The Real Reason God Judges Evil

God Is Holy

One answer—a fundamental and important answer—as to why God judges evil is that he is holy. Often in the Old Testament, especially in Isaiah, Yahweh is called “the Holy One of Israel” (Ps. 78:41; Isa. 1:4; 5:19, 24; 10:20; 12:6; 17:7; 29:19; 30:11, 12, 15; 31:1; 37:23; 41:14, 16, 20; 43:3, 14; 45:11; 47:4; 48:17; 49:7; 54:5; 55:5; 60:9, 14; Jer. 50:29; 51:5). We often read about Yahweh’s “holy name” (e.g., 1 Chron. 16:10, 35; Pss. 30:4; 33:21; 111:9; Ezek. 36:20, 21, 22; 39:7, 25; 43:7, 8; Amos 2:7), which means that holiness is the Lord’s very nature and being.

Holiness is often defined as being separated from evil, though others have said that it signifies what is consecrated and devoted.1 These two definitions may not be as far apart as we might think since what is consecrated and devoted is also separated from common use. For instance, the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place are devoted to the sacrificial cult, but we could say that both places are separated from common use as well. So, too, the Sabbath is a consecrated day, a holy day (Ex. 20:8), but it is also separated from other days and, thus, special. We could say the same thing about holy garments (Ex. 28:2), holy offerings (Ex. 28:38), holy anointing oil (Ex. 30:25), and so on. They are separated from ordinary life and consecrated for special use.

The Justice and Goodness of God

Thomas R. Schreiner

Thomas Schreiner offers a comprehensive analysis of eternal destruction, examining themes of sin, death, and redemption repeated throughout the New Testament and other passages of Scripture.

We also receive further help by investigating other words associated with holiness. For instance, priests are to distinguish “between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean” (Lev. 10:10; cf. Ezek. 22:26; 44:23). The holy is in the same category as that which is clean, while the unholy is unclean and defiled. Those from Aaron’s house can’t eat holy offerings until they are clean (Lev. 22:4). These texts refer to ritual defilement, which is not necessarily equated with sinfulness. Still, it seems that the reason uncleanness exists is because of the presence of sin in the world. Uncleanness, then, doesn’t necessarily point to personal sin, but it signifies a sickness in a world that is deformed and bent due to human evil. God stands apart from the world because of his holiness. “There is none holy like the Lord” (1 Sam. 2:2). Since the Lord is the “Holy One,” no one can be compared to him or is equal to him (Isa. 40:25).

The Lord is uniquely holy, and there is clearly a moral dimension to holiness. When the ark was returned from the Philistines to Israel in Beth-shemesh, some looked inside the ark and seventy people were struck dead (1 Sam. 6:19). They immediately responded, “Who is able to stand before the Lord, this holy God?” (1 Sam. 6:20). The author is clearly telling us that the sin of Israel is such that they were unable to live in God’s presence, since he is the Holy One—that is, he is beautiful and full of goodness in contrast to the sinfulness of human beings.

Nor is this an isolated thought. The psalmist asks,

O Lord, who shall sojourn in your tent?
      Who shall dwell on your holy hill? (Ps. 15:1)

The answer reveals that holiness has to do with the Lord’s moral perfection and his blazing goodness, since those who can live on his holy mountain are those who live righteously, who refrain from slander, who do not injure their neighbors, who esteem the godly, who are true to their word, and who don’t take interest and deprive the poor of their income (Ps. 15:2–5). A similar question is asked in Psalm 24:

Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?
      And who shall stand in his holy place? (Ps. 24:3)

The answer again has to do with goodness, since access to God is restricted to those who have “clean hands” and “a pure heart” and are characterized by honesty (Ps. 24:4). It seems apparent in this context that God’s holiness refers to his moral perfection and that righteousness is required of human beings as well.

Another fascinating window into God’s holiness is Psalm 99, where Yahweh reigns as one “enthroned upon the cherubim” (Ps. 99:1). Given the greatness of the Lord, people are to “praise your great and awesome name,” and the psalmist exclaims, “Holy is he!” (Ps. 99:3). God’s holiness here is related to his transcendence, to his sovereignty, to his reign as King over all. Yahweh’s holiness is a central theme of the psalm. Readers are exhorted,

Exalt the Lord our God;
      worship at his footstool!
      Holy is he! (Ps. 99:5; cf. Ps. 99:9)

Still, God’s holiness isn’t restricted to his transcendence but is also reflected in the “decrees” and “statutes” given to Israel (Ps. 99:7 CSB). The moral dimension of his holiness is confirmed in 99:8 since God is identified as one who forgives and also as “an avenger of their wrongdoings.” God’s holiness is such that sin either must be forgiven or avenged; it can’t be left alone because sin defaces, deforms, and destroys. God’s dazzling beauty and loveliness can’t allow sin to coexist with him; doing such would compromise his holiness, his very being.

God’s dazzling beauty and loveliness can’t allow sin to coexist with him.

Isaiah 6 is rightly famous, and it casts more light on our theme. Yahweh sits transcendently and magnificently as the King in his temple. The seraphim stand around the Lord with their six wings. They cover their faces with two wings since the Lord is ever and always the Holy One, and thus they can’t look on his face. With two wings they cover their feet, which is another indication of their inferiority in the presence of the Creator and sovereign of all things. With two wings they fly as they serve at Yahweh’s behest, carrying out his decrees in the world. The seraphim praise the Lord as the thrice Holy One, signifying his infinite and maximal holiness, as the one whose glory fills the entire world. Yahweh’s holiness has a transcendent character because he is the King of the universe and even angels who are not defiled with sin cannot gaze at him.

The temple fills with “smoke,” and the Hebrew word used in Isaiah 6:4 occurs in the text about the “smoking fire pot” that passed between the pieces in the Lord’s covenant with Abram (Gen. 15:17). Mount Sinai also smoked like a furnace when the Lord descended on it (Ex. 19:18). In 2 Samuel 22:9, smoke is aligned with God’s consuming fire (cf. Ps. 18:8). The temple filling with smoke communicates God’s presence, and the parallels and context suggest that his presence is terrifying. It is frightening because of Yahweh’s holiness, his moral perfection. Isaiah’s response supports such a reading.

Isaiah pronounces a woe on himself since he is “a man of unclean lips” inasmuch as he has seen “the King, the Lord of hosts” (Isa. 6:5). We see further evidence that moral perfection characterizes Yahweh’s holiness when Isaiah became painfully aware of his uncleanness, an uncleanness that needed to be atoned for before he could serve as the Lord’s messenger (Isa. 6:6–7). When human beings see God as he is, reigning and ruling transcendently as King and Lord, then they realize that they can’t stand in his presence since he is beautiful in holiness.

It would be misleading to link holiness only with God’s judgment. Hosea 11 predicts Israel’s exile to Assyria after the nation violated the Lord’s covenant stipulations. Still, the judgment will not be comprehensive and complete so that the nation is entirely obliterated. The Lord will not wipe them out as he destroyed Admah and Zeboiim, on which fire rained down when Sodom and Gomorrah were annihilated (Hos. 11:8). Because the Lord is not a human being, because he is “the Holy One,” he will spare his people (Hos. 11:9). God is holy in that he is true to his name; he will not violate or renege on his covenant promises to Israel. We see that God is also holy in his mercy and his love.

Yahweh is the “One who is high and lifted up,” who lives “in the high and holy place” (Isa. 57:15). Surprisingly, however, the transcendent one is also immanent. He dwells with his people, with the one “who is of a contrite and lowly spirit,” promising

to revive the spirit of the lowly,
      and to revive the heart of the contrite. (Isa. 57:15)

God’s holiness doesn’t mean that he isn’t merciful (we just saw his mercy in Hos. 11), but we do need to think about what it means for God to show mercy.

We saw earlier in Isaiah 6 that God’s holiness doesn’t preclude fellowship with human beings since there is forgiveness and atonement. God’s holiness should not be interpreted to mean that he doesn’t show mercy. God as the Holy One has fellowship with a lowly and oppressed people. God’s holiness and forgiveness need to be read in light of the larger storyline of Isaiah, since in Isaiah 53 the servant of the Lord bears and suffers for the sins of his people. He has “borne our griefs” and was “stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted” (Isa. 53:4). Isaiah emphasizes that the servant took the punishment we deserved:

He was pierced for our transgressions;
      he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace. (Isa. 53:5)

God has mercy on those who have gone astray, but not without satisfying his justice:

the Lord has laid on him [the servant]
      the iniquity of us all. (Isa. 53:6).

Even though he was without sin (Isa. 53:7, 9), the servant “was numbered with the transgressors” and “bore the sin of many” (Isa. 53:12). Human beings have fellowship with the Holy One of Israel because of the Lord’s forgiving mercy, because the servant took upon himself the punishment sinners deserved, satisfying the justice God demanded. In the death of the servant, both the justice and love of God are displayed.


  1. Peter J. Gentry, “The Meaning of ‘Holy’ in the Old Testament,” BSac 170 (2013): 400–417

This article is adapted from The Justice and Goodness of God: A Biblical Case for the Final Judgment by Thomas R. Schreiner.

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