God doing “evil”

  • Question 155, from Matt, United Kingdom

    Does God have evil thoughts? [With reference to Exodus chapter 32, verse 14]

    In this verse in Exodus, Moses appeals to Yahweh not to destroy the Israelites who had been practising idolatry. According to the text, Yahweh relents from destroying them. In some versions of the Bible this is described as “The LORD relented from the evil that he was about to do to his people.”

    The idea that God can commit ‘evil’ is fairly nonsensical in many Christian theological viewpoints. God is often regarded as the ultimate source of good, and God makes the decision over whether an action is good and evil. Whatever God decides is good is therefore ‘good’.

    There are problems with this view. While few Christians would say that God is held accountable to an external standard of what is good or evil, logically it makes sense to insist that God is consistent. Good is always good; evil is always evil, and therefore God must be consistently good in order to be described as good.

    Additionally, the idea that God is the final authority on what is good or evil has been criticised. For example, God’s definition of good or bad could be described as just ‘moral relativism’, but one step removed. So, instead of human beings arbitrarily deciding what is right or wrong, that decision is arbitrarily made by God. To proponents of this view, an action by any rational being must be judged against a constant universal moral law. Morality cannot be self-defined. If that is the case, then God’s actions could be described as either ‘good’ or ‘evil’.

    Back to the text
    But that debate may be unnecessary. Looking at the particular text, the Hebrew word translated as ‘evil’ is ‘rah’, which can also be translated as ‘harm’ or ‘misery’. It is usually translated as ‘evil’ where it occurs in the Old Testament. For example, in the Authorised Version (King James Version) it is translated as ‘evil’ 442 times out of 663 uses. The same root word is used in Jonah chapter 3, verse 10, when “God repented of the evil which he had said he would do to [the citizens of Ninevah].”

    More modern translations don’t interpret ‘rah’ as ‘evil’ For example the verse in question in the New International Version of the Bible, translated in 1980, says: “the LORD relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.”

    This different translation does show more clearly how God uses ‘evil’ (or ‘harm’) to punish or protect. The word ‘rah’ applied to God’s activity is always in context of destruction for sin, or against those who would oppress the innocent. Often, it is not even the case that God needs to act for ‘rah’ to happen. God’s inactivity, or decision not to protect a person, can allow evil to befall people as they reap the whirlwind of their sinful activity (Hosea chapter 8, verse 7).

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  • 1 comment

    1. Pauline Griffiths Nov 9

      Could it be said that we could think of this “evil” in terms of “punishment” or even “consequences?” “Consequences” can be far more drastic, of course- involving even destruction.The people have, of course been warned, and if they don’t heed the warning they face the consequences. Punishment, on the other hand, could mean “chastisement” and we are told that God chastises those he loves (as a good parent may have to chastise a child in the process of teaching them right from wrong. Then of coursewe have “trials” which could even seem like an “evil” being visited on a man or woman of God, but is intended to “prune the tree” to make it produce more Spiritual fruit.In other words, trials which may seem like “evil” and cause some Christians to wonder why God has inflicted them, can produce greater character, strength and growth.

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