30 June 2006

Is God arbitrary? Did he "create" evil?

by Phil Johnson

Today I'm answering an e-mail I received after making some comments about God's sovereignty and the origin of evil. I subsequently heard from a gung-ho ultra-high Calvinist who suggested that if God is truly Sovereign, He must be both the author and efficient cause of evil as well. Indeed, he insisted, citing the KJV rendition of Isaiah 45:7, "God created evil."

My correspondent, who remains anonymous, wrote the words in red italics:

It is common to hear men defend God against the charges of being arbitrary. Yet if these nervous brethren would but consult their English dictionaries as well as their theologies they would find that arbitrary is a most Scripturally appropriate adjective for the Almighty. Certainly the LORD is not capricious, but He and He alone may properly be arbitrary.

Let's see, shall we?

ar bi trar y (ar' bi-trer-ee) 1. determined by chance, whim, or impulse, and not by necessity, reason, or principle 2. despotic, tyrannical, ruling by whim, usually oppressively
It is that sense of the word that people usually mean when they say God is not arbitrary. He is not subject to fits of whimsy. He is a God of order and of law—a "principled sovereign"—and though we may not always understand His ways, we know He is never irrational, erratic, or inconstant (James 1:17). He always acts in accord with His own consummate holiness and perfect righteousness. He cannot lie (Titus 1:2), and He cannot deny Himself (2 Timothy 2:13).

Of course, He is bound by no rule higher than Himself, but nonetheless, all that He does must be consistent with His own immutable character. Thus He cannot be "arbitrary."

You wrote: "Evil is neither substance, being, spirit, nor matter. That's why it is not proper to speak of evil as having been created. Sin is not itself a thing created—not a substance—but the exact opposite. It's a want of moral perfection in a fallen creature." But I would point out that neither are souls, angels, nor evil "substances."

Human souls and angels are beings and thus can be created. Technically, even spirit beings have substance—even though it is not material substance. (One of the dictionary definitions of substance is "essential nature; essence." It is in this sense that the Nicene Creed, for example, speaks of the Son as being "of one substance" with the Father—even though God is a Spirit.)

Evil, on the other hand, is a defect—a subtraction and deconstruction of what God created.

Scripture is quite clear in teaching that evil was no part of God's creation. When He finished creating everything, He looked at all His creation and pronounced it "very good." If you insist that God created evil, you contradict His own assessment of what He made.

To say God created evil would contradict a number of other Scriptures as well, including 1 Corinthians 14:33: "God is not the author of confusion." For if He is the author of all evil, then He must be the author of confusion as well.

Now look at Isaiah 45:7. There, God says, "I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things" (KJV). Does this mean what you suggest it means? Not to a Hebrew reader. Other translations capture the sense of the statement more accurately: "I make peace and create calamity" (NKJV). "I bring prosperity and create disaster" (NIV). "Causing well-being and creating calamity" (NASB).

The Hebrew word translated "evil" in the KJV is a word that means "adversity," or "affliction." It's talking about the calamitous consequences of sin; not ontological evil per se.

There is, of course, a true sense in which God decreed evil as part of His eternal plan. It did not enter the universe by surprise or against His sovereign will. He remains sovereign over it. He even uses it for good. But in no way is He the author or the creator of it.

"The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you" (2 Thessalonians 3:18).

Phil's signature


Brad Huston said...


Great post and it brought James to mind...

When tempted, no one should say, "God is tempting me." For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. -James 1:13-14

God permitting evil for his own glory is one thing, but to say God authored evil is completely irrational.


Mike Y said...


Great post and I think you've explained the subject very well.


Todd said...

Thanks for tackling such a pertinent topic. We need to have an answer formulated in our mind, as this question of evil is often the first asked by an unbeliever. God is certainly not arbitrary in any way, we will no doubt marvel at his providential hand for an eternity. There is indeed a sense in which God did decree that evil would exist and yet the existance of evil cannot be exclusively attributed to the Creator. Man sinned and continues to do so out of the desires of his heart. God doesn't force evil on anyone, in fact he cannot as you so perfectly quoted from scripture.


donsands said...

God created Adam and Eve and loved them. They disobeyed, and I believe our Lord was grieved, when they ate from the tree. Did HE know Adam would fail? No doubt about it.
From this evil diobedience, God cursed this world. And He became a curse to redeem it at Calvary.
What an amazing act of mercy.
Thanks for the good teaching on such a deep subject.

Jeremy Weaver said...

Exactly. Great post.
'A Fan Boy'

Daniel Portela said...

Then where did evil come from?

Castusfumus said...

PYROMANIACS: Taking on those miniscule doctrines such as Theodicy... I love it!!!

FX Turk said...

Better Theodicy than Theidiocy.

Gavin Brown said...

Very well said. I will be linking this one.

The Searcher said...

Jesus tackles this topic. Read the parable of the wheat and the tares (Matthew 13:24-43).

philness said...

Ok so now lets take arbitration and put it on the other side of the equation and see how it fits?
Are we arbitrarily chosen/elected? Heres the definition of Arbitrary again:

1. Determined by chance, whim, or impulse, and not by necessity, reason, or principle: stopped at the first motel we passed, an arbitrary choice.
2. Based on or subject to individual judgment or preference: The diet imposes overall calorie limits, but daily menus are arbitrary.
3. Established by a court or judge rather than by a specific law or statute: an arbitrary penalty.
4. Not limited by law; despotic: the arbitrary rule of a dictator.

I first think of the passage that says, God makes some for noble purposes and some for common purposes. And that would NOT be arbitrary because there is a purpose and not a determination based on chance, whim or impluse.... So NO, we are not chosen arbitrarily. Or at least we are not by definition 1. Now notice incidentally how definitions 2,3,and 4 measure up against the question. In 2-3 the act of a judge is required. This would imply our election is arbitrary; based on a judge(God). Lastly notice in 4 how its NOT limited by law. So by one definition we are not arbitrarily chosen/elected and by the other definitions we are arbitrarily chosen/elected. At least 2-4 support the fact that if we consider the judge to be God then our chosen/election is of Him alone and thus this would not be arbitrary of anything else except Him alone. And that is all good.

I have always described my salvation as God arbitrarily reaching down in a sack of marbles and coming up with his elect. I can still use that word arbitrary can't I?

Gryphonette said...

Something I tend to wonder about is when Satan went bad. That is, did he? According to John, in both his gospel and his first epistle, the devil was a stinker from the get-go:

1 John 3:8 "The one who commits sin is of the Devil, for the Devil has sinned from the beginning."

John 8:44 "You are of your father the Devil, and you want to carry out your father's desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and has not stood in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he tells a lie, he speaks from his own nature, because he is a liar and the father of liars."

When Christ said the devil "was a murderer from the beginning" did He mean that literally?

Conventional wisdom has Satan starting off well, like Adam, but then falling, also like Adam; is there any Scriptural basis for this, though?

And I'm going to miss James, big time! :^(


Phil Johnson said...

philness: "I have always described my salvation as God arbitrarily reaching down in a sack of marbles and coming up with his elect. I can still use that word arbitrary can't I?"

It's not a good word, because of the connotations I've cited.

Besides, election isn't presented in Scripture like God reaching into a bag of marbles and randomly selecting some.

We're told that the reason God chose Jacob over Esau was not to be found in them.

That doesn't mean God has no reason for His sovereign choice; just that the reason pertains to His secret will, which we are not permitted to inquire into (Deuteronomy 29:29).

Kim said...


Better Theodicy than Theidiocy.

That was a good one.

brucewright said...

Thank you for bringing E-Sword to my attention. TRUE WEALTH!

pgepps said...

Hey, Phil--

Can I pick a small nit in a thought-provoking post?

You call evil a "subtraction and a deconstruction of what God has created."

Deconstruction operates on texts, however. While one might deconstruct "Creation" as it is constructed in discourse and thus conditions our experience of "what God has created," no one could--it wouldn't even make sense to talk about--deconstructing "what God has created" proper.

Of course, since the true post-modern thinker is first a modernist who has rejected God as anything *but* a construction of human needs/ideas/aspirations/angst/texts, the post-modern thinker might not catch the difference. But the devil himself cannot deconstruct creation as such.

Perhaps if we stuck to "destruction," or perhaps my favorite at the moment, "defacing"?


Phil Johnson said...

Peter Epps: "Perhaps if we stuck to "destruction," or perhaps my favorite at the moment, 'defacing'?"

I'm fine with that. It's pretty much what I meant.

Freudian slip, I guess.

Leave it to a pomo like you to deconstruct it. :-)

Rick Potter said...

I have done some thinking along these same lines and admit that I haven't come across anything that speaks to me decisively about this topic. However, having read Donald Grey Barnhouse's "The Invisible War", he does present a very interesting scenario. Not a new one of course (Gap Theory), but he has some very interesting scriptures to affirm his own beliefs. Just an Example - Genesis 1:1-2 as compared to Isaiah 45:18. It's an interesting book.

Phil: Good Post - No Ignis Fatuus here.

James Spurgeon....gone.....I can't believe it. Man, I have grown to love that guy. May Gods Grace, Love and Mercy be with you my friend.


Jeff Voegtlin said...

Sort of off-topic: When a team member leaves a blog, do all their posts disappear automatically, or was this something that James requested?

Dawn said...

Colossians 1:16 "For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones,
or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him:

Isn't this saying that everything that IS is created by God? I'm not saying that He MAKES people evil, but rather He made it possible for people to be evil. Right? Or no?

And didn't God create the tree of the knowledge of good and evil? If there was no evil that was created as a possiblity, how could there be a tree of knowledge of it?

As for the scriptures Anne gave speaking of the devil being a liar, etc. from the beginning, I see that as from the beginning of time (i.e., very early after creation week); not that the devil was created AS an evil being from his inception.

Unknown said...

I highly recommend my boss's book: Almighty Over All for further discourse on God's sovereignty, including His "hand" in things going from "very good" to "not."

pgepps said...

Thanks for the smiley (I am too anti-modern to be a pomo!) and the humorous reply. I didn't mean to be too critical, there. I've just noticed that this usage is cropping up all over, and thought you could handle being nit-picked on it. I did appreciate the post, and your response to my rabbit trail.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for your comment, Dawn. My thinking is more in line with that.

To say that evil occurred outside of God's will/plan/purpose/creation/decree, would mean that there was some other entity in the universe more powerful than God. It says that evil came into being, and then God had to 'come up with a plan' to overcome it. Personally, I would rather know that evil - in whatever form - comes directly or indirectly from the hand God, rather than believing evil 'just happens.' I may not 'like' what occurs, but I can trust God that He knows what He's doing and why He's doing it, that He works all things together for good.

As far as God not being the author of confusion (1 Cor 14:33), I would submit that that, in its context, is referring to the previous verses regarding tongues, prophets and prophecy.

Consider the following Scripture:

Gen 11:6-9 - The LORD said, "Behold, they are one people, and they all have the same language. And this is what they began to do, and now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them. "Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, so that they will not understand one another's speech." So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of the whole earth...

Ex 14:24 - At the morning watch, the LORD looked down on the army of the Egyptians through the pillar of fire and cloud and brought the army of the Egyptians into confusion.

Ex 23:27 - I will send My terror ahead of you, and throw into confusion all the people among whom you come, and I will make all your enemies turn {their} backs to you.

Deut 7:23 - But the LORD your God will deliver them before you, and will throw them into great confusion until they are destroyed.

Deut 28:20 - The LORD will send upon you curses, confusion, and rebuke, in all you undertake to do, until you are destroyed...

Seems to me that Scripture clearly indicates that God is indeed the author of confusion in accordance with His own will.

Dawn said...

Thanks Gayla. Great points about God and His part in confusion.

Prince of Perksia said...

Awesome post.

And I love the bowler. It's a good look for you.