The relationship of the holy, infinite-personal God of Scripture to evil is a theological conundrum, but it's far from merely theoretical. We confront it daily. Evil's thriving presence makes itself felt with every glance at the news media, with every surf of the internet, with every human encounter, and, most dishearteningly, in every succession of thoughts and desires in our own souls. We see its baleful fruit in physical evil such as cancer; we see it more devastatingly in moral evil such as the Cross.
Man has always tried to solve the problem of evil, and he's always failed. He's tried denying the existence of God; but with that denial, he loses his right to call anything "evil." He's tried denying the sovereignty of God; but with that denial, he loses his right to call the God he has created "God." (See further God and Evil: A Brief Theodicy.)
You might truthfully say that evil is a problem precisely because God is who He is. If He were not good, or if He were not sovereign, evil would be no surprise -- but, in that case, neither would God be God, by any Biblical explication of the term. But God is good, and He is sovereign, and evil is a reality.
One of the most suggestive and meaning-laden texts about the relationship of God to evil is Genesis 50:20. It unveils realities about this area that we'd not otherwise know, and is worth careful unpacking.
We all know the background. Joseph had revelatory reason to believe he'd have ascendancy over his brothers. Possibly boastfully, certainly unwisely, he shared his dreams with his family. That, with his tattletale ways and his daddy's-favorite zoot suit, combined to make him the object of his brothers' hatred. They meant to kill him, then changed their minds and merely sold him into slavery in Egypt, concocting a cock-and-bull story that broke their father's heart and (they hoped) rid their family of Joseph forever.
Evil acts? Beyond a doubt: evil in intent, feeling, design, and execution. Not a shred of charity or holy intent in what they did.
And we also know that, while progressively bad things happened to Joseph (enslaved, entrapped, imprisoned, forgotten), God nevertheless exalted him from the very depths to the very heights. Through Joseph God preserved the nation of Israel, thus saving the human line of the Messiah, thus making possible the salvation of the world.
And here is what Scripture says about that whole complex of events, plot-twists, conspiracies, surprises, and happenstances: "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." This relatively brief assertion fairly bursts with meaning. Let's come a little closer and examine the details.
The Hebrew text. The ESV "As for you" indicates what the NIV (natch) misses, that the Hebrew has an emphatic pronoun; thus "You, you intended." Joseph stresses his brothers' personal involvement, their ownership of this evil intent.
But what is interesting is the fact that the next clause is an asyndeton, which is to say there is no conjunction. Though the ESV supplies "but," there is no such word in Hebrew. The two facts are simply laid out side-by-side: "And you, you planned evil against me. God planned it for good...."
Also significant is the repetition of forms of the same verb, chashab, meaning to think, plan, devise. Both actors shared the same activity, but with different intent, and to a different end. The brothers planned, God planned.
One complex event. Note that Joseph does not split the recent events of his life into many events, and say that the brothers meant something for their parts, while God meant something for His. Rather, he encompasses and speaks of the many disparate events as one: "God meant it," the event, viewed as a single complex whole. The same event.
Two wills. In this same, single event, two intentions confluesced.
One was the brothers' intention, and make no mistake: their intention was evil. The goodness of God's intent does not make their intent moral, nor does the sovereignty of His intent make theirs insignificant nor robotic. Their intent is spoken of as their intent, and emphatically so, as noted above. Though good resulted, they did not intend good to result. They intended evil, and only evil.
But the other intent was God's intent, and His intent was wholly good. Notice that this intent takes in the same complex of events, the unambiguously evil actions of the brothers: "God intended it." In, above, through, and overriding the evil intention and action of the brothers was the good intention of God.
It would be saying too much to say that God Himself did those actions, but it would be saying too little to say merely that He used those actions -- as if they were so many Lego's He merely found lying on the floor, and tried to make something of them. He meant those actions, those evil actions, for good.
One act, two intentions. Which intention overruled? Which intention was ultimate?
The question is not too difficult to answer, if one is concerned with preserving the teaching of Scripture rather than a particular doctrinal scheme. Some will try to find a way to evade the Biblical doctrine of God's sovereignty even here, though. I can imagine one trying to find refuge by saying, "Ah, yes, there it is: man's free will, and God's sovereign will, both independent of each other!"
It may be a popular dodge, but it certainly is not the teaching of the text. If that were the case, then Joseph's situation could never have resolved. The evil intent of the brothers and the good intent of God would battle as equals, as yin and yang, bringing a chaotic and unsettled conclusion -- or none at all.
Is this what Joseph is saying? Clearly not. Clearly Joseph is saying that the whole mess has ended well, it has ended as "good." So whose will overruled evil for good? Whose will triumphed? From this text alone, we must say that it was Yahweh's will that triumphed. Then of course, when we bring in other Scripture, this answer is confirmed a hundredfold (Psalm 115:3; Proverbs 16:1, 4, 9; 19:21, etc.).
This is how we must understand evil committed by personal agents. The evil intent, the activity, is truly and genuinely that of the agents themselves. Yet behind that intent, and over it, and overruling it, is the good and holy plan and will of God. This has a very meaningful personal application, which I develop at length pastorally in a sermon titled God and Our Tragedies, delivered 9/11/05.
But it also has application to the discussion that arose over at Adrian's blog, about whether God killed Jesus. We set ourselves up for a false dichotomy if we demand an answer to the question as to whether God killed Jesus, or man killed Jesus. If we choose the latter to the exclusion of the former, we have to waffle and wiggle with texts like Isaiah 53:10. If we attempt the reverse, we will not be dealing honestly with verses such as Acts 2:23 and 5:30.
Of course men did all they could do to kill Jesus. All the betrayers and the persecutors and the lynch mob stand guilty and wholly responsible for their loathesome acts.
But in the final analysis,
"For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father." (John 10:17-18)...and "the LORD was pleased To crush Him, putting Him to grief" (Isaiah 53:10). That verse is crucial in Isaiah, as we see better when we tie it back in with Isaiah 1:11 -- "What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats." We Gentile Christians don't feel the awesome impact of this statement. It is really a crushing, devastating accouncement: if God does not delight in the blood of bulls, lambs, or goats, they're utterly sunk! That's all they had, to deal with their sin... and now God was saying that He did not delight in those sacrifices. That left them nothing!
Ah, but then in Isaiah 53:10, we learn what Yahweh will delight in, for it uses the same Hebrew verb root (ch-ph-ts), in saying that Yahweh "was pleased" to crush His Servant. You could just as well translated that He "was delighted" to crush Him. The good pleasure of the Lord, in achieving the redemption of His people in a way both just and graceious, was accomplished when Yahweh Himself crushed His dear Son.
Man meant it for evil; but God meant it for good, for salvation, for redemption. And His will always prevails.
After all, He is God.