God Permits Evil


Thus says the LORD to His anointed, Cyrus,
whose right hand I grasp,
subduing nations before Him,
and making kings run in His service,
opening doors before him
and leaving the gates unbarred:
For the sake of Jacob, my servant,
of Israel, my chosen one,

Isaiah 45:1, 4–6

In BC 589 the citizens of Judea, Galilee, and Samaria were taken into captivity in Babylon, where they remained for forty years, until 539, when the army of the Assyrian king Cyrus  swept out of the east and set Israel free.  Neither their captivity nor their liberation was anticipated.  Furthermore, the liberation of Israel was accomplished by Cyrus, a heathen king, whom Isaiah calls God’s anointed.   Cyrus was a barbarian tyrant, whose action in invading the Babylonian empire was not conceived or executed in service to the God of Israel, but God used Cyrus to work His will.    God’s action is a pristine example of His  willingness to use evil to work His will for good.  Cyrus is named “God’s anointed,” The analogy is to the anointed kings of Israel, who are anointed to do God’s will.  And in achieving His will God sometimes uses those instruments that are themselves not forged in obedience to God’s will but in a determination to dominance.   Thus it is not inconceivable that the regime of National Socialism was used to bring to heel the degeneracy that is attributed to the Weimar Republic, nor is it unreasonable to believe that God used effectively godless states such as the United States to punish the Germans.   The moral meaning of these political events is always speculative; lacking the defining voice of Scripture (as in the case of Cyril) there is ambiguity as to who was on God’s side.

One thing we know with certainty.  The good God is not the author of evil; God can neither be tempted by evil nor does He tempt anyone (Jas 1:13).  That there is evil in the world is the result of the rebellion of angels in the first moment of primordial time and of men in the Garden.  Since evil exists, and since it is God’s evident will not to destroy it while time lasts, it being part of the burden that sinful mankind must bear, the government of evil must take its place in God’s providential government.  So we meet God’s management of evil not only in the events that shape history but even, and more existentially, in His permitting humans to suffer temptation.    Humankind may experience the power of evil in disease and war, but to be assaulted by temptation is our most significant and soul-endangering encounter with evil      Christ, like us in all things except sin, submitted to the temptations of the Devil, in the wilderness (Matt 4:1–11).     The Apostle Peter tells us that we must suffer many kinds of temptations in order to give proof of our faith (1 Pet 1:6). 

Begin with God’s permissive use of Satan in the story of Job, a righteous man whom God accuses of no sin, but upon whom He allowed Satan to inflict misery, permitting Satan to go so far and no further, to destroy Job’s family and property, but not to take Job’s life.  Notice that it is Satan who suggests the harassment of Job, which God then permits, Satan’s charge being that Job is God-fearing because God has blessed him:  But afflict him, says Satan, take his property, threaten his life, and he will curse you. For thirty chapters in the long book of Job, Job  is afflicted in body, his theological friends, Bildad, Eliphaz, and Zophar, being allowed to accuse him of at tedious length  of sin unacknowledged and unrepented, but Job never yields; he will never curse God. That might be the end of the story, but Job’s healing required something more than Job’s stubborn steadfastness. Job has withstood the test, but Job is still not healed; while he will not curse God, he will not admit the justice of God’s testing power.   The charge of Job’s three friends is: You made God unrighteous to demonstrate your righteousness. 

The issue was now clear.  Job may not be a sinner but he exemplifies pride.  God appears to Job to pound him into humility because he had not in fact accepted God’s judgment. Finally, Job finds humility, enabling him to say:  “Before I had heard of you, but now I see; I repent in dust and ashes.”  God has permitted Satan, through the three friends, to bring Job to the truth of his own pride, hence to humility, to the ability to listen to God’s voice, and to repent.       

Job’s is a great account of God’s permitting evil, let into the world by humankind, in order that good may come.  An even more dramatic example is in the Gospel account that tells us Satan entered the heart of Judas to encourage him to betray Jesus to the authorities (Luke 22:3), beginning the long march to Golgotha, where the terrible, glorious death of the Son of God made Him the Lamb that takes away the sins of the world.

         Satan can act only with God’s permission.  That he can act at all is part of God’s providential determination that while the earth endures Satan, whose proposition Adam and Eve accepted, should be allowed to roam it in search of souls  he might destroy.  Satan carries out his mission not as a minor irritant in an otherwise peaceably disposed world but as the ruler of a would-be kingdom called in Scripture “the world;”  creation and society organized as much as God will permit, under the Lordship of Satan, acting always as the ruler of the world’s darkness, the outer darkness that Jesus mentions is the default position of mankind.                            

Every grace God gives is a rescue mission in a universe in which every soul is a battleground, every soul, not only the souls of Job or Judas.  When St. Paul wrote that the powers that exist are ordained by God and are not to be resisted, he had in mind the powers of this world exercised in the ambiguous field of politics, in which there are many evils that must be borne.   Temptation, on the other hand, although it must be suffered, is to be resisted, while the reality is that humankind cannot resist Satan successfully depending on its own strength, but only when God fights in and for us.  Without the full armor of God we are the foreordained losers.   Resisting evil nobly, perhaps out of pride but certainly without love will in the end be ruinous.    An empty soul, devoid of demons, is waiting for their return, bringing seven worse than themselves as company (Matt 12:45).  It is only when the mind and heart are filled with the grace of God, with the presence of the Holy Spirit, that temptations can be defeated.   

          In the battle Satan may and does sometimes prompt to malice, to avarice, to anger, but his most  effective appeal is to pleasure.  In the beginning God front-loaded the activities that He wished to encourage with pleasure, eating breakfast, reading the morning papers, our work, multiplying to fill the earth, but after Adam and Eve’s  rebellion reason, designed to tell us how much of which pleasure to pursue, always with restraint, is flawed, bent, indeed powerless to achieve more than a fragile hold on reality absent God’s commandments and power, so that we are left open to temptation to our destruction.  By creating a world full of good things each of which may be an opportunity for evil when holiness is forgotten in aid of human pride.  God permits the path to become hard, or easy, unless we accept the grace God offers.     

Temptations, like the invasion of  Israel by the Babylonians in  BC 589, are permitted  by God in His eternal use of evil to promote goodness in a world submitted to evil by human folly.  Among the powers that God has willed should exist for a time is the power of Satan in this world, which power to  tempt, to harass and accuse will not be destroyed until in the end, along  with death, Satan’s finest creation, he is  thrown into the lake of fire. 

Above all it is important to remember that we know God’s perfect will for creation.  Born of the Trinitarian love that is who He is, His will is always for the existence and perfecting of His creation.   God’s good will has persisted through rebellions, sin, neglect, and rejection, only to blossom again and again, never abandoning those He created in the beginning until they are safe home with Him in the end.   Jesus taught us to ask the Father not to bring us into temptation, but when we are tempted we are not without a powerful ally.  God has sent His holy spirit into every baptized heart.

And He who is in us is greater than he who is in the world (1 John 4:4).

Leave a Reply