I’ve been having a rather interesting discussion via email with one of the Christians who began posting here not too long ago. In my latest response, I began addressing the issue of good and evil and what is God’s relationship to these things, along with further arguments about free will and the Garden of Eden. What follows is an introductory essay that begins to address the first proposition, is God good or evil?
At first, the argument could be proposed that since God created everything, including Satan, the embodiment of evil, then God is the author of evil. The Christian could easily respond to this first proposition by simply replying that Satan was created good, but chose evil. You could say that all of God’s sentient creations have the capability for good or evil, and the free will to choose either. Therefore, God did not create evil. We’ll discuss free will later.
The Christian could further respond that God did not “create” evil in the sense that evil is not a thing, per se. In a similar manner, it might be said that God did not “create” love, hate, fear, truth, or anything else that doesn’t consist of matter or energy but yet exists. So, in the literal sense the Christian could say evil wasn’t “created” by God.
In addition, a Christian might cite several biblical verses that quite explicitly state that God is not the author of evil. He/she might choose some or all of the following verses (you can find all these verses in your own Bible or online at http://www.biblegateway.com):
1. “God is not a man, that he should lie; neither the son of man, that he should repent: hath he said, and shall he not do it? or hath he spoken, and shall he not make it good?” Numbers 23:19
2. “He is the Rock, his work is perfect: for all his ways are judgment: a God of truth and without iniquity, just and right is he.” Deuteronomy 32:4
3. “Wherefore now let the fear of the LORD be upon you; take heed and do it: for there is no iniquity with the LORD our God, nor respect of persons, nor taking of gifts.” 2 Chronicles 19:7
4. “Therefore hearken unto me ye men of understanding: far be it from God, that he should do wickedness; and from the Almighty, that he should commit iniquity.” Job 34:10
5. “For thou art not a God that hath pleasure in wickedness: neither shall evil dwell with thee.” Psalms 5:4
6. “To shew that the LORD is upright: he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him.” Psalms 92:15
7. “For he doth not afflict willingly nor grieve the children of men. To crush under his feet all the prisoners of the earth. To turn aside the right of a man before the face of the most High, To subvert a man in his cause, the LORD approveth not.” Lamentations 3:33-36
8. “Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man:” James 1:13
There may be others the Christian might choose as well, but this should suffice for the moment to continue.
Admittedly, the verses in the Bible that directly connect “evil” with God seem to indicate something along the lines of physical disaster or calamity, rather than moral evil or sin. That’s fine. Many Christians have no problem with the idea of God visiting His judgment on the guilty. This is a running theme in the Bible as well. However, God’s character is revealed in many verses that don’t directly reference moral evil but quite clearly illustrate what we would likely agree as being immoral acts by God. First, the verses that state God is the author of evil:
1. “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things.” Isaiah 45:7
2. “Shall a trumpet be blown in the city, and the people not be afraid? shall there be evil in a city, and the LORD hath not done it?” Amos 3:6
3. “Out of the mouth of the most High proceedeth not evil and good?” Lamentations 3:38
And, of course we have no right to complain if God visits calamity on us:
1. “Wherefore doth a living man complain, a man for the punishment of his sins?” Lamentations 3:39
The Hebrew word for evil used in the above verses is ra` (Strong’s Number H7451, if you want to reference your concordance). It is used roughly 620+ times in the OT, sometimes to indicate moral evil, sin, or wickedness, and other times to indicate calamity, disaster, and adversity. You’ll notice in the definition (copied from Strong’s Hebrew Lexicon at http://bible.crosswalk.com/Lexicons/Hebrew/ if you don’t have a concordance handy) that the overwhelming meaning of the word is “evil”:
1. bad, evil
a. bad, disagreeable, malignant
b. bad, unpleasant, evil (giving pain, unhappiness, misery)
c. evil, displeasing
d. bad (of its kind - land, water, etc)
e. bad (of value)
f. worse than, worst (comparison)
g. sad, unhappy
h. evil (hurtful)
i. bad, unkind (vicious in disposition)
j. bad, evil, wicked (ethically)
1. in general, of persons, of thoughts
2. deeds, actions n m
2. evil, distress, misery, injury, calamity
a. evil, distress, adversity
b. evil, injury, wrong
c. evil (ethical) n f
3. evil, misery, distress, injury
a. evil, misery, distress
b. evil, injury, wrong
c. evil (ethical)
As noted above, taken in context these verses do not by themselves indicate God’s character as being evil or morally corrupt. For that we have to look to other verses in which God carries out an action or issues a command that we might view as morally questionable or worse. However, I could stop here and simply say that based on this definition, God is the author of evil, at least in the calamitous sense. But I feel that would be cheap, and wouldn’t address the concept of God’s morality.
There are far too many possibilities that I could nit-pick about to bring into the discussion, so I’m going to limit this somewhat.
First, the Great Flood:
1. “And the LORD said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them.” Genesis 6:7
Note that according to this English translation God seems to be saying he wishes he never made any of these things he thought was so good. Even the Hebrew word, nacham (Strong’s number H5162) seems to indicate that God was sorry or regretful. However, since this deals with a different topic (omniscience) than we’re dealing with here, I’ll leave this for now. The Great Flood continues:
2. “And all flesh died that moved upon the earth, both of fowl, and of cattle, and of beast, and of every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth, and every man: All in whose nostrils was the breath of life, of all that was in the dry land, died. And every living substance was destroyed which was upon the face of the ground, both man, and cattle, and the creeping things, and the fowl of the heaven; and they were destroyed from the earth: and Noah only remained alive, and they that were with him in the ark.” Genesis 7:21-23
Now, the most obvious justification for God’s actions might be that everyone was so wicked they were beyond redemption. However, this fails to take into account the many young children and babies that must’ve died. Can it be argued that they were not really innocent? Can it really be assumed that only Noah was without sin? Ok, the Christian might say that God, being omniscient, knew the children would turn out no good, and that Noah was indeed the only righteous man on the planet. What about the animals? I would ask, could something that is incapable of making informed moral decisions be anything but innocent?
I don’t really object to the notion of animals being slaughtered, since I do enjoy a good cheeseburger and don’t give the cow it came from a second thought. However, since the Great Flood is described as being intended as a punitive action for the iniquity of the inhabitants of the earth, it is reasonable to ask what crimes could be committed by creatures lacking the capacity to judge good vs. evil? I submit that punishing any creature for crimes it cannot be held responsible for is the purview of tyrants.
Next, we have Moses, the Jews, and the Egyptians.
The interesting part about this is that God takes actions to ensure the Egyptians (and not just a few, but all of them) suffer. This is a long story, so first we’ll take God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, as this is the key element. In fairness, it should be noted that Pharaoh is described as hardening his own heart several times as well.
1. “And the LORD said unto Moses, When thou goest to return into Egypt, see that thou do all those wonders before Pharaoh, which I have put in thine hand: but I will harden his heart, that he shall not let the people go.” Exodus 4:21
2. “And I will harden Pharaoh's heart, and multiply my signs and my wonders in the land of Egypt.” Exodus 7:3
3. “And he hardened Pharaoh's heart, that he hearkened not unto them; as the LORD had said.” Exodus 7:13
4. “And the LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh, and he hearkened not unto them; as the LORD had spoken unto Moses.” Exodus 9:12
5. “And the LORD said unto Moses, Go in unto Pharaoh: for I have hardened his heart, and the heart of his servants, that I might shew these my signs before him:” Exodus 10:1
6. “But the LORD hardened Pharaoh's heart, so that he would not let the children of Israel go.” Exodus 10:20
7. “But the LORD hardened Pharaoh's heart, and he would not let them go.” Exodus 10:27
8. “And Moses and Aaron did all these wonders before Pharaoh: and the LORD hardened Pharaoh's heart, so that he would not let the children of Israel go out of his land.” Exodus 11:10
9. “And I will harden Pharaoh's heart, that he shall follow after them; and I will be honoured upon Pharaoh, and upon all his host; that the Egyptians may know that I am the LORD.” Exodus 14:4
10. “And the LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and he pursued after the children of Israel…” Exodus 14:8
11. “I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians, and they shall follow them: and I will get me honour upon Pharaoh, and upon all his host, and upon his chariots, and upon his horsemen.” Exodus 14:17
It’s a given that Pharaoh was a pretty bad guy. He dealt unfairly and harshly with the people of Israel and certainly is presented as deserving of his measure of punishment. Nevertheless, the Bible relates that God did not give him an opportunity to change his ways. Even if Pharaoh had been predisposed to obey after each display of God’s power, God went about ensuring that Pharaoh’s heart would again be hardened, guaranteeing that God’s ultimate plan to glorify Himself would come to pass. Now we’ll cover the plagues. Don’t worry. I’m not going to lay the text of each down here. Feel free to look them up at your leisure.
The first plague (water to blood) in Exodus 7:17-25, lasts for seven days, during which the Egyptians can’t find any water to drink. The Bible doesn’t say whether anyone (besides the fish) died as a result. Given that human beings can only survive 3 to 5 days without water in the best conditions, there are four possibilities: a) that they drank the blood; b) they drank their own urine; c) God kept them alive, but extremely thirsty; d) some died while others took options A and/or B. The first three aren’t particularly pleasant ideas, but at least they’d be alive, right? What about the animals?
The second, third, and fourth plagues all deal with pests (frogs, lice, and flies, respectively), and to me constitute mere annoyances, albeit pretty nasty ones. Of course, I’m not an ancient Egyptian, so maybe there was more to it than meets the eye (perhaps insect borne disease, or contagion from the rotting frog carcasses).
With the fifth plague (divine cattle genocide) in Exodus 9:3-6, God demonstrates his power by killing all the cattle in Egypt. In the verse, you’ll notice that not only the cattle were cursed with “murrain” (any disease afflicting domestic animals), but so were the camels, horses, sheep, oxen, and donkeys (asses). All the same, it appears that only the cattle died. Again, one has to wonder what happened to all the carcasses. Presumably, they were butchered. Of course, given the food preservation techniques available at the time, the meat probably didn’t last very long. Salmonella, anyone?
The sixth plague (boils) in Exodus 9:9-11 is another annoyance, albeit a painful one.
The seventh plague (hail) in Exodus 9:18-34 is described as being deadly, but the Bible does not say anyone actually died as a result. It does say that the trees and plants in Egypt were crushed, though. Interestingly, during the storm Moses is in the city with Pharaoh instead of in Goshen, which was spared and where all the Jews were. While this deadly hailstorm continued, Moses left the city for the country to ask God to stop the storm. Somehow, this storm that promised to kill “both man and beast” if they remained outside, didn’t hurt Moses. This begs the question, why did the Jews go to Goshen if the hailstorm wouldn’t have affected them anyway? But I digress.
The eighth plague (locusts) in Exodus 10:4-15 also appears at first glance to be another particularly nasty annoyance. However, given that they ate every plant in Egypt that was left after the hailstorm, and all the cattle are already dead it occurs to me that the stocks of food in Egypt were getting mighty low, which of course could mean death by starvation in the long run.
The ninth plague (darkness) in Exodus 10:21-23 is strange. It is described as “even darkness which may be felt.” Smoke, perhaps? The Bible doesn’t say. Of course, only the Egyptians are affected, and can’t see anything at all for three days.
The tenth and final plague (all the Egyptian firstborn die), is also called the Passover by the Jews and is particularly egregious. In Exodus 11:4-6, God premeditates the murder:
1. “And Moses said, Thus saith the LORD, About midnight will I go out into the midst of Egypt: And all the firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the first born of Pharaoh that sitteth upon his throne, even unto the firstborn of the maidservant that is behind the mill; and all the firstborn of beasts. And there shall be a great cry throughout all the land of Egypt, such as there was none like it, nor shall be like it any more.” Ex. 11:4-6
In Exodus 12:29-30, God finishes the act:
2. “And it came to pass, that at midnight the LORD smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh that sat on his throne unto the firstborn of the captive that was in the dungeon; and all the firstborn of cattle. And Pharaoh rose up in the night, he, and all his servants, and all the Egyptians; and there was a great cry in Egypt; for there was not a house where there was not one dead.” Ex. 12:29-30
The pursuit of the Jews out of Egypt following this is due to further hardening of Pharaoh’s heart by God, and so the Egyptian army could’ve been spared (and the people of Israel saved without incident) but for God’s seemingly unrepentant desire for bloodshed in this particular story. All the same, I’m a bit surprised that the entire nation of Egypt wasn’t on the Jews’ tail after all their firstborns died.
Why did God do any of this? Well, according to the Bible it’s so that the Egyptians know that He is the LORD, that there is none like Him in all the earth, and in order to “get his honour” upon the Pharaoh and his hosts (Ex. 7:5, 17; 9:14, and 14:17 among others). Basically, it’s for his own glory and amusement.
Now, I admit that I can’t have any real sympathy for the Egyptians because this happened about 3500 years ago or so, and obviously Egypt is still around so apparently this didn’t result in its destruction. However, it is worth asking if a righteous God would visit His judgment on an entire people for the sin/iniquity of one man? Of course, we could blame the victim by arguing that it wasn’t just Pharaoh’s fault and that the people in general approved of the mistreatment of the Jews and deserved what they got. The Bible, however, is pretty much silent. We could infer that Pharaoh wasn’t the only one since others actually carried out his orders, of course. Still, does an entire population share culpability with its ruling party? Great question with lots of implications for today’s world! Maybe we should arrest every single Iraqi and put them on trial with Saddam.
The main questions about this seem to be a) is it moral or ethical to punish someone for a crime someone else committed, and b) can a god who does this be considered good, evil, neither, or both?
Alright, we’ve only covered two well-known stories from the Bible that illustrate God’s questionable judgment, assuming the account is accurate and that God exists as described therein. As you can probably imagine, this could go on for days and days.
We could discuss the ethics of God asking Abraham to sacrifice his son, or the cities and peoples God either destroyed himself or ordered annihilated (every man, woman, and child), or the mauling of a group of 42 youths by a bear after they made fun of Elishah’s bald head (one of my personal favorites, 2 Kings 2:23). We could discuss the commandments of God from the end of Exodus through Leviticus, which quite often demand the death penalty for individuals perpetrating what we now call “victimless” crimes (homosexuality, Sabbath breaking, cursing your parents, adultery, and so on).
Of course, the Christian could object that none of this is applicable today, and that the Law was fulfilled in Christ and now we are saved by faith. Ok, but this isn’t about becoming saved and does not change God’s basic character. Furthermore, since the Bible also describes God as unchanging (apparent conflicts over this characteristic notwithstanding), that means today He is has the same character as He did when he was orchestrating, commanding, or otherwise committing acts that many of us would agree are morally questionable at best.
The whole point is simply that God’s character, as described in the Bible, can be interpreted as either good or evil depending on the book, author, time, and mood. So, when the Christian points to the beauty of the world, while certainly compelling, he/she does not take the whole story into account. God, if we take the Bible description as accurate, is capable of both great good, and great evil.
This is actually not that far from my personal view that if an all-powerful creator God exists; it would have to be neutral, accepting all. In other words, this god would have to be above the greatest of human frailties, all of which the biblical God seems to possess in spades.
So, based on what we’ve discussed so far, is God the author of evil? Yes? Maybe? No? Why or why not?
Online Reading List
- An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish by Bertrand Russell (1943)
- Bible Teaching and Religious Practice by Mark Twain
- God is Imaginary
- Is there an Artificial God? by Douglas Adams (1998)
- Skeptics Annotated Bible
- The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine (1795)
- Which Way? by Robert Ingersoll (1884).
- Why I Am Not A Christian by Bertrand Russell (1927)