Why, God? On the Problem of Evil & Other Questions


Why did God create man with the ability to sin?  I suspect this is a question that you have asked at some point in your life.  I know I have.  It is a variation of the age-old “problem of evil.”  Is there an answer to this question?  And how might it apply to other kinds of God-ward questions beginning with “why”?

In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin gives a very good two-part answer to the question of why God made man with the ability to sin.  I thought I’d pass it on to you in this post, as I have found it helpful, and I believe it is relevant to the other why questions of life.

Part 1:  Exhaustive answers elude us.

The first part to Calvin’s answer is simple:  Exhaustive answers are not available to us, and we should think about any possible answers with great care and reverence as a result.  

Calvin says it like this: “Why He did not sustain [Adam] by the virtue of perseverance is hidden in [God’s] counsel; it is ours to keep within the bounds of soberness.” (Calvin 1.15.8).  Put simply, God has not fully revealed why he created man with the ability to sin, so we ought to proceed carefully when thinking about the issue.

There are many things God has not revealed to his people.  As he says through Moses, “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 29:29).  God has simply not revealed everything about his purposes to us.

Part 2:  Man’s ability to sin will result in God’s glory.

Calvin goes on to argue that God made man with the ability to sin for his own glory.  He says, “No necessity was laid upon God to give him more than that intermediate and even transient will, that out of man’s fall he might extract materials for his own glory” (Calvin 1.15.8).  That is, God created man with the ability to sin, because he saw that it was for his glory and the good of his people to do so.

And Calvin’s answers to this question are not without significant biblical warrant.  It is to the glory of God that sin (including the ability to sin) exists in this world.  We may wonder how this could be true, but the most biblically apparent reason is that God is glorified in salvation and judgment alike.[i] His excellencies are put on display when he saves sinners by grace and when he judges sinners in wrath. Understanding this goes a long way toward understanding God’s purposes for ordaining and permitting evil to enter the world. So then, it could be said that God created man with the ability to sin in order to display his holy love, mercy, and grace in saving his people from sin forever; and to display his holy power, purity, and authority in his judgment of the wicked. That is at least one major way that God is and will be glorified as a result of man’s ability to sin.

So, while we cannot understand the inner-workings of the mind of God and cannot begin to fathom the complexities of his comprehensive decree for world history, we can understand this: That the existence of evil will result in the eternal glory of our God.

Applying the Answer

And this two part answer carries relevance for any kind of “why” question we are tempted to ask of God.  Why did you allow that?  Why didn’t you do this?  Why won’t you answer?  Why is your answer “no”?  Why did you take that away?  Why did you let those people suffer like that?  Why didn’t you prevent that from happening?  These two parts are key in thinking through those questions.

When we are tempted to ask God “why?”, we need to remember a couple of things…

First, that God has not (and most likely will not) give the answer to our questions regarding why he does what he does.  The answers to many of our “why” questions are hidden in his wise and inscrutable counsel (and quite possibly will be forever).  The simple reality about God’s revelation is that God does not reveal everything to us.  We can know him personally, but we cannot know him exhaustively.  Ultimately, it may not be for you to know the answers to your questions and it is fully within God’s right to keep the answers to himself.

Second, we need to remember that God is God and we are not, and will do whatever will bring him most glory (which is for our good).  He has reasons beyond our comprehension.  God will do whatever God has determined is wise and best.  He is not under obligation to act in a way that would pass the test of our finite minds and limited wisdom.  “Who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” (Romans 11:34).

These truths provide some helpful boundaries for our “why” questions.  But there are at least a couple of different kinds of why questions, aren’t there?  So, although these truths draw some boundaries for our questions, it might help to look at how these boundaries apply to the different types of whys.

First, there are the “whys” of the philosopher.  Why did God create man with the ability to sin?  Why did God create anything in the first place?  Why would a good and all-powerful God allow evil to exist in the world?  Why does God allow natural disasters and wars and famine (etc.)?  Why would God create people whom he knows will spend an eternity in hell?

These are hard and important questions, but they are the questions of someone who is looking outside of his own life to the laws and principles at work in the world as a whole.  It is fine and good to ask and to seek answers to these questions.  Yet, although I do believe there are intellectually satisfying answers to these questions, the person asking these questions needs to remember ultimately that 1) God may never give the unabridged version of the answers to these questions (or the abridged version for that matter), and 2) God is under no obligation to work in a way that you would approve of, but is working in a way that you should learn to approve of.  Just because you do not like the answers, does not mean they are any less true.

But there is another kind of “why” that is asked from a very different place.  It is the “why” of the mourner.  Where the why of the philosopher is occupied with truths at work in the world around and above him; the why of the mourner is consumed with truths at work at home in his daily life.  Why did you take my baby?  Why did you let me lose my job?  Why are you not answering my prayers?

In the Bible God affirms that there is a good and godly way to wrestle with and even ask “why” questions before him.  Mourners need to know this.  This one of the ways the Psalms are such a gift to us, especially when “why” questions arise from within hearts full of sorrow.  Questions like, “Why do you stand far off and hide from me in times of trouble?” (Psalm 10:1)  “Why have you forgotten me?” (Psalm 42:9)  “Why have you rejected me?” (Psalm 43:2)  “Why are you sleeping, O Lord?” (Psalm 44:23)  “Why do you hide your face?  Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?” (Psalm 44:24)  “O God, why do you cast us off forever?” (Psalm 74:1)  “O LORD, why do you cast my soul away?” (Psalm 88:14) It is possible to worship the Lord in spirit and truth while asking questions like these.

Even so, the freedom to ask these kinds of questions before God does not mean that he intends to give us all the answers that we are looking for.  Rather, the invitation to ask these questions in worship is God’s gracious means of helping us get to a place where we can find comfort and peace in the fact that he will somehow be glorified as a result of our difficulties in the end. Though we have freedom to ask these questions in reverence and in worship, we are wrong to think that we have the right to know the answers to these questions.  We have no such rights.  It is God’s prerogative to reveal and make plain whatever he wishes to reveal and make plain.  And when he does not reveal the things we want to know, we need to learn to bow before him in humility and worship, in glad submission to his sovereign will, knowing that his glory is what ultimately matters, not our own.

So, go ahead and ask your whys of God, both as a philosopher and as a mourner.  Just be careful to look for answers that do not go beyond what he has revealed to you in his Word.  And understand that the freedom God gives you to ask your questions of him, may itself be the means he uses to teach your heart to submit to his purposes when the answers to your questions prove elusive.

[i] To see how God is glorified in saving sinners by grace, see Ephesians 1:3-14; Romans 3:5; Romans 5:8; 1 John 4:10; Romans 5:20-21, for starters.  And to see how God is glorified by judging sinners in wrath, see Romans 9:22-23; Ezekiel 5:13-14; Isaiah 46:8-13; 2 Thessalonians 1:9-10; Isaiah 66:24.