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Does God Torment/Evil Spirits?

1 Samuel 16:14 “Now the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and an evil spirt from the Lord tormented him.” God intentionally sending an evil spirit on someone…is that what a loving God does?

What this text is trying to make sense of is the failure of Saul over a period of years. His negative behaviors, quelled only by David’s music playing, are understood from the God’s eye view. A lot of writing in the Old Testament is done this way. Disease, menstrual cycles, medicine, and more were all interpreted from the God perspective. If we still did this today, we would communicate like this, “You got covid because God gave you covid.” In reality, the actual facts of the matter are that someone got covid because of hanging out with someone else who had covid. Scientific categories were not developed long ago, and thus the early Hebrew communities would interpret everything with a direct eye to God’s action, even if the situation was more complex.

What does this mean for Saul? In the case of Saul, a Christian has several routes to take to think about what is going on with God’s action:

  1. Deny that God in fact actually did this, but know that the sense of Scripture is trying to get to the idea that Saul is failing and David is succeeding. The language of “evil spirit” is meant to convey the growing personality issues Saul was having as well as his downward trend toward evil. Moreover, Scripture is not always trying to get us to agree with some action that God did. At times, the point of Scripture is to challenge us to think just what this questioner was asking, “Would a just God actually do this?” Scripture is trying to grow us, and we see lots of growth in understanding God in better ways as the centuries go by in the Bible.

  2. Accept the fact that God actually did this, but deny that it means anything significant to the goodness of God. Why? Because, given that God is all knowing, a Christian may have recourse to thinking that the way God set up the world was to allow certain secondary causes to naturally (or spiritually) come based on the actions that humans do. In this case, the primary cause (of this world’s system) was God, where even evil spirits serve some kind of purpose in the grand scheme of things through attachment to evil actions by rational creatures. However, his causation has to do with how he set up the world to work, and thus the evil spirit being sent on Saul is what is called a secondary cause. It happened because of Saul’s continual choices to darkness. A person may accept that God was the primary cause of this; but the actual reason for this happening is Saul and Saul alone.

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