by R. C. Sproul
On February 12, 1938, two men had a private meeting in a mountain retreat. In the course of their conversation, one of the men said to the other, "I have a historic mission, and this mission I will fulfill, because Providence has destined me to do so." This man had an understanding that the purpose of his life was under the shaping influence of divine providence. He went on to say to the other gentleman in the course of their conversation that anyone "who is not with me will be crushed."
The man who made this claim to a providential destiny was Adolf Hitler. Similarly, when Joseph Stalin was elevated to the role of premier of the Soviet Union, the bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church rejoiced in this stroke of providence, as they were convinced that God had raised Stalin up to be a divine instrument for the leadership of the people of Russia. Yet today, when people discuss the diabolical evils that have been perpetrated on the human race, two of the names we hear most frequently associated with human wickedness are those of Hitler and Stalin.
Whenever we study the doctrine of providence and the question of divine government, we inevitably hear that the Scriptures teach us that God lifts nations up and brings nations down (Dan. 2:21; 4:17; Rom. 13:1). This raises a question: How is divine providence related to evil governments, evil individuals, and indeed the whole question of evil? In the previous chapter, I quoted from the third chapter of the Westminster Confession of Faith, which says, "God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass." Does that mean, then, that God ordained Hitler and Stalin? Is evil ordained by the providence of God?
It has been said that the existence of evil and the difficulty of explaining it in light of the concept of a sovereign God who is supposed to be good is the "Achilles' heel" of Christianity. According to Greek mythology, when Achilles was born, his mother dipped him in the River Styx in an attempt to make him immortal. But when she dipped him, she held him by the heel, and that part of his body was not immersed, and therefore was not invincible. Eventually, he was killed when he received an arrow wound in his heel during the Trojan War. Those who argue that the problem of evil is the Achilles' heel of Christianity mean that it is Christianity's most vulnerable spot. If God ordains everything that comes to pass, it seems that He must ordain evil. And if God ordains evil, the argument goes, He Himself is evil.
The philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) used this argument in his objections to Christianity. He wrote, "Not even on the most distorted and contracted theory of good which ever was framed by religious or philosophical fanaticism, can the government of Nature be made to resemble the work of a being at once good and omnipotent. He was saying that because of the undeniable reality of evil, he could not conceive of a God who was both all-powerful and all-righteous.
Of course, some try to resolve this difficulty by denying the reality of evil. Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, said evil is an illusion. I once had a debate with a Christian Science teacher about the question of evil. He insisted that evil is an illusion, that it does not really exist, while I insisted that evil is real. At one point in the discussion, I said: "Let me see if we can recapitulate where we stand. You say that evil is an illusion. I say that it's real. Do you think I'm real?" He said yes. I then asked, "Do you understand that I'm saying that evil is real and you're saying it's an illusion?" He said he understood that. I went on: "Do you think it's a good thing that I'm teaching people that evil is real?" He said he did not think so. Finally I asked, "Do you think it's evil for me to teach people that evil is real?" He did not know what to say at that point. He had to conclude that I was an illusion as well.
THE CAUSE AND THE EFFECT
I noted in chapter one that the key issue for modern man is causality, and this question is nowhere more acute than when we talk about the problem of evil. When I was a freshman in college, only a few months after I became a Christian, I was playing Ping-Pong one day in my dorm, and right in the middle of a volley a thought (which was in no way original) came to me: "If God is all-righteous, He's capable only of good; so, how could He possibly have created a world that is marred with evil? If God is the source of all things and He's good, how could there be evil?" That problem troubled me deeply then and it has troubled me even more since, and it troubles many other people, too.
As I began to ponder these things and to study the question of causality, I studied, and later taught, seventeenth-century philosophy. The most prominent philosopher during that time was the French mathematician and scholar René Descartes. He was very concerned about reasoning from causality. He argued for the existence of the world by saying that the universe requires a sufficient cause, a cause that is able to give the result that we now observe. So, he argued from cause to effect to the existence of God, reasoning backward from the universe to God. One of the principles he used in that argument for the existence of God was this: "There can be nothing in the effect that is not first in the cause." To state it another way, "There cannot be more in the effect than inheres in the cause."
That principle, which has been espoused by thinkers for millennia, is a valid one, and it is critical to other arguments for the existence of God. For example, one argument that we use to prove the existence of God is the argument from human personality. We can prove that there has to be a first cause, that this first cause has to be self-existent and eternal, and so on. But after we do that, people will often say, "How do we know that this first cause is personal?" One of the ways I respond to this question is to ask: "Are we persons? Is there such a thing as personality, which involves volition, intelligence, affection—the things that are so integral to what we are as human beings?" If people agree that human beings are personal, that they have intelligence, intentionality, volition, and so on, I can reply: "Well, we cannot have an impersonal source for personality. There has to be personality in the cause if there is personality in the effect."
But that particular argument, as valid as it may be, can backfire on the Christian. Critics of Christianity have responded that if there cannot be more in the effect than is inherent in the cause, then God must be evil, because if we have an effect here that is evil, and if there cannot be more in the effect than is inherent in the cause, evil must exist in the cause.
How do we respond to this argument? The simple answer is that there is something in the creature that does not reside in the Creator—sin. That does not mean that the creature has something greater than the Creator; rather, the creature has something far less than the Creator.
A DEFINITION OF EVIL
To explain what I mean, I want to turn to the historic definition of evil. What is evil? To be clear, I am not talking about natural evil or metaphysical evil; rather, I'm talking about moral evil. Human beings have at least this much in common with God—we are moral creatures. We are capable of actions that may be deemed right or wrong. Of course, we live in a time when many people deny that proposition. They say that nothing is objectively good or evil. Instead, there are only preferences, which means that everything is relative. Good and evil are simply societal conventions that we have received through various traditions.
Years ago, I endured a calamity of the highest magnitude—my golf clubs were stolen. That theft was particularly distressing to me because the clubs were in a new golf bag my wife had given to me, so it had sentimental value. Also, I had two specially built clubs that a friend who is on the PGA Tour had given to me. Now, I am a theologian. I am supposed to know something about sin. I think I have seen every kind of human frailty there is under the sun, and I understand the temptations that go with our humanness. But candidly, I have never quite been able to understand the mentality of people who steal, who actually have the audacity to take for themselves someone else's private property. One man works long hours each week, earning wages by the sweat of his brow so he can purchase a certain commodity that he wants or needs. Another man, seeing something he wants or needs, simply takes it for himself with no investment of time or effort. I cannot understand that mindset. Even though we are masters of self-justification, experts at coming up with excuses for our sins, I cannot conceive of how a thief can look at himself in a mirror and see anything other than a person who is unspeakably selfish and self-centered. In short, I am astonished at how evil people can be. As you can see, I am not in the camp of those who believe theft is not objectively wrong.
We do not need a complex philosophical argument to prove the evil of stealing. It is self-evident. People know instinctively that stealing someone else's property is wrong. I might say that there is no such thing as evil and argue about it philosophically, but the argument ends when someone helps himself to my wallet. Then I say: "That's not right. That's not good. That's bad."
But what is evil? The Westminster Shorter Catechism defines sin this way: "Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God" (Q&A 14). Here, the confession defines sin or evil in both a negative and a positive way. There are sins of omission and sins of commission. But I want to zero in on the first part of the definition, "any want of conformity unto … the law of God." The word "want" here does not mean "desire" but "lack." So, sin is a lack of conformity to the standard God establishes for righteousness.
The ancient philosophers defined evil in terms of "negation" and "privation." That is, evil is the negation of the good and a privation (or lack) of goodness. Something that falls short of the plentitude of righteousness is evil. The philosophers were showing that the only way we can describe and define evil is in negative terms. This means that evil, by its very nature, is parasitic. It depends upon its host for its existence. This is what Augustine had in mind when he said that only something good can do that which is evil because the evil requires volition, intelligence, and a moral sense or awareness—all of which are good. So, something happens to a good being that indicates a loss, a lack, or a denial of goodness.
Augustine took the position that it is impossible to conceive of a being that is completely evil. Yes, Satan is radically evil, but he was created as an angel, which means he was part of the creation that God saw as very good. So, even Satan was created good, just as men were created good. Thus, at the point of creation, the eternal God, who is altogether good, acted as a moral agent to create other moral agents that were good. But the great difference between the Creator and the creature is that God is eternally, immutably good, whereas the creature was made mutably good. That is, he was made with the possibility of changing in his conformity to the law of God.
We see, then, that we cannot understand disobedience without first having a concept of obedience. Lawlessness is defined by lawfulness. Unrighteousness depends upon a prior definition of righteousness. The antichrist cannot exist apart from his antithetical relationship to Christ. We understand that evil is defined as a negation or a lack of conformity to the standards of the good.
THE ORDINATION OF EVIL
The supreme question is this: "Does God do evil?" The Bible is absolutely clear: God is absolutely incapable of performing evil. Yet, we have affirmed that God ordains everything that comes to pass, and some of the things that come to pass are evil. So, does God ordain evil? There is only one biblical answer to that question: yes. If God did not ordain evil, there would be no evil, because God is sovereign.
We trip and stumble over the word ordain. We think that affirming divine ordination of all things must mean that God either does evil or imposes it on righteous creatures, forcing innocent people to do sinful deeds. No. He ordained that His creatures should have the capacity for evil. He did not force them to exercise that capacity, but He knew that they would exercise it. At that point, He had a choice. He could destroy the creation so as not to allow evil to happen. The moment the Serpent came to Adam and Eve and began to suggest disobedience, God could have snuffed out the Serpent or snuffed out Adam and Eve. There would have been no sin. But God, for reasons known only to Himself, made the decision to let it happen. God did not sanction it, but He did not stop it. In choosing not to stop it, He ordained it.
I have to say that I have no idea why God allows evil to besmirch His universe. However, I know that when God ordains anything, His purpose is altogether good. Does this mean I think that in the final analysis evil really is good? No. I am saying it must be good that evil exists, because God sovereignly, providentially ordains only what is good. In terms of His eternal purpose, God has esteemed it good that evil should be allowed to happen in this world.
That does not mean that the sins that I commit, insofar as they contribute to God's providential plan and government of world history, are actually virtues. Judas' treachery was part of the divine providence in God's plan for redeeming the world. Judas could not have delivered Christ to Pilate apart from the providential decree of God. We know that this was the predetermined counsel of God, and yet God did not put evil into the heart of Judas. God did not coerce Judas to do his diabolical sin. Therefore, Judas cannot stand up on the last day and say, "If it hadn't been for me, there would have been no cross, no atonement, and no salvation—I'm the one who made it all possible." What Judas did was utterly evil, but when God ordains all things that come to pass, He ordains not only the ends but also the means to those ends, and He works through all things to bring about His righteous purpose.
One of the most comforting verses of Scripture is Romans 8:28: "And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose." Only a God of sovereign providence could make a promise like that. This statement does not mean that all things are good, but that all things work together for good. They can work together for good only because, over and above all evil, all acts of human wickedness, stands a sovereign God who has appointed a destiny both for the universe and for us as individuals, and that destiny is perfectly consistent with His righteousness.
From Sproul, R. C. (2012). Does God Control Everything? (First edition, Vol. 14, pp. 39–51). Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust.