But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive.Gen. 50.20
In the first part of this two-part series, I demonstrated how some of the more common defenses against the problem of evil that are utilized by Christians are, in fact, found wanting in light of Scriptural teaching. In this second part, I intend to answer the problem of evil from Scripture. A defense of this nature has a two-fold benefit for the believer: first, as a bolster to faith and confidence in the Christian religion; and second, as a tool to be utilized in winning souls to Christ.
The Sovereignty of God
In order to properly answer the question of suffering, we must first begin where the Bible begins: with the authority which God possesses as our Creator. God is the Creator of all things; therefore, he possesses authority over all things. He is described throughout Scripture as the King of kings, the Lord of lords, the Lord Almighty, etc. To him belong the cattle on the thousand hills, and it is by his power the natural processes of this world are sustained (cf. Ps. 50.10; Job 39ff.). We do not exist for our own sakes, but we exist because God has created mankind for a particular purpose. Not only this, but every event that occurs has been predetermined or foreordained by God. As the London Baptist Confession of Faith states, “God hath decreed in himself, from all eternity, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably, all things, whatsoever comes to pass” (LBCF 3.1). In support of this, the Confession cites Is. 46.10; but this statement is also a necessary implication of the perfect knowledge and divine authority which God possesses. This utter sovereignty must needs be our starting position when considering the problem of evil.
The Workings of God
Consider our text cited above: “But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive.” Joseph spoke these words to his brethren who had sold him into slavery and feigned his death to their father. Joseph was evilly treated by not only his brothers, but also by the family into which he was sold. Yet, when speaking to his brothers about the evils which had befallen him, he placed the responsibility ultimately upon God. Now, at this juncture we must be very careful: “Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man” (Ja. 1.13). When I say that Joseph placed final responsibility upon God, I do not mean that Joseph accused God of sin. Rather, Joseph quite plainly states that though his brothers had intended evil against him (thereby affirming their own sinfulness and responsibility to deal with that sin), it was God who intended by their evil to bring about good.
Correcting the Misinterpretation
This is one of those texts of Scripture which is often misinterpreted and misrepresented. A common way of explaining this verse is to say something to the effect of: “God uses evil events to bring about good.” The underlying assumption of such a statement is that evil events actually occur outside of the decree of God. In other words, the common interpretation of this verse weakens the sovereignty and authority of God. By claiming that God “uses” evil events, the implication is that there are events which occur that must somehow be managed by God. This type of thinking may be expressed in this manner: “God is making the best out of a bad situation.” This implies a reactionary action from God, which, as noted previously, weakens the sovereignty of God.
The Goodness of God
Along with the sovereignty of God, the Scripture also teaches us that God is good. Not only is he good, but he is most good, infinitely good, and eternally good. “This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1Jn. 1.5). The psalmist writes, “Thou art good, and doest good; teach me thy statutes” (Ps. 119:68). It is one of the chief tenets of Christianity that God is himself good, and that he is incapable of any evil. In fact, the very gospel itself, which is the great hope of all mankind, depends upon that proposition.
How then are we to reconcile these two principles, that God ordains all things that come to pass, and that God is not the author of sin? This seeming difference is, in truth, the heart of the problem of evil. The Christian declares that God orders all things after the counsel of his will; the atheist sees suffering in the world, and this leads the atheist to conclude either that God authors evil or that there is in fact no God. Yet, if we understand terms correctly, it is plainly evident that there is no contradiction in the two propositions.
We must be very clear on what sin is: sin is any intention, thought, or action which seeks to usurp the place of God. Consider the first sin, that terrible day in the garden of Eden. The chief sin of the serpent was contrasting the command of God, thereby putting himself in the place of God. The chief sin of Eve was acting according to her own wisdom, thereby rejecting the authority of God. The chief sin of Adam was disregarding the command of God, thereby taking the dominion upon himself. All sin has its root in this fundamental rebellion.
It is evident, therefore, by definition that nothing which God does can be construed as sin. Sin is usurping the place of God. Yet it is not possible for God to usurp his own position. To say that a monarch rebels against his own authority by making a certain declaration is nonsensical; how much more so to think that anything which God does undermines his own authority!
And here we come to the true meaning of that text in Genesis: “But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive.” God ordained that the brothers would sell Joseph into slavery. God ordained that Adam and Eve would rebel against him. God ordained that the only innocent Man who ever lived should be murdered (cf. Acts 4.27-28). God meant these things for good; in other words, he ordained these events to take place in the goodness of his own counsels and in the wisdom of his decree. And thus, God is by no means the author of sin, because it is impossible for God to sin based upon the definition and nature of sin.
This does not negate human responsibility. Let us again consider the example of the original sin. Adam and Eve truly desired to usurp the authority of God. The desire of their hearts was to “be as gods” (Gen. 3.5). The fact that God ordained the fall of man does not mean that Adam and Eve did not have an actual, real desire to usurp the place of God. The one does not necessarily follow from the other. In other words, the validity and meaning of secondary causes are established by the decree of God.
We must be careful to always maintain a distinction between the revealed will of God, which is expressed in the positive and negative commandments, and the providential decree of God (sometimes called the “secret will” of God). Let us turn to the example of the cross. In his wisdom, God decreed that Christ, the only innocent man ever born, would be murdered for the sake of others. The revealed will of God plainly teaches us that we ought not to commit murder. The desire to murder stems from idolatry, and especially so in the case of Christ’s murder. The scribes, Pharisees, and other participants rebelled against the law of God, and were responsible for their sinful desire. That desire sprang from their own fallen natures. In other words, as James says, God does not tempt any man (Jas. 1.13). Yet, God decreed that the sinful actions of the scribes, Pharisees, and other participants would be used to bring about the redemption of the elect. What men meant for evil, God intended for good. Thus, we are able to say with the Apostle, “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8.28). Though persecutions come, though sufferings come, though evils befall us, we know that God is at work and has decreed that he would be glorified in the redemption of repentant sinners and in the judgement of the wicked. So, we have hope in this world filled with sufferings, because these sufferings are only temporary, and they are not without purpose. “What shall we then say to these things? If God be for us, who can be against us?” (Rom. 8.31).