What are good and evil? More specifically, how shall we define moral evil, functional evil, functional good, and moral good?
Moral Evil is behavior, thoughts, and feelings that violate God’s law, will, and character. These are behaviors that we always consider to be wrong and can never be right (Exodus 20:1-17). For instance, lying is a moral evil and is never considered a moral good. Adultery is always a moral evil and there is no context in which it can ever be good. The same is true with idol worship, theft, homosexuality, murder, coveting, etc.
Functional Evil is that which occurs in nature or within man’s world that can cause harm, death, destruction, trouble, etc. In some cases, functional evil can lead to moral evil. An example of functional evil would be an earthquake that results in material destruction in a city and/or death. Functional evil is not a moral concern. Functional evil is not an attribute of personal behavior. Functional evil happens outside the will and control of man (unless initiated by man). Therefore, functional evil is not considered wrong in a moral sense. God sometimes uses or initiates the use of functional evil, but this does not make God morally evil (Deuteronomy 28:15-68). Moral evil and functional evil do not operate in the same sphere.
Functional Good is that in nature or within man’s world that behaves according to its intended design and is considered to be beneficial to nature and/or man and is pleasing in some respect. We get the concept of functional good from Genesis, where God completes each creative act and calls the finished result, “Good” (Genesis 1:10,12,18,21,25,31), meaning that it functions according to his intended design, but is not described in terms of moral good. A sunny day is not a moral good, but is a functional good.
Moral Good is that which in the realm of personal behavior is considered to be true, right, selfless, loving, kind, faithful, loyal, etc. (Galatians 5:22-23). Biblically speaking, these are character traits that reflect the beneficial character of God. We are designed to be like God in our character (Genesis 1:26-28; Leviticus 11:44). Thus, when we behave in this way, we reflect the goodness of God’s character and live according to his righteous will. Moral good is sometimes facilitated by functional good. For instance, a beautiful day outside would be considered a functional good. A father who takes his children to play outside in that beauty is a moral good.
Understanding The Nature Of Good And Evil
There are three categories in which we can place the types of good and evil for the purpose of our examination. These are:
Perspectival—Functional good and evil is perspectival. This means that our perspective is the determining factor in whether we think something that has happened is good or bad. As an example, if a tornado hits a populated area and causes damage, we regard that as bad. But if the tornado stays in the countryside and causes no damage to people, animals, or property, then we don’t consider it bad. Our perspective in terms of its effect on human life is the determining factor for us to refer to it as good or bad. However, we must not forget that God’s perspective reigns supreme. God experiences and knows all perspectives, including possible, but not actual, perspectives. Many things that happen which we regard as functionally evil may also have a functionally good role to play in our society. This is especially true of death.
Relational—Moral good and evil are relational. But it should also be mentioned that moral good and evil are also absolute. That which is morally wrong or right is always morally wrong or right. This evaluation is never dependent upon perspective, but is instead based upon God’s eternal, unchanging character. However, moral good and evil are only exercised in relationship; either with God or with man. This differs from functional good and evil which, although they can be exercised in relationship, are not always relational. An earthquake is not relational. But the divine reason for an earthquake may be relational, or perhaps better said as covenantal.
Covenantal—Moral good and evil are also covenantal. The declaration by God of his rules and laws is always done so in a covenantal context. Covenants, by nature, are essentially relational. There is no expression of relationship from God to man in the Bible that is not governed by some kind of covenant. This was true of Adam and Eve when God gave them the covenant of blessing and forbid them from eating from the tree of good and evil. It was repeated to Noah. Abraham experienced this in the covenant of promise, as did Israel under Moses and David, and even our relationship with Christ is governed by the New Covenant. I address the importance of covenants in our relationship to God in the article, The Importance Of Covenant Fidelity.
Outside of relationship, moral good and evil do not exist. Yet, it is important to note that moral good existed long before moral evil.
Moral good existed prior to the creation. In eternity past when all that existed was the Trinity acting in relation to its members, they committed many acts of moral good. Goodness is an essential character attribute of God. Therefore, goodness has always existed as God has always existed and his very nature is goodness. However, moral evil did not exist prior to creation. Only through the creation of free moral agents was moral evil allowed to come into existence. Moral evil began when free moral agents decided to violate their created natures and commit thoughts, feelings, and actions in violation of God’s command and character. This began first with Satan in the angelic realm (Isaiah 14:12-15, Ezekiel 28:13-17) and was followed by Adam and Eve in humanity (Genesis 3:1-24).
The Genesis Of Functional Good & Evil
Forgive the play on words, but it is appropriate in this case. Our first indication in scripture of functional good and evil comes straight out of Genesis 1 and 2. Six times in Genesis 1 God refers to what he created and called it “good” (Genesis 1:4,10,12,18,25,31). This form of goodness I refer to as functional good, and not moral good. As mentioned earlier, moral good is always exercised in relationship. While a case may be made that moral good was committed in the creative acts as the three persons of the Trinity cooperated in the creation of the world, I think there is a stronger case to be made for a designation of functional good in the creative acts.
Each time God finished an act of creation he evaluated the work he did and pronounced it good in terms of fulfilling what it is he wanted his creation to do. In other words, it functioned according to the design that he intended. The seed bearing plants bore fruit (v.12), the sun and moon and stars fulfilled their function of acting as signs for times and seasons (vs.14-19), the sea creatures did the same (vs.20-22), and the same with the land animals (vs.24-25). Functionality was in view, not morality. Morality comes into view with the creation of Adam and Eve.
Yet, there was one instance where God declared something “not good,” which was also prior to the advent of sin in the Garden. This is important because the declaration of something “not good” is prior to the fall of man, and the declaration is about man. In Genesis 2:18 God says, “It is not good for the man to be alone.” What did God mean by this? Was this a moral declaration or a functional declaration?
I maintain that God’s declaration is functional, not moral. If the declaration was moral and Adam had not yet sinned, then we could only be left with the conclusion that God had somehow sinned in making man a solitary creature. But scripture elsewhere is unyielding in saying that it is impossible for God to sin. Thus, we are only left with a functional declaration.
In this context, “Not good” in Genesis doesn’t mean moral good or moral evil. It means incomplete or unfinished. Contextually, we may look at the creation of mankind as an incomplete act without the creation of woman. God never declared the creation of man to be good until woman was formed (Genesis 1:27). Thus, the creation of mankind was a two-stage process. First the man was formed, then the woman was formed from him.
The possibility for functional evil was also established in the Garden of Eden when God planted the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the midst of the garden. God withheld the fruit of that tree from our first parents. Certainly the act of eating the fruit was a moral evil in that it was an intentional violation of God’s command not to eat of it. But it began as a functional evil in that it was established as a point of testing for Adam and Eve. The purpose of the tree was to give evil an opportunity to arise. This does not mean that God tempted Adam and Eve. The two likely lived a very long time in the Garden before being tempted by the devil to eat. The presence of the tree was, therefore, not a temptation itself. Only through the actions of Satan in the Garden was the tree used to create an opportunity for evil to arise in man, which it did.
God’s Use Of Functional Evil
When we think of evil things that happen in the natural world we try and shy away from saying that God has caused something to happen that is harmful. Out of caution in not wanting to blame God when a disaster or disease strikes, we often blame Satan for the natural evil and declare God innocent. But is this really true? I’m not saying that Satan isn’t sometimes used by God to enact an evil plan. That indeed does happen. Nor am I imparting guilt to God.
II Chronicles 18:18-22 tells the story of a spirit who offers to God to deceive King Zedekiah. God tells the spirit, “You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go out and do so.” God not only approves of the plan, he orders it to be successful. Yet, he does this without incurring guilt himself.
We find another short example in I Chronicles 21:1 where Satan moves David to number Israel. Yet the parallel passage in II Samuel 24:1 tells us that the Lord moved David to number Israel. Even before these instances we have a lengthy declaration by Moses that God would perform acts of functional evil against Israel if they persist in violating the Mosaic Covenant.
God declares in several places in scripture that he will bring functional evil upon those who break the covenant, and he will even take pleasure in it. Deuteronomy 28:15-68 lists dozens of horrible things that God would unleash upon the covenant violator. These include natural disasters, disease, starvation, and relational evils. But notice the structure of language used by Moses in Deuteronomy 28:63, “Just as it pleased the Lord to make you prosper and increase in number, so it will please him to ruin and destroy you.” There’s no way to get around the use of language in this passage. God will be pleased to destroy the covenant violator. It will please him. He will be happy to do it. Personally, I think this is the most terrifying passage in the whole of the Bible. God always takes pleasure in doing his will; all of his will, whether we view those actions as functionally evil or functionally good. Since God’s will is always exercised justly, whether for blessing or for cursing, God always takes pleasure in doing what he must justly do.
Joseph & Job
The life of Joseph is probably the most well known example of how God uses moral evil and functional evil to establish something good. Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery—a morally evil act. But later in life, when Joseph expresses forgiveness to his brothers he tells them, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Genesis 50:20). I think, in this passage Joseph is referring to functional good and moral good simultaneously. God used Joseph to create the conditions which would save lives (functional good), while moral good was fulfilled in the act of preserving life itself.
The same thing may be said about Job, though the book of Job is sometimes difficult for many Christians to understand. After loosing his livelihood, children, and health, Job sits in pain, bewildered about what has happened to him. Most of us, if we were in Job’s place, might shake our fist at God. But not Job. Notice the language that Job used when he rebuked his wife for suggesting he curse God. Job said, “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:10). Job identified God as the source of something bad that happened to him. We might think of this as Job saying that God is the source of moral evil. But this isn’t what Job said. And this isn’t how God perceived it because the rest of the verse says, “In all this Job did not sin with his lips.” So, what conclusion are we to draw from this episode other than God unleashed evil upon Job—but it was not moral evil. Rather, it was what we call, functional evil. From one perspective—Job’s—what happened to him was bad. This is undeniable from a human perspective. Yet, what this did in Job’s character was functionally good. Job was held up as a righteous man and God blessed him in greater ways after his terrible trial was ended.
Did God do anything wrong? According to Job, no. God was never guilty of moral evil. But he did use functional evil to accomplish a functionally good and morally good end.
Fair Or Just?
Did God treat Job unfairly? According to Job, at first, he wondered about this, but later came to the conclusion that God was just. In fact, we might even reverse this notion in Job’s life before his trail. Job was highly blessed and called the greatest man of the east (Job 1:3). So, we might ask the question, “Was job blessed unfairly?” His latter blessings were even greater than the earlier blessings. Was it fair to bless Job that way? In one sense we might say that God dealt with Job fairly in that the greatest man of the east withstood the greatest trial one could suffer. In that sense the swinging pendulum of Job’s life was fair.
But let’s take a step back and look at this from God’s perspective. Fairness, as we normally apply it, does not enter into the equation. God’s works are not a matter of fair and unfair. Fairness is a human perspective (and often a selfish one). God does not deal in fairness or unfairness. He does his will for whatever purpose he wishes to accomplish for the sake of redemption and sanctification. For some that means trials and difficulties and for some that means blessings and challenges. Life is not a matter of what is fair. It’s a matter of what is good, that is, what is functionally good for what God purposes to do.
Job’s trial was perspectival in that he was the person enduring the trial. From Job’s perspective what he received was bad. But from God’s perspective what Job received would make him an even more godly man—which is God’s chief concern (Romans 8:28-29). This is another case of God using what is functionally evil to accomplish what is functionally good—even morally good.
When the scripture says that God is not the author of evil and cannot be tempted by evil (James 1:13) it is not referring to functional evil, rather, it refers to moral evil. As we’ve already seen, God will indeed use functional evil to accomplish his purposes. But functional evil and its use are not in the same category as moral evil. God does not express moral evil because he is unable to do so. Let that sink in for a moment. It is impossible for the eternal God to commit an act, any act, of moral evil—he doesn’t have the ability to do it. Because his nature is eternal, all of God’s actions are predetermined and have no room for any kind of expression of moral evil. The scripture says that God does not change (Numbers 23:19, Psalm 55:19, Hebrews 13:8, James 1:17). Since God is essentially good and does not change, then all of his acts from eternity past, to present, to eternity future do not change as well. Thus, it is impossible for God to act with moral evil as he is forever good.
The Cross: The Ultimate Moral And Functional Evil And Good
The cross is the ultimate example of moral evil, functional evil, functional good, and moral good. God is not above using horrible things to reach a wonderful outcome. This is very true in the case of the cross of Jesus.
Jesus was wrongly condemned by the Sanhedrin and the Roman authorities (moral evil). Jesus was crucified (functional evil). Jesus died innocently, he was murdered (moral evil). Jesus rose from the dead (functional good). His death provides forgiveness of sins (moral good). His resurrection justifies those who believe in him (moral good).
Someone might object that the crucifixion itself was a moral evil. However, I think that while moral evil may be a valid assertion, functional evil is in view here. Jesus’ crucifixion was prefigured by the Mosaic Law’s prescription of animal sacrifice for atonement. God set up the sacrificial system. He did not set up a morally evil system. If so, he would have been guilty of sin. But that is not the case. The sacrificial system was both functionally evil and functionally good, depending upon which perspective it was viewed from.
The scripture tells us that Jesus’ execution was planned from before the foundation of the world (I Peter 1:18-20). The reason why this plan doesn’t fall under the morally evil category is because Jesus was a willing participant in the Father’s plan for him to die for our sins. He was innocent, but he was not without choice in what he did (Matthew 26:53-54). He went to the cross knowing full well what he was doing. His act of atonement was the ultimate moral good.
How God Gets Glory From Functional Evil
God receives glory from certain acts of moral and functional evil because he uses these things to work out an outcome that is according to his plan for redemption and sanctification. This is held up in Paul’s famous words to the Romans when he said, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God…And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:18,28).
So, the next time we must endure a functional evil, let us be careful not to accuse God of committing a moral evil against us. Sometimes the bad things that happen to us are events along a road of life that will produce in us a greater measure of godliness, and God uses them as a witness to others. So, to answer our question in the headline, God does not do evil. But he does use evil, both moral and functional, to accomplish his plans.