How Can We Condemn Evil if God Is Sovereign?
I was recently asked, “If God is in control of our death, then how do we answer suicide and abortion? Would not God’s control over death make Him the agent of cause, which would therefore mean we are not able to condemn such practices?”
This is not just a question about suicide and abortion; it applies to every evil thing anyone does. God “ordains” the steps of man (Prov. 20:24) and “works all things after the counsel of His will” (Eph. 1:11). But if it’s true God is sovereign, how can evil be evil? Part of the answer can be found in the story of Joseph. Joseph says to his brothers who sold him into slavery, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive” (Gen. 50:20).
The Same Action, Different Intentions
We see in that passage that the same action was caused by different intentions. The brothers meant evil, and they bore the responsibility for that evil. But God meant the same action for good. He used the brothers’ evil intentions to bring about His desired result (i.e., to save the line of Christ), and He did not have evil intentions in doing so. Therefore, God was not guilty of evil, but the brothers were.
We see another example of this in Acts 4:24–28, where the disciples say of the people who put Jesus to death:
For truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur.
There, we see that the most grievous sin ever committed—the killing of Jesus—was something God predestined to occur. But this doesn’t mean the people didn’t sin in killing Him! No one would say that killing Jesus wasn’t a sin just because it was God’s plan from before the foundation of the world for Jesus to die on the cross. In fact, it was said of Judas that “it would have been better for that man if he had not been born” (Matt. 26:24). The people sinned and God meant it as part of His plan for His glory and the good of His people.
Evil Is Punished
We see this yet again in the Old Testament when God uses the evil intentions of the nations to punish Israel and then turns around and promises to judge and punish those nations because of the actions that came from their evil intentions. Isaiah 10:5–12 is one example of this:
Woe to Assyria, the rod of My anger
And the staff in whose hands is My indignation,
I send it against a godless nation
And commission it against the people of My fury
To capture booty and to seize plunder,
And to trample them down like mud in the streets.
Yet it does not so intend,
Nor does it plan so in its heart,
But rather it is its purpose to destroy
And to cut off many nations….
So it will be that when the Lord has completed all His work on Mount Zion and on Jerusalem, He will say, “I will punish the fruit of the arrogant heart of the king of Assyria and the pomp of his haughtiness.” [Emphasis mine.]
The people of Assyria did not do their work in submission to God to carry out His good and just plans. They did evil out of the evil of their hearts, and they were punished for it. At the same time, God intended for their actions to be just punishment from Him against the Israelites, so this was not a sin on God’s part. Both parties had their own intentions and purposes. The Assyrians acted to commit evil. Therefore, the Assyrians were condemned in doing evil, and God was justified in bringing about justice against the Israelites (and later, against the Assyrians).
Whenever anyone does evil, we condemn the evil. But we can also take comfort in knowing there’s a purpose for everything because God is sovereign. (Incidentally, knowing there’s a purpose also helps us to forgive those who sin against us, just as it helped Joseph.) Most of the time, we will not know what that purpose is. God may be revealing the evil of sin, or drawing people to repentance, or planning an act of grace in the future, or showing people the results of life without Him, or drawing out virtue, or humbling someone, or raising someone up, etc., etc. We just don’t know. But the fact that there is a purpose doesn’t change the fact that it’s a sin for the person committing the act of evil. And make no mistake: It is the evil human being who is performing the evil deed out of the evil desires of his own heart, not God.
Evil Is Evil
In Romans 3, Paul responds to the claim that evil isn’t really evil if good comes from it:
But if our unrighteousness demonstrates the righteousness of God, what shall we say? The God who inflicts wrath is not unrighteous, is He? (I am speaking in human terms.) May it never be! For otherwise, how will God judge the world? But if through my lie the truth of God abounded to His glory, why am I also still being judged as a sinner? And why not say (as we are slanderously reported and as some claim that we say), “Let us do evil that good may come”? Their condemnation is just. (Rom. 3:5–8)
How can it be that God will judge the world if our sin is working for His glory in some way? Paul doesn’t explain in detail how all of this fits together. He merely says the condemnation of those who do evil is just, and this is true even though our evil reveals God’s glory in the end. Our evil, which springs from the evil in our hearts, is evil, and we must condemn it.
By Amy K Hall