Why does God allow evil?

As I committed to reading through Calvin’s Institutes with a friend, in honour of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017, I thought it would be worth jotting down some bits that I found particularly interesting. Here’s the quote for today:

Whence he exclaims: “Great are God’s works, sought out in all his wills” [Ps. 111:2; c.f. Ps. 110:2]; so that in a wonderful and ineffable manner nothing is done without God’s will, not even that which is against his will. For it would not be done if he did not permit it; yet he does not unwillingly permit it, but willingly; nor would he, being good, allow evil to be done, unless being also almighty he could make good even out of evil.

John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 1, 18.3 (this is a partial quote of Augustine)

We’re all painfully aware of the evil that happens in this world. Some of us are affected more personally by acts of evil, some of us are simply overwhelmed by the evil we see reported on each day in the news. I think our increased awareness and innate unease with the state of the world has made the question “why does God allow evil?” one that is asked time and time again, by Christians and non-Christians.

So when we read in the Psalms: “Great are God’s works, sought out in all his wills”, we can often wonder how this fits together. Nothing is done without God’s will, not even the evil that is against his will. Calvin here reminds us (he’s referencing Augustine in this quote) that in God’s sovereign hand, nothing is done without God’s permission. Whether it be a small, seemingly insignificant act of rebellion against God or the largest atrocities that we witness tearing our world apart — God permits this willingly. (Just remember that here willingly happily/with pleasure)

Why would he permit this? How can God allow such things to happen? The answer given here is that as God is good, he would not willingly permit anything that he can use for good. Even the injustice of the world. The starving poor in the third world. The wars that destroy families. The slavery that wreaks havoc upon children.

How does he do this? How can he turn such horrendous evil to good? Calvin does not address this here. Clearly, these questions didn’t trouble readers of his day, as he turns to discuss God using deeds of the godless for his purposes. There are two things I’d keep in mind when troubled by specific questions:

  1. God’s final justice. We know that on the last day, God will right all the wrongs of the world. There are times when he acts against evil immediately on earth, but for every evil act that seems to pass unnoticed, we have assured justice on the last day. (Hebrews 9:27) This will happen either through Jesus’ sacrifice, or repayment of punishments due.
  2. How could I know?! It’s one thing to be aware of the stories reported on in the media. It’s another to know how the lives of 7 billion people fit together, not to mention the billions more coming before and after us. I couldn’t learn the names of the million people living in my home city, let alone the world! If you expect to understand how God works all things for good, your estimation of your own capacity to understand is a little too high. There’s a reason that God is the one who rules the world, not us.

As we work out our place in the world, it’s natural for us to want to criticise the people at the top. But God’s will, mystery though it is, thankfully doesn’t come from people. It’s from Him. And he will even work the most horrendous evil that we devise for good.


Malcolm Purdey is a Christian, husband, father, student minister and science nerd. He completed a PhD in Chemistry and worked as a research scientist before making the jump into ministry in early 2017. He has been married for 5 years and has two daughters aged 3 and 1.

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