Is God The Cause of Sin?
There is a perplexing scenario in the Bible (1 Kings 22) where God sends a lying spirit to deceive a group of prophets. The prophet Ezekiel also says that God deceives a prophet who speaks falsely and then punishes that prophet for speaking falsely! WOAH! Why would God do that? Does that make God responsible for sin? These verses can send us into a tailspin of confusion and misunderstanding. So what do we do? Let’s ask some questions!
Why would God do that?
Looking at these verses should cause us to ask, “Why would God do that?” The problem here is twofold. First, looking at individual verses alone will almost always lead to misunderstanding. While attempting to understand individual verses we need to place them within the story. Second, whether it's Zechariah 11:16-17, 1 Kings 22, or Ezekiel 14:9 we shouldn’t assume the individuals being judged are innocent or that God has predetermined their evil before judging them.
How should we read these verses?
We must read the Bible as if it were a normal story. Admittedly this can be difficult for us to do for several reasons. First, we aren’t trained to read our Bibles like a story. Many pastors teach topically from the pulpit and thus teach their congregation to read topically. How often are we guilty of piecemealing our bible study – reading one verse here and another there without considering the greater context or understanding? How often do we substitute real bible reading with devotionals with little or no biblical text? Reading the Bible like a story is hard because we have been taught that each verse is a life application. However, when we hit the genealogies we’re tempted to give up and read “the good stuff”. The problem is that when we read passages like 1 Kings 22 or Ezekiel 14:9 misunderstanding can hit us like a ton of bricks. So, before you question God’s character, ask yourself if you are reading the bible like a story that has a clear storyline. That will completely change your interpretation of the text!
What is the storyline of the bible?
In the Beginning God created everything. He is the sovereign king and no one can thwart his plan to have human imagers who live in relationship with him. God is love and because God is love he gives us a choice to give our allegiance to him. But, we were deceived and chose to reject God which started us on a downward path toward sin and death. What was God going to do? He chose a man named Abram (later renamed Abraham) and he committed themself to him in a covenant. God committed that he would be a blessing to Abraham so that Abraham would be a blessing to the world.
Abraham’s family was supposed to be a kingdom of priests that would point the nations back to the one true God. His family began as slaves in a foreign land and God rescued them by splitting the red sea and ‘birthing’ a new people. God’s children had been in a foreign land for a long time, and they had trouble trusting in God. Instead, they chose to trust in gods they could see. Because God is love he judges in love. So, even though it was harmful to God’s heart and harmful for his children God gave them the very things they wanted. They wanted to worship false gods so God gave them over to their evil desires. (Roman 1:24) They followed their false gods and at their worst, they even sacrificed their children in worship to false gods.
So, God gave them the consequences of their evil. He sent the nations of these false gods to conquer Israel and to carry them off into exile. Israel wanted to act like the nations around them and God punished them by giving them exactly what they wanted. Abraham was supposed to be a blessing to the world; instead, his people became just like the world. What was God going to do?
He would become the Israel that Israel couldn’t be, and he would enter into the world he made so that he could take back what he lost. Jesus the Messiah, the second person of the triune God, emptied himself and became a truly human servant. (Phil 2:6-11) He conquered sin and death on the cross. (Rom 8:3) He became our substitute by dying on our behalf. He conquered death to ensure our bodily resurrection. He did what Israel could not do and destroyed the boundary between Jew and Gentile. Finally, He invites all to enter into his chosen nation Israel as sons of Abraham (Gal 3:29), not by obedience to the law, but by grace.
Why would God send a lying spirit to the prophets?
What does this have to do with God sending lying spirits? When we remember to put the text into its proper place within the story we clearly see that God is not sending a lying spirit into the mouths of innocent people so that he can punish them. In 1 Kings 22 king Jehoshaphat sees the 400 prophets and asks, “Is there not here another prophet of the LORD of whom we may inquire?” He knows immediately that they are not true prophets of God. Likewise, Ezekiel is written during the height of Israel’s rebellion. They are sacrificing their children to the false god Molech. Ezekiel tells us that these false prophets are regularly lying to accomplish their selfish motives. Therefore, God has every right to punish his people by giving them over to their desires. Translator notes in the New English Translation say, “If a prophet allows himself to be influenced by idolaters, then the Lord will use deception as a form of punishment against that deceived prophet.” (See NET notes here).
Can God send lying spirits and remain Holy?
Several points need to be made here. First, deception is not always sinful. There may be specific instances where the most loving thing to do is to conceal the truth. A doctor shouldn’t express the totality of their patient’s suffering to a grieving family member. They should conceal the truth as an act of loving mercy. While an adulterous husband may wish to conceal his affair his heart is more concerned with the consequences of his actions than his wife’s feelings. His lie is sin. What matters is the heart behind the concealment.
The spirit coming is simply bringing judgment from God by giving the prophets what they desire – false prophecy. God’s judgment, maybe even his main use of judgment, is to judge the wicked by allowing them to fall into their own wicked schemes. Consider Psalm 7:14-16, “Behold, the wicked man conceives evil and is pregnant with mischief and gives birth to lies. He makes a pit, digging it out, and falls into the hole that he has made. His mischief returns upon his own head, and on his own skull his violence descends.” Also, see Psalm 9:15, “The nations have sunk in the pit that they made; in the net that they hid, their own foot has been caught.”
So what do we do?
Therefore, if we can understand the “lying spirit” to be pushing the false prophets into the pits they have made then God remains completely Holy in his actions. This may be the most frightening lesson in the Bible, God can punish us by giving us what we want. Therefore, let us desire to submit ourselves to God and to be transformed by the renewal of our minds.
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. Romans 12:2 ESV