The Glory of God in the Problem of Evil
Atheists often argue against God’s existence from the problem of evil. Their argument goes as follows: If God is all loving, He would have prevented evil from entering the universe; if God is all powerful, He could have prevented evil; evil exists, therefore there is no such God.
On the contrary, I will argue as follows: If God is all loving, He would allow evil to enter the universe; If God is all powerful, He could allow evil without being guilty of evil Himself, and He could make evil work for the greatest good; therefore we have great reason to praise the God who exists!
Clarifying the Issue of Evil
There are two errors that must be avoided concerning the problem of evil. The first error would be to believe that God is the source of evil. This terrible error would blame God for evil and hold that evil was produced by God out of His own nature. The second error would be to believe that evil occurred apart from God’s sovereign plan. This position would hold that evil entered the universe because God was helpless to prevent it, and thus it overthrew the purposes of God. The position the Scriptures seem to teach is that mankind is to be blamed for and is the source of evil, while nonetheless the entrance of evil into the universe was ordained by God as part of God’s plan from the beginning. God could have prevented evil from entering into the universe had He desired to, but chose not to prevent it for wise and holy reasons.
Let’s probe this issue a little further. God is not the author of evil because He created the universe good. In its original state, there was nothing evil or sinful in the universe. Evil first entered God’s creation as a result of the disobedience of the angels who rebelled. Evil then entered the physical universe and human race as a result of mankind’s sin in Adam. God is not the source of evil or sin; evil is a result of the disobedience of God’s creatures. For these reasons, God cannot be blamed for the existence of evil–all responsibility for the presence of sin and evil in the human race falls upon mankind. All responsibility for the presence of evil in the spiritual realm falls upon the angels who rebelled.
But in order to have the full picture, we cannot stop here and conclude that God was powerless to prevent evil. Since God is sovereign and He “works out everything in conformity with the counsel of His will” (Ephesians 1:11), none of His purposes can be thwarted (Job 42:2). Therefore we must conclude that evil did not occur apart from the purpose and plan of God. The ultimate reason that evil occurred is because God planned it, not because His creatures are able to overthrow His plans. These two truths we must hold together even if we cannot fully understand how they fit: man is responsible, yet God is absolutely sovereign and controls all things.
Last of all it is necessary to understand that evil is not permanent. It was defeated at the cross and will be quarantined in hell for eternity at the final judgment. Then God will create a new heavens and new earth where only righteousness and purity will dwell forever.
A Loving God Would Allow Evil
We are now in a position to ask the question, Why did God willingly choose to allow evil into the universe? How is this consistent with His love? Without claiming to exhaust the mystery here, I offer this answer: God allowed evil because the temporary presence of evil in the universe would result in the greatest glory to His name. And since God’s glory is what most benefits His people, it is loving for God to seek His glory to the highest extent in all that He does. Therefore it is loving for God to allow the temporary presence of evil in the universe. Let’s examine these points more closely.
Those whom God has chosen for mercy He loves to the fullest possible extent (John 13:1). Thus, God seeks to fully reveal the greatness of His glory upon them. The glory of God is the shining forth of the splendor and greatness and infinite value of His perfect character. When God glorifies Himself, He is not making Himself more glorious (that is impossible), but calling attention to and displaying His infinite greatness. How does evil seem to fit into God’s plan to glorify Himself? Part of the answer seems to be this: many of God’s attributes can be more clearly and brightly displayed to us if there is sin and therefore evil in the universe.
For example, God’s mercy is His goodness and help shown to those who are in a miserable plight. But God could not show mercy if there was no sin and evil in the universe, because then there would be no one in a miserable plight to need mercy.
In addition, the greatness of God’s mercy is highlighted by the fact that those whom God chooses for His saving mercy are saved out from the most awful and terrifying situation possible–being under the almighty wrath of God. Dr. Daniel Fuller asks us this question: “How could God’s mercy appear fully as his great mercy unless it was extended to people who were under his wrath and therefore could only ask for mercy?” God’s mercy is magnified by delivering us from under His wrath.
Mercy Eternally Magnified By Being Set in Contrast to Wrath
Furthermore, “It would be impossible for them to share with God the delight He has in his mercy unless they saw clearly the awfulness of the almighty wrath from which his mercy delivers them.” Therefore, God prepares not only vessels of mercy, but also vessels of wrath so that the vessels of mercy can fully see and understand the awfulness of the wrath they have been rescued from. For all eternity, God’s mercy will be placed against the backdrop of His wrath in order to fully magnify and display the greatness of His mercy. Through this those who are chosen for mercy can fully share with God the delight He has in His mercy and fully praise Him for what He has done for them.
God’s Justice, Wrath, Power, and Holiness More Fully Displayed
So we see that in the just punishment of sinners, God’s mercy is fully highlighted to those whom He chooses to save. The punishment of sinners (which could not have happened if God had not allowed evil) is also an occasion for God to glorify Himself through the vindication of His justice, demonstration of His wrath, display of His power, and purity of His holiness which will not tolerate sin. This also works to reveal the riches of God’s glory to the vessels of mercy: “What if God, in order to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? And He did so in order that He might make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory…” (Romans 9:22, 23, RSV. cf. Proverbs 16:4, “The Lord has made everything for its own purpose, even the wicked for the day of evil”).
God’s wrath and holiness are related. The wrath of God is the righteous assertion of His holiness against sin. If we could not see that God is so holy that He hates sin and thus reacts against it with His wrath, we would not know as fully the purity and zeal of God’s holiness. For only in contrast to sin (and thus His holiness reacting against this sin as wrath to vindicate His righteousness) is the purity of God’s holiness most intensely highlighted. If there were no sin upon which God could pour His wrath eternally, He could not assert the full range of His holiness because He could not show that, in His holiness, He hates and despises all that is unholy.
Hell Makes the Infinite Value of God’s Glory Crystal Clear
God’s judging of sin and reacting in wrath to punish it eternally in hell demonstrates the infinite value of His perfections. Why? Because the infinite penalty of attacking God’s glory–eternal punishment in hell–reveals the infinite value of the glory that was attacked. Thus, hell is ultimately an eternal display of the infinite value of God’s glory. While this certainly does not mean that God delights in the sinner’s suffering in and of itself, He does delight in it in the sense that it is a vindication of His righteousness and display of His power. This is how Ezekiel 33:11 (“I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked”) fits with Deuteronomy 28:63 (where God tells Israel that if they disobey He “will delight over you to make you perish and destroy you; and you shall be torn from the land where you are entering to possess it”).
A Loving and Righteous God Would Most Magnify His Worth
Having seen that God’s decision to allow sin was for the purpose of fully displaying the greatness of His perfections to an extent that He could not otherwise have done, we are led to look at the next question in greater detail: Why must God display the full range of His character?
This is because doing so most magnifies His worth. If God did not display, for example, His mercy, then He would not be fully magnifying His character because there would be some of His character that is not expressed. And if God did not magnify His character to the fullest possible extent, God would not be acting in perfect righteousness. Why is this? It is because God is the most precious, valuable being in the universe. Therefore, He must delight in and value Himself above anything else. From this it follows that if God did not seek to display His honor and perfections above all else, He would not be placing infinite worth on what is infinitely valuable. He would be putting something before Himself, which would mean putting something less valuable before the more valuable, which would be unrighteous.
Why It Is Loving for God to Magnify His Worth
In fully displaying His glory (which, we have seen, requires sin), God is being most loving. Why? First, if He did not do this, we would not know Him “fully, just as I also have been fully known” (1 Cor. 13). Put simply, we wouldn’t know God as well if He did not display who He is to the fullest possible extent. And it seems that it would be most loving for God let us know as much of Himself as He can.
Also, it is truly loving of God to seek His praise to the highest possible extent (which, as we have seen, would require the brilliance of His mercy highlighted by demonstrating His wrath). Why is this? In our lives, there is a pattern that we see: We tend to praise what we prize. Enjoyment of something overflows into praise. Go to a great movie sometime, and when you leave the theater, what are you usually talking with your friends about? How great the movie is! You are praising it. It also seems as if our enjoyment of something is not complete unless we are able to praise it. If your friends said, “Be quiet, I don’t want to hear about it,” your enjoyment of the movie would not be complete. So praise is necessary for full, complete enjoyment.
If God did not seek His praise from us then our enjoyment of Him would not be made full — it would be incomplete since it wouldn’t overflow into praise. The way for God to win the most praise from us is to fully display His character. So if God wants us to fully enjoy Him and prize Him, He must seek His own praise through us so that our enjoyment of Him will overflow into praise and complete our joy. John Piper summarizes these truths well: “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.” So even in our enjoyment (and resulting praise) God is glorified. Thus, God seeking our good and God seeking His praise are really one and the same pursuit, since our good/joy yields praise to His name.
The Sovereign Freedom of God
Further, in order for us to truly value God’s great mercy and gift of eternal life, it is good for Him to highlight the unconditional freedom He has in bestowing mercy. His unconditional freedom makes it absolutely clear that He owes mercy to no one. If everyone got saved, He could not show His unconditional freedom in showing mercy and it might seem as if we were entitled to salvation. If you think you are entitled to something, it is hard to see it as a free, undeserved gift. And it is hard to be grateful and thankful for it if you think it is owed to you. God’s freedom in mercy rebukes our sense of entitlement and thus evokes gratitude.
Exodus 33 declares the sovereign freedom of God in showing mercy. In this chapter, Moses asks to see God’s glory. God says (among other things) that He will show His glory and that “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy.” This is a Hebrew expression called idem per idem which stresses the absolute freedom of the agent in doing the action–He can do it however He wants, constrained by nothing outside of himself. Thus, God is saying that one aspect of His glory is absolute freedom to grant mercy constrained by no reason that is outside of His own will. He will give mercy in whatever way He wants. Then God says that He will pass by Moses and proclaim His “name.” To the Hebrews, one’s name was who they were. It was your very identity. When God proclaimed His name, He said that He was “abounding in lovingkindness and mercy.” So one aspect of God’s character, His glory, is that He is merciful. But this also draws us back to 33:19–where it says that God is absolutely free in His bestowal of this mercy. Thus, it is God’s glory and essence to be absolutely free in His giving us mercy by not being constrained by anything outside of His own will. His will alone determines who gets mercy, and therefore His mercy is unconditional.
If God gave mercy to all, it seems that He would not be displaying that His essence is to be absolutely free in giving mercy. And as we’ve said, God’s freedom in giving mercy rebukes our entitlement and evokes gratitude, thus causing us to value heaven as a true gift of grace. Lastly, as we saw earlier, in order for there to be mercy, there must be people in a miserable plight to need it, which requires sin.
Thus, we have seen how God’s love and goodness would cause Him to allow Evil into the universe, for in due time this will lead to truly the best of all possible worlds where God’s attributes are most displayed, God is most glorified, and eternity is truly valued. Perhaps some may be troubled by the fact that even evil, in the long range, results in glory to God. It may be troubling to think that such a terrible thing as evil was permitted by God for His glory. But look at the other option–that evil ultimately worked to defeat the glory of God. Wouldn’t evil truly have the upper hand if God was unable to overrule it for His greatest glory and His people’s greatest good?