Where does evil come from?
(Question 4 of 8 in the Goodness of God series)
In our discussion on suffering to-date, we have considered that pain and heartache enter people’s lives in four distinct ways:
- We suffer when we experience the consequences of our own sin.
- We suffer when we experience the consequences of the sins of others.
- We suffer because the universe in general has been cosmically broken by sin.
- We suffer when we let fear and negativity rule our minds.
But these earth-bound explanations do not tell the whole story. We mortal creatures are not alone in the universe. There are giants in the playground, who affect our lives in a very real way.
Humility in the Face of Mystery
Before we attempt to parse how these spiritual “giants” affect our lives as mere mortals, I want to inject a moment of humble silence into our discussion. The spiritual realm is far beyond us, and the ways of God are far above ours. There are real answers to tough questions. There is much we can know to be true and that God has revealed to men. But whatever we know, if we’re wise, we will insist on knowing with open hands … in a posture of humility. Whatever answers we believe we’ve secured always stand among a forest of deeper questions. There are some things about life we may never understand … until perhaps we are made new in heaven. So we must not be afraid or shy away from admitting that there is much we do not, perhaps cannot, know.
So as we tackle the question of evil, I would suggest that we must contextualize our answers with the following two principles:
- Ultimately, we don’t truly know. In no sense is our understanding of suffering or evil or the spiritual realms exhaustive. No matter how long we talk or how much we know, we will always have questions. Often, even the really good answers to the really important questions raise as many new questions as they answer.
- Though we don’t know everything, God does. God is greater than evil, greater than our suffering, greater than our understanding, and greater than our theology (the study of God). God’s sovereignty is above and beyond all these things, as well as our minds’ capacity to analyze them. At the end of the day, we must invariably humble ourselves and trust God because, again, we will not have complete, exhaustive answers.
But we can be sure of this … that God will have the last word in our lives. Not suffering. Not evil. Not abstract knowledge. It is not the answers to our questions that will wipe every tear from our eyes, it is God Himself (Revelation 21:4).
Swimming in Deep Theological Waters
And while I have us on a bit of a side street, I want to offer one more quick caveat to our discussion. The kinds of questions we’ll be tackling in this post constitute a very deep theological well. Scholars far smarter than I am have written thousands upon thousands of pages on these topics. So, layman that I am, I’m certainly in no position to somehow exhaustively deal with them in a few hundred words. Nonetheless, I do have some thoughts which I think can contribute to our discussion of the goodness of God, and which I pray are helpful to you. If you want to dig deeper, though, I’d recommend the following as a few places where you could get started:
- Carson, D. A. How Long, O Lord?: Reflections on Suffering and Evil. 2nd ed., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2006.
- Lewis, C.S. The Problem of Pain. Revised ed., New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2015.
- Rigney, Joe. Desiring God: Confronting the Problem of Evil.
- Whitesell, Farris. The Problem of Evil as Treated By St. Augustine.
So, with all that said, let’s tackle the question of evil…
Some suffering comes from Satan
Part of the explanation of human suffering is the influence / intrusion of evil spiritual forces upon the lives of human beings. These demonic forces are led by Satan, the universe’s chief demon. People do not make bad choices — which produce suffering — in a vacuum. While our lives are certainly and strongly influenced by a good God who instructs us by His word and persuades us by His Spirit for our own good, there is also a real enemy — Satan, evil personified — who opposes God and works very hard to usurp God’s influence in our lives.
Satan is not in any way interested in your good. He is intrinsically evil, a pathological liar, and bent on the corruption of everything God made for good (John 8:44). We humans, as the pinnacle of God’s creation and the chief objects of God’s affection, are consequently the chief objects of Satan’s intense hatred. Where angels (and by extension, demons, who are fallen angels) are servants in God’s house, we are God’s adopted children. I have to believe (though it’s my speculation) that Satan and his brood are at least in part fueled in their wickedness by a deep-seeded jealousy of the working out of God’s love for us in our redemption and adoption. In the end, we will be what angels can never be: members of God’s family. So you can imagine that for a spiritual being who has given himself wholly over to evil, such a jealous rage would hardly make him the biggest fan of the human race.
As a result, Satan makes it his full time passion to steal, kill and destroy (John 10:10) the good things God has made. He prowls around “like a roaring lion” seeking to “devour” people (1 Peter 5:8) — to destroy anything God loves. He speaks only lies (John 8:44), calling black “white” and light “darkness.” And he is the master at disguising himself and the evil choices he advocates as good ideas. Satan was once an extremely beautiful and clever “angel of light,” and still masquerades as such (2 Corinthians 11:14). So we find him exceedingly attractive (especially as the world defines beauty) and his voice seductive, his ideas rational and his plans compelling. But they are, in fact, none of these things.
Satan’s Fun House
Here’s how his “compelling and rational” ideas work…
Satan sets before us a choice which God has warned us against — you know, those pesky biblical rules that are so unpopular and restrictive. God assures us that making this choice will cause us intense suffering. But, in his most convincing “you’re in charge; do what you want” voice, Satan instead assures us that this choice will actually bring us joy and happiness (calling God a liar in the process). Then, after we’ve made the choice God begged us not to make and are writhing on the ground in pain and regret, Satan stands over us laughing, calls us worthless, explains to us that nobody will ever love us, and proposes another even worse choice as our way out of the pain … actively hoping that we will repeat the cycle again, but another step down the spiral into hell. If Satan had his way, he would see you stretched out on a rack and tortured for sport right in front of the God who loves you and, quite literally, took the torture in your place on the cross.
Our Battle Strategy
Bottom line, it’s an understatement to say that Satan delights in your suffering and brings into your life as much of it as he can get away with. But we must not fear him or submit to him; God calls us to trust Him — His Spirit who is in us is greater than Satan who is in the world (1 John 4:4). We submit ourselves to God and resist Satan; God will indwell us and Satan will flee from us (James 4:7), demonstrating his weakness before God’s strength and our faith. We run to God to defend us, to fight for us (Deuteronomy 3:22), and obey God’s law even amid the seductive temptation of the enemy. We memorize Scripture and rehearse the truth, so that we know a lie when we hear it — even when it is masterfully told us by an angel of light (Romans 12:2; Proverbs 3:1-8).
However, even having developed the discernment to identify satan’s lies and armed ourselves with a battle strategy to counter them, we have not yet answered important questions about the nature and origin of evil. This discussion naturally leads us to some of these deep and difficult questions: If God is so good, and Satan is so bad, where did Satan come from in the first place? Did Satan become bad at some point? If so, how did that happen? Where did the tendency to evil come from in the first place? …
Where does evil actually come from?
To answer these questions, we have to start at the beginning…
God created everything, including angels
Before there was time and history and the physical universe, there was God, perfectly good, unfathomably different than us, and alone in himself … a “complex unity” which theologians call “the Trinity.” One God, but in three persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. God is self-existing, self-sufficient, and needs nothing. Perfect all-powerful personhood, existing as a mutually-loving self-community. This one-yet-many understanding of God is critical, because it is what makes God’s love meaningful (only way to love if you’re alone in the universe) and reveals to us God’s communal nature (we’re wired for relationship because of God’s very nature).
At some point (whatever was the concept of “time”), this loving God creates our universe out of love, to give creatures the best thing creatures could have — Himself. This is what we, from inside our universe, call “the beginning” (Genesis 1:1). But “before” that (again, we don’t understand how “before” would work outside the time of our universe), God created spiritual or angelic beings to attend to Him. These angels are God’s servants.
“Later,” God created our physical universe, as a container in which to create us (Genesis 1:26-2:25). Unlike the angels, God creates us to be sons and daughters, not servants (Hebrews 1-2). Where the angels sweep the floors and tend the gardens in the house of God, we will dine at the Father’s table, be indwelt by the Spirit, and rule over a regenerated, perfected universe as “underkings” with the Son (John 15:15; Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:7; etc.). But I digress. For this discussion, our focus is on the angelic host, not on mankind.
Scripture gives us little information about the angels God created prior to / outside of the creation of our physical universe. Today, we experience these beings clearly as either good (“angels”) and evil (“demons”). In His day, we see in Scripture, Jesus went about casting out the evil spirits (e.g. Matthew 8:16; Mark 5:8; Luke 11:14), while benevolent messengers and servants of God (angels) go about proclaiming God’s word and doing God’s will in the lives of everyday people like you and me (e.g. Daniel 6; Luke 16:22; Acts 8:26). Still today, angels and demons both directly interact with the material world, though they are not of that world.
Angels and demons are not matter and energy and biology, like we are. They do not eat and sleep, like we do. They don’t have physical addresses, such that you could visit one’s house down on Jackson Street. They dwell in a spiritual realm with God (e.g. Luke 2:13; Galatians 5:12; c.f. 2 Corinthians 4:18). This isn’t a place to which you could take a cab or train or spaceship. It’s not a different physical dimension; rather, it’s a different kind of reality all together.
Some of the angels broke bad
The smartest and most beautiful of all the angels God created was named Lucifer. The Bible tells us Lucifer was jealous of God and wanted God’s power. So, he said to himself,
I will ascend to the heavens;
I will raise my throne above the stars of God;
I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly…
I will ascend above the tops of the clouds;
I will make myself like the Most High. (Isaiah 14:13-14)
In summary… I, I, I… will be like God!
So, he turned on God and led a rebellion against Him. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, Lucifer was so winsome and persuasive and beautiful — like a “morning star”, the “son of the dawn” (Isaiah 14:12) — that a full third of the angels in heaven followed him into rebellion (Revelation 12:4).
As a result, God renames Lucifer and casts him and his fellow rebels out of heaven. Scripture describes him as “the great dragon, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and ‘Satan’, the deceiver of the whole world — he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him” (Revelation 12:9, c.f. Isaiah 14:12) … where he “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).
Now called demons, they influence people toward evil
What exactly does it mean for Satan to “seek someone to devour”?
Satan and his demonic horde tempt people to rebel again God. They are the ultimate sirens — the mythical mermaid creatures who, in legend, captivated sailors with their beauty and song to such a degree that they would lure their ships in to being dashed on the rocks, and then reveal themselves as monsters and massacre the sailors. I’m certainly no expert in Greek mythology, but it would not surprise me to find that this myth has its origin in the concept of demonic influence. At any rate, that’s Satan’s game… to whisper lies in your ear…
- God is a liar; He isn’t really good; you can’t really trust Him
- Something on earth is more valuable than God and His law and love and Word
- You are god; you are at the center of the universe; what you want is what’s important
- Black is white; light is dark; good is bad; wrong is right; find your own truth
- I’ll give you all the kingdoms of the earth if you bow down and worship me! (Matt 4:9)
Man still chooses right or wrong, but Satan and his cronies roam the earth day and night, tirelessly whispering, conspiring, influencing, and otherwise working against the Kingdom of God in their jealousy and hatred.
But Satan is a creature too
Here’s the rub… Neither is Satan acting in a vacuum.
Many people who hear about Satan’s ruthless efforts to destroy us begin to think that God might not really be in control of creation. For reasons that we will address in greater depth elsewhere, it’s important to understand that Satan is not some equal-but-opposing force who works against God at His level (the yin to God’s yang, or some such). Satan and God are not in any sense equals. They are not engaged in some roughly-balanced cosmic chess match, in which you and I are pawns, and Jesus is God’s power rook.
Although Satan is very powerful and exists in the spiritual realms, he is still a creature. He was created by God just like we were. He does exactly and only what God allows him to do, just like we do. Whether it’s two hydrogen atoms rubbing up against each other in a distant or your experiencing tragic illness, nothing in the universe happens without God’s direct awareness, involvement and control.
Key questions in understanding angelic beings
And this brings us to a series of very important questions which lie at the heart of the whole discussion of the nature of evil…
Can’t we say that God created evil?
No. God created choice. We (humans and demons) created evil … when we, with the power of our free will, rebelled against God.
God created animals (birds, fish, elephants, etc) without free will. They do what God commands them to do via their instinctive natures and the laws of the natural world.
God created angels and human beings with free will. They possess reason and the devastating power of independent choice. Both angels (1/3 of them) and people (every last one of us), have chosen death instead of life.
Do angels live outside time?
I think so. They are outside of our physical universe … in a kind of spiritual universe, which the Bible calls the “heavenly realms.” Maybe there’s some kind of time there, I don’t know. I don’t think there is. Rather, I suspect spirits do not experience time as we do. Instead, they have only one state of being. God creates them, and they are at all times, while they exist, the product of their choices. They do not make a choice, then sleep, then get up the next day, then make another choice … as we do. They are at all times the sum total of their decisions, just as we will be in heaven, when we are no longer inside our current concept of space and time. They are, and we will be, in a sense, permanently “locked in” to our destinies.
So, angels have free will in the sense that they choose (once and for all in the process of their creation) to serve God or serve themselves. From the perspective of eternity, we humans are actually making that same choice. If you were to ball up all of history in our physical universe into a single “act of creation” — I like to use analogies like “giving birth” and “God’s painting a portrait” — then we too are making a once-and-for-all decision to submit to God in Christ or to go our own way. It’s just that we’re zoomed way in, inside the big choice, feeling seconds tick by that break it up into a zillion little choices. God does not suffer from that limitation. Neither do angels. But we do. From “in here” (inside space and time), we talk about angels choosing as if it happened at some point in the past. But not really; that’s just our perspective talking.
Can we say, then, that God is evil’s puppet master?
From that perspective, each of us makes moment to moment decisions out of our free will. It is also true that God is sovereign over all our decisions and their outcomes. So, in the great debate (which we can’t possibly exhaustively address here) between whether God sovereignly elects who will be saved or we choose to be saved, the answer is: both.
Also from our vantage point inside time, it appears that Satan’s choices are in the past (when in fact they are outside time). He is in the state he, from our perspective, has always been and always will be in. But suppose he is subject to the exact same rules of sovereignty-plus-choice that we are, except in his once-and-for-all-outside-time kind of way. Wouldn’t the same answer then apply to determining whether it was God’s sovereignty or his free will which led to his current state as master evil menace, scourge of the earth? I contend that it would. The answer is: both.
What are the key differences between angels and people?
So, angels are forever locked into their natures as good or evil. We, on the other hand, are not … yet. While there is still time, we can direct the flow of our lives toward a final decision to be redeemed and restored and reconciled to God. Fallen angels cannot. For whatever reasons and through whatever means — both incomprehensible to me, other than to say that God desired to shower goodness upon us because that’s what Love does — God made us in His image (Genesis 1:26-27), so that we could ultimately be adopted as sons. And He joined with us in the incarnation so that we could join with Him in eternity (Hebrews 2:5ff), again, to be adopted as sons (and daughters). And we have our mortal lives available to us to make that ultimate choice.
Some will say that didn’t help at all!
We’ve covered all kinds of ground and talked about many important things, but I think some might say that we are very close to being right back to the question we started with… Why does God allow suffering? If God is in control and He’s supposedly so good, then why does He allow my choices and my neighbor’s choices and Satan’s choices to cause me so much pain? I get all that about free will, but still, why doesn’t God prevent the suffering caused when we use our free will to make bad choices!?
Well, how would you suggest that God do that?
Option 1: Make my life better in spite of evil!
I might ask God to make my life better. But would there be any way to do that other than at the expense of others — to exploit the resources of others’ lives to alleviate the suffering from my life? I think it’s pretty easy to see how it’s that kind of thinking that got Adam and Eve, you and me, and everyone else in the mess we’re in to start with. For a fantastic (and funny) glimpse into this unattractive option, check out the movie Bruce Almighty.
Option 2: Intervene to prevent evil!
Or, perhaps you’d like God to miraculously intervene and stop bad people from making bad choices and bad circumstances (in nature, etc) from occurring in the first place. And if God had gotten off His apathetic duff and done that kind of loving intervention all the way back to the Garden of Eden, then Eve wouldn’t have eaten the apple, because the serpent wouldn’t have tempted her, because God would have miraculously taken away from all of them their ability to make that bad choice. Or getting to the root of it, maybe God should have made human beings (or even angels) without the capacity to make bad choices in the first place. Just happiness and sunshine all the time.
And no free will … so no choice … so no capacity for relationship … and no love … so no point to the entire concept of creating the universe. You and your dog and the rutabaga in your garden would all be ontologically (in their nature) pretty much identical. So we would all have missed out entirely on sharing the amazing love of a perfect God.
Option 3: Reset the universe to “perfect”!
Or, why not have God wipe out all evil, regenerate everyone as incorruptible, and establish His kingdom such that every decision is perfect and Jesus reigns uncontested as a loving, righteous, inexplicably glorious King. Great idea! Don’t you see that this is exactly what God is doing? The problem is that we’re not very patient, and that we don’t understand what is involved in making such a thing as a perfect kingdom of redeemed sinners. And if you think you do, and think you could do it better than God is doing it, then you’re demonstrating that we are in fact idolatrous rebels so desperately need God’s grace!
In order for God to take away the choice to evil (and the suffering that results), He also has to take away the choice to good (and the beauty that results). You can’t have one without the other. Only having the choice to good means that you have no choice at all. And God apparently felt it was worth it to create us to be choosers … which is to say lovers or adulterers … adopted children or violent rebels … but not robots.
It may be quite sensible for a mother to say to the children, “I’m not going to go and make you tidy the schoolroom every night. You’ve got to learn to make it tidy on your own.” Then she goes up one night, and finds the teddy bear and the ink and the French grammar all lying in the grate. That is against her will. She would prefer the children to be tidy. But on the other hand, it is her will which has left the children free to be untidy. The same arises in any regiment or trade union or school. You make a thing voluntary, and then half the people do not do it. That is not what you willed, but your will has made it possible. It is probably the same in the universe. God created things which had free will. That means creatures which can go either wrong or right. Some people think they can imagine a creature which was free, but which had no possibility of going wrong. I cannot. If a thing is free to be good, it is also free to be bad. And freewill is what has made evil possible.
Apparently [God] thought it worth the risk. Perhaps we feel inclined to disagree with Him. But there is a difficulty about disagreeing with God. He is the source from which all your reasoning power comes. You could not be right and He wrong any more than a stream could rise higher than its own source. When you are arguing against Him, you are arguing against the very power that makes you able to argue at all. It is like cutting off the branch that you’re sitting on.
— CS Lewis, Mere Christianity
The Goodness of God Series
- How do we know that God is good?
- If God is good, why didn’t I get what I want?
- Why do bad things happen to good people?
- Where does evil come from?
- How can a good God directly cause suffering?
- Should we actively avoid suffering?
- How can a good God send people to hell?
- Does God change His mind?