How Can We Condemn Evil if God Is Sovereign?

Author Amy K. Hall Published on 01/18/2018

I was recently asked, “If God is in control of our death, then how do we answer suicide and abortion? Would not God’s control over death make Him the agent of cause, which would therefore mean we are not able to condemn such practices?”

This is not just a question about suicide and abortion; it applies to every evil thing anyone does. God “ordains” the steps of man (Prov. 20:24) and “works all things after the counsel of His will” (Eph. 1:11). But if it’s true God is sovereign, how can evil be evil? Part of the answer can be found in the story of Joseph. Joseph says to his brothers who sold him into slavery, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive” (Gen. 50:20).

The Same Action, Different Intentions

We see in that passage that the same action was caused by different intentions. The brothers meant evil, and they bore the responsibility for that evil. But God meant the same action for good. He used the brothers’ evil intentions to bring about His desired result (i.e., to save the line of Christ), and He did not have evil intentions in doing so. Therefore, God was not guilty of evil, but the brothers were.

We see another example of this in Acts 4:24–28, where the disciples say of the people who put Jesus to death:

For truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur.

There, we see that the most grievous sin ever committed—the killing of Jesus—was something God predestined to occur. But this doesn’t mean the people didn’t sin in killing Him! No one would say that killing Jesus wasn’t a sin just because it was God’s plan from before the foundation of the world for Jesus to die on the cross. In fact, it was said of Judas that “it would have been better for that man if he had not been born” (Matt. 26:24). The people sinned and God meant it as part of His plan for His glory and the good of His people.

Evil Is Punished

We see this yet again in the Old Testament when God uses the evil intentions of the nations to punish Israel and then turns around and promises to judge and punish those nations because of the actions that came from their evil intentions. Isaiah 10:5–12 is one example of this:

Woe to Assyria, the rod of My anger
And the staff in whose hands is My indignation,
I send it against a godless nation
And commission it against the people of My fury

To capture booty and to seize plunder,
And to trample them down like mud in the streets.
Yet it does not so intend,
Nor does it plan so in its heart,
But rather it is its purpose to destroy

And to cut off many nations....

So it will be that when the Lord has completed all His work on Mount Zion and on Jerusalem, He will say, “I will punish the fruit of the arrogant heart of the king of Assyria and the pomp of his haughtiness.” [Emphasis mine.]

The people of Assyria did not do their work in submission to God to carry out His good and just plans. They did evil out of the evil of their hearts, and they were punished for it. At the same time, God intended for their actions to be just punishment from Him against the Israelites, so this was not a sin on God’s part. Both parties had their own intentions and purposes. The Assyrians acted to commit evil. Therefore, the Assyrians were condemned in doing evil, and God was justified in bringing about justice against the Israelites (and later, against the Assyrians).

Whenever anyone does evil, we condemn the evil. But we can also take comfort in knowing there’s a purpose for everything because God is sovereign. (Incidentally, knowing there’s a purpose also helps us to forgive those who sin against us, just as it helped Joseph.) Most of the time, we will not know what that purpose is. God may be revealing the evil of sin, or drawing people to repentance, or planning an act of grace in the future, or showing people the results of life without Him, or drawing out virtue, or humbling someone, or raising someone up, etc., etc. We just don’t know. But the fact that there is a purpose doesn’t change the fact that it’s a sin for the person committing the act of evil. And make no mistake: It is the evil human being who is performing the evil deed out of the evil desires of his own heart, not God.

Evil Is Evil

In Romans 3, Paul responds to the claim that evil isn’t really evil if good comes from it:

But if our unrighteousness demonstrates the righteousness of God, what shall we say? The God who inflicts wrath is not unrighteous, is He? (I am speaking in human terms.) May it never be! For otherwise, how will God judge the world? But if through my lie the truth of God abounded to His glory, why am I also still being judged as a sinner? And why not say (as we are slanderously reported and as some claim that we say), “Let us do evil that good may come”? Their condemnation is just. (Rom. 3:5–8)

How can it be that God will judge the world if our sin is working for His glory in some way? Paul doesn’t explain in detail how all of this fits together. He merely says the condemnation of those who do evil is just, and this is true even though our evil reveals God’s glory in the end. Our evil, which springs from the evil in our hearts, is evil, and we must condemn it.

God Does Not Do Evil

But does this mean that God Himself, by ordaining that we would act according to our own evil desires in a way that will ultimately accomplish His purposes, is doing what Paul warned against—i.e., doing evil that good may come? I don’t think so. To begin with, the passage is talking about people who do evil as evil, and then, as an excuse, say it’s okay because their unrighteousness will glorify God by revealing His righteousness. This would be similar to saying that because God’s grace increases when we sin, we ought to sin to glorify God’s grace (Paul likewise condemns this in Romans 6:1). This is a different situation from what we’re discussing here—it’s doing evil as evil. God never does evil as evil. Rather, it’s human actors that do evil as evil.

Here’s an illustration that I think will help you see that God is not doing evil, even if He ordains that we act out the evil desires of our hearts: Imagine a wartime situation—a scene from World War II, where wounded men are lying on a battlefield. One man lying there, a medic, sees an angry, sadistic enemy soldier approaching one of his friends with a knife. The medic knows his friend’s injury requires his leg to be amputated immediately if his life is to be saved, so he says to the enemy soldier, “If you really want to torture him, you should cut off his leg.” The enemy soldier thinks this is an excellent idea because he does want to torture, so he cuts off the medic’s friend’s leg. But in doing this, he saves the friend’s life, just as the medic intended.

The medic channeled the soldier’s evil desires in a way that would save a life, even though the enemy soldier didn’t intend to save a life (quite the opposite!), nor did he ever even know he saved one. He knew only that he satisfied his evil desires by engaging in an act of torture. In the same action, the soldier tortured and the medic healed. The enemy soldier took direct action; the medic, only indirect action, using the means of the soldier’s evil desires.

I think you can see that while the enemy soldier did evil here, the medic did not. If that can be true for a limited human being, how much more for an infinite, omnipresent, omniscient, loving God who knows every result that would come from every possible action!

We may not understand how all of this works, and I may not even be right about everything I’ve said above. (I know many would disagree with me—even here at Stand to Reason!) But as we’re trying to figure this out, we must start with what we see in Scripture. And what we see is this: God is sovereign. And yet, He is sovereign in such a way that we are still truly acting out of our desires and truly responsible for our sin. Whatever solution we use to reconcile these two facts needs to account for both.