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

The Centrality of Christ in Hebrews, Part 2

The intensely Christocentric reading of the Old Testament that I introduced in the previous post is reflected throughout the book of Hebrews. Here I want to cite two more examples of how this writer saw Christ at the center of the OT. Hebrews 7 Here the author argues for the superiority of Christ’s priesthood over…

Topics:

Lighten Up: Your Church Should Welcome This Friend

Cartoon via nakedpastor.com

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 Genesis 15:13–15?

The Lord tells Abraham that his offspring “shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves here, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years; but I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions.” This passage may constitute…

How do you respond to Judges 9:23?

“…God sent an evil spirit between Abimelech and the lords of Schechem; and the lords of Shechem dealt treacherously with Abimelech.” (cf. 1 Sam. 16:14; 1 Kings 22:19–23). Some compatibilists cite this passage to support the view that evil spirits always carry out the Lord’s will (though they contend that God is good for willing…

What do you think of Thomas Aquinas’ view of God?

Question: You have written (in Trinity and Process) that the relational God of the Bible is the antithesis of the immutable God of Thomas Aquinas. Could you explain this? Answer: Aquinas and much of the classical theological tradition borrowed heavily from Aristotle’s notion of God as an “unmoved mover.” God moves the world but remains…