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
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
evil work for the greatest good; therefore we have great reason to praise
the God who exists!
Clarifying the issue
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
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 judgement. 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
Mercy eternally magnified by being set in contrast to
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
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
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
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
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
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?
1. Daniel Fuller, The Unity of the Bible, quoted in John Piper,
Justification of God: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Romans
9:1-23, 2nd edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1993), p. 215.
3. Piper, p. 82.
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