Is God at fault for evil? How about us? How about Satan?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

Question: Whose fault is evil? God’s? Ours? Satan’s?

Answer: I’ll attack this question in two ways. First, I need to normalize a few terms and make sure that we understand how the Bible uses them. And once we understand our terms, then we can explore the notion of “causation” or “fault”… and we need to normalize some terms there, too. Although the topic of causation proper can be found throughout Scripture, for concision’s sake, we’ll explore that topic in natural theology and philosophy more so than in the Bible.

The way that you used two of the words in your question tells me that you have confounded “evil” with “sin” (which is a biblical/semantic issue) — but also “fault” with “cause” (which is a logic/philosophical issue). So let’s begin by clarifying what the Bible means by the term evil, and then we’ll move on to issues of causation.

Many people confuse evil with sin. To a contemporary English-speaker the word evil evokes images that are anything but godly, like demons, a seamy underworld, unseen horrors — in fact, pop-culture understands “the forces of evil” to represent cultural villainy. That is our definition of evil… but that is not the biblical definition of evil…and it had better not be! Why not? Because God created evil! Consider these four verses:

“But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” (Genesis 2:17, KJV)

“I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.”
(Isaiah 45:7, KJV)

“Out of the mouth of the most High proceedeth not evil and good?” (Lamentations 3:38, KJV)

“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, KJV)

In the first verse, we see that God created a tree with an evil component before man ever sinned; in the second he declared plainly that he created evil; in the third, he told us that just as good comes from him so does evil, and in the fourth he declared himself to be the very cause of the occasional evil in a city.

The common misunderstanding that evil equals sin is (largely) an artifact of the KJV Bible translation (King James Version). Today, when we hear the word evil we think sin. But four hundred years ago when the KJV translators heard the word evil, they thought calamity, disaster, bad things happening .... Let’s examine three of these same verses in the ESV (English Standard Version), which uses the same English that we speak today, and we’ll rid ourselves of those KJV artifacts.

“I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the Lord, who does all these things.” (Isaiah 45:7, ESV)

“Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come?” (Lamentations 3:38, ESV)

“Is a trumpet blown in a city, and the people are not afraid? Does disaster come to a city, unless the Lord has done it?” (Amos 3:6, ESV)

As you can see, when the KJV said evil, it did not mean sin. It merely meant bad occurrences as would be understood by the words calamity, bad and disaster — and modern translations have made the correction. So here’s how the two relate: disobeying God is an offense of the heart; as such, that would be a sinful action. But “evil” is not an action… sinful or otherwise; it is the result of an action. As such, it is neither a “good” nor a “bad” element; it is volitionally neutral. “Results” might be the effect of will, but they have no will within themselves.

An important question remains, though: if God created evil, who created sin? We did!... well… Satan and the fallen angels might have sinned first. But the thing we cannot do is say “The devil made me do it!” — because each volitional agent controls the immediate response to temptation. Let’s move into causation to see how this works.

When it comes to who’s “at fault,” we cannot avoid using philosophy and natural theology as discussion platforms. You see, the Bible tells us that God created everything and that he remains immanent in creation, but it does not address actions or agents in a systematic manner. This is particularly useful when we consider that, even among people who give no credence to the Bible, there is an understanding that any God worthy of the name would be the “Prime Mover” – the “First Cause’ behind all other causes. Here’s how that works.

As the Prime Mover, God is basically “responsible” for all subsequent causes. That is, if God did not create anything, then nothing would happen… and if God did not create humans, then no human actions would happen…. and so forth. But there’s a funny thing about the creation of us humans: to be worth anything to God’s glory, he had to create us so we could sin. So get this straight: God does not make us sin; he makes us able to sin… and guess what? We sin… and although God is the most basic cause, he is… and not even a little bit… at fault. “Fault” is different than “cause.” We humans are immediately causal and at fault when we sin, but God is always primarily causal… but never at fault.

The volitional agent who is the most immediate cause of the harm is at fault… although other humans may also sin by aiding and abetting. Now, in his role as Prime Mover, God must always be “the cause” — but God can never be “the fault.” The fact that we can choose to sin is an ontological necessity in a volitional creature. So when we choose to sin, God remains in the chain of causation (only because he is our Creator), but since he is not a puppet-master to us (that is, we make all our own decisions), he is isolated from the chain of fault. In fact, being “at fault” is a logical impossibility for a holy and perfect God… which is the God we have.

If I were to shoot someone, blood loss or trauma would be the cause of death… no, wait… the bullet would be the cause of death… no, wait… the gun would be the cause of death… no, wait… the gun manufacturer would be the cause of death…. no, wait… I would be the cause of death… no, wait… God would be the cause of death! That’s the ticket… blame everything on him! Well, as the most basic cause of all things, yes… every event in life is causally “on him.” But since I was the immediate volitional causal agent in this scenario, I alone was at fault. The bullet didn’t pull the trigger, nor did the gun, nor the manufacturer, nor did God. I did. It was my fault alone… and I think that the court would agree.

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