Bible Study: Evil in God’s Plan
Reprinted from the Fall 2001 issue of The Intercessor (published just after the 9-11 attack), the following Bible Study addresses the age-old question that arises in the pain of injustice or loss: If God is good and reigns over all, why does He permit evil?
What happened on September 11th was a terrible tragedy. I did not lose anyone close to me when the Trade Centers collapsed, so I can only imagine what it must be like for those families who did lose someone. Bringing these terrorists to justice, as important as this is, must seem like small compensation for the loss of their loved ones. After all, nothing will bring back the family members and friends that are no longer living, not even the deaths of the terrorists. It all feels so unfair and unjust: we are all powerless and helpless before death.
So it seems natural to ask where is God in all this? Why did he permit it to happen? I can understand how God might permit me the daily troubles and annoyances of life, but this?This kind of event was not supposed to happen to us: such things never entered my mind: they were beyond the realm of possibility. For myself the myth of American invulnerability was shattered, not only because we are the most militarily powerful nation on earth, but simply because such things dont happen to us: we’re America! But of course such things do happen to us and have. So again, I ask: where is God in all this?
The simplest answer is that God is where He has always been: right in the thick of things and at the heart of every circumstance. It is not as though the event happened while God was off napping somewhere or visiting some distant galaxy and He had to rush back as soon as He heard that some terrible event had happened because He wasn’t paying attention. No, God had a purpose in what happened before the event ever occurred, though of course he did not cause the terrorists to do what they did. God does not merely respond to events in the world and turn them to the good: He is in control from the very beginning and nothing escapes His careful planning, though He is neither the source nor cause of evil. Hence Norman Grubb has written in his book Who Am I?: "God Determines, not Permits." You might ask how God could have a purpose in such an utterly evil thing such as this. Isn’t He a God of love? Of course He is: God is not evil but completely good, loving and just. But whatever evil motivated the terrorists, God was ultimately in control of what happened on September 11th. God could have acted to prevent the terrorists from doing what they did, but He didn’t. Why? Because He wills us to get the consequences of our free choices. Since we are persons who are made in the image of God, He has given us freedom, the free choice to be vessels of wrath of or mercy. But our choice not only has consequences for our selves but consequences for others. Since the fall of Adam and Eve, we have been getting the consequences of our own evil choices and the consequences of the evil choices of others, and God wills us to get these consequences in order that we might turn back to Him.
Some may have trouble believing that a God of love could have a purpose such as act of evil. But God predetermined that Jesus would be murdered at the hands of evil men, as Peter says: "this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law" (Acts 2:23). In fact, "both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. (Acts 4:27-28). It hardly needs to be said that the most evil act in all of history was the unjust murder of Jesus on the cross. He alone is absolutely sinless (2 Cor 5:21), and therefore the only one completely undeserving of his fate. We all are sinners and therefore deserve to die (Rom 3:23, 6:23), and so if we die in some tragedy, we are after all only getting what we deserve. But Jesus did not deserve death, and so his death was a crime of unimaginable magnitude, and yet Scripture says that it happened according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God. God’s purpose in Christ’s death was for our salvation, despite the intentions of evil men. In fact God used their evil intentions and actions to accomplish His purpose. God did not make these men evil; we are evil by our own choice. But given the fact that without Christ we are vessels of Satan, God simply uses usand Satan through us as His convenient agents to accomplish His plan.
If it is true that God predetermined and intended Christ’s death, how much more it is true in our case. If it was "the Lord’s will to crush him and to cause him to suffer (Isa. 53:10), how much more that must be the case when we suffer. But God’s purpose is not to cause us pain as if He were some kind of cosmic sadist, but always and only for our ultimate good. As Joseph said: what human beings meant for evil, God meant for good (Gen 50:20). His brothers had intended evil for him, selling him into slavery into Egypt, but God had intended to send Joseph ahead into Egypt in order to save his family from famine. The evil his brothers had intended was the convenient means by which God fulfilled His purposes. In the same way, the evil the terrorists intended was merely the convenient means by which God fulfilled His plan.
It is impossible to know all that God intends through this event, since for each of us God might have a different purpose through it. For unbelievers, what happened is a warning of coming judgment and the inevitability of death for us all. What happened is not simply an unjust event, but God’s call to repent of their wicked, unbelieving life. After all, death is not an undeserved event, since we are all sinners (Rom 3:23) and the wages of sin are death (Rom 6:23). That the means of that death is unjust and wicked makes no difference, since it is God who decides in every single case the exact time when we will die: it is not chance or luck, it is not decided by terrorists or criminals, nor by diseases or accidents: God alone is the one who decides. He is absolutely sovereign over all that occurs and over the times of our deaths, including the deaths of every single person who died in the Trade Centers. This is a hard truth, but the people who died on September 11th died because it was their time to die. For Christians, death was an invitation to come home to be with Christ in heaven. Death is not the final word for us, we will be raised from the dead to enjoy eternal life in God’s presence. For unbelievers, it was time to face God in judgment: It is appointed for human beings to die once and then to face judgment" (Heb 9:27). For us who are still alive, their deaths are a warning: death comes to us all, so we need to be right with God in the present (by trusting in Christ) so that we do not face damnation when we die. For believers, this tragedy ought to spur us on to share the gospel with our unbelieving loved ones and friends, so that they do not have to face final judgment with fear.
For myself, what happened on September 11th was a warning not to trust in the American myth of invulnerability, that is, in our own strength as the most powerful nation in the world. as the hymn by Wesley states: "The arm of flesh will fail you." For me, it was a powerful reminder to trust in God alone and not in our strength to protect ourselves, since ultimately our safety is in the hands of God no matter what we do to protect ourselves. This does not mean we do not take adequate steps to ensure our safety both as individuals and as a nation, but ultimately our safety is in God’s hands, as are all the events of our lives and the time of our death. God is sovereign over it all, and nothing happens apart from His plan. God’s command is that we trust His sovereign love, no matter how events appear to contradict it.
Trusting in God’s sovereign love does not mean, however, that our country should be passive in the face of what has happened. Our government was given the power of the sword in order to protect its citizens (Rom 13:4). But should we not "turn the other cheek," as Jesus commands us? First of all, this command applies to individuals, not governments. Secondly, this command simply means not to seek revenge for harm done to one’s person, which God forbids. The command not seek revenge, however, does not relieve us or our government from the responsibility of protecting others from evil when we have the ability to do so. This is especially true of a government which has the God-given responsibility to protect its citizens. Not to respond to and deal with the terrorists would be disobedience to God’s mandate to the government; to bear the sword for the protection of the people. The failure to deal with the terrorists would mean that they would be free to continue terrorizing anyone who opposed them, and this would represent a real lack of love. Passivity and inaction in the face of evil is not love, but indifference and apathy towards our own people, and we can be grateful that our government has not chosen this sinful course of action.
Thus America’s response to the terrorists would not be justifiable as mere revenge or retaliation for what was done to us, for God forbids the taking of revenge (Rom 12:19). Nor, despite the comments of our officials, should our purpose be one of justice, for how will death of the terrorists bring back our loved ones? We will have to wait until the final judgment and the resurrection from the dead for final justice. Ultimately our purpose in Afghanistan is not revenge, nor even justice, but the government legitimately acting to protect its people and prevent further attacks.
But even if our government’s acts to protect us are justified, this should not prevent us from looking within ourselves and asking: what is it that God wishes me to see through what has happened? Is God warning me to repent, is He shattering the myth of American invulnerability? Is He reminding us of our own powerlessness before death? God has many purposes in what happened, and probably as many purposes as there are of us. But each of us must ask ourselves: what is it that God has intended for me through this event?