EvilSpirit

What does the Bible mean when it says God “sent an evil spirit” on certain people?

Question: In Judges 9:23, I Samuel 16:15ff and 18:10 it is said that God sends evil spirits on people. Doesn’t this support the idea that everything Satan and demons do is under God’s sovereign control?

Answer: I’ll make six points in response to this question.

1) If everything Satan and demons do is under “God’s sovereign control,” we’d have to say God has a specific good reason for everything Satan and demons do. This in turn entails that we can no longer explain any evil in the world by appealing to nefarious spirits — or even evil human decisions for that matter — for behind everything spirits and human agents do is God’s “sovereign control.” If there’s a different way of interpreting these texts, therefore, I think it should be preferred.

2) The fact that Yahweh fights evil spirits throughout the Bible is enough to suggest that spirits aren’t always under his “sovereign control.” Most importantly, all of our thinking about God must be centered on the person of Jesus Christ, and Jesus uniformly manifests the will of God by coming against evil spirits. He never suggests that evil spiritual agents are carrying out the will of God.

3) Many scholars argue that the word “spirit” used in some Old Testament passages doesn’t refer to a spirit being, but is rather just an ancient way of personifying human attitudes. So, for example, the TNIV translates Judges 9:23, “God stirred up animosity between Abimelek and the citizens of Shechem…”

4) The Hebrew word translated “evil” (rah) in these passages doesn’t necessarily refer to something morally evil. It can just mean “troubling.” So the passages may be teaching not that the Lord sent a wicked spirit on someone, but simply that he sent a troubling spirit: that is, a spirit to cause unrest between or within people.

5) Even if we conclude that the spirits sent from Yahweh are wicked, there’s no warrant for concluding from this that everything wicked spirits do is under the “sovereign control” of Yahweh. It just means that there may be cases where God’s interests and the interests of wicked spirit agents coincide.

6) Related to this, it’s important to note that whenever these troubling or wicked spirits are sent by God, it’s done as punishment for something people have done. God judges people by allowing spirit agents to do what they want to do: namely, torment people.

For all these reasons, I see no reason, based on a few passages that (may) say that God “sent an evil spirit,” to conclude that everything Satan and demons do is specifically under “God’s sovereign control.” Of course God allows their activity in the sense that he gave these spirit agents free will, just as he gave humans free will. But this doesn’t imply that God in any sense approves of what they do (though, as I said above, there may be instances where God’s interest to punish someone and the desire of fallen spirits to torment people coincides).

Related Reading

How do you respond to Bart Ehrman’s book, “Misquoting Jesus”?

Question: I just read Bart Ehrman’s book Misquoting Jesus and it’s sort of rocked my world. How can we believe the Bible is God’s inerrant Word when we don’t even know what the original Bible said? Answer: I actually went to graduate school with Bart Ehrman (at Princeton). We used to smoke pipes together up…

How Does God Hear All Our Prayers?

Q: At any given moment there are millions of people praying to God. How is it possible for God to pay attention to my little, silent prayer amidst all the chatter? The reason you or I can only effectively listen to one person at a time is because we only have a limited amount of…

How do you respond to 1 Peter 1:20?

“[Christ] was destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages for our sake. Through him you have come to trust in God…” This passage reveals that God created the world with Jesus Christ in mind (cf. Col. 1:15–17). The divine goal was (and is) to acquire a…

The Reality of Satan and the Spiritual Realm

A theme that underlies Jesus’ entire ministry is the apocalyptic assumption that creation has been seized by a cosmic force and that God is now battling this force to rescue it. Jesus understood himself to be the one in whom this battle was to be played out in a decisive way. The assumption is evident…

Why Bart Ehrman Doesn’t Have to Ruin Your Christmas (Or Your Faith) Part 2

This is the second of several videos Greg put together to refute Bart Ehrman’s claims published in the article What Do We Really Know About Jesus? If you missed it, you can catch the first installment here.

Civilian or Soldier: Which Are You?

The Bible makes it clear that the people of God are to be on the offensive in storming the gates of hell (See post) and that Christians are to put on the armor of God (See post). However, in modern Western Christianity, it is much more common to behave more like civilians on a vacation than…