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Why did God allow sin at all?

Nam N. from Vietnam writes:

Can you explain to me, if there’s free will in heaven without sin, could God have created such a world rather than a world with free will and sin? Could God have given us free will without giving us the desire to sin?

Thanks!
iStockphotoman2-question

CMI’s Shaun Doyle responds:

Why trust God despite evil?

Before providing some thoughts on your question directly, it’s important to point out that we can know three things, regardless of how we might solve your question:

  1. Evil exists.
  2. God is morally perfect.
  3. God created and sustains the world.

The first is obvious to us. Evil is everywhere.

But, perhaps surprisingly, the first statement is also evidence for the second. If evil exists, then objective morals exist. But only a morally perfect God can ground objective morals. Therefore, a morally perfect God exists. See Can we be good without God? for more information.

And we can provide good arguments for the third statement. Scripture says God made the world (e.g. Genesis 1:1, Psalm 102:25, John 1:1–3. See Process theism and Did God create time?), and various cosmological arguments (like the Kalam and Contingency arguments) are consistent with God creating the world. These give us good reason to believe God created the world. Biblical teaching (e.g. Psalm 104, Matthew 10:29–30, Colossians 1:17, Hebrews 1:3), and the manifest care God shows for His creation in Jesus (for which Jesus’ divine claims and resurrection are powerful evidence), provide strong evidence that God also sustains the world.

Now, can your question undermine our warrant for any of these statements, given the way I’ve made the case for them? I don’t think so.

Since I used the first statement as evidence for the second, it diffuses any argument against God from the so-called ‘problem of evil’ (see Why would a loving God allow death and suffering?). Evil isn’t evidence against God; it’s evidence for a premise in an argument for God. And the evidence for God as creator is completely unaffected by your question.

The only question, then, is whether the Bible and Jesus make a strong enough case that God sustains the world. Well, Jesus not only provides evidence for God’s care of the world, but also for the truth of the Bible (see Jesus Christ on the infallibility of Scripture), which says that God sustains the world. So, even if Jesus isn’t enough to justify directly the claim that God sustains the world (even though He teaches that God sustains the world: Matthew 10:29–30), He justifies it indirectly, since He gives us good reason to believe the Bible is true, which teaches that God sustains the world. And of course, if you’re already convinced that the Bible is God’s word, then that should be enough by itself to convince you that God sustains the world.

So, why go through all that before providing some direct responses to your question? If we have good reason to believe God is sovereign and good despite the existence of evil, and your question doesn’t change that, then is your question a good reason to doubt God? Hopefully you can see that it’s not. Rather, your question becomes merely an interesting topic to speculate about without giving us a reason to doubt God. After all, questions like this only become scary if we’re not already well-grounded in our trust of God’s sovereign goodness. So, if this question was bothering you, or causing you to doubt, hopefully the above discussion will help allay some of those concerns.

Could God have created a sinless world with free creatures?

Now, to your question directly. There are two options to this. The first is that God could not have created a world with free creatures who never sinned. This is a simple solution, but it comes at a price: does it show that God is less than perfectly powerful? Many would say ‘yes’, and I think they have a point. Nowhere does Scripture say such a world would be impossible for God to create. But, say that in every possibility free creatures would inevitably sin. If that’s true, then a world of free creatures where none of them ever sin is simply not possible.

The second option is that God could’ve created a world with free creatures who never sinned. If so, the natural question arises: why didn’t He?

First, we know He didn’t. And since, as I argued above, we still have good reason to trust God, it’s safe to presume God had good reasons for not doing so, even if we can’t know what they all are.

Nonetheless, we can offer some tentative thoughts for why God preferred a world with sin. First, would Jesus have needed to die in a world without sin? Obviously not, right? But think about this: in a world without sin, could God have shown the depths of his love and grace for us as He has done in Jesus’ death for us (Romans 5:8,10)? I don’t think so. It’s hard to imagine what could be a greater display of love and grace than God sending His divine Son to die for His enemies. But without enemies, i.e. sinners, there is nobody to whom this sort of love could be displayed. On the other hand, every display of love God could show in a world without sin He could likewise show in the New Earth in the future. Thus, permitting sin in the world provides a context for God to show depths of His love He simply couldn’t show in a world without sin.

Moreover, could there be value for creatures to see and experience (rather than just knowing theoretically) the contrast between the sin’s destructiveness and God’s goodness? In a world without sin, sin’s destructiveness could only ever be known theoretically. However, experiencing the contrast creates a greater appreciation for the contrast. As such, seeing the destructiveness of sin now could arguably create a better experience of God in eternity than possible in a world completely without sin.

Someone might respond: “But what about the condemned sinners? Surely their experience in eternity will not be pleasant!” And that’s true. But might that not underscore even more the value of God’s goodness? Objectively, the bedroom light shines as brightly during the day and the night, but it’s easier to see at night than during the day. Likewise, God doesn’t need the presence of sin to be good, but the presence of sin shows Him to be good in ways its absence cannot. Hell will stand as the night to God’s moral light, since we all deserve to be in Hell.

Another reason is that experiencing sin and suffering before eternity may make the righteous better reflect God’s goodness in eternity. Many of the biblical reasons for suffering are applicable to this idea. What better way to learn patience than by tolerating difficult people or circumstances? Is there a better way to learn faithfulness than in the face of temptation to walk away? Is there a better way to learn empathy than to go through the suffering others go through? Sin created suffering, and suffering can make us better equipped to serve others. Even the Son of God was not above living by this principle (Mark 10:45, Hebrews 5:8–9). And for that reason, He has become the exemplar of that principle which we are to reflect (Philippians 2:3–8, Hebrews 12:1–4).

Conclusion

None of these possible reasons for allowing sin (and they are by no means exhaustive) take away the tragedy of sin, or the tragedy of the suffering that has resulted from it (The Fall: a cosmic catastrophe). Sin is still bad, and we should avoid it at all costs. Nor should these reasons be read apart from the case for God’s goodness and sovereignty laid out above, since apart from that context they could easily seem much less likely. And we should never forget that we cannot fathom God’s reasons—a full account of ‘why evil?’ is among the secret things that belong to God (Deuteronomy 29:29), as Job eventually learned (Job 42). But we should still trust Him, since we have plenty of good reason to. Nonetheless, a world marred by sin creates many opportunities for God to show His goodness that are not possible in a sinless world, and it can make both the righteous and the experience of God in eternity better than possible in a world without sin.

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Readers’ comments
Robert W., United Kingdom, 23 December 2017
God knew that we would sin and made provision for our sins in advance, as Christ is described as the ‘lamb slain before the foundation of the world’ (Revelation 13:8). And as God’s knowledge is infinite, He knows exactly how and when we will commit these sins. Jesus therefore knew that Judas would betray Him that night, and that Peter would deny Him three times before the cock had crowed twice (Mark 14:72). God knew that we would sin, therefore, and yet He did not seek to prevent it from occurring. He also frequently does not stop sin from continuing when it does take place. The Bible says that God is all-powerful (Genesis 17:1; Jeremiah 32:27; Revelation 19:6) and that He ‘accomplishes all things according to the counsel of His will’ (Ephesians 1:11). It follows from this that sin must be part of God’s will and His plan for mankind. The purpose of this plan is made clear in several passages. Romans 5:20 says that God’s laws were deliberately created ‘so that sin might increase’, because ‘where sin increased, grace increased all the more’. And Romans 8:20, 21 tells us that: For the creation was subjected to vanity, not willingly, but by Him who subjected it in the hope that even the creation itself will be freed from the slavery of corruption to the freedom of the glory of the children of God. Similarly, Galatians 3:22 says: But the scripture shut up all under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those that believe.
David G., Australia, 23 December 2017
I'm afraid the question is a hypothetical: best avoided. So what if the answer is yes, or no? We are in this particular world with these particular conditions. If we would entertain hypotheticals, always a dangerous pass-time, as the hypothetical is so pregnant with assumptions that aren't shared, that any answer could be instantly misconstrued, but, it would be this: perhaps, but it would not be this world it would be another world. Now, so what?
Shaun Doyle responds
You're absolutely right! That's why I led with the long 'preamble' before I even attempted to address the question. As I said in concluding that section:
"So, why go through all that before providing some direct responses to your question? If we have good reason to believe God is sovereign and good despite the existence of evil, and your question doesn’t change that, then is your question a good reason to doubt God? Hopefully you can see that it’s not. Rather, your question becomes merely an interesting topic to speculate about without giving us a reason to doubt God."
So, this feedback wasn't simply about answering the title question. Rather, it was about helping people to think biblically through it, especially if some skeptic raises it as an objection, or it's a cause for doubt for a Christian.
Clive W., Australia, 23 December 2017
The question is really: could the entire cosmos have been different? Could pi=5.67687? Who knows, how could anyone know. It would be a completely other universe! So, could Gd have created a world without sin? Don't know, but if he had it would be a completely other world to this one, and none of the questions we have of here and now would apply.
Shaun Doyle responds
The questions are not quite the same. The world could've been different, but pi couldn't be anything other than 3.14159 ... . Still, we know enough about God to trust Him, but we're in no position to demand from Him 'why this?' or 'why that?' when He doesn't give us the answer.
Phil M., Australia, 23 December 2017
Nam asks: Could God have given us free will without giving us the desire to sin? My take on this question is: Could God have created us as holy beings? A being, any being, can exist in 1 of 3 moral states: 1) innocent – i.e. without the knowledge of good & evil, as was Adam as created, 2) sinful – having the knowledge of good & evil with the propensity to evil, 3) holy – having the knowledge of good & evil and instinctively loving good and hating evil. A holy being is one who instinctively does not want to sin, instinctively never has the desire to sin. Scripture calls God ‘holy’ and the angels in heaven ‘holy’. Scripture speaks of the ‘God who CANNOT lie’. If a holy being instinctively never has the desire to sin, Nam errs to say there is ‘free-will’ in heaven. Logically, to have a nature that instinctively loves good and hates evil requires having the knowledge of good & evil, which Adam did not have as created. (They err who say Adam was created holy. He wasn’t. He was created innocent.) So why could God not have created Adam with the knowledge of good & evil and holy? The answer is that no creature can possess the knowledge of something that does not exist. If evil does not exist, the creature cannot have the knowledge of it. Only God can. Evil must exist for the creature to have the knowledge of it. This holds true for angels and men. So if God eternally purposed ‘that we should be holy . . . before Him in love’ (Ephesians 1), it means it was God’s purpose for man to possess the knowledge of good & evil, as having a nature that instinctively loves good and hates evil. Thus, God initially allowed man to sinfully acquire the knowledge of good & evil in Eden, His ultimate purpose being for us to have that knowledge as holy beings, through Christ.
George S., United Kingdom, 23 December 2017
I think brother nam problem is thinking that sin is a earthly problem where in the book of revelation it describes war in heaven that is where sin originated,and we joined in that war on the wrong side hence the carnage we have witnessed throughout earths history
Michael B., United States, 23 December 2017
God did create a perfect world in which there was no sin and all He would have needed to keep it that way was to never give a commandment to man; without a command there is no transgression, we would have remained ignorant. As Paul points out in Romans 7:7 What shall we say then? Is the Law sin? May it never be! On the contrary, I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, “You shall not covet.” However God had/has a goal, a purpose He states just before forming man; He said "let Us make man in Our Image" If we are to be in the image of God we would need to know good and evil as He does and apparently that only comes from the experience; and we get confirmation of this in a statement God makes as man leaves the garden "Behold, the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil" Genesis 3:22 This has the clear implication that prior to the fall we did not know good and evil. God has never deviated from His original purpose of creating man in His image. We read in Romans 8:28-29 "And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren" "All things" would include the fall and all things work to perform His purpose of forming man in His Image, conforming man to the Image of His Son. Through these things of life we learn obedience to Him as He was obedient to the Father and we come to hate sin as much as He does. This has been His purpose from the day He formed us from the dust of the earth to be shaping us in His Image, we are clay in the Potter's Hands.
Sandra R., United States, 23 December 2017
Why didn't you address the Heaven being sinless issue? It wasn't, since a third of the angels fell and they still go before God sometimes, at least until the final judgment.
Shaun Doyle responds
I understood the questioner to be referring to the eternal state, which is another common use for the word 'heaven'. Obviously, in that 'heaven' there will be no sin. And as their question was really about why created a world in which there was any sin at all, I proceeded to address that issue.
J. R., Sweden, 23 December 2017
A very good article, as usual. However, on the internet, I have seen how Atheists then claim that God allowing sin in the world is akin to a doctor stabbing you, just to show you how good he is at healing you. What would be your response to this reply?
Shaun Doyle responds
At its heart, this retort is nothing more than a restatement of the problem of evil. My response would be the first section in this article, in which I explain why I think evil is not a good objection to the existence of the sovereign and good God. They need a reasons why I should reject the reasoning I offer in the first section of this article, as well as reasons for viewing things as they do. Always remember, when atheists use the problem of evil, they are arguing for atheism, which means they have a burden of proof to fulfil. In this case, they need to show that we should agree that God allowing evil is like a doctor stabbing you to show how good a healer he is. If we have reasonable cause to think otherwise (and there is plenty of reasonable cause to think otherwise), we can simply reject their analogy.
Chris R., Australia, 23 December 2017
If we could not attempt to sin we wouldn't truly have free will. If we could attempt it but were constrained from doing so we wouldn't truly have free will. It's easy to not sin where there is no temptation so perhaps temptation is required if we are to truly have free will.
U. N., United States, 24 December 2017
God want us to love Him of our own free will. His angels were created with their own will because one of them, Lucifer, decided to use his will for his own purpose instead of using it to please God. Sin was introduced. What better chance to find somebody who purely would love God by his own will, than to create man! Adam sinned because of Lucifer's trickery to Eve, and the stage was set for God to, unlike the angels, be able to receive His sons and daughters through faith in His Son Jesus Christ, to love God unconditionally. For God everything is possible, so He could have created a perfect world without sin, but it wouldn't be the same to Him would it?
Seth K., United States, 24 December 2017
@J.R. There are two possibilities for every human being ever created. Those who *do not* want to experience sin, and those who *do* want to experience sin. God *could* have made sure that only the humans that *never* wanted to sin were created/born. But instead, he made sure that every last human being that's ever been born is somebody who *wanted* to know and experience sin first hand. In other words, our pain is self-chosen. Every human being that's ever been born, if given the choice, would have chosen to experience and know sin first hand. It's a brilliant way for God to *indirectly through Satan* teach his creation about good and evil, all the while being vindicated, since he's not giving us anything we wouldn't have wanted anyways. God did, after all, create Lucifer despite knowing full well in advance that he would turn into Satan. Only Satan could do what God never could, which is teach us about sin. Satan is the greatest useful idiot in the universe. God's brilliance knows no bounds.