God, Evil, and Dispensations

God, Evil, and Dispensations

by Dr. Norman L. Geisler


One of the neglected values of the dispensational approach to Scripture is the light it casts on the problem of evil.  Theodicy (a vindication of God’s goodness and justice despite the presence of evil in the world) is both a fascinating and difficult topic in any theology, but a dispensational approach offers unexpected help for this old problem.

For the limited nature of this discussion it will be necessary for this writer to begin by assuming what he believes the Scriptures teach, namely, that there are seven dispensations.[2] That is to say, there are seven successive and different divine economies between creation and the new heaven and the new earth (Rev. 22). Granting this perspective one may ask, Why seven different dispensations? What is God’s overall plan for these periods? And, can one discern anything of the divine purposes throughout these ages?


Most dispensationalists have been careful to point out that there are not several different plans of salvation corresponding to the various dispensations.[3]  Despite the unfortunate wording of the footnote on John 1:17 in the old Scofield Bible,[4] dispensationalists consistently repudiate the charge that they accept the existence of many plans of salvation. There is only one way of salvation (Gal. 1:8), and it was preached to Abraham (Gal. 3:8) and is to be preached to the whole world (Matt. 28:18-20).  That one gospel, which applies to every age, is simply this: Persons are saved “by grace through faith in the revealed will of God.”

To be sure, dispensationalists hold that the content of the revealed will of God has become progressively more explicit. Progressive revelation is a central tenet of dispensationalism. For instance, the content of the gospel preached by the apostle Paul (1 Cor. 15:1-8), that Christ died, was buried, rose and was seen of many, is surely more than the pagans on the streets of Nineveh heard from Jonah (Jonah 3:4). However, neither Ninevites nor first-century Corinthians (nor twentieth-century Americans) are saved apart from faith in a gracious God who acts in view of the atoning work of Christ (1 Tim. 2:5; Heb. 9:22). The point is that people were saved in every age through the work of Christ, even though they did not have the knowledge of that work which believers have today. So, in brief, dispensationalists do not believe that there are seven different dispensations because God had seven different plans of salvation. There is really only one common gospel that unites all dispensations soteriologically.

What then is the purpose of seven different dispensations if it is not soteriological? It is my suggestion that there are at least three purposes of God in having seven different dispensations. One is doxological (having to do with God’s glory), another is anthropological (having to do with God’s goodness to man), and the last is theological or dispensational (having to do with the ultimate defeat of evil).


Often dispensationalists have rested their case for justifying God in view of the problem of evil (called theodicy) almost completely on the glory of God. Although the overriding importance of the doxological answer cannot be disputed, it should be affirmed nonetheless that there are at least two correlative points that also should be stressed. Each of the three is essential in helping one formulate an adequate solution to the problem of evil.


The glory of God is central to dispensationalism. Ryrie considers it the unifying theme for all of God’s plan.[5]  It alone is all-encompassing, spanning from eternity to eternity and covering both pre-Fall and pre-creation periods. In that sense it is important to point out that those covenantal schemes of theology that make redemption the unifying theme of God’s eternal plan miss the mark “and fall short of the glory of God.” The glory of God is eternal; redemption has a beginning point in time. Also, the glory of God applies to unredeemed beings as well as to redeemed ones. Thus glory is a far more inclusive and comprehensive theological theme than is redemption. Only a doxological theology, as dispensationalism truly is, can possibly be a systematic theology in the proper sense of the term.  Systematic theology must be a comprehensive and consistent correlation of all revealed truth about God and His relation with His universe.

Before discussing God’s glory as it relates to evil, a definition of glory is in order. An examination of the scriptural data will reveal that glory means “manifest excellence.” Glory is the outward radiation of the inward perfections of God. No one can see God’s essence (Exod. 33:20; John 1:18); and yet God’s glory was often seen (Exod. 16:7, 10; Isa. 40:5). Indeed, the incarnate Christ is “the radiance of His [God’s] glory . . .“ (Heb. 1:3). So glory does for God what a magnifying glass does for a fine jewel; it does not change His nature, but it does enlarge it for His creature’s view.

Granting that description and the centrality of the glory of God to dispensations, how does God’s glory relate to the answer of the problem of evil?

Very simply put the answer often goes like this:

1. The glory of God is the ultimate good in the universe.

2. God is glorified by everything in the universe, including evil.

3. Therefore, even evil redounds to the glory of God.

Since most dispensationalists have Calvinistic leanings, the doxological purpose of evil is frequently justified in terms of an emphasis on the sovereignty of God. Verses such as the following are often used.

“For the wrath of man shall praise Thee” (Psalm 76:10).

“The Lord hath made everything for himself: yea even the wicked for the day of evil” (Prov. 16:4, KJV).

“I am the Lord and there is none else. . . . I make peace, and create evil” (Isa. 45:6-7, KJV).

“What if God . . . endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? And He did so in order that He might make known the riches of His glory. . .“ (Rom. 9:22-23).

Those and like verses have been used by some to pronounce boldly that in the sovereign will of God even evil brings glory to God. It is that conclusion that must be rejected. To argue that God is glorified by evil is biblically unsound, dispensationally untrue, and theologically unfounded.

First, a comment needs to be made about the above verses, which are often used to “prove” that God is glorified by evil. As to the Lord creating evil (Isa. 45:6-7), the Hebrew word means “evil, distress, misery, injury, calamity.”[6]Although the word sometimes means evil in a moral sense, it need not have any direct moral connotations at all. It may mean no more than that God sends a plague. There is certainly no support here for the idea that God can do anything that is morally evil, since the Scriptures are clear in their assertion that He is absolutely good (1 John 4:16; cf. 1:5) and cannot even look on evil (Hab. 1:13).

Regarding Proverbs 16:4, the New American Standard Bible translates it, “The Lord has made everything for its own purpose, even the wicked for the day of evil” (italics added). Delitzsch renders the first part of the verse “Jahve hath made everything for its contemplated end” and adds appropriately, “the wickedness of free agents is comprehended in this plan and made subordinate to it.”[7] In Romans 9 it is noteworthy that the passage does not say that God is glorified by the vessels of wrath. What it actually says is that His power is manifested on the vessels of wrath (y. 22). Then in the next verse it says God’s glory is made known through the vessels of honor. In point of fact, there is no passage of Scripture that teaches that God is praised or glorified by evil. God is good and only what is good brings glory to Him. What is evil is contrary to God and cannot possibly complement Him.[8]

If God is not glorified by evil, then in what sense is evil included in God’s all-encompassing plan that brings glory to Him? The answer can be more readily understood once one understands God’s purpose in allowing evil. Although God is not glorified by evil, He is glorified by His attribute of love in permitting the freedom that caused the evil. Further, God is glorified by His attribute of justice that punishes the evil. This is no doubt the meaning of the phrase, “the wrath of man shall praise Thee” (Psalm 76:10). Man’s evil wrath does not bring glory to God directly but only indirectly in that it occasions His just wrath. God is actually glorified by His own attributes of goodness and justice in the face of (and in spite of) man’s wrath. Yes, evil does have a doxological purpose; God does and will receive glory throughthe evil He has allowed. But God can never receive glory from evil. That is to say, God is not glorified by evil itself but only by means of using evil to manifest His own good attributes. This distinction is necessary to preserve one’s theology (theodicy) from blasphemy. It is morally impossible for man’s moral imperfections to reflect the glory of a morally perfect God.


There is another danger in a purely doxological theodicy.  Not only do some, in their enthusiasm to capture the glory of God in all things, wrongly claim that evil brings glory to God, but they also separate the glory of God from the good He in intended for man. In other words, by separating glory from good they are able to claim that God is glorified even when He does not produce all the good possible in the circumstances.

The Scriptures make it clear that God glorifies Himself (Isa. 44:23; Ezek. 39:13), that He is glorified in Christ (John 1:14; 2 Cor. 4:4), and that He is even glorified by natural creation (Psalm 19:1). In addition, God is glorified in His sanctuary (Exod. 40:34), by man’s redemption (Exod. 14:17; Psalm 96:2), in the cross and resurrection (Rom. 6:4), by believers (John 17:22; Eph. 1:18), by Christ’s second coming (Matt. 24:30; Phil.3:20) and in His righteous judgments (Exod. 14:4, 17; Ezek. 28:22; Rev. 15:4). Indeed, God is glorified in every realm: the natural world, the human world, and the angelic world.

God receives glory from virtually everything — everything, that is, except evil. God does, however, receive glory through evil. That is, by permitting evil (suffering, etc.) God is glorified.  Peter wrote, “But to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing; so that also at the revelation of His glory, you may rejoice with exultation. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you” (1 Pet. 4:13-14). A few verses later Peter adds, “But if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not feel ashamed, but in that name let him glorify God” (y. 16).

Paul also claims that God is glorified through suffering, saying, “. . . but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope” (Rom. 5:3-4). Thus he can say, “. . . and we exult in hope of the glory of God” (Rom. 5:2). A few chapters later the apostle writes, “. . . if indeed we suffer with Him in order that we may also be glorified with Him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:17-18). Indeed, despite his own tremendous suffering (cf. 2 Cor. 11:23-28), Paul could confidently say, “For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17).

By building on those biblical truths one can see how God permits all suffering for His glory. Suffering is God’s instrument for producing both God’s and man’s greater glory. But if that were all to be said one might inquire as to whether God were merely interested in His glory but not His creature’s good.  Surely it would be slander to the nature of God to suggest that He is not really interested in His creatures’ welfare. No, there is more to biblical theodicy than God’s glory; there is also man’s good. It is true that God is glorified through suffering and evil, but it is also true that man isperfected through it. Job cried out, “When He has tried me, I shall come forth as gold” (Job 23:10).  James wrote, “You have heard of the endurance of Job and have seen the outcome of the Lord’s dealings . . .“ (James 5:11). What was the outcome of Job’s suffering? It was that “the LORD restored the fortunes of Job. . . . And the Lord blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning . . .“ (Job 42:10, 12).

There are numerous indications in Scripture that the purpose for permitting suffering and evil is to produce a greater good. It is in the context of suffering that Paul uttered perhaps his most famous line in this regard. “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God . . .“ (Rom. 8:28; cf. vv. 17, 23). Indeed, only a few chapters earlier Paul made one of the boldest statements in Scripture on the role of evil in producing a greater good. He wrote, “But where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Rom. 5:20, italics added). It is undoubtedly true that, like discipline, all suffering “for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful: yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness” (Heb. 12:11, italics added).  That is why James could say, “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. . . . that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2-4). In point of fact, even the sinless Son of God was made perfect “through sufferings” (Heb. 2:10). How much more can sinful creatures learn and be perfected through suffering!

There are two forceful illustrations in the book of Genesis of how and why God permits evil in order to achieve a greater good. The first is found in Joseph’s gracious word to his brothers who had sold him as a slave to Egypt. “You meant evil against me but God meant if for good . . .“ (Gen. 50:20, italics added). The fact that God was able to save Joseph and his family through the brothers’ evil in no way made the evil good. But it does show how a sovereign God can bring good even out of evil.  So it is with the universe as a whole. God allows men to sin, and when they do He is somehow able to bring about good results through their evil.

The other illustration is found in two seemingly contradictory commands of God to the chosen line of Abraham. First, God said, “Do not go down to Egypt; stay in the land of which I shall tell you” (Gen. 26:2). Later God said, “Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt. . .“ (Gen. 46:3). The full explanation for this later concession is found in the prophet Hosea who wrote, “Out of Egypt I called My son” (11:1). In brief, the first command was God’s prescriptive will (do not go); the second was His permissive will (you may go), and the last verse reveals God’s providential or overruling will (I will bring a greater good out of your suffering).

In accordance with this pattern a model for a biblical theodicy may be developed. First, God’s prescriptive will is that sin and suffering should not occur at all. God is not a cosmic sadist; He takes no pleasure in suffering or death (Ezek. 18:32). Second, God’s permissive will is that suffering occurs. That is, He sovereignly wills to permit evil, even though He forbids that anyone commit evil. Finally, since God knows the end from the beginning (Isa. 46:10), He determinately foreknew (cf. Acts 2:2 3) that He would bring a greater good out of evil, namely, the redemption of all who will believe. In short, what brings glory to God also brings good to mankind. Good and glory cannot be separated. God is interested in bringing good to men—the greatest good possible.[9] The truth is that God is concerned about man’s greatest good, that “God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son . . .“ (John 3:16), that Christ “died for all” (2 Cor. 5:15) by giving Himself as “the propitiation for our sins; and . . . for those of the whole world” (1 John 2:2).[10] It is because of this that God “desires all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4).[11]  Indeed, God would save all men if He could for the Lord is “not wishing for any to perish, but [wants] all to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). The fact that some do not choose to repent, and so will not make it to heaven, cannot veto the God-given right of others to be there. God will achieve the greatest number in heaven that He possibly can. He does not love just some men; He loves all and will do everything within His loving power to save all He can. If some are not saved it is because, to quote the Lord, “I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling” (Matt. 23:37, italics added).

When the statement is made that God will achieve the greatest good “possible” it does not mean the greatest number of people will be saved that is logically possible (that would be 100 percent). What is meant by that statement is that God will save the greatest number of people that is actually achievable without violating their free choice.[12]  A loving God will not force anyone against their will to love Him or to worship Him. Forced love is not love; forced worship is not worship. Heaven will not be composed of robots. God is not a kind of “Cosmic B. F. Skinner” who believes in manipulating people into certain behavior patterns which are pleasing to Himself.[13] God does not, as Skinner wishes, go “beyond freedom and dignity.” In short, God will not save people at all cost—not if it is at the cost of their freedom and dignity—for that would mean at the cost of their humanity. God will not dehumanize in order to save. To dehumanize is to de-create, since that is what God created — a human. In fact, to dehumanize man would be to strip man of the image of God (Gen. 1:26), which image even fallen man has (Gen. 9:6). If God did that He would in an indirect sense be de-deifying Himself! So just as surely as God will not attack His own image in man whom He created, even so God will not force a man against his will to go to heaven. God is love, and love works persuasively but not coercively. Those whom God can lovingly persuade have been foreordained to eternal life. Those whom He cannot are destined in accordance with their own choice to eternal destruction (2 Thess. 1:7-9; Rev. 20:11-15).  The net result will be the greatest good achievable for mankind and the greatest glory obtainable for God. Good and glory are inseparably related because God is not only sovereign and self-sufficient (which obligates men to glorify Him), but He is also loving and merciful (which obligates Him to do all the good He possibly can in the moral world that He has willed). While there is nothing in fallen man that demands that God redeem, there is something in God that demands that He do so, namely, His unmitigated goodness.

Now if God actually achieves the greatest good possible by allowing evil, then the theodicy is sufficient. All that is necessary in a theodicy is to show how, in spite of evil, God will (in the end) bring about the greatest possible good. And if good cannot be separated from glory, then the greatest good of glorifying God will be in concert with the greatest good of saving man.


Several loose ends to most theodicies are tightened up by a dispensational perspective. First, there is the problem of why God permitted so much suffering for so long (thousands of years of human history). Second, there is the problem of how men can be truly free in heaven while guaranteeing that evil will never break out again. A dispensational perspective casts new light on these age-old problems.

Many dispensationalists accept the following tenets: 1. there are seven dispensations that are commonly labeled the ages of innocence, conscience, human government, promise, law, grace, and the kingdom; 2. each age tests man under a new and specific condition; and 3. man proves to be a failure under all of these conditions. Now if all of that is true, what would be the point of it? The point may very well be that God is trying to accomplish several things through His plan for the ages. First, He wants to prove to the universe (of rational creatures) that creatures always fail and bring evil (not good) on themselves when they disobey God’s commands. Second, and conversely, God wants to prove that it is always right to obey His commands, for when individuals do they bring good and blessing on themselves. In that way heaven can be full of free creatures and yet justly rule out any rebellion again.

The sevenfold test is given so that man can be tested concerning good and evil under every major condition. Seven is not an arbitrary number of dispensations for two reasons. First, seven is a number of completion or earthly perfection. God did appoint seven days in a complete earthly week (Gen. 1). Second, each dispensation provides a different condition under which man is tested. Indeed, one could speculate that these are all the necessary conditions for testing man. For example, man was tested when he did not know either good or evil by experience (the age of innocence in the Garden of Eden), but even here he chose to do evil. Then men, knowing good and evil, were tested as to whether they would now follow the good and shun the evil (the age of conscience). But here too men failed and did more evil than good, thus filling the world with violence (Gen. 6:13). After this men were given the more explicit commands of government to restrain evil and promote good (the age of human government, Gen. 9:6; Rom. 13:1-7). But here again men used even the intended good of governmental power to exalt themselves against God, which climaxed at the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11). After the failure at the Tower of Babel God gave to certain men a special promise (the age of promise) by which they could guide their nation in separation from the contamination that had come on the nations at large. God could then through that nation ultimately bless all nations and eventually pick out a people from all nations who could experience the good God intended for all men (Gen. 12:1-3). Here too, however, the patriarchs failed to stay in the land of promised blessing and ended in bondage in Egypt. Following that failure the people needed more explicit directions from God (called the age of law). The Bible records that even with all that explicit, divine direction men still rebelled against God and brought evil on themselves. That then would seem to call for a more gracious and less judicial approach (called the age of grace) under which man is tested as to whether he will respond purely and simply to the grace of God. But amazingly enough, even here men refuse the grace of God and bring condemnation on themselves. Thus ends the age of grace. But throughout all those six ages there has been one common and sinister figure who has sanctioned evil—Satan. Hence, there is always the possibility that men could blame him for their evil, saying, “The devil made me do it!” To ward off this possibility, God in His wisdom designed one dispensation wherein the devil would be bound and man would be freed from his temptation (called the kingdom age). But inconceivable as it seems, even after a thousand years of Christ’s perfect reign without satanic intervention, man proves again that he is a failure when innumerable people turn against God at the end of the Millennium (Rev. 20:7-9).

Now if that is true, as the foregoing Scriptures would indicate, what does it prove? It seems to indicate exactly what every complete theodicy would like to show, namely, that God surely has just grounds before all His creatures to put away sin forever, because He has proved to all that it is never right to disobey His will. God has tried evil in every age and condition and has proved how evil it is. Or, to put it another way, the only way to defeat evil is to permit it. The only way to defeat it completely is to try it completely. One cannot defeat an opponent unless he is willing to get into the “ring” with him. Hence, God allowed evil into the ring of human history for a seven-round (seven dispensation) championship bout, winner take all. It was in the sixth round that a knockout punch was given (by the cross and resurrection), and the staggered foe was floored forever at the end of the seventh round.

In this dispensational drama, God is the victor and all good men are the benefactors. Evil is defeated, God is justified, and the universe is secured forever from another outbreak of evil. What makes it justly secure? God makes it secure. He is omnipotent, and He will not allow another outburst. What makes the universe justly secure from evil? The redeemed do—the redeemed of all ages who can stand to testify from every dispensation, no matter what the conditions, that it is always right to obey God’s sovereign will, which they have willingly pledged to do for all eternity. How about those who do not will to do God’s will? To them God will justly say, “Thy will be done!”[14] Thus according to the will of each, God has determined the eternal destiny of all. The only just way to bring about the greatest good in a free universe is first to assign each his destiny in accordance with his freedom (forced freedom is not freedom). And the only just way to bring inpermanent good is to separate each according to his free choice. What really hinders good men is evil, and what really bothers evil men is good. So it is that God has a place where there will be no more evil to hinder good men (called heaven) and a place where there will be no more good influence to bother evil men (called hell).[15]  The wheat and the tares must be separated; there will be a final harvest (Matt. 13:24-30, 36-43). And when the end comes God will have achieved: (1) His greatest glory, (2) His creatures’ greatest good, and (3) the most just and lasting security of the universe against evil. Evil will have been completely tried and proven entirely wrong. It will have been permitted and defeated. William James once observed that the world is better for having the devil in it, if men have their foot on his neck. It is better yet that God has His foot on his head and has crushed the serpent’s power (Gen. 3:15). What really happened, then, at the cross of Christ, by which both evil and the evil one were defeated, is that Satan was definitively conquered and ultimate victory over his kingdom was triumphantly assured (Col. 2:15). Praise God that evil is defeated and the universe is being forever secured. The fact that it will take seven dispensations and thousands of years to do it should offer no real problem. For the suffering caused by evil in this short span called time is, by comparison with the eternal good and glory, more than worth it. As Paul said, “For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17). That point was summed up beautifully by Patterson.

The question is often asked, Why did God permit the fall. . . . It is enough for the believer to know it was the will of God. God’s will needs no defense. It is the standard of righteousness. This is to be fully demonstrated before all the universe, but now we must believe it to be so by faith. We are not left wholly in the dark, however, as to the purposes of God, and he invites our inquiry that we may see and learn and believe. We say, and in a sense correctly, that God does all things for his own glory. But to think of this glory apart from the welfare of the beings of his creation, is not the Scriptural idea of the glory of God. . . . The purpose undoubtedly was to settle eternal problems. In some world, if not in this, in some time, if not at this time, the question was sure to arise whether the will of God was best and right. . . . God could have met it by a display of power and might and silenced all opposition, but that would not be an answer but a suppression. It would not be worthy of the plan which God had before him as seen in the ages. To silence by authority is not to settle the question. . . . Better this issue fully and fairly met now, and the questions answered at once, than that it should be left open, a constant danger ever threatening the universe, hanging like an avalanche over the future, to break forth perhaps when the universe was filled with holy, happy beings. . . . There seems to have been but one way—to permit an actual experiment and demonstration of the whole question. To this end sin must be allowed to present itself in all its hideous nature and effects; suffering must follow, and sorrow deep and widespread must be felt and endured. When this great experiment is over, every question will be forever settled. Every alternative opposed to the will of God will have been solved. It will be apparent as the noon-day sun to all intelligences that all has been passed through the crucible of actual demonstration. The verdict from this will be that there is but one standard of right, but one way of happiness, but one way of holiness, and that is the will of God. The participants in this struggle are to be rewarded for their part in this sad stage of suffering by correspondingly and vastly increased benefits hereafter. They are to have the highest state in that kingdom to come.[16]


Dispensationalists stress several things. Among them is that God has an eternal plan that He is working out for His glory and for the good of the universe. That plan includes the permission of evil. This article has suggested that God permits evil in order that He may produce a greater good that will redound to His great glory. That is, God does indeed have a good purpose for permitting evil. He has permitted it in order to defeat it.[17] But He has defeated evil without destroying the good He has created, namely, free creatures made in His image and likeness.

Each creature is free to accept or reject the grace of God in salvation. Of course, God determinately knew from all eternity who would and who would not believe. Hence, God elected “according to [His] foreknowledge” (1 Pet. 1:2). And as many men as have been so ordained to eternal life will believe (Acts 13:48). Indeed, it is necessary that they believe.[18] It is necessary because God cannot be wrong about what He knowingly determines (or, determinately knows). However, that necessity is notcompulsive. Divine love is never coercive; it is only persuasive. God knows with necessity who will and who will not respond to His overtures of love. Hence, God wills their salvation necessarily but He does it through their free choice. As many as will are sovereignly chosen by Him to eternal life. They are not chosen on the basis of their free choice (as Arminians believe); they are chosen on the basis of God’s sovereign love but in accordance with their free choice.[19]

Redeemed men are given the grace to overcome sin. They can overcome sin in this life progressively (sanctification) and will overcome it by God’s grace in the next life permanently (glorification). Likewise, God is overcoming evil in His universe both progressively (through seven dispensations) and permanently (in the new heaven and new earth, Rev. 22). God is doing that in order to secure the universe once and for all from all evil influence and to produce a permanent and greater good—all in accord with His eternal glory.

Like anything else, a tested and proved world is better than an untested and unproved one. But since suffering and evil are necessary conditions for producing a greater and permanent good, God permitted this brief “moment” of affliction (called human history) in order to produce an eternally secure universe. God, as it were, allowed the race to catch the disease (of evil) but sent His own Son to wound the virus fatally (through the cross) so that all who will to be inoculated can be forever immune from its contamination. And just as a broken bone is stronger after it heals than before it was broken, so too, a redeemed man is stronger than an innocent one. Likewise, a redeemed universe is better, for in it God can freely save and permanently cure those who come to Him. All who reject the cure will be forever quarantined (in hell), so that the contaminating influences of their disease can never spread. In that way the purposes of a loving God will have been achieved through the ages by overcoming evil and obtaining the greater good. And the plan of a just God to punish evil and to separate good and evil (so that one cannot unfairly hinder the other) will be accomplished. Justice demands “to each according to his due.” And it is not just forever to inflict good on men who desire evil, or forever to inflict evil on men who choose good.  Sooner or later there must be a final separation. It is fairer this way for all. In this connection it is worth noting that the problem with universalism is that it turns out to be a dehumanizing form of determinism in which God forces a cure on patients without their informed consent. The permanently secure universe with its eternally redeemed people (and final quarantine of evil) will redound to the everlasting glory of God. The universalist’s God treats free creatures like objects to be manipulated rather than as men in God’s image to be respected.[20]

In brief, the scheme of dispensations provides a significant insight into the purposes of God in testing man in various ways through various days. These ages are all part of a complete (sevenfold) and progressive plan to defeat evil both fairly and finally without destroying the good but in the process to bring about a greater good.


[1] This article originally was originally published in 1982 as a chapter in the book Walvoord, a Tribute.  (ISBN O-8024-9227-4 AACR2.) It has been reproduced here on NormanGeisler.com with permission from Moody Publishers. A similar chapter can be found in Norman Geisler’s Systematic Theology.

[2] Ryrie is correct in stating that the number of dispensations is not crucial (Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today [Chicago: Moody, 19651, p. 48). However, this writer personally believes there are seven dispensations (as divided by Scofield, Sauer, Ryrie et al.). This fits with the symbolic significance of the number seven in Scripture (as earthly completion or perfection); but one should not press this point, since the Bible does not explicitly say there are seven dispensations.

[3] Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today, pp. 130-31.

[4] Speaking of the age of grace in contrast to the age of law, Scofield wrote, “the point of testing is no longer legal obedience as the condition of salvation, but acceptance or rejection of Christ, with good works as a fruit of salvation” (C. I. Scofield, ed., The Scofield Reference Bible [New York: Oxford, 1917], p. 1115). This was an unfortunate wording which seemed to imply salvation by works in the Old Testament. Actually, Scofield did believe that Old Testament saints were saved by faith (as is plain from his notes on Gen 15:6 or Psalm 32:1, which he acknowledged are quoted in Rom. 4, as well as Gal. 3:8), as did Chafer (Lewis Sperry Chafer, “Inventing Heretics through Misunderstanding,” Bibliotheca Sacra 102 [January-March 19451:1) and Ryrie (Dispensationalism Today, pp. 110-31).

[5] Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today, p. 46.

[6] Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, reprint (Oxford: Clarendon, 1974), p. 948.

[7] Franz Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Proverbs of Solomon, Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, trans. M. G. Easton, reprint (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. 1975), pp. 336-3 7.

[8] It is a sad fact that many Christians have been urged to believe that the height of spirituality is the ability to praise God for evil (see Merlin R. Carothers, Power in Praise [Plainfield, N.J.: Logos, 1972], pp. 1, 5, 9, 130, 139). First Thessalonians 5:18 tells believers to praise God “in everything.” No verse in the Bible exhorts any one to praise God for evil. The “all things” for which believers are to give thanks does not state or imply that evil is to be included (Eph. 5:20). It is to be done in fellowship with the light (Eph. 5:13), being filled with the Spirit (Eph. 5:18), and by renouncing evil (Eph. 5:11), not by approving evil in calling it good. Indeed, Scriptures pronounce condemnation on those who “call evil good, and good, evil” (Isa. 5:20).

[9] For an elaboration of this “greater good” aspect of theodicy see myPhilosophy of Religion (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1974), pp.349-79, andRoots of Evil (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978).

[10] Contrary to the opinion of five-point Calvinists, this cannot mean Christian world or world of the elect, since verse 16 defines the world as the evil world of “lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes and pride of life.”

[11] It is instructive to see what abuse Augustine gave this verse as he became more deterministic in his later years. In On the Spirit and the Letter (413) he held that God desires all men to be saved but not at the cost of their freedom. By the time of the Enchiridian (421) Augustine interpreted the “all men” as all ranks and varieties of men. It is interesting to note that by this time he is claiming that infants are saved apart from their will by baptism and that heretics can be forced to believe against their free will (cf.On the Correction of the Donatists 3. 12).

[12] Many years ago Warfield attacked the common myth that the Bible clearly teaches that only a few people will be saved in a perceptive article entitled, “Are They Few That Be Saved?” (Benjamin B. Warfield, Biblical and Theological Studies, ed. Samuel G. Craig [Philadelphia: Presbyterian & Reformed, 19521, pp. 334-50).

[13] For a discussion of the determinism of Jonathan Edwards and B. E Skinner see the article “Human Destiny: Free or Forced?” in The Christian Scholar’s Review 9 (1979): 99-120.

[14] C. S. Lewis makes this point in The Great Divorce (New York:Macmillan, 1946), p. 69.

[15] Technically speaking there will in a sense still be good in hell since men in hell are still men, which means they still have the remnants of God’s image. But the good that is there cannot influence evil men nor can it be salvaged. It is unredeemable good. Hell is the “dump” (Mark 9:45-48) of the universe, the cosmic scrapyard where all unsalvageable human wrecks eventually go. That is, even if they are dimly recognizable as men, nonetheless their lives are beyond repair.

[16] Alexander Patterson, The Greater Life and Work of Christ (Chicago: Moody, n.d.), pp. 74-79.

[17] In view of the greater good that God can produce by permitting evil (than by not permitting it), one can speculate that even if God could have made a world wherein Adam would not have fallen that He would not have done so. This may be supposed on the premises that: (1) God must do His best whenever He decides to undertake something and that (2) a world where sin is not defeated would not be as good as one where it is defeated (even if there are casualties in the process of victory).

[18] This “necessity” for men to believe is the element of truth in “irresistible grace.” There is no way for anyone not to do what God has ordained will be done. The “necessity,” however, does not mean God forces them to do so. It means rather that He who is never mistaken determinately knows that they will receive salvation freely with the aid of His grace.

[19] Dr. Walvoord’s concept of the coextensive nature of election and foreknowledge is very helpful (Major Bible Themes, rev. ed. [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1974], p. 233).

[20] See my comments on John Hick ill “Human Destiny: Free or Forced,” pp. 99-120.


Copyright © 1982 Norman L. Geisler – All rights reserved

Want to dig deeper? Consider these books by Dr. Geisler:

  • If God, Why Evil?
  • The Roots of Evil
  • Systematic Theology: In One Volume or Systematic Theology: Four Volumes