As a Christian, I believe John’s statement: This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all (John 1:5). Yet, there are verses in the Bible—mostly in the Old Testament—where God says He causes calamity, the hardening of hearts, even sinful behavior. Critics and skeptics ask about these, and in light of the evil and suffering in the world, wonder at the goodness or even existence of God.
So which verses are we talking about? Here are some of them:
Exodus 9:12: But the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart and he did not listen to them, as the Lord had told Moses.
1 Kings 22:23: You see, the Lord has put a lying spirit into the mouth of all these prophets of yours, and the Lord has pronounced disaster against you.
Isaiah 45:7: I form light and create darkness, I make success and create disaster; I, the Lord, do all these things.
Mark 4:11-12 (verse 12 is from Isaiah 6:9-10): He answered them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been granted to you, but to those outside, everything comes in parables so that ‘they may look and look, yet not perceive; they may listen and listen, yet not understand; otherwise, they might turn back—and be forgiven.”
So does God really, purposefully, harden people’s hearts to that they won’t listen to Him or come to Him, tell people or spirits to go and lie for Him so that they (or others) do the wrong thing, and/or simply cause disasters?
The basic answer to all of these is that since God is sovereign and He made everything, He is ultimately responsible for everything that happens. That’s how the Hebrews saw it and that’s how they wrote, though to us today it seems odd or unsatisfactory. The Hebrews knew that persons and spirits were responsible, yet they emphasized God’s role. As is stated in Hard Sayings of the Bible, “What is reflected here is the lack of precise distinction in Hebraic thought between primary and secondary causes. Since God is sovereign, human will and freedom to decide for or against God were often subsumed under divine sovereignty” (Kaiser et al, 620).
Let’s look at each of the above verses separately, while keeping in mind the general explanation already stated by Kaiser et al. Regarding Exodus 9:12, MacDonald briefly writes: “The more Pharaoh hardened his heart, the more it became judicially hardened by God” (96). The concern is recognized in Kaiser et al.: “. . . it appears God authors evil and then holds someone else responsible. Did God make it impossible for Pharaoh to respond and then find Pharaoh guilty for this behavior?” (142). No, since Pharaoh hardened his own heart during the first five plagues (Ex 7:13, 14, 22; 8:15, 19, 32; 9:7, 34, 35; 13:15). After this, as MacDonald so concisely stated, God helped the process along since it was already what Pharaoh had decided himself.
1 Kings 22:23. In considering this verse and its context, the Hebrew habit of ignoring secondary causes is significant. There are other verses in the Bible where a command is given, but it is an affirmation of permission – as is the case when Jesus tells the demons to enter a herd of pigs (Matt 8:31), or when he tells Judas to get going with his plans (John 13:27). In the case of 1 Kings 22, King Ahab was listening to false prophets and the false prophets were responsible for their own lies; God allowed it and used it for His plans, and God even warned Ahab.
. . . the passage in question is a vision that Micaiah reveals to Ahab. God is telling Ahab, “Wise up. I am allowing your prophets to lie to you.” In a sense, God is revealing further truth to Ahab rather than lying to him. If God were truly trying to entrap Ahab into a life-threatening situation, he would not have revealed the plan to him! Even so, Ahab refuses to heed God’s truth, and he follows his prophets’ advice (Kaiser et al, 231).
In conclusion, “Without saying that God does evil that good may come, we can say that God overrules the full tendencies of preexisting evil so that the evil promotes God’s eternal plan, contrary to its own tendency and goals” (Kaiser et al, 230).
Isaiah 45:7. Much has been written on Isaiah 45:7, since part of the problem is that the King James Bible incorrectly used the word “evil” instead of disaster or some like word. The verse refers to natural “evil” (destructive forces) and not moral evil. God permits these things, and in fact natural destructive forces are a normal and necessary part of the earth’s balance and being. The verse is a strong declaration, however, that God is THE creator and that He is ultimately in control of all things, and not some other being.
Mark 4:11-12 (Isaiah 6:9-10). After having reviewed the other verses/passages, the meaning of this passage can almost be inferred. It may sound mean and controlling of God, but it is a reality that there are those people who go after and accept views and actions that are contrary to God. For those like this, God lets them continue; they have chosen their way, their path, and God does not force anyone to follow Him and accept Him as savior and Lord. (Interestingly, the author of the section on this verse in Kaiser et al. [417-419] does not agree, providing a minority interpretation that is something of a 180˚ turn.) MacDonald provides a generally accepted interpretation:
Verses 11 and 12 explain why this truth was presented in parables. God reveals His family secrets to those whose hearts are open, receptive and obedient, while deliberately hiding truth from those who reject the light given to them. . . . we must remember the tremendous privilege which these people had enjoyed. The Son of God had taught in their midst and performed many mighty miracles before them. Instead of acknowledging Him as the true Messiah, they were even now rejecting Him. Because they had spurned the Light of the world, they would be denied the light of His teachings (1330).
God is light; in him there is no darkness at all (John 1:5b). God is not evil and does not do evil, but He does “work around” the evil in this world to further His plans for human redemption. God loves us, and sent His son for us, so that we may have new life in Him (to not be controlled by the evil in the world). If you want that, you will find it. You will find God and He will know you. “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost” (Luke 19:10); “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matt 7:7); “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Cor 13:12); “But the man who loves God is known by God” (1 Cor 8:3).
Sources: James Dunn and John Rogerson, ed.s, Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdman’s Pub Co 2003); Tim Jackson, Did God Create Evil?; Kaiser, Walter et al, Hard Sayings of the Bible (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press 1996); MacDonald, William, Believer’s Bible Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Pub.s 1995).