Is God the Author of Evil? (Semantics of “Want/Will”)
God’s superordinate responsibility for absolutely everything that happens follows directly from his classical attributes:
- God is omnipotent (having complete authority over creation to heal, stop, or functionally undo anything he pleases).
- God is omniscient (even if only about the present).
- God has a will (he isn’t indifferent or inactive).
- God has at least an occasional willingness to intervene in the affairs of mankind to direct or course-correct.
If those properties are accepted, there’s no coherently-expressible way to avoid that conclusion of complete superordinate responsibility.
But we don’t want to say that God is the author of evil, nor do we want to say that he meticulously micro-manages trivial events, like the precise manner in which a certain leaf is tossed-about by the wind.
Put another way, we hope to avoid saying that God deliberately “wanted”:
- Trivial things that have no significance.
- Horrible things that could have, theoretically, been miraculously averted.
Quietude to the Yawn-Inducing Rescue
The goal of theological Quietude is to remedy doctrinal disputes by identifying boring language problems responsible for the perpetuation of those disputes.
Whereas exciting, passionate, Loud theology would have us say, “There’s got to be more to it,” theological Quietude says, “That’s actually all there is to it.”
Quietude solves our problem.
First, Quietude asks the following (Quietude often asks clarifying questions):
What Does “Want” Even Mean?
As it turns out, the word “want” is horribly confusing, and nobody knows precisely what it means without additional inference or explication.
“Now hold on there, Stan,” you might be thinking. “‘Want’ is one of the first words we learn as children. It’s 4 letters. It’s a single syllable. It seems pretty dang straightforward!”
But It Isn’t
Here are five completely theologically distinct definitions of “want.”
Sense #1: “What you want” is any one of many desires within you.
Often you’ll have multiple desires, some of which may be incommensurable.
For example, you can really want to make your wife happy by coming home on time, and you can also really want to make your boss happy by staying at work late.
Sense #2: “What you want” is the desire that “wins” and is ultimately expressed.
If you choose to make your boss happy by staying at work late, then this is what you “wanted” in this Sense #2.
Sense #3: “What you want” refers to your higher-order desires only.
You may have the lower-order desire to give in to temptation and eat the sundae, but you have the higher-order desire to abstain in service of your diet. Abstaining is “what you want,” independent of which choice you ended up making.
This Sense #3 is the one used by Paul in Romans 7:15.
Sense #4: “What you want” refers to your lower-order desires only.
Giving in to temptation is truly “what you want,” even if you end up abstaining.
Can you see how crazy this is getting, yet? Senses #3 and #4 are complete opposites.
Sense #5: “What you want” refers to your grossly selfish desires only.
This is similar to Sense #4; interest “orders” are fuzzy, but others-focus is often considered “higher.” In this sense, running away when you should make a sacrifice is “what you want.”
(The “you” is often emphasized here; there is an implied “for yourself” trailing subclause.)
The Sixth “Want”
But there is a Sense #6 as well. It’s very similar to Sense #2 (the desire that “wins”), with one key difference: It’s where no desire “wins,” but rather, the desire set is just “best-expressed,” and in a way that doesn’t fully satisfy any of them.
This can happen when two or more of those desires are incommensurable.
Let’s take the “come home / work late” scenario. In it, I could stay just 45 minutes late. I’d make my boss a little happy and a little disappointed, and my wife a little happy and a little disappointed.
I wouldn’t be perfectly expressing my desires, but I’d be optimally expressing my desires.
And, for the first time, the gold star of “want” is not placed on any of my driving desires, but rather the expression thereof:
A Perfecting Plan
Often, the incommensurability of desires is circumstantial. For example, if my wife is going to be at a school function late anyway, then I don’t need to come home on time in order to keep her happy.
If I find myself in a Sense #6 situation, I’ll want circumstances to change over time such that my optimal expression doesn’t seem so suboptimal anymore.
The best plan would be one which transforms mere optimization into perfection:
This would be a plan of “birthing pains,” to invoke Romans 8. Creation wasn’t finished at the Garden, to invoke Irenaeus.
These variants of “want” can be similarly applied to “will.”
Pretending as if the definition of “God’s will” is single-faced, instead of many-faced as shown above, causes all manner of meaningless discussion and fruitless contemplation.
Let’s journey through each of the senses and compare them against our classically sovereign God.
- In Sense #1 (competing, inner wants), it is not God’s will that evil exist.
- In Sense #2 (the inner want that wins), it is not God’s will that evil exist.
- In Sense #3 (the higher-order wants), it is not God’s will that evil exist.
- In Sense #4 (the lower-order wants), God wants for nothing; he is not like humans, who are pitifully ignorant and have volatile desire sets.
- In Sense #5 (the grossly-selfish wants), God wants for nothing; he is loving.
But in Sense #6 (the optimal expression of the total desire set, with temporary dissatisfaction), God did indeed will that evil exist.
But only in this limited, 6th Sense.
And this is indeed what we find in Scripture. For although God is benevolent and loving, he is superordinately responsible for the “bad stuff” — Heb. raah.
I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil (Heb. raah): I the Lord do all these things.
Shall a trumpet be blown in the city, and the people not be afraid? shall there be evil (Heb. raah) in a city, and the Lord has not done it?
Do not both evil (Heb. ha-ra-owt) and good come from the mouth of the Most High?
So, Is God the Author of Evil?
The answer is “No… that is, depending on what you mean by ‘author.'”
In the superordinate sense in which I say that “God owns my house,” he is. And, as we saw above, that’s also what the Bible says.
But that’s not what we usually mean when we talk about the authoring evil.
Usually, when we talk about authoring evil, we mean orchestrating events with consequentially ill intent — malice, destructive hedonism, gambling with lives, etc.
Willing “bad stuff” in one of the first 5 Senses, in other words.
In those senses, we would certainly not say that God is the author of evil, and these are the senses to which the early theologians are so averse.
If Natural Development is Valued…
If one of God’s desires is to stay mostly hands-off, letting nature take its course with minimal course-correcting intervention, then as part of that “perfecting plan,” we’ll plausibly see all sorts of “bad stuff” and “trivial stuff” — even such stuff with no prospective purpose except to satisfy that mostly-hands-off desire.
This conjecture would fit with the pattern we see in the Bible, where God intervenes directly and publicly only a few dozen times over millennia — where, for most, “He who is unseen” must be sought and found.
Of course, with the “bad stuff,” we hold a sacred hope that God’s genius and foreplanning would somehow use it for goodness, down the road, despite itself.
But this prospective utility is not assured for every “bad thing.” Natural protrusions of triviality and evil alone may satisfy a desire to “mostly let run,” if only that humanity look itself in the mirror. We dare not contrive theodicean prophecy in a misguided attempt to solve the experiential problem of evil. That’s completely above our paygrade.
To hope, however, is officially in our job description.
Are the stories of killing firstborn children, pressuring people to slaughter their own children, the flood, brimstone showers, or summarily turning people to salt for a private thought considered examples of authored evil, divinely ordained and therefore good or not as having actually happened? It seems as though modern Christianity generally doesn’t view the biblical account of the flood as real event, but I’m curious as to how the rest of God’s Old Testament tough-love is now commonly regarded.
Additionally, how does the absence of an anti-slavery, anti-rape, or pro-human rights commandment speak to the goodness of a being that felt a responsibility to codify human behavior, while deliberately letting other prevalent forms of evil go unaddressed?
I would hesitate to say “divinely ordained and therefore good,” as if something is good merely by God’s having done it. Over and over again, the Bible kicks the can toward down-the-road instrumentality. It promises us that God will — eventually — be proven righteous for the instrumental “raah”s for which he is at least superordinately responsible (both through miraculous intervention and through the teleology of natural deterministic events).
“The problem of God’s violence” and “the problem of bizarre laws” are both theodicean issues. They’re “in theory” solvable by means of consequentialism and the circumstantial incommensurability mentioned in this post, but “in theory” will always look like a hand-wave (and I hate waving that hand). Anything deeper is experiential theodicy — which is completely beyond any of us whether or not God really exists and regardless of his characteristics/interests. I don’t have an emotionally satisfying answer to give, which is about how the Book of Job rolls, too.
Two quick pedantries:
(1) I’m not sure the commandments were meant to exhaustively codify all human behavior. I doubt they were, given Christ’s huge paradigm shift upon “all is accomplished.”
(2) The consensus, I think, is leaning toward a regional flood. Josephus confirms that the Babel materials mentioned in the Bible were specifically to build a brick tower that could save folks from a reprise, meaning the waters were 30 feet above the regional hills, not world-wide mountains (Heb. “har” is ambiguous), and flooded the region (Heb. “erets”), not planet (Heb. “tebel”). But yeah, probably some folktale exaggeration thrown in, par for the course for oral tradition.
Thank you very much for taking the time to read through and share your thoughts. I appreciate it!
I like this.
One brother that I respect says it this way (in reference of Is. 45:7): God only is the autor of evil in the sense of being the autor of light, that reveals darkness.
As a programmer and theologian I am really enjoying these old posts of yours; they’re the kind of articles that make me think: if everyone just read this then our differences would be solved! Of course it’s never that simple, unfortunately.