charge of the world, that God is somehow limited in his ability to effect change in the world, or that perhaps God is both good and evil. Some deny the reality of evil, rendering it an illusion or matter of perception. Others deny responsibility for their own sinfulness, shifting the blame to other people or a bad environment.
Philosophers have long sought a way to winsomely and persuasively reconcile the character of God with the reality of sin. Gottfried Leibniz first coined the term theodicy in 1710 to describe this quest for understanding. Theologian J. I. Packer says that the word theodicy is a combination of the Greek word theos (“God”) and the root dik- (“just”), meaning that it seeks to “justify the ways of God to man,” or show that God is both good and sovereign despite contrary appearances.1
Christian philosophers and theologians have explored several approaches to the problem of theodicy, trying to identify God’s role in suffering. Christian philosopher C. Stephen Evans says:
Two of the more important theodicies are the “soul-making theodicy,” which argues that God allows evil so as to make it possible for humans to develop certain desirable virtues, and the “free will theodicy,” which argues that God had to allow for the possibility of evil if he wished to give humans (and angelic beings) free will. Theodicies are often distinguished from defenses, which argue that it is reasonable to believe that God has reasons for allowing evil even if we do not know what those reasons are.2
Specific forms of theodicy speculations vary wildly, as Evans explains. Some even teach a false universalism whereby everyone will be saved in the end. Others say that we will retain our freedom to sin even in our resurrected heavenly state, which leaves open the possibility of sin occurring again in the eternal state. J. I. Packer further comments:
Some Calvinists envisage God permissively decreeing sin for the purpose of self-display in justly saving some from their sin and justly damning others for and in their sin. But none of this is biblically certain. The safest way in theodicy is to leave God’s permission of sin and moral evil as a mystery, and to reason from the good achieved in redemption.3
Why Does God Allow Evil?
Some say God ordains all sin, using it for His greater glory, but according to Scriptures like Jeremiah 32:26-35, some sins are against His will in every sense. God says in Jeremiah that His people have chosen to “provoke me to anger” by doing “nothing but evil in my sight from their youth.” As a result, they have aroused “anger and wrath.” God goes on to say,
They have turned to me their back and not their face. And though I have taught them
persistently, they have not listened to receive instruction. They set up their
abominations in the house that is called by my name, to defile it. They built the high
places of Baal in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to offer up their sons and daughters
to Molech, though I did not command them, nor did it enter into my mind, that they
should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin.
God is emphatically clear that grotesque evil, including the slaughter of children to a false pagan “god”, is certainly not in accordance with His will or desires.
Others say that God allows sin because He honors our free choice; however, stories like the judgments of Pharaoh and Jerusalem clearly define limits to his patience. We can safely say that God is at war with sin and evil, overcoming it with good through his redemptive work as his promised Messiah crushes the Serpent (Gen. 3:15; Col. 2:15; Heb. 2:14-15; 1 John 3:8).
The Bible repeatedly declares that God is always, perfectly, and solely sovereign, powerful, and good. God can be angry with our continual sinning, but it never destroys his plan, limits his power to act, or stops Him from doing good within the worst evil. From the appearance of Satan in the garden onward, God has dealt with sin and evil in a way that compels us to continually trust in Him, having faith in His ultimate providence and triumph over sin. To assume that God cannot (making Him not sovereign and/or not powerful) or will not (making Him not good) prevail is to judge God before He judges evil. Since we are in the middle of history, we must not judge Him but rather trust Him until He is finished with sin and history as we know it.
God Is Sovereign Over Evil
In the meantime, evil is never outside the providential control of God. His work is to do good in the context of an evil world. An example is the story of Joseph in the final twelve chapters of Genesis. We read of Joseph’s betrayal at the hands of his brothers, his unjust suffering, and his eventual rise to power because the Lord was with him, whereby many lives were saved. When confronting his brothers, the providence of God at work in the life of Joseph crescendos: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.”6
Many years later, a descendant of Joseph named Jesus Christ suffered similarly. He too was betrayed by his “brothers,” suffered the worst injustice in history, and died in shame on a Roman cross. At that moment, it would have been tempting to think that God had lost his sovereignty, sinned against Jesus, or failed to stop the injustice. However, three days later, Jesus arose from his grave, atoning for the sins of the world, and God was vindicated as fully sovereign, good, and powerful.
God used the freely chosen evil of Judas, Herod, Pilate, Gentiles, and Jews to accomplish his perfect purpose7 in the same way he used the Chaldeans, a horribly evil nation, to punish the persistent sin of Judah and Jerusalem in Habakkuk.8 This does not mean that their evil is God’s responsibility. They freely desired to kill and destroy. In a cosmic irony, the God of all providence used evil to judge evil. Even as his hand brought punishment to Israel and death to Jesus, he also brings redemption and resurrection into the context of judgment and death.
We presently see and know only in part4, and God has secrets He has chosen not to reveal to us.5 A day is coming when we will also rise with and to Jesus. On that day, our faith will be sight and we will see God fully vindicated as we enter the best possible world after passing through this world’s waiting room. Until that day, our answer to the the problem of sin is ultimately a prayerful, worshipful, humble, and continual meditation on Romans 8:28, which promises, “We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” Today, we trust by faith. One day, we will see by sight. In this regard, the answer to the problem of evil is patience from the people of God.
1J. I. Packer, “Theodicy,” in Sinclair B. Ferguson and J. I. Packer, New Dictionary of Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2000), 679.
2C. Stephen Evans, “Theodicy,” in Pocket Dictionary of Apologetics and Philosophy of Religion (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2002), 114.
3Packer, “Theodicy,” 679.
41 Cor. 13:12.
7Acts 2:23; 4:27–28.