Question: What does the Bible mean when it says that God cannot look upon evil?
The question refers to this biblical quote:
Hab. 1:13 Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrong.
Unfortunately, this passage is often misquoted, misunderstood and therefore misapplied. The language in this verse makes use of metaphor to make a very strong point: God cannot treat evil as something acceptable.
To convey that idea, God is described metaphorically as having physical eyes, which of course, He does not. God is Spirit (Jn. 4:24). “Your eyes,” says the prophet Habakkuk, “are too pure to look on evil.” In addition, Habakkuk makes this statement as part of a question of complaint against God. The second half of the verse reads:
“Why do you tolerate wrong? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds.”
A cardinal rule of sound biblical interpretation is that doctrinal truth cannot be derived from a metaphor. A second rule of interpretation is that doctrinal truth cannot be established on the basis of a single Scriptural reference. A third rule of interpretation is that doctrinal truth cannot be established from a question. Habakkuk 1:13 contains all three of these elements! Since nowhere else in Scripture is the idea specifically taught that God cannot look upon evil, and since the language is clearly metaphorical, and since the statement introduces a question of complaint against God, this verse clearly means something else.
The Bible tells us that it was because God “saw” the wickedness of mankind that He enacted the global Flood as judgment:
Gen. 6:5 The LORD saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time.
Likewise, when Scripture metaphorically describes God as turning His “face” against those who do evil, it means He sees evil and confronts it head on:
Ps. 34:16 …the face of the LORD is against those who do evil, to cut off the memory of them from the earth.
In order to correctly interpret God’s Word it is always important to understand Scripture in the light of what Scripture teaches elsewhere. No one verse can be taken out of context to teach something the Word of God as a whole does not support.
The truth is, God does see our sin:
Jer. 13:27b …I have seen your detestable acts on the hills and in the fields.
He “remembers” our wickedness:
Jer. 14:10 This is what the LORD says about this people: “They greatly love to wander; they do not restrain their feet. So the LORD does not accept them; he will now remember their wickedness and punish them for their sins.”
Habakkuk used a common figure of speech to convey the impeccable purity of God’s holiness. Imagine someone who doesn’t understand the common English figure speech, “he’s out of his mind,” trying to interpret those words literally! As noted above, the meaning of Habakkuk 1:13 is that our holy God cannot treat evil as acceptable. That is a solidly biblical concept!