Did God Ordain Evil?

The National September 11 Memorial; Photo by  Axel Houmadi  on  Unsplash

The National September 11 Memorial; Photo by Axel Houmadi on Unsplash

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Throughout human history, men have wrestled with the problem of evil. The question, “How can a good and holy God allow evil to exist in the world that he created?” is one that demands an answer. Or, to ask the question more pointedly, “How can the good and holy God be sovereign over all things including evil?”

God eternally decreed every action of men.

In his 85th entry of the MiscellaniesJonathan Edwards gave a most satisfying answer to this questionThere, Edwards explained that God eternally decreed every action of men—including those that should be sinful—but that he decreed them, not for the sinfulness of them but for the good that would come from them. In this sense, we can say that all that God ordained was good. Edwards wrote:

That we should say, that God has decreed every action of men, yea, every action that they do that is sinful, and every circumstance of those actions; [that] He determines that they shall be in every respect as they afterwards are; [that] He determines that there shall be such actions, and so obtains that they shall be so sinful as they are; and yet that God does not decree the actions that are sinful as sinful, but decrees [them] as good, is really consistent. We do not mean by decreeing an action as sinful, the same as decreeing an action so that it shall be sinful; but by decreeing an action as sinful, I mean decreeing [it] for the sake of the sinfulness of the action. God decrees that it shall be sinful for the sake of the good that He causes to arise from the sinfulness thereof, whereas man decrees it for the sake of the evil that is in it.[1]

This is in complete harmony with what the Westminster Confession of Faith says about the eternal decrees of God:

God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established. (WCF 3.1).

What is the ultimate good that arises from God ordaining all the actions of fallen angels and men?

So, does God ordain evil? The answer is simultaneously an emphatic “Yes” and “No!” “Yes,” God is sovereign over all evil in the world in that he ordained all the actions of all fallen angels and men. Yet, “No,” he does not ordain the actions of fallen angels and men as evil—though he ordained that they should become evil—but “for the sake of the good that he causes to arise from the sinfulness thereof.”

This leads to the second inevitable question, namely, “What is that good for which God ordained actions so that they should be sinful?” The ultimate good that arises from God ordaining all the actions of fallen angels and men is the good of God getting glory by a display of his attributes. Edwards tackles this subject head on in his philosophical masterpiece, The End for Which God Ordained the World, by appealing to Romans 9:22-23.[2] There the apostle Paul writes:

What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory. (Rom. 9:22-23)

The apostle explained that God does all that he does with regard to the eternal decree regarding the destinies of men in order to show forth the glory of his attributes.

On the Last Day, we will see the glorious good purposes for which God ordained the actions of all of his creatures.

For those who remain in a state of wrath, God has secured eternal judgment to show forth his justice. God is a just and holy God and will punish all evil. He does this either by imputing the sin of his people to his Son or by punishing the unregenerate in hell forever. In the latter case, God has ordained evil in order to show forth his wrath and power. This is the good for which God has ordained evil. In the case of the elect, God has reconciled them to himself by punishing their sin on his Son. This is to display his mercy and grace in the face of their sin. In both cases, good is brought out of evil.

On Judgment Day, we will see clearly what we so struggle to see in the here and now. Augustine once put it so well when he said that there was just enough mercy in the world for us to know that God is merciful and just enough justice to know that God is just. On the Last Day, we will see the glorious good purposes for which God ordained the actions of all of his creatures—including those actions that would be evil.

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Rev. Nick Batzig is an associate editor for Ligonier Ministries and a pastor at Wayside Presbyterian Church (PCA). He formerly served as the organizing pastor of New Covenant Presbyterian Church in Richmond Hill, Georgia.

This article is adapted from “Did God Ordain Evil?” at feedingonchrist.org.

[1] Jonathan Edwards [1722], The "Miscellanies," no. 84, (WJE Online Vol. 13), ed. Harry S. Stout, edwards.yale.edu.

[2] Jonathan Edwards, The End for Which God Created the World: Updated to Modern English (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014), 204.