In a prior article, I argued that every Christian should be committed to a view of reality in which every good thing points to its Cause, which is God. Here, I want to argue the converse. Every Christian should be committed to a view of reality in which every morally evil thing points to its (proximate) cause, which is us. (We can cause moral evil only because God as prior Cause ensures our creaturely freedom).
The argument here should be a given. For some, it is not because of a particular view of God’s sovereignty that seems to require that God somehow directly causes moral evil. But God is good. Is it good to carry out moral evil, or is it good to require agents to do moral evil? I answer no, as would almost anyone (I hope). I will explain what I mean more fully below, but I believe we should see moral agents as being responsible for their moral evil because they willed to do evil.
To make this argument, I first need to make some necessary distinctions about what I mean by evil since I am specifically talking about a certain kind of evil, namely, moral evil.
God brings about justice. He can send the Assyrians to Israel in order to effect his covenant curse against Israel as a consequence of their infidelity (Isa 10:5–6). Here, God and the Assyrians concurrently will the same end: to attack Israel (Isa 10:7). Assyria wills to destroy many nations; God uses their will to effect his will. Assyria remains free in their choice, while God remains providentially in control of both Assyria’s actions. I will not pretend to solve the mystery of concurrent willing among God and free agents. It happens—I do not know how it happens.
By evil then, I do not mean terrible events happening because of our injustice and God’s just judgment. I also do not mean calamity when I say the word evil. God says, “I make well-being and create calamity” (Isa 45:7). The King James Version translates the word “calamity” as “evil” which causes no little confusion. I have written on that topic here. So I point readers to that article for a fuller picture of the evil of calamity and God’s involvement.
By evil then, I have in mind the specific evil that moral agents perform such as lying, assault, and murder. God does not lie or unjustly harm. He does not command us to do moral evil either, despite the theory that some maintain that what is right is what God wills. That is precisely incorrect. God acts according to his nature, which is Good. So he only wills what is good because he is by definition Goodness.
Maximal theories of God’s sovereignty sometimes suggest that God himself is to blame for moral evil. The argument goes like this, even if rarely stated and merely implied: God causes everything. Moral evil is something. God then causes moral evil.
The syllogism here does not define its terms well. What does cause mean? And what might it mean for God to cause something? Remember earlier that God decided to judge Israel while Assyria decided “to cut off nations” (Isa 10:7), including Israel (Isa 10:11). Both God and Assyria simultaneously willed the same event to occur with different ultimate purposes. Assyria acted out of moral evil (Isa 10:12). God acted out of justice to correct Israel’s sin (e.g., Isa 9:13–10:4).
God’s will to justly correct Israel concurs with the Assyrian King’s desire to do moral evil. Both wills concur—yet God did not make Assyria do evil. They did it. And God uses that evil to administer justice against Israel. Note here that God too will punish Assyria for their moral evil (Isa 10:12).
Here we see God preserving human freedom (the king of Assyria) with divine providence. Both concur at the same time so that both God and the human agent act freely. The theme of human freedom concurring with God’s freedom appears elsewhere in Scripture.
Joseph’s brothers will to do moral evil to Joseph. God wills to preserve his chosen people from extinction. Joseph explains: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Gen 50:20).
Peter during his Pentecost says, “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:23). Note here that Jesus died “by the hands of lawless men.” They willed evil. God at the same time willed the good of the cross—or the good that would arrive due to the cross.
In each case, Scripture does not say that God demanded lawless men kill Christ, that God required Joseph’s brothers to sell him into slavery, or that God twisted the King of Assyria’s heart to do great evil. In each case, we see human freedom and God’s freedom concurring together. That concurrence however points to two different motivations: in each case, God wills a moral good; humans will a moral evil.
Moral evil points to our hearts—not to God. Moral evil points to its cause, which is us. As moral agents, human beings are responsible for sin, for evil. Why else could we ask God for forgiveness if that sin did not belong to us? And how else could that sin belong to us if we did not will to do it?
A good God, by any definition of good, would not coerce us to do evil. That would make the word good to lose any meaning. If our concepts (such as goodness) do not analogically relate to God’s concepts (such as goodness), then words have lost their meaning. How can we even know that God is good? What would that mean? Simply that God is good in what he wills even if that seems like great evil? That should frighten us because, if true, then God can call evil good and good evil—at least from our perspective.
But God created us to image him rationally, and we can know truth. We cannot know it exactly as God can (univocal truth) nor are we lost in the mire of untruth (equivocal truth). We can know truth analogically—similarly to how God knows it, in ways fitting to our human nature. We know like God knows, not just as or not at all like God does. So goodness for us has to be similar to goodness for God—or language has no meaning and everything becomes absurd.
God cannot then directly require us to do moral evil because he is Good by nature, and that means something. Yet Scripture and reason tell us that somehow God remains behind all things. Reason tells us he must be the First Cause from which every effect flows; Scripture says that God “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph 1:11).
Our moral evil then lies within our power, yet God also “works all things according to the counsel of his will.” How can these two realities coincide? The concept of concurrence, as argued above, shows that (not how) both realities concur. Related to concurrence, Reformed thinkers spoke about synchronic contingency in which at the same time (synchronic)—although time here should not be taken too literally—God wills freely. He does concurrently with humans such that humans will dependently.
I do want to pretend to know how this works. But the idea plays out like this: God can will what he wants freely, and he has freely given us freedom of choice in a dependent manner. Put simply, human freedom works only within God’s original freedom—his being the Source or Cause of all. Our freedom is possible because God sovereignly bestows it to us. In other words, this is a way to give God priority of place in terms of causation while giving humans freedom within God’s sovereignty.
While I have no idea if the theories of synchronic contingency and concurrence precisely work, we need to at least find some way to preserve what Scripture preserves: God works all things and humans freely choose, freely sin. I am okay with these frameworks if they help us to maintain scriptural fidelity.
Our evil then belongs to us, yet it does so dependently on God’s prior freedom. God acts, and we act. Our wills concur. How? No idea. But perhaps I can take a stab at making some more sense of this by defining the nature of our moral evil as well as God’s nature.
Evil cannot have a substantial existence because God created everything to be very good (Gen 1:31). We cannot create out of nothing, ex nihilo. Only God can. So evil cannot have a substantial existence unless God created evil. That is impossible because creation is very good (Gen 1:31) and because God is Good (Like 18:19).
So evil cannot be a created thing, something with substance, something created out of nothing. It must then come from something. And that is the answer that Christians have given over the ages. Evil corrupts goodness, what God created. It corrupts like rust on metal, making it worse and thereby creating a new object (a rust bucket not a steel bucket for example).
We can go a bit further because through our corrupt nature, we act according to this nature, thus making things around us corrupt. Like a contagion, we infect what we touch. That is our power of creation, such as it may be. To lie fails to act according to nature and corrupts that good nature. And so humans, born into a damaged nature (total depravity), corrupt themselves and others, even acting to effect greater corruption such as when theft, assault, or murder occurs.
God simply cannot corrupt because is Goodness in perfect form. He is immutable and so unable to corrupt or be corrupted. He is only able to be Good. God does as his nature is, and anything else would be to change into a worse state. So it is unfitting to attribute corruption to God, that is to say, moral evil.
So God as the Good has created the cosmos to be good, and so humans can freely enjoy goodness. However, “God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes” (Ecc 7:29). So we mimic God’s creation by a twisted corruption of it, by creating by loss, by creating by corruption. We carry about a body of death and corruption which apart from God’s grace cannot escape its own fallenness.
The syllogism printed above then can at least be somewhat modified. It was: God causes everything. Moral evil is something. God then causes moral evil. Perhaps we could say instead: God causes everything, even creaturely freedom to make dependant moral choices. Moral evil corrupts something. God then freely causes human freedom, and humans choose to corrupt goodness. I am not naming the mystery, but I hope I am giving some words to organize the Scriptural and reasonable claim that God and humans will concurrently.
While these notes will not resolve every conundrum, I think they get us to a place where we can at least say: every Christian should be committed to a view of reality in which every morally evil thing points to its proximate cause, which is us. We should add, however, that God’s prior causation gives us the freedom to cause moral evil.