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.