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THE ASSERTION IN THIS PASSAGE IS SO BOLD that Marcion, an early Christian heretic, used this text to prove that the God of the Old Testament was a different being from the God of the New. Thus the nature of this hard saying is simply this: Is God the author of evil?

Numerous texts flatly declare that God is not, and could not be, the author of evil. For example, Deuteronomy 32:4 declares that "his works are perfect, and all his ways are just. [He is] a faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he." Similarly, Psalm 5:4 notes, "You are not a God who takes pleasure in evil." If we read the Bible in its total canonical setting, it would seem that God is without evil or any pretense of evil.

The text in question refers to physical evil. As does Lamentations 3:38, it contrasts prosperity and adversity. Thus the good is physical goodness and happiness, while the evil is physical distress, misfortune, calamity and natural evil, such as storms, earthquakes and other disasters.

Even though much of the physical evil often comes through the hand of wicked men and women, ultimately God permits it. Thus, according to the Hebrew way of speaking, which ignores secondary causation in a way Western thought would never do, whatever God permits may be directly attributed to him, often without noting that secondary and sinful parties were the immediate causes of the disaster.

The evil spoken of in this text and similar passages (such as Jer 18:11; Lam 3:38 and Amos 3:6) refers to natural evil and not moral evil. Natural evil is seen in a volcanic eruption, plague, earthquake and destructive fire. It is God who must allow (and that is the proper term) these calamities to come. But, one could ask, isn't a God who allows natural disasters thereby morally evil?

To pose the question in this manner is to ask for the origins of evil. Christianity has more than answered the problem of the presence of evil (for that is the whole message of the cross) and the problem of the outcome of evil (for Christ's resurrection demonstrates that God can beat out even the last enemy and greatest evil, death itself). But Christianity's most difficult question is the origin of evil. Why did God ever allow "that stuff" in the first place?

Augustine taught that evil is not a substance. It is, as it were, a byproduct of our freedom, and especially of our sin. The effects of that sin did not fall solely on the world of humans. Its debilitating effects hit the whole natural world as well. Nevertheless, it is not as if God can do nothing or that he is just as surprised as we are by natural evil. Any disaster must fall within the sovereign will of God, even though God is not the sponsor or author of that evil. When we attempt to harmonize these statements we begin to invade the realms of divine mystery.

What we can be sure of, however, is the fact that God is never, ever, the originator and author of evil. It would be contrary to his whole nature and being as consistently revealed in Scripture.

Taken from Hard Sayings of the Bible. By Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Peter H. Davids, F. F. Bruce and Manfred T. Brauch. Copyright © 2002 by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA. Permission kindly granted to Faith & Reason Forum by InterVarsity Press.