This series, first published in January of 2017, answers many of the common questions—asked today by believers and unbelievers alike—about why evil flourishes in this world while God remains sovereign over it. -ed.
In times of disappointment and trials, believers take great comfort from the apostle Paul’s reassuring words: “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28). The promise of that verse is often a beacon of hope for suffering Christians, giving them confidence that the Lord is not indifferent to their plight.
However, the church doesn’t always hold to that same confidence in God’s sovereign oversight when it comes to the evil that dominates the world around us. It’s as if some believers think the Lord has control over our individual circumstances, but He can’t possibly have control over everything all at once.
The dangers of such a myopic view of God’s sovereignty come to a head when skeptics and liberal theologians trot out accusing questions about how a supposedly good God can tolerate so much evil. Without a firm confidence in a truly sovereign Lord, some wind up capitulating to the whims and worldviews of the unrepentant world.
We have already looked at some flawed attempts to explain away the existence of evil; and we’ve considered what Scripture tells us about the nature of evil, God’s holiness, and His sovereign control over His creation. That leaves us with the undeniable truth that the existence of evil does not somehow disprove or damage the nature of God, but that He exercises control over evil. As we said last time, nothing happens outside of His sovereignty.
The real question then is why? Why did God permit evil in the first place? Why does He sovereignly, willingly allow it to keep infecting and distorting His creation? In His unfolding, pre‑ordained plan, what is the presence of evil accomplishing?
To Reveal His Righteousness
In his epistle to the Romans, Paul gives us the answer. He writes, “If our unrighteousness demonstrates the righteousness of God, what shall we say?” (Romans 3:5). Our unrighteousness demonstrates (Gk., sunistemi) the righteousness of God. In the context of Romans, Paul has been showing that God is faithful to His promises to Israel despite their sin and unbelief. Compared to the rebellious wickedness of Israel, God’s righteousness is truly and unmistakably glorious. And that’s the bottom line: We would never understand the full glory of God’s righteousness if we were not so familiar with the wretched fruits of unrighteousness. Unrighteousness therefore puts God’s righteousness on display.
To Reveal His Love
Later in Romans, Paul writes, “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). The presence of sin allows God to demonstrate His love. How else could He show the character of His great love that rescues enemies and sinners if there were no sinners and enemies to rescue? “What if God, although willing [i.e, determining] to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction?” (Romans 9:22).
He demonstrates His righteousness against the backdrop of sin and evil, showing, by contrast, how utterly holy He is. God demonstrates His love at a level that would have been impossible without sin. We see and appreciate the radiance of God’s love more, having endured the darkness and distress of a universe cursed by evil. “The people who walk in darkness will see a great light; those who live in a dark land, the light will shine on them” (Isaiah 9:2). The presence of evil provided the perfect opportunity for God to display His wrath and justice along with His redeeming grace and infinite mercy, as He loved sinners enough to send His Son to die in their place.
To Reveal His Glory
But God’s demonstration of His righteousness and wrath against the backdrop of evil is not merely for our benefit. The word “demonstrate” in Romans 9:22 is an aorist middle. Literally, the verse’s phrasing is “God determined to demonstrate for Himself.” God demonstrates His attributes for the sake of His own glory. Without sin, God’s wrath would never be on display. Without sinners to redeem, God’s grace would never be on display. Without evil to punish, God’s justice would never be on display. And He has every right to put Himself everlastingly on display in all the glory of all His attributes.
Paul says God endures sin with patience. “Endures” is a passive verb. God keeps Himself distant from the acts of evil agents while remaining fully sovereign over them. God endures this horrible assault on His everlasting holiness. He endures the horrifying blasphemy throughout the history of fallen humanity. Why? For the sake of His glory.
Evil Is No Accident
Unrighteousness has colored our whole earthly existence, and through our deliberate sins, we have been willing participants in it. If it weren’t for the facts of our fallen existence, we wouldn’t know very much about God’s everlasting righteousness—much less be able to give Him glory for it. We wouldn’t know He is as loving as He is if it weren’t for our sin. We wouldn’t know He is as holy as He is if it weren’t for the reality of divine judgment. God’s divine attributes would be indiscernible in the sheer brilliance of God’s glory if we weren’t able to see Him in stark contrast against the backdrop of evil.
The murder of Christ is unquestionably the greatest evil ever committed. But under the pre‑ordained plan of God, that act of supreme wickedness was also a supreme display of His grace, mercy, wrath, justice, righteousness, and other attributes. It gives us a glimpse into His loving character that we otherwise never would have seen. And revealing those aspects of His nature in turn causes us to love and glorify Him more.
In short, God tolerates sin and evil because, in the end, it brings Him more glory.
Used with permission from John MacArthur.