This question has been asked often in the history of Christian doctrine. Some theologians, ostensibly embarrassed by God’s absolute sovereignty and what that means for sin deny his total control of the universe. For instance, open theist Gregory Boyd writes,
Jesus nor his disciples seemed to understand God’s absolute power as absolute control. They prayed for God’s will to be done on earth, but this assumes that they understand that God’s will was not yet being done on earth (Mt. 6:10). Hence neither Jesus nor his disciples assumed that there had to be a divine purpose behind all events in history. Rather, they understood the cosmos to be populated by a myriad of free agents, some human, some angelic, and many of them evil. The manner in which events unfold in history was understood to be as much a factor of what these agents individually and collectively will as it was a matter of what God himself willed. (God at War:The Bible and Spiritual Conflict, 53)
By contrast, others like Augustine of Hippo (5th C.), John Calvin of Geneva (16th C.), and Jonathan Edwards of New England (18th C.) have affirmed that God who never does evil still permits, decrees, and even employs evil so that his larger purposes of grace and glory might be accomplished. On this Edwards says in his treatise on The Freedom of the Will,
If by Author of Sin, be meant the Sinner, the Agent, or the Actor of Sin, or the Doer of a wicked thing; so it would be a reproach, to suppose God to be the author of sin. In this sense, I utterly deny God to be the author of sin. . . . But if, by Author of Sin, is meant the permitter, or not a hinder to Sin; and at the same time, a disposer of the state of events, in such a manner, for wise, holy and most excellent ends and purposes, that sin, if it be permitted or not hindered, will most certainly and infallibly follow: I say, if this be all that is ment, by being the Author of Sin, I do not deny that God is the Author Sin, (though I dislike and reject the phrase, as that which by use and custom is apt to carry another sense) it is not reproach for the Most High to be thus the Author of Sin.” (p. 246).
Rightly, God is not evil and thus in his creative agency cannot do evil. Yet, in his divine sovereignty over time and space, he can “permit,” “ordain,” and even “author” sin in a way analogous to the way Shakespeare blamelessly authored the death of Macbeth. An author is not morally culpable for writing into their script the acts of evil men—whether fictitious (as in the case of Shakespeare) or real (as in the case of our Triune God). Therefore, since God did declare the end from the beginning (Isa 46:9–10), he wrote into the Script—what theologians call “his will of decree”—a world created inestimably good, ruined by sin, restored by his Son.
Going Back to the Bible
This view of sin upholds all of God’s moral perfection and acknowledges the complex (read: covenantal) relationship that God has with his world. Indeed, the statement in Genesis 1:31 that “God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good,” is a fixed reality. The world God made was not an admixture of good and evil; it was not created with evil intentions or designs. It was from the start intended to be an enormous stage for truth, beauty, and goodness.
Yet, in the next chapter Moses tells us that God set in the garden—not in the middle of the garden, mind you—“the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Genesis 2:17). Of this tree, God gave the command: “of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” Did God sin by creating this tree of “good and evil“? No. It was a fundamental good that the tree he made was put in the garden so his image-bearers would learn obedience. Even more, he gave the good commandment not to eat from it.
In this original context, every time Adam and Eve and their children said “no” to the tree, they would exercise trust in God and obedience to his Word. They would glorify him by declaring that his word and his world were far better than this lone tree. Even more, without a fallen nature they would not have been inwardly tempted the way we tempt ourselves (see James 1:14: “each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire“). Conversely, with a perfect human nature, they had the ability to not sin, to resist the devil, and trust God. But as we know too well, they fell for Satan’s lies and rebelled against their Maker.
When we read Genesis 3, we may ask, “Did he cause mankind to eat of the tree?” And the answer is plainly, “No.” The reverse is actually the case: God commanded Adam not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, but to enjoy every other tree in creation. In his will of command, he explicitly directed his children in a good and safe way. Still, by creating the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, God wrote into the Script a tree that held within its makeup the possibility of the Fall. As Edwards wrote, “I do not deny that God is the Author of Sin,” when that authorship is rightly understood.
Diving Deeper into God’s Word
In our finite and fallen minds, the thought that God could create a tree that would bring utter ruin to billions of people raises doubts. Would it not have been better if that tree was never created? Why would God’s will of command (“don’t eat from the tree”) work counter-factually against his will of decree (Adam and Eve ate from the tree)? Close examination of Genesis 3 helps us answer those questions, but first consider three points.
- We must let Scripture inform our thinking, not fallen reason. There is no way to think about these things apart from our fallen and limited understanding. God’s ways are truly higher than our own (Isa 55:8–9) and he tells us that he has not disclosed everything to us: “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deut 29:29). When asking questions about God and the world, let us listen to what God has revealed. This is what we are responsible for; his revealed Word is the only sure guide to truth. Therefore, in asking this important question, we must see what Scripture says and conform our thinking accordingly (Rom 12:1–2).
- In the Bible, it is not inconsistent for God’s righteous actions to be carried out by wicked men. This sounds inconsistent, but happens with regularity. Here are three examples.
- In Genesis 15 God told Abraham he would send his children to Egypt. This movement would eventually set up the Exodus—the pattern of salvation to be repeated throughout the Bible (see Luke 9:31). However, for this good plan of redemption to unfold, it would require the tyrannical actions of Pharaoh to enslave Israel. God’s people would suffer and even die under this Satanic ruler. Yet, God’s leadership of Israel was meant for good, even if in history it required the wicked actions of evil men.
- Closely related to Israel’s movement into Egypt is the story of Joseph (Genesis 37–50). In response to Joseph’s claim to authority, his elder brothers faked his death and sold him into slavery (Genesis 37). Psalm 105:17 tells the tale: “He [Yahweh] had sent a man ahead of them, Joseph, who was sold as a slave.” Through the wicked action of his brothers, God sent (active voice) Joseph to Egypt. As Genesis 45 puts it: “And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God” (Genesis 45:7–8). The testimony surrounding Joseph’s enslavement then is that in the same event God sent Joseph to Egypt to preserve the nation of Israel and Egypt, even as his brothers acted wickedly. While such dual intentions stretch our thinking, they are clearly taught in the Bible. What evil men intend for harm, God intends for good (Genesis 50:20; cf. Isaiah 45:7).
- Last, the most explicit instance of God’s goodness worked out through human sin is Christ’s cross. At the same time that Jews and Gentiles conspired to kill Jesus—an action unworthy of his character and violating God’s law (“Thou shall not kill,” Exodus 20:13)—God was using their wickedness to bring salvation to the world. As Peter puts it in Acts 2:23, “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” Amazingly, God used the hands of wicked men to accomplish his eternal purpose of salvation (see also Acts 4:27–28).
- God permits men and angels to do evil so that his holy and blameless will is accomplished. From these three examples (and dozens more), we can begin to see how God’s invisible turns all events. As the Father of Lights, every good and perfect gift is clearly and obviously from him (James 1:17). But also, as the invisible God, he also permits evil, constrains Satan (see Job 1–2), and even uses lying spirits to accomplish his tasks (1 Kings 22:22–23). For this reason, Yahweh says in Isaiah 45:7, “I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the LORD, who does all these things.” Thankfully, God does not create light in the same way he creates (read: permits) darkness. Just as the sun actively creates light and privatively creates darkness (when it sets), God is active as it relates to good but permissive as it relates to evil. As sovereign over all creation, he has ordained darkness so that he can make his light shine all the more. There is certainly more to consider here, but for now we can begin to see how and why God permits evil in the world.
[The following video is part of N.D. Wilson’s Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl. Few books (or bookumentaries) are more effective in challenging the way we think about the goodness and danger of this beautiful, fallen world].
Back to Genesis.
In the historical narrative of Genesis 3, Moses retells how evil entered into the world: God created humanity with the freedom to choose good and evil. In their sinless-but-imperfect freedom (as opposed to the perfect freedom of heaven), they were deceived and partook of the tree which God had forbidden. They rejected God’s Word in exchange for a lie, and thus in that moment sin hatched.
Before the first offspring could be born, Adam and Eve failed to keep God’s law, aligned themselves with Satan, and elevated the creation over their Creator. It is important to remember the facts of Genesis 3. God did not cause this pair to sin, but neither did he stop them. Though he permitted them to sin, Scripture uniformly lays the guilt at the feet of Adam (Hosea 6:7; Romans 5:12–21).
Before the Foundation of the World
At the same time, Scripture tells us that God scripted that they would Fall and that the world into which Christ would be born would be a world ravaged by sin. Consider these words in 1 Peter 1:18–21:
. . . you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you who through him are believers in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.
In this statement, Christ was “foreknown before the foundation of the world.” The use of the word “Christ” rather than Son, or Word (as in John 1), indicates Christ’s human nature was foreknown before the Fall ever happened. In other words, before God said, “let there be light” and “let us make man in our image” (Gen 1:3, 26), he had decreed to save a people through the Incarnation of his Son.
And what is more astonishing, Peter speaks not only of the Incarnation but of the Lord as “the lamb without blemish or spot.” In other words, in the corridors of eternity, the Son of God was foreknown to be the lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world (John 1:29). This is why Peter speaks of Christ’s “precious blood” as the means of salvation. In his divinely-inspired understanding, Peter explains that before the world began and sin came into that world, God intended to send his Son into the world as a perfect man to save imperfect men and women from their sin. This is the heart of the gospel, but by implication, it means God ordained sin in the world.
God IS and IS NOT the Author of Sin
Combined with Genesis 3 and James 1 (God is the Father of lights who does not tempt anyone to sin, vv. 13, 17), we must hold two assertions, the same that Jonathan Edwards expressed above:
- With respect to the sovereign decree of sin, God is the author of sin.
- With respect to the responsible cause of sin, God is not the author of sin.
In the sense that God ordained the end from the beginning (Isa 46:10) and predestined everything that will happen on the earth (“. . . having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, Eph 1:11; cf. Pro 16:4), he is the author of sin—meaning, he is the sovereign God who has decreed all things.
However, in the sense that God is perfect in character, holy, pure, undefiled, he is not the author of sin—meaning, he never does anything evil or wicked. Rather, as the superlative artist and novelist, he has written a story where evil characters arise—from their own self-willed deviation—and he himself as the sovereign author enters the story to undergo their worst wickedness so that he can—once and for all—put an end to sin and death, and a redeem a people for his own possession.
Go Back to the Sources
Does this still seem confusing? If yes, you wouldn’t be alone. Understanding the relationship between God and the world is not easy and takes Spirit-illumined understanding of large swaths of the Bible.
So, if you are willing to see what Scripture says, go back to the Bible. Watch how the story unfolds. Listen to what the Bible says—all of what it says.
- Take note of the texts which assign God absolute control of all things in creation. (e.g., Exodus 33:19; Isaiah 45:7; Lamentations 3:37–38; Ephesians 1:11; etc.)
- Next, observe all the passages which speak of God’s sovereign rule over all human activities. (Psalm 33:7–11; 115:3; 135:6; Proverbs 16:1, 4, 9, 33; etc.)
- Mark out all the places where God allows persons and angels to do the evil they want to do, only to see how God uses their evil to accomplish his purposes. (e.g., Job 1–2; Isaiah 10; Isaiah 45; 2 Corinthians 12; etc.)
I’ve given a handful of texts. You can find a much more comprehensive discussion here. Even more Scripture references can be found in chapter 16 (“God’s Providence”) in Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology. It was this chapter that God lovingly crushed me under the weight of absolute sovereignty. And finally, John Piper’s “Are There Two Wills in God?” has been an essay that has brought a number of these biblical themes together.
As always, true doctrine should lead us to greater awareness of God’s greatness and our weakness, dependence, and need. No doctrine elevates God higher and humbles humanity lower than the doctrine of God’s absolute sovereignty—even sovereignty over evil.
May God give us wisdom to consider this subject, hatred for the wickedness that we find resident in our hearts, trust that God will one day remove all evil from the earth, and love for those who are suffering under God’s wise hand.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds