A friend asked an interesting question recently. He referenced Habakkuk 1.13.
“But you are of purer eyes than to behold evil, and cannot stand to look on iniquity.”
And then he asked this question:
“If God cannot look on evil, how can he be present in a world
where evil is everywhere and even in us since sin is still part of our life?”
Nothing Is Hidden From God
All evil is committed in God’s unencumbered sight (Ps 51.4). His ominpresence, as His other attributes, is immutable. Also, there is nothing in His character that prevents Him from having evil in His presence. Remember, even Satan Himself can stand in the presence of God (Job 1.6-7) and not be destroyed. He is present by God’s permission, but He is present nonetheless.
Habakkuk 1.13 is not a declarative sentence about the nature of God but rather a question that Habakkuk brings before the Lord as a complaint. It would be a mistake to convert Habakkuk’s complaining question into a specific teaching about what God can and cannot see. The question itself shows that Habakkuk knows very clearly that God sees evil.
If God Sees Evil, Why Doesn’t He Stop It?
What is troubling Habbakuk is why God appears to be doing nothing about it. So he complains that God is not being just, and then he says, “I’ll climb up in my tower and see how the Lord will answer my complaint.” The Lord’s reply is not, “You don’t understand, Habakkuk, I don’t see these things” but rather “I see it all even more clearly than you do, and I assure you that a day of terrible judgment is coming.”
The “distance” between ourselves and God never changes. It is always precisely zero. What changes is our perception of His presence. On Mt. Carmel as Elijah confronted the prophets of Baal, God was just as present before the fire fell as after. The difference was that He chose at one point through fire to reveal His power. When Adam and Eve sinned what was withdrawn was not God’s presence (which would have comprised his immutable omnipresence) but rather the relational connection between the first couple and God was limited by His sovereign choice. He remained fully present with them without interruption or limitation, but He veiled himself from their sight and awareness. This was veil that limited their perception not His.
Understanding God’s Holiness
It is important to recognize that God’s holiness is not like a radioactive element that emits killing particles indiscriminately or like a poison that kills anything it touches. His holiness inclines him immutably to despise evil and to condemn it, and in this He will never change. But matters of life and death are decided by decision of His will which is at all times under His control. Isaiah discovered this when he found himself in the presence of God in the temple (Is 6). He recognized that because of God’s holiness he deserved to die, but because of God’s decision in grace he was forgiven.
Num 4.15 illustrates the principle in another way. The Kohathites must not look on the holy things in the Tabernacle or they will die. Aaron and his sons, however, can look on these things for they are to wrap them up whenever the Tabernacle is prepared for movement. This shows that there is not some holy “force” of God’s presence in them that kills indiscriminately. Instead it illustrates that the effects of God’s holiness on created beings are under decision His will. Those whom He has authorized may look and touch. Those who he has not will die if they violate His command.
God “sees” all evil all the time (His immutable omniscience), and all evil at all times is in his presence (His immutable omnipresence) but all evil at all times is hateful to Him (His immutable holiness) and will always without fail be condemned and justice restored (His immutable omnipotence). In fact, there has never been a moment when evil has not been condemned by Him. To the Habakkuk’s among us, it appears as if God has either not seen or is not acting. However, before the foundation of our world he decreed both the beginning and the end, and thus the judgment and condemnation of evil were determined by Him at the outset. There has never been a moment when any evil has been uncondemned nor a moment when its judgment was not appointed. It is only a matter of how by His decision the execution of that judgment takes place within the flow of our world’s time at the moment of His choosing.
It Is Good for Us That God “Sees” Evil
The fact that God can exist in the presence of evil is greatly to our benefit. We can be in the most evil space on earth in the presence of the most evil of his human and demonic created beings, and He will be there with us. If God could not be in the presence of evil, when we entered these dark places we would leave His presence behind and walk ahead alone until, perhaps, we emerged on the other side. But most wonderfully we are promised that He walks with us even in the places of greatest darkness (Ps 23.5), and in those places His presences guides and comforts us. In the presence of our enemies (and His), He prepares our table. He does not have to do this. He chooses to do so because He loves us.