Every worldview attempts to explain the significance of pain and suffering, as well as the existence of evil. The atheist argument frequently makes God the direct object of these talks in the majority of these discussions. There are times in the Bible when God’s activities are viewed as causing harm or disaster. It should be noted that Christians do not find these comments problematic in any way, and there are several points of view that they strive to provide in order to explain all of God’s deeds. It is crucial to remember that different religious groups and experts may offer diverse interpretations of these events. Dr. Daniel Maritz produced an excellent study on the various perspectives on pain, evil, and suffering. I have published an article that examines the various accounts for distinct Christian theistic responses to pain and suffering. What I have attempted here is to write a short account that looks at the nature of God, the instances that are deemed problematic, and possible resolutions as to why God would allow these events.
Is the God of the Bible Evil?
This is a complex question with no easy answer, but there are many reasons to believe that God is not evil. The Bible teaches that God is love. Now when we describe God as love, we are saying there is an essential quality to God that makes Him inherently what He is essentially. Christians also propose that love is the opposite of evil, so if God is love, then he cannot be evil. For example, in 1 John 4:8, it says, “God is love.” This passage teaches that God’s very essence is love. Love is characterized by compassion, kindness, and mercy. These are all qualities that are the opposite of evil. Christians also look at any problematic passages through the lens of who God is.
Another factor to consider is that the Bible teaches that God is good. God is described as being good in many passages of the Bible, such as Psalm 119:68, which says, “The Lord is good, and his mercy is everlasting.” This passage teaches that God is always good and merciful. He is never cruel or vindictive. Some people I speak to often think that God takes great delight in their suffering, but not so. He clearly has a heart and seems to feel for all people.
We should also remember that God is just. God is always fair and impartial in his dealings with people. He does not punish people for things they did not do, and he does not reward people for things they did not earn. For example, in Deuteronomy 25:1, it says, “Do not show partiality in judgment. Hear the small and the great alike.” This passage teaches that God is always just and fair in his dealings with people. That is also one reason why I could not maintain a perspective of determinism when it comes to what I think about God. God is just, and in His justice, He works all for the benefit of all man in a general providential way and a specific soteriological way.
Another factor that we can affirm is that God is merciful. God is willing to forgive people who repent of their sins. He does not hold grudges or seek revenge. For example, in Exodus 34:6, it says, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.” This passage teaches that God is merciful and forgiving.
What about the control of God? Well, yes, in theological terms, we say that the Bible teaches that God is sovereign. God is in control of everything that happens, even the evil things. It should be noted that God allows for the free agency of man, and man, in turn, sometimes chooses to do evil things. But this does not necessarily make God evil, as allowing free will to exist at the expense of all things working out perfectly according to God’s essential nature is not something God seems to have allowed. He allows evil to happen for his own purposes, which are ultimately good. For example, in Romans 8:28, it says, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” This passage teaches that God is sovereign and that he works all things for the good of those who love him.
Of course, there are many passages in the Bible that seem to describe God in ways that are not consistent with these qualities. However, these passages must be interpreted in light of the overall message of the Bible, which is that God is love, good, just, merciful, and sovereign.
What are some perceived evil acts of God in the Bible?
The Flood: In the story of Noah’s Ark (Genesis 6-9), God sends a catastrophic flood to destroy all living beings on Earth due to the wickedness of humanity. While God saves Noah and his family, along with a pair of every kind of animal, the event results in the loss of countless lives. Here we can see that God is just, and His justice demands that a just punishment is exacted due to the depravity of these individuals. It would be contrary to God’s goodness to not act against these sinful individuals.
The Plagues of Egypt: In the book of Exodus (chapters 7-12), God inflicts a series of ten plagues upon the Egyptians to convince Pharaoh to release the Israelites from slavery. These plagues include the turning of the Nile into blood, the infestation of frogs, gnats, and locusts, and the killing of the firstborn sons. These events caused immense suffering and loss of life. It should be noted that God asked numerous times for Israel’s release and also warned beforehand what the consequences would be if they did not let His people go. The rest is history.
The Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart: In the story of the Exodus, God repeatedly hardens Pharaoh’s heart, preventing him from releasing the Israelites despite the plagues. This resulted in prolonged suffering for the Egyptian people. God’s hardening assures that the people pressure Pharoah to let the Israelites go, but the hardening of his heart seems to be done to fit God’s timing for their release. God also fastens the state of Pharoah’s heart, and He manages what Pharoah would have been for His timing’s sake.
Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah: In Genesis 19, God destroys the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah due to their wickedness. The cities are consumed by fire and brimstone, resulting in the death of all inhabitants, including women, children, and infants. It is interesting to note that these cities practice detestable deeds and are inhospitable to other people. God seems to inflict them with fire and brimstone and totally destroy them because of their wickedness.
Job’s Suffering: In the book of Job, God allows Satan to test Job’s faithfulness by bringing great suffering upon him. Job experiences the loss of his wealth, his children, and his health, causing immense pain and anguish. For me, the book of Job is probably the hardest read in all of scripture. Here it seems like God is trying to prove a point about Job, and He allows the evil one to inflict Job with all kinds of calamities.
The Conquest of Canaan: In the book of Joshua, God commands the Israelites to conquer the land of Canaan and engage in warfare against its inhabitants. This conquest involved violence, bloodshed, and the destruction of cities and nations. In the book of Joshua, God commands the Israelites to conquer the land of Canaan and destroy its inhabitants, including men, women, and children. This is often referred to as the “ban” or “devote to destruction.” There is a sense of God punishing these inhabitants for their sins and wickedness.
The Testing of Abraham: In Genesis 22, God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac, to test his faith. Although God intervenes and provides a substitute sacrifice, the request can be considered morally challenging. Again, God wrought a higher purpose when He called for Abraham’s sacrifice. In it, God redeems Abraham’s willingness and provides a substitute in His own Son, who dies for the Sins of the World.
The Plague of Leprosy: In the story of Miriam, found in Numbers 12, God strikes Miriam with leprosy as punishment for speaking against her brother, Moses. She becomes isolated and suffers from the disease until Moses intercedes on her behalf. Here, we have to struggle with the idea that God could allow disease to befall specific individuals as a form of punishment.
The Destruction of Jerusalem: In the Old Testament, God allows the Babylonians to conquer and destroy Jerusalem, leading to the exile of the Israelites. This event resulted in the loss of lives, the destruction of the temple, and immense suffering for the Jewish people. Here we can see that God allows the Israelites to experience judgment. He is indeed no respecter of person.
The Amalekite Massacre: In 1 Samuel 15, God commands Saul, the first king of Israel, to destroy the Amalekites, including men, women, children, and even animals. This command to commit genocide raises moral and ethical concerns. This is seen as God’s judgment upon a people that committed heinous sins.
The Sending of Evil Spirits: In several instances in the Old Testament, God sends or allows evil spirits to torment individuals. For example, in 1 Samuel 16:14, an evil spirit from the Lord torments Saul, causing him distress and anguish. God allows this as a punishment upon Saul because of his hardness of heart and his not obeying God’s instruction.
The Destruction of Nations: In various passages, God orders the destruction of entire nations, such as the Amorites, Canaanites, and Midianites. These commands to engage in warfare and destroy entire civilizations can be challenging to reconcile with the idea of a loving and merciful God. Even though it seems like God uses Israel to bring judgment on other nations and their continual sinfulness.
The Punishment of David: In 2 Samuel 12, God sends the prophet Nathan to confront King David after he commits adultery with Bathsheba and arranges for her husband’s death. As a result, God brings judgment upon David’s household, including the death of their first child. This is a hard story for various reasons. David killing an innocent man, God brought a painful judgment.
The Consequences of Israel’s Rebellion: In Numbers 14, after the Israelites’ lack of faith and rebellion against God’s promise to give them the Promised Land, God declares that the current generation will not enter the land. Instead, they wander in the wilderness for 40 years until the rebellious generation dies off. It almost seems like generations were found unredeemable, and God chooses to let them completely die before he re-establishes the blessings to His people.
The Deaths of Ananias and Sapphira: In Acts 5:1-11, Ananias and Sapphira lie to the apostles about the proceeds from selling their property. When confronted by Peter, both individuals are struck dead by God. This event demonstrates the seriousness of lying and deceit within the early Christian community. This is in the New Testament, so it is alarming to think that God still brings judgment upon a person that dares to lie or try to deceive Him.
Bar-Jesus struck blind: There is a story in Acts 13 where a Jewish false Prophet tried to oppose Saul and Barnabas. Paul, upon hearing about his opposition, calls for his blindness. Verse 10-11 reads, “You son of the devil, enemy of all righteousness, full of deceit and of all fraud, will you not cease perverting the right ways of the Lord? Now, look! The hand of the Lord is against you, and you shall be blind, not seeing the sun for a time.” Immediately mist and darkness fell on him, and he went about seeking someone to lead him by the hand.” Clearly, the Holy Spirit did not let this individual off the hook, and his apparent blindness was manifest and made apparent in front of the proconsul.
The Crucifixion of Christ: We sometimes forget that the very act of Christ’s dying was probably one of the most excruciating events recorded in all of history. Through the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, we experience a sure way to salvation, but this is done at God’s cost. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “God’s grace is for free, but it is not cheap.” The hope we find in this suffering is that God turns what is seemingly unjust and improper into an opportunity to solidify and secure the salvation He promises.
What are some reasons for God doing “evil” in the Bible?
We see that in traditional theological interpretations, God is considered to be inherently good and just. However, some passages in the Bible describe actions or events that may be perceived as evil or difficult to reconcile with this understanding. There are definitely a few ways in which Christians can justify these challenging passages. Here are a few explanations or reasons often offered:
- Divine Judgment: Some instances of what may be perceived as evil actions by God are attributed to divine judgment. According to this perspective, God’s actions serve as a response to human sin and wickedness. For example, the Flood in Genesis is seen as a judgment upon corrupt and sinful humanity.
- Moral Education: Some scholars argue that certain difficult events or commands attributed to God in the Bible serve as moral lessons or tests of faith. These challenging circumstances are viewed as opportunities for personal growth, moral development, or the demonstration of loyalty and obedience to God.
- Cultural and Historical Context: Understanding the cultural and historical context in which the Bible was written is crucial for interpreting difficult passages. Some actions attributed to God may reflect the cultural norms and understanding of the time, and they need to be considered within that specific context.
- Allegorical or Symbolic Meaning: Another approach is to interpret certain stories or events in a symbolic or allegorical manner rather than as literal historical accounts. This perspective suggests that these narratives convey deeper spiritual or theological truths rather than depicting God’s literal actions.
- Human Attribution: Some scholars propose that certain actions or events attributed to God in the Bible might reflect human perceptions and understandings of God rather than God’s actual actions. They suggest that human limitations and biases may have influenced the portrayal of these events.
- Mystery and Incomprehensibility of God: Some theological perspectives emphasize the mystery and incomprehensibility of God. They argue that human understanding is limited and that certain actions or events attributed to God may be beyond human comprehension. In this view, God’s ways may surpass human understanding, and the apparent “evil” may have a purpose or meaning that is beyond our grasp.
- Consequences of Human Free Will: Another perspective suggests that the presence of evil or seemingly harmful actions may be the result of God allowing human beings to exercise free will. According to this view, God grants humans the freedom to choose, and the consequences of those choices can lead to evil or suffering.
- Literary or Rhetorical Devices: Some scholars argue that certain passages or stories in the Bible use literary or rhetorical devices to convey theological or moral messages. They propose that these passages may use exaggerated or challenging language to emphasize a particular point or to make a theological statement.
- Accommodation to Human Understanding: Some theological perspectives suggest that God accommodates to human understanding and meets people where they are in their cultural and historical context. This means that certain actions or commands attributed to God in the Bible may reflect a condescension to human limitations rather than God’s actual nature or desires.
- Progressive Revelation: This perspective posits that God’s revelation and understanding of morality and ethics unfold progressively throughout human history. As humanity evolves and grows, so does our understanding of God’s will. Thus, actions in earlier biblical accounts that may be seen as morally challenging are viewed in light of an evolving understanding of God’s character.
- Intertestamental Development: Some theological perspectives consider the period between the Old and New Testaments, known as the Intertestamental period, as a time of theological development. They argue that the understanding of God’s nature and character progressed during this time, leading to a more refined understanding of divine goodness and love.
There is a plethora of reasons why certain passages are challenging. In the end, we can find any adaption to explain the actions of God. What we need to keep central, though, is the idea that the Christian conception of the Divine allows for a loving God to do as He pleases within reason, being absolutely fair and impartial. God knows what He does, and some elements we find challenging might not seem right this side of eternity. But when we trust God, we realize He does everything with a good reason in mind. That is the idea that should prevail in our minds at all costs. And His goodness and love should overshadow any hiddenness and coarse idea we might have about Him.