God, Evil & Sovereignty: A Pentecostal dilemma

The Black Hole in Pentecostalism

If God is in control of everything, it follows that he is in control of evil as well as good. That may be a comforting thought to some but troubling to others. And if God controls evil, is he then responsible for it? In other words, if God controls evil, does he therefore to some extent cause evil? Some have attempted to explain the answer thus: he only 'allows' evil to occur. But if it is in God's power to act, even permitting evil to occur leaves open the question as to how God could allow evil to occur without being responsible for its cause.

The very existence of evil raises many questions, especially regarding the extent to which we believe that God is sovereign: if God is all-controlling, did he plan a world to fall into wickedness? And if God is all-powerful, why will he allow sin and suffering to eternally exist in hell? Because he is not good? Surely not! That God is good is fundamental to the Bible's revelation of God's nature and axiomatic to Christianity.

Pentecostalism is part of a movement that has for centuries concluded that the answer to this basic conundrum is that God cannot be in control of everything. He does not control evil. He does not cause disaster. He does not decree wickedness. And suffering occurs outside his 'intended' will. In fact, since God is perfectly good he cannot be all-knowing, nor all-powerful. He did not plan the world to be as it is today. No, God created people free to choose their destiny. He does not (or cannot) now override their freedom. But our sin and the awful consequences of our choices are never his intention. He does not control us and therefore nor does he control the future. Hell is simply inevitable and heaven his last miracle.

But according to this 'logic' God is not God at all; he is stripped of all his divine attributes, including his 'goodness' (for a god who does not now rule perfectly anything he has created is not 'good'). On this logic Christianity slides into dualism; the future is determined by an uncertain struggle between God and evil. Although God 'desires' our 'good'--health, wealth, success, eternal life--our destiny is ultimately in our hands; it comes down to our faith, our sovereignty.

This article does not hope to answer these questions entirely, nor attempt to 'solve' the 'problem' of God, evil and sovereignty. What it does intend to do is encourage Pentecostals to think again, based on the biblical data.

Essential good and evil as perversion

The Bible affirms the essential goodness of everything that exists. God created everything that exists and everything God created is created good. Since only God and his creation exist, everything is good (Rev 4:11).

However, from Genesis 3 to Revelation 22 the Bible also affirms the existence of evil. ‘The whole world is under the control of the evil one’; ‘this is the present evil age’; ‘every inclination of [man’s] heart was only evil all of the time.’

Therefore evil has no independent existence but is a perversion and corruption of what is good; sin is the greatest evil and is the root of all evil. This fact makes evil all the worse than it would have been if it had an independent existence.

God both hates and decrees evil

Evil is totally alien to God, whose ‘eyes are too pure to look on evil’; ‘he is light, in him there is no darkness at all.’ The Bible again and again affirms that God is perfectly upright and righteous and good and holy.

However, God himself says, ‘I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster’ (Isa 45:7); ‘when disaster comes to a house, has not the LORD caused it?’ (Amos 3:6). Also, God uses evil for his purposes. The Lord sends evil spirits who do his work: 1 Samuel 16:14 says, ‘Now the Spirit of the LORD had departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the LORD tormented him.’

Although ‘God cannot be tempted by evil nor does he tempt anyone,’ the Lord sends evil spirits to tempt people to sin: ‘The LORD said, 'Who will entice Ahab into attacking Ramoth Gilead and going to his death there?' "One suggested this, and another that. Finally, a spirit came forward, stood before the LORD and said, 'I will entice him.' " 'By what means?' the LORD asked. " 'I will go out and be a lying spirit in the mouths of all his prophets,' he said. " 'You will succeed in enticing him,' said the LORD. 'Go and do it.' "So now the LORD has put a lying spirit in the mouths of all these prophets of yours. The LORD has decreed disaster for you." (1 Kings 22:20-23). Although God ‘sends’ evil spirits to do the tempting, the temptation is also attributable to God: God says, "‘if the [false] prophet is enticed to utter a prophecy, I the LORD have enticed that prophet, and I will stretch out my hand against him and destroy him from among my people Israel (Ezekiel 14:9).

It is also true that God sends evil spirits to tempt ‘his own’ people to sin. 2 Samuel 24:1 states, ‘the anger of the LORD burned against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, "Go and take a census of Israel and Judah,"’ i.e. to commit a sin that 1 Chronicles 21:1 attributes to the influence of Satan: ‘Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel.’

This language is not just restricted to the Old Testament. 2 Thessalonians 2:9-12 applies this language to the work of Satan and the work of God when the Antichrist appears: ‘…the work of Satan displayed in all kinds of counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders, and in every sort of evil that deceives those who are perishing… For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie…’

At Calvary God displayed both his hatred for sin (evil) and his sovereignty over it: "This man was handed over to you by God's set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross" (Acts 2:23).

God ‘tests’ his own people

The King James Version translates Genesis 22:1 as ‘God did tempt Abraham.’ 2 Chronicles 32:31 says about Hezekiah, ‘God left him to test him and to know everything that was in his heart.’ In 1 Timothy 1:20 Paul hands Hymenaeus and Alexander ‘over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme.’ (i.e for their good). Similarly, in 1 Corinthians 5:5 Paul commands regarding a sinful brother, ‘hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed.’ This seems to be somewhat of an extreme measure used by God; hence Jesus instructs us to pray, ‘lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one'’ (Matthew 6:13).

Evil as punishment

One form of judgment is God giving sinners over to their own evil (Rom 1:21). Some of the most frightening evils recorded in Scripture are attributed to God’s judgment. Judgment itself is not evil but is an expression of God’s goodness and his faithfulness to himself. The display of God’s justice glorifies God’s Name: In Exodus 14:4, God says, ‘I will harden Pharaoh's heart, and he will pursue them. But I will gain glory for myself through Pharaoh and all his army, and the Egyptians will know that I am the LORD."’ Similarly, in Ezekiel 28:22 God says: ‘" 'I am against you, O Sidon, and I will gain glory within you. They will know that I am the LORD, when I inflict punishment on her and show myself holy within her.’

The Bible suggests that God’s ultimate purpose for evil is the magnification of his own glory. Proverbs 16:4 says, ‘The LORD works out everything for his own ends-even the wicked for a day of disaster.’ Paul expands on this in Romans 9 – 11: ‘What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath--prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory.’ (Romans 9:22-23). The everlasting nature of hell is a testimony to God’s commitment to his purpose of making his glory known through punishment as well as through everlasting grace.

Evil as divine permission

All of these passages affirm and marry together the Sovereignty of God and the responsibility of people; that is not in question. What is clear is that God’s sovereignty is absolute: he controls and uses evil for his own purposes. These passages magnify God’s sovereignty and rule out creaturely independence. Evil does not proceed from God but does depend on his decrees.

Human actions do not take place independently of God even when those actions are wicked. This does not diminish human responsibility. This fact is clear early on in Biblical history (e.g. the story of Joseph, Genesis 50:20 ‘You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good;’ the accounts of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, Exodus 9:12, ‘the LORD hardened Pharaoh's heart and he would not listen to Moses’).

Theologians speak of God’s sovereign permission: when humans do what is evil, God is not at work in them to will and to act according to what is good. Thus, for example, God ‘left’ Hezekiah to test him. However, when humans do what is God, ‘it is God who works in them to will and to act according to his good purpose.’ (Philippians 2:13). This highlights the asymmetry of God’s relationship to evil and good. God stands behind good causing it directly; God stands behind evil indirectly by decreeing secondary agents to cause evil.

God not only knows in advance what humans will do; God decrees the future. He knows what will happen because he controls what happens and directs history to its destination. Proverbs 16:9 puts it clearly: ‘In his heart a man plans his course, but the LORD determines his steps.’ This verse suggests that at the level of intention humans bear responsibility for their actions, but whether or not intention comes to fruition is the decision of the Lord. Thus, evil acts are encompassed by God’s active providence, yet humans are accountable for them.

Let God be God

As mentioned, this article does not answer or 'solve' the 'problem' of God, evil and sovereignty. If anything, it raises more questions, many of which the Bible does not answer and so nor can we. But what I hope it does do is encourage Pentecostals to rethink their theology, to hold together God as both absolutely good and completely sovereign. The view that evil is outside of God's control simply will not do, even when motivated by a desire to distance a good God from the existence of evil, whether wickedness or disaster. It is a false dichotomy to maintain that evil exists independently from God's good purposes, and it brings him no glory.
"For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen." (Romans 11:36).

Alexander, T. D. et al. New Dictionary of Biblical Theology. IVP: 2000. | joe towns: christian discussion on pentecost, charisma, pentecostal and charismatic beliefs, the Bible and Jesus; including the origin and history of pentecostalism, baptism in the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues, gifts and miracles, divine healing and word of faith, prosperity and wealth, praise and worship, guidance and hearing the voice of the Holy Spirit.