Today's Broadcast

Providence and Evil

A Message by R.C. Sproul

What does the existence of evil say about the goodness of God? How are we to understand God’s providence as we experience all kinds of evil happening around us? Through the centuries, people have been trying to reconcile the goodness of God with the existence of evil. Some theologians and philosophers have concluded that either God is not good, or that He simply lacks the power to overcome evil. Here, Dr. Sproul clears up exactly why God allows evil.

From the series: Providence: God in Control

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Further Study On This Topic

  1. devotional

    Providence and Evil

  2. devotional

    Evil in God's Providential Rule

  3. devotional

    When Good and Evil are Confused

Providence and Evil

God's acts of providence can be difficult to understand or accept. The things that happen to us may not seem good at all. In fact, we may be the victims of acts of real evil. But that does not mean God is not working through the evil to bring about His purposes.

Joseph learned this lesson through a series of very unhappy experiences. Jacob was blessed with 12 sons, but Joseph was his favorite (Gen. 37:3). Jacob therefore gave Joseph preferential treatment, causing his brothers to be intensely jealous of him. When an opportunity presented itself, they sold him to a group of Midianite traders, who in turn sold him to an officer of Pharaoh in Egypt. Later, his master's wife falsely accused him of trying to assault her, leading to his incarceration in prison. He helped a fellow prisoner, a servant of Pharaoh, and asked only that the man would put in a good word for him to the king when he was released, but the man forgot to do so for two years. How much tribulation and disappointment could Joseph stand?

Finally, however, Joseph was able to interpret a dream for Pharaoh and subsequently was elevated to a position of power subordinate only to the king. In that role, he was charged with preparing Egypt for the coming famine that had been revealed in Pharaoh's dream. He performed his task so well that when the famine came on, enough grain was stored away to meet both Egypt's needs and those of foreigners. Thus it was that Joseph's brothers eventually journeyed to Egypt to buy grain to make bread, and Joseph at last could see that God had used all of the "bad" things that had happened to him to bring about a very good end—to put him in a position from which he could save many lives, including those of his father and brothers.

The unpleasant or "evil" things that occur to us may not be part of God's plan to bring us to positions of power, but they are ordained by God for some good end. This Scriptural teaching that God uses even the evil acts of men to accomplish His good purposes is known as the doctrine of concurrence. It reminds us that God ordains not just ends but means. Human beings are free to choose as they desire (and will bear the guilt when they choose to sin), but God somehow works in and through those choices. His providence encompasses even the evil that men do.

Evil in God's Providential Rule

Most Christian apologists (defenders of the faith) agree that the most di™cult question for believers is the so-called problem of evil. Those who raise the problem of evil as a reason not to believe in Christ assert that if God were to exist, there would be no evil in the world given that the Lord is all-knowing (omniscient), all-powerful (omnipotent), and all-good (omnibenevolent). A divine being with such attributes, critics assume, would not allow evil to take place in His creation; since evil occurs, God must not exist.

All theistic systems face the problem of evil, but the biblical teaching on the goodness of God makes it an issue that weighs on many believers. Moreover, the problem of evil is an especially pertinent subject for those who embrace Reformed theology. That is because we affirm that not only do both evil and good exist, but that a good God has ordained every evil that ever takes place. If the Lord ordains evil, how can He be good?

To be sure, we can only say so much about how we can reconcile the existence of evil with the goodness of the Lord. There is great mystery here, and we will not have an exhaustive answer to this issue on this side of heaven. However, we must note that saying that God allows evil but does not ordain it does not "solve" the problem. On a human level, those who allow evil that they could otherwise prevent are, along with the perpetrator of evil, morally culpable. In any case, even Reformed theology often says that God "allows" evil in order to indicate that the way in which the Lord stands behind evil is different than the way that He stands behind good. But Reformed theology is clear that the Lord does not exercise "bare permission." He does not just sit back and watch evil take place; rather, in allowing evil, God establishes that it will certainly happen.

What then shall we say? First, we must affirm that our Creator is fully good and cannot Himself do evil (James 1:13). Second, we affirm that the Lord could stop any individual occurrence of evil if He wanted to. He is all-powerful, after all (Gen. 18:14a; Mark 10:27). Finally, we note that God can and does use evil to accomplish His will (1 Kings 22:23; Ps. 105:23–25). However, evil is never God's final purpose or goal. He ordains it for a greater good, namely, our good and His glory (Rom. 8:28; James 1:2–4). We see this most plainly in the death of Christ, an evil that God ordained but for which He is not morally responsible (Acts 2:23). He used this most evil of evils for a great good indeed—our salvation.

When Good and Evil are Confused

Over the past few days, we have looked at promises from the Lord that greatly encouraged the righteous remnant of Israel and Judah as the dreaded covenant curse of exile became more likely for God's people in the eighth century BC (Isa. 2:1–5; 4:2–6). In Isaiah 5:8–30, however, the prophet again emphasizes the bad news of the Lord's wrath, helping us understand why the people were being condemned.

We read several oracles of woe—warnings and promises of doom—that Isaiah pronounced upon the Judahites of his own day. He proclaimed woe upon those who "join house to house, who add field to field, until there is no more room" (v. 8). This appears to be a reference to the faithless wealthy elite who used every trick in the book to take property from the poor and defenseless. Some of them likely moved landmarks, the boundary markers or fences separating property, just a few inches at a time (Deut. 27:17; Hos. 5:2). In so doing, their property grew imperceptibly until it swallowed up the land of others. Others would have killed for land, just like Jezebel killed Naboth to give Ahab another vineyard (1 Kings 21:1–16). However it was done, the theft of land, while it led to temporary prosperity, would end with the emptiness of vast estates that were acquired by fraudulent and oppressive means (Isa. 5:9–10).

Isaiah also condemned those who were so enslaved to their amusements that they did "not regard the deeds of the Lord, or see the work of his hands" (vv. 11–12). The prophet did not forbid entertainment per se, but he condemned those who made amusement their god. This is a sober warning for us in our entertainment-driven society lest we, too, fritter our time away so that we do not consider God and His will.

The fundamental problem, however, that led to the aforementioned sins and all others mentioned in the chapter was the willingness of the people to embrace an inverted moral order. Instead of praising what Paul would later call honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, and excellent, the ancient Judahites viewed God's law as evil and evil as just (v. 20). But when the hearts of men and women become so darkened that they openly revel in what is evil, the judgment of the Lord cannot be far behind. Those faithful people who live in such societies must plead with their neighbors to repent, for if people persist in approving of what is evil, the culture cannot survive.

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