If God’s Creation Was “Very Good,” How Could Evil Arise?
Sin originates in creatures, not in God, even if God’s purposes bring about good from creaturely sin and failure.
by Paul Copan
Genesis 1 ends with God pronouncing His creation “very good.”1 Where did evil come from then? James 1 says God is neither the instigator nor the source of sin; He does not tempt, nor can He be tempted (verse 13). Rather, every good thing comes from God (verse 17). So evil did not originate with God but apparently with moral creatures (whether angelic or human) whom God created good. But isn’t this odd? Creatures in a perfect environment still going wrong? How did that first sin emerge?
In this article, I first review certain biblical passages that allegedly suggest that God is the source of evil, which, if true, would contradict other Scriptures affirming God’s intrinsic goodness. Second, I examine one theologian’s problematic attempt to account for evil’s origin and then address the general Calvinist arguments to do so. Finally, I present what I take to be a successful account of primeval sin, which follows the book On the Free Choice of the Will by the notable theologian Augustine (A.D. 354–430). His approach adequately upholds both God’s goodness and genuine creaturely freedom.
What do I mean by freedom? I mean that the moral buck stops with the agent. Our actions are up to us. They are not simply the result of external influences (e.g., environment) or even internal states (e.g., moods, emotions). We cannot say, “I just couldn’t help doing what I do” or “My genes made me do it.” As 1 Corinthians 10:13 indicates, no temptation comes to us from which we cannot find a way of escape, with God’s help. Or, as God tells Cain, “sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it” (Genesis 4:7, NASB2). We are responsible for our actions, and we cannot blame God or someone else for our wrongdoing. Ought implies can, with the ever-available grace of God. Our ultimate point will be that sin originates in creatures, not in God, even if God’s purposes permit and redemptively bring about good from creaturely sin and failure (e.g., Genesis 50:20).3
Some Perplexing Biblical Passages
The King James Version causes some confusion at this point, apparently attributing evil’s origin to God in several verses: “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things” (Isaiah 45:7). “Who is he that saith, and it cometh to pass, when the Lord commandeth it not? Out of the mouth of the Most High proceedeth not evil and good?” (Lamentations 3:37,38). “Shall a trumpet be blown in the city, and the people not be afraid? Shall there be evil in a city, and the Lord hath not done it?” (Amos 3:6). The obvious answer to this problem is that the KJV’s rendering of this word evil is inaccurate. We can also translate the word for “evil” or “wickedness” (ra’ah) as “trouble,” “disaster,” or “calamity.”
What about KJV’s rendering of Proverbs 16:4 — that God makes “the wicked for the day of evil [doom]”? We best understand this verse along the lines of Genesis 50:20: “ ‘You thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good.’ ” Likewise the Lord creates an “evil day” (captivity/exile) for the southern kingdom of Judah. However, God was punishing Judah for disobedience to God. This is why the Lord “delivered” Judah into Babylon’s hands (Daniel 1:2). Likewise, in the New Testament, God is able to use evil free human choices (Pilate’s/Jewish leaders) to bring about good ends (redemption through Jesus’ death [Acts 2:22–24]). These are statements not of divinely originated evil, but of divine sovereignty, which can use creaturely evil to bring about good (Romans 8:28).4
Here’s a tricky passage: In 1 Kings 22:22, God sends “lying spirits” to Ahab, allowing him to be further deceived. What’s that about? The simplest answer is that this is divine permission for continued deception since Ahab was already self-deceived, for which he was already fully guilty. God is not instigating lying.5 Such an act is akin to God’s hardening already resistant human hearts or further blinding eyes in response to self-hardening or self-blinding (e.g., Jeremiah 5:21–25).
In 2 Thessalonians 2:9–11, God sends a “strong delusion” (NASB). But this is because they “did not receive the love of the truth so as to be saved” (NASB). This self-hardening may lead to divine hardening — namely, God’s withdrawal of particular graces, giving people over to the stubbornness of their hearts. Just as God does not harden soft — or potentially soft — hearts, neither does He permit deceiving spirits to come to those who are not already self-deceived.
God is no more the literal cause or “creator” of evil than certain Old Testament figures like Jeroboam, son of Nebat, who “caused Israel to sin” (1 Kings 22:52; cp. Numbers 31:16; 2 Chronicles 21:11–14; Nehemiah 13:26). The devil, not God, is the beginning of sin — a “ ‘murderer from the beginning … and the “father of lies” ’ ” (John 8:44, NASB). The God and Creator of free moral agents is no more the author of sin than the Wright brothers are the authors of airplane crashes.
One Problematic Proposal
Unlike his more moderate Calvinistic father, who claims that the origin of evil is a mystery, R.C. Sproul, Jr.’s, book Almighty Over All goes for broke, claiming that God is the author of evil.6 To his credit, Sproul, Jr., is attempting to be consistent.
John Calvin — probably the best Calvinist there ever was — put it this way: “since God’s will is said to be the cause of all things, I have made His providence the determinative principle for all human plans and works.”7 It was “by the predestination of God, Adam fell.”8 Calvinists will commonly point out that, if God chooses to save some, He does no wrong to the rest who deserve to be condemned. But on closer inspection of Calvin, humans are not ultimately condemned because they are sinners. They are condemned because God has willed their condemnation — yes, independent of any sin they have committed.9 As Calvin puts it, “If we cannot assign any reason for His bestowing mercy on His people, but just that it so pleases Him, neither can we have any reason for His reprobating others but His will. When God is said to visit in mercy or harden whom He will, men are reminded that they are not to seek for any cause beyond His will.”10
Yet Sproul, Jr., goes where other Calvinists fear to tread. In the pursuit of theological consistency, he concludes that God must be the originator of evil, the creator of sin. Ironically, this is a view Calvin himself repudiated.11 In Sproul, Jr.’s, third chapter (entitled “Who Dunit?”), he explores the possible sources (the “suspects”) for evil’s origin. There are only five alternatives: Adam, Eve, Satan, the environment, and God. Well, God created a good environment (“it was very good”), and Adam, Eve, and Satan were originally created good. Thus their strongest desire or inclination must also have been originally good since this dictates how any human will choose. This, then, means that none of the first four candidates can be the source of sin. Who is the “culprit”? God himself. He “introduced evil into this world.”12
It gets worse. God had to create human beings who would fall into sin because of God’s eternal attribute of wrath: “God is as delighted with His wrath as He is with all of His attributes.”13 So in light of this eternal attribute of wrath, God must necessarily create objects of judgment — “something on which I can exhibit the glory of my wrath.”14 If God had not created human beings and angelic creatures who would necessarily fall into sin, then God would not have had opportunity to display His glory in this way. So Sproul, Jr., asserts something rather startling: “It was [God’s] desire to make His wrath known. He needed, then, something on which to be wrathful. He needed to have sinful creatures.”15 In the end, Sproul, Jr., though acknowledging that God cannot sin, states that God created sin.16 Are you as shocked as I am?
There are three fundamental problems with this account of evil’s origin. First, it undermines God’s goodness. Sproul, Jr., claims that a sovereign God can “do what He wants.”17 But there are some things God cannot do because His nature is intrinsically good. He cannot break His promises or lie (Romans 3:4; Titus 1:2; Hebrews 6:18). James chapter 1 says that God creates only good things, not evil things. Jesus affirms, “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him!” (Matthew 7:11, NASB). God cannot command what is intrinsically evil — say, affirming rape or torturing babies for fun.
Second, Sproul, Jr., views evil as a thing in itself rather than a defect in a good thing. Evil is a corruption of God’s good creation — like adultery is a corruption of the good gift of sex. St. Augustine rightly opposed this idea of the heretical Manichees, who believed that evil is an entity rather than a defect of an entity. However, Sproul, Jr., is perpetuating this heretical idea. But this is wrong: “everything created by God is good” (1 Timothy 4:4, NASB).
Third, a needy God is an inferior deity. For a staunch Calvinist to say God needs something outside himself defies the very doctrine of divine sovereignty to which they lay claim — not to mention general Christian orthodox belief. No, God did not need to create anything at all; He freely created. A needy deity is not the God of Scripture: “If I were hungry I would not tell you, For the world is Mine, and all it contains” (Psalm 50:12, NASB). What’s more, if wrath is an eternal, necessary attribute of God, there’s a big problem: no matter what world God created by necessity, He would be required to make creatures to damn since the attribute of God’s wrath must be acted on and cannot be frustrated.
I have reviewed a couple of views that pose certain theological and moral problems. We should seek an alternative picture more in line with Scripture.
A More Fruitful Alternative
We can find a more intelligible explanation for evil’s origin — one that’s not rooted in a good God or one that does not have to cry “it’s a mystery” in the absence of explanation. The explanation: particular finite, rational, free creatures brought evil about.18 Let me quickly add that I am not trying to eliminate all mystery. Indeed, God’s ways are higher than ours, and so we should expect mysteries given our creaturely limitations. The point is that how sin emerged in a good world is not a mystery; it is explicable understood in terms of moral creatures abusing their freedom. This explanation avoids the strong implication of a sovereign God as the author or originator of evil, offering a clear line of demarcation between God’s moral goodness and the evil originating in finite moral agents.
So, let’s break this down, as we follow themes in Augustine’s On the Free Choice of the Will.
1. Sin is a defect. It is not a thing itself, and God did not create it. First, it is helpful to understand what sin is. Sin or evil is a kind of absence of what ought to be there or a corruption of God’s originally good creation. It is like a pothole in a road: the pothole is the absence of a road that ought to be there. Evil is like blindness — the absence of sight that one should have. Evil is parasitic on what is good; it is like rot in a log or rust on a car. Without the log, there would not be rot. Yes, our first ancestors were created good — without moral defect. But their choice to disobey was the result of misusing the good gift of creaturely freedom.
2. The first sin was voluntary. Augustine wrote that “sins originate with souls which God has created” (1.2.4). Though created without moral defect, moral creatures became the sinners. Adam and Eve could have freely resisted this first sin; nothing about their divinely created (human or angelic) nature compelled them to sin. If their nature required them to sin, then they would have done as they ought (3.17.47). But that could not be since God would have been blameworthy for an intrinsically flawed creation. No, what God made was “very good” (Genesis 1:31). By the free will’s action, a radical, new occurrence broke into God’s good created order.
3. The first sin was a turning away from God to the creaturely. It was a creaturely turning away from the greatest good toward a lesser-created good. Why turn away from an all-good, loving Creator in a perfect environment?
Augustine said that a person sins insofar as one “turns away from the Creator” (3.17.47). According to him, evil entered creation because free-willing agents turned away from the ultimate, unchangeable good — God — and turned toward changeable, finite goods (2.19.53). Certain angels and the first humans sinned when they voluntarily directed their affections toward the creaturely and away from God — a misdirected, disordered love (2.19.53). They moved toward a preoccupation with their own selves — and, in the case of humans, to one particular fruit tree God made. Sadly, they sinned because they came to believe that lesser, finite goods could produce that supremely ultimate and most desirable state of affairs — one that only God could bring about. Creatures came to be captured by lesser, created beauties rather than fixing their eyes on God’s uncreated beauty.
4. The first sin was a failure of focus. It was a failure to pay attention to the reasons for loving God supremely and to regard Him as the highest good. Why did the originators of sin desire lesser goods over the greatest good — God? Were they just irrational or maybe misguided or mistaken in their thinking? Now if the first sin were just some blunder or oversight, then how could God hold these creatures accountable for their actions? Or what if these creatures were just weak-willed?
In response, the first sinners were guilty for failing to attend to the reasons for considering God as the supreme good. They were guilty of neglecting “eternal things” and pursuing, “as if they were great and wonderful, temporal things which … can never be possessed with complete certainty” (1.16.34). If the first sinners had, instead, focused on the very obvious reasons for loving God above all else — which they could have readily recognized — they would have chosen to act wisely and would have refused to dishonor their Maker. As it turns out, these first sinners, though not being able to ignore God in their rationalizations, focused their attention on certain aspects of God — His prohibition, His threat of death, His talk of good and evil — while ignoring positive aspects of God’s care for them.
In fact, this is just what the Genesis story suggests. The serpent distracted Eve away from certain truths about God — His love, His friendship, His kind intentions, His gracious provision. Instead, he directed her thinking toward God’s prohibition: “Indeed, has God said, ‘You shall not eat from any tree of the garden’?” (Genesis 3:1, NASB). Now, Eve was thinking about God: “ ‘God has said, “You shall not eat from it” ’ ” (verse 3, NASB). But she failed to focus her thoughts on God as the highest good. What is more, she went beyond God’s explicit command by highlighting the fruit’s untouchability — something God had not mentioned (verse 3). She displayed a thought pattern that was fixated on God’s prohibition, but she overlooked His goodness and bountiful care.
By focusing on one prohibition and becoming more focused on a created thing rather than the Creator, Eve found the tree of the knowledge of good and evil — a good creation in itself — to be all the more intriguing and alluring (3:6). The first couple had come to love the finite over the Infinite and so became guilty for ignoring reasons for considering God the highest good.
These creatures made sinful free choices by failing to focus on certain important features about God, the highest good. They came to focus on God’s prohibition and a lesser good (i.e., a tasty, attractive fruit to make one wise). This was no irrational slip-up; it was conscious choice that was not rooted in some pre-existing moral defect or character state. Because angels and humans were ultimately created out of nothing by the power of God’s spoken word, they are finite, changeable, and utterly dependent on God. That is just the condition of all creatures. By contrast, God is self-sufficient, necessarily good, incorruptible, and infinite. But our inherent creaturely limitations are not the same thing as moral flaws or deficiencies that inevitably lead to sin.
5. The first sin was a process. It was not a sudden turning away from the greatest good. Most readers of Genesis assume Adam and Eve suddenly turned away from God. However, orthodox belief does not require this; and, as we saw in the previous point, Genesis 3:3 (Eve’s exaggerated addition — “or touch it” — to God’s original prohibition) gives a hint of something more gradual. As with the previous two chapters, Genesis 3 presents a telescoping of events — in this case, a gradual separateness between creatures and God that climaxed in an intentional, thought-out choice to turn away from God.
Think of how initial careless thoughts develop into a pattern of careless thoughts, eventually leading to a fixed mindset that produces decisive, significant evil choices. If a spouse fails to nurture a marriage and gradually shifts from a pattern and mindset of marital intimacy, adultery becomes a serious possibility. Adultery does not just happen. As one philosopher writes about the first sinners, “The evil angels and the first human beings will have introduced genuine and deep evil into creation only when their irrationality has solidified into a decisive and enduring state of will — that is, only when they have finally and utterly turned away from God.”19
Being careless about our duties is truly a moral failure. What if you promise your children to take them on an outing on the weekend, but then you spontaneously decide that attending a conference might be good for you professionally, and you ignore the earlier promise? We intuitively recognize this decision to be wrong — even if the parent can cite reasons or motives for breaking his or her promise. Similarly, Adam and Eve failed to focus on the most crucial reasons (which is a defect) and volitionally acted (an effect of the failure). Both of these were completely up to our first parents, and they could have chosen otherwise. Their choice was free, not necessary.
No, God is not the source of evil, but rather moral creatures were. The first sinners did not just make some sudden choice without any motive whatsoever. Their sin was voluntary, culpable, and avoidable.
To my mind, the account I have given offers a superior understanding of evil’s origin in a good world. So we should not pin evil on God (R.C. Sproul, Jr.), nor do we need to appeal to mystery — though we can readily acknowledge other theological mysteries — to account for their origin (as Calvinism tends to do). Every good and perfect gift comes from our Heavenly Father, but evil began with free moral creatures who abused their God-given freedom.
1. This essay is a summary of “Evil and Primeval Sin,” in God and Evil: The Case for God in a World Filled With Pain, eds. Chad V. Meister and Jamie K. Dew, Jr. (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2013).
2. Scripture quotations marked NASB are taken from the New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission (www.Lockman.org).
3. See William Lane Craig, The Only Wise God (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 1999); Kenneth Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009).
4. Tremper Longman III, Proverbs, Baker Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 329.
5. We could add the Davidic (Satan-inspired, God-permitted) census into this cluster of texts to consider (1 Samuel 24:1; 2 Chronicles 21:1).
6. R.C. Sproul, Jr., Almighty Over All (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999). By contrast, R.C. Sproul, Sr., does not know how good creatures with free will chose to sin. Chosen by God (Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale, 1986), 30.
7. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 1.18.2.
8. Ibid., 3.23.4; also 3.23.7,8.
9. Fred Klooster, Calvin’s Doctrine of Predestination (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1977).
10. Calvin, Institutes 3.22.11.
11. Ibid., 3.23.8.
12. Sproul, Jr., Almighty Over All, 51.
13. Ibid., 52.
14. Ibid., 52,53.
15. Ibid., 57.
16. Ibid., 54.
17. Ibid., 53,56.
18. Some of these comments follow Scott MacDonald, “Primal Sin,” in The Augustinian Tradition, ed. Gareth B. Matthews (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 110–39.
19. MacDonald, “Primal Sin,” 130.