Does God Cause People to Do Evil?

By William Lane Craig Mar. 3, 2017 9:00 a.m. Philosophy

This is the weekly Q & A blog post by our Research Professor in Philosophy, Dr. William Lane Craig.

 

Question

Dr. Craig, thank you for all that you do to help us understand the God of the Bible in face of the difficult issues we all face. As a follower of Christ, I am troubled by some passages in Scripture which seem to indicate that God not only allows evil (the treatment of which you have addressed many times) but even more troubling, that God actually CAUSES evil. I am referring to the accounts both in the OT and NT: from the hardening of Pharaoh's heart in Genesis, to John 13:27b when Jesus tells Judas "What you do, do quickly" (seems to be no choice in the matter for poor Judas), to the account in Revelation 17:15 - 17 - in particular, the first part of vs 16-17: "And the ten horns which you saw, and the beast, these will hate the harlot and will make her desolate and naked, and will eat her flesh and will burn her up with fire. FOR GOD HAS PUT IT IN THEIR HEARTS (my emphasis) to execute His purpose by having a common purpose, and by giving their kingdom to the beast, until the words of God are fulfilled." Does "it" in that verse refer to all the horrific things they do - hating, making desolate, eating flesh, burning with fire?

How do I reconcile a GOOD God (good in the sense of moral perfection and the standard for all morality) with His intentional acts of causing evil - or causing others to do evil things? What am I missing? When I discuss this with other believers, some think He is able to do in His Sovereign will anything that serves His purposes, and that includes doing evil things directly, or causing others to do those evil things. I am horrified at this prospect and cannot reconcile the words of Scripture I have quoted above with the character of God I have so long embraced.

I do not want to put my head in the sand and ignore these things - I want to have a more robust answer for these very difficult verses and concepts. I would appreciate your thoughts on this. Thank you!

Kathy

United Kingdom​

 

Dr. William Lane Craig’s Response

Your examples, Kathy, are a very mixed bag. I see no determinism at all in Jesus’ word to Judas. Merely knowing what someone will do in no way causally constrains someone to do it. So I see Jesus saying to Judas, “Go on; get it over.” (It reminds me of an old Patsy Cline song, “Hurt Me Now, Get It Over!” No causal determinism is involved.) As for Revelation 17, this is describing symbolically the just wrath of God upon sin. It is not really about individual persons at all, but about cities, nations, and alliances. A better example would be God’s rousing Babylon in the Old Testament to invade Israel, which involved actions that were unjust but which constituted God’s judgement upon Israel for its sin. Although what the Babylonian rulers did was unjust, the Israelites deserved the harsh treatment which was their punishment. Their punishment is actually a good thing, even if meted out via the instrumentality of wicked men.

Still, you might stumble at God’s putting it in the hearts of certain persons to do wicked acts, even if those acts constitute God’s judgement upon sinners. Similarly with Pharaoh, you are troubled that God would harden his heart. I agree with you that we cannot say that God caused people to do evil, for that would be contrary to God’s nature.

What is needed to address these situations is a satisfactory theory of divine providence, which affirms both God’s sovereignty over all things and human libertarian freedom. Such an account is provided by Molinism, rooted in the doctrine of middle knowledge (see my contribution to Four Views on Divine Providence, ed. Dennis W. Jowers [Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2011]). According to Molinism, there are two ways in which God can actualize states of affairs (i.e., make things happen). First is strong actualization, whereby God causally brings about some effect directly by His action. Second is weak actualization, whereby God places someone in a set of circumstances with the knowledge that the person would freely decide to bring about an effect.

It should be at once evident that weak actualization of an evil event does not involve God’s causing evil. He causes at most a free agent to be in a certain set of circumstances, and it is the agent who freely brings about the evil. Moreover, on Molinism God absolutely wills every good, but He does not will absolutely that agents do evil. He permits them to do evil, knowing that He can bring some good from it. Thus, evil acts of free agents are at most conditionally willed by God.

The sort of divine sovereignty over the evil thoughts of man that troubles you permeates Scripture and is nicely explained by a Molinist account of divine providence. Think of Joseph’s statement to his brothers in Egypt: “Do not be grieved or angry with yourselves because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life . . . . You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result” (Gen. 45.5; 50.20). The brothers’ treachery and deceit could not have been caused by God; and yet God sovereignly directed events toward His previsioned end of saving Israel from famine.

Or consider the following passages concerning Jesus’ crucifixion:

This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. (Acts 2.23)

For truly in this city there were gathered together against thy holy servant Jesus, whom thou didst anoint, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever thy hand and thy plan had predestined to take place. (Acts 4.27-28).

Here we have a staggering assertion of divine sovereignty over the affairs of men. The conspiracy to crucify Jesus, involving not only the Romans and the Jews in Jerusalem at that time, but more particularly Pilate and Herod, who tried Jesus, is said to have happened by God's plan based on His foreknowledge and foreordination.

If we take the biblical word "foreknowledge" to encompass middle knowledge, then we can make perfect sense of such passages. For via His middle knowledge, God knew exactly which persons, if members of the Sanhedrin, would freely vote for Jesus' condemnation; which persons, if in Jerusalem, would freely demand Christ's death, favoring the release of Barabbas; what Herod, if King, would freely do in reaction to Jesus and to Pilate's plea to judge him; and what Pilate himself, if holding the prefecture of Palestine in A.D. 30, would freely do under the pressure of the Jewish leaders and the crowd. Knowing all the possible circumstances, persons, and permutations of these, God decreed to create just those circumstances and just those people who would freely do what God willed to happen. Thus, the whole scenario, as Luke insists, unfolded according to God's plan.

So God can put something in a person’s heart by weakly actualizing it, not causing it. He can be said to have hardened Pharaoh’s heart by placing Pharaoh in circumstances in which He knew that Pharaoh would freely harden his own heart. In fact, the text says that Pharaoh hardened his own heart! Similarly, God knew that the agents symbolically portrayed in the book of Revelation would in certain circumstances freely conceive and do terrible things, thereby bringing to pass God’s judgement on the harlot.

So God neither causes evil nor causes others to do evil. But He weakly actualizes evil states of affairs by placing free agents in circumstances in which He knew they would freely choose evil. Thus, everything that happens does so either by God’s direct will or permission.

 

This post and other resources are available on Dr. William Lane Craig's website: www.reasonablefaith.org

Learn more about Dr. Craig’s book, A Reasonable Response, by clicking here

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