Theologians and philosophers have for many centuries pondered the question of the existence of evil in the universe. For monotheistic thinkers who believe that the one true God could have created the universe in any way that He pleased, and that He could have maintained it in a sinless state, this matter of God’s allowance of evil is of great theological import. Gottfried Leibniz, an 18th-century German philosopher, coined the term “theodicy”1 in addressing the question.
A student of the scriptures with spiritual motives need not spend much time and effort with philosophical argumentation, but may rather find his answers in meditation on the word of God. Now, it is not possible to address the subject of theodicy comprehensively in a brief article, nor can the writer claim to have the depth of knowledge that many other godly Bible students have had. But it is a desire of mine to present a few thoughts that may give others a greater appreciation of that transcendent theme of the glory of God, which He wills to display both through and to the whole created universe.
The overarching principle and the presupposition that one must begin with is that it is God’s necessary prerogative to glorify Himself as the creator and sustainer of all things. To begin from the creature’s perspective or experience would be the first false step on the path of departure from truth, and it will end in humanistic error of one sort or another. The gravity of this principle will be seen in a few texts I quote here, but there are many suchlike in the word of God.
- As surely as I live, all the earth shall be filled with the glory of Jehovah! (Numbers 14:21)
- For Mine own sake, for Mine own sake, will I do it; for how should My name be profaned? and I will not give My glory unto another. (Isaiah 48:11)
- And I will set My glory among the nations, and all the nations shall see My judgment which I have executed, and My hand which I have laid upon them. (Ezekiel 39:21)
- Father, glorify Thy name. There came therefore a voice out of heaven, I both have glorified and will glorify it again. (John 12:28)
Having approved the truth in our minds and consciences that God must be free to glorify Himself in anything He purposed to create and decreed to come to pass, we might stop to muse for a time how God might glorify Himself to the fullest extent in the universe He created. We believe that God created orders of intelligent spiritual beings we know as angels, in ranks of principality, authority, power, and dominion;2 then at the end of all His creatorial work, and to crown it, He created man, a tripartite being after His own image and likeness. All these created intelligent beings had moral agency, that is, they were responsible to obey God and to not act according to their own wills and interests. In the case of the first man and his wife, there was one command to obey, a prohibition against eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
It is perhaps not very difficult to conceive of the possibility that God could have kept all the intelligent moral agents He created in a sinless state in perpetuity. We are given enough information about angels to know that those angels who did not fall nor leave their original state3 are called “elect angels” and “holy angels”,4 indicating to us that God sovereignly chose them to subsist in holiness. As to man, the tree of life in Eden might have guaranteed to him the same perpetual sinlessness had he availed himself of it. We know, of course, that man was barred from that tree of life upon transgressing, but the redeemed will finally have a part in the “tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God”,5 and will be kept forever free from defilement by evil.
But now our thoughts might come to focus on the question: In a universe kept forever from corruption, in which untold millions of intelligent beings are maintained in perfection admiring and serving their Creator, how would the magnificence of God’s glory or the full range of His attributes be known and appreciated?
We enjoy reading that “God is light” and that “God is love” in John’s first epistle. Had evil never been allowed into a perfect creation, how little had those definitional attributes of God been understood! God’s essential nature would be the same in any case, but an untainted creature might well be ignorant of and unmoved by the value of Light, did it not shine in the darkness for the dispelling of that moral gloom.6 Love might be enjoyed on a level of contentedness and satisfaction in a perpetually innocent soul in relationship with God, but it could never be perceived and known in all its depth and intensity apart from the Father giving His Son for the life of the world and for souls dead in trespasses and sins.7
There is a passage of scripture that helps us to understand a little better the holy motives of God in tolerating for a time the evil He allowed entry into His creation. In Romans 9:22-23, as part of a dissertation on the mercy and justice of God in electing souls according to His sovereign will, Paul wraps up his inspired argument in this way: “What if God, desiring to show His wrath and to make known His power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of His glory for vessels of mercy, which He has prepared beforehand for glory?”8 Here we are given a glimpse into the mind of God in His toleration of evil until such a time as He reconciles all things unto Himself, judging and banishing that evil.
Evil did not enter the universe because God could not keep it from defilement. He had a definite purpose in allowing for the intelligent moral beings He created, both angels and men, to fail the test of allegiance and dependence as a result of placing self-interest over against the Creator’s interests and claims. In permitting the entrance of evil, God was able to make known to the whole of creation the full range of His attributes. These would include not only His omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence, but now also His justice, holiness, wrath, immutability, mercy, goodness, and redeeming love, so that all the wonder of His activity in space and time might redound to His eternal glory!
The infinite work of the Son of God on a Roman cross outside Jerusalem is at the center of all of God’s counsels, for there God glorified Himself fully with respect to evil in the heavens and the earth. We who believe on Jesus are eternally blessed through that work, all praise be to Him; but the divine scheme of redemption, and the temporal evil and failure that was necessary for its full development and revelation, find their purpose and vindication in the desire and prerogative of God to glorify Himself through His manifold attributes and excellencies.
“For of Him, and through Him, and for Him are all things: to Him be glory forever. Amen.” (Romans 11:36)
1 Theodicy means “vindication of divine justice”; it is a defense of God’s attributes, including His goodness and omnipotence, in view of the existence of evil in creation. 2 Ephesians 1:21 3 Jude 6 4 I Timothy 5:21; Revelation 14:10 5 Revelation 2:7 6 John 1:4-5 7 John 6:51; Ephesians 2:1; I John 3:16 8 Romans 9:22-23 ESV
Most scripture quotations are from J. N. Darby’s New Translation.
(Header photo: A dark orb – the moon – temporarily eclipses the glory of the sun. Taken in Hermann, Missouri, on August 21, 2017.)