Evil and Suffering: Why

Auschwitz Death Camp

Auschwitz Death Camp

People have a lot of questions about God. They wonder about miracles. They wonder about creation and where they came from. But probably the most often asked question about God that unbelievers (and some believers) ask goes something like this:

If God is real (or if He is so good), why does He allow evil and suffering to continue?

And everybody that thinks to ask that question thinks they are the first person to think it up; that it’s the most profound question any human being has ever asked. The truth is, it’s a dopey question. But don’t tell that to the person who asked it! Rather, look at that dopey question as a “door opener,” an opportunity to share the Gospel with them.

Apologist Paul Little put the dilemma of answering this question succinctly:

Either God is all-powerful but not all-good, and therefore doesn’t stop evil, or He is all-good but unable to stop evil, in which case he is not all-powerful.

Just so. For such a dopey question, it’s tricky to answer.

Things to keep in mind

In dealing with this question, we need to maintain a proper perspective. God created man and He created man perfect. Man was not created evil. God also gave man a free will – the ability to obey or disobey His Creator. The simple fact is, had the first man freely chosen to live in obedience to His Creator, the question of evil and suffering would be moot. There would be no evil or suffering in the world had the first man chose wisely. Unfortunately, that man, Adam, did not, and at the moment of his rebellion, the perfect and harmonious relationship he had with God came to an end. We might go so far as to say that when Adam decided to disobey God, the perfect and harmonious relationship he had with the world around him also came to an end.

And, unfortunately for the rest of us, Adam’s tendency to disobey God was passed on to his descendants.

Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned… (Romans 5:12 NIV)

If we accept this to be true – and we should because it’s what the Bible teaches – then the next logical thing to consider is this: Why didn’t God make man so that he couldn’t sin? The answer to this is obvious: God wasn’t making robots or puppets, He was making people. It wasn’t a mechanical, chatty doll God wanted to have a relationship with. He created beings like Himself, so that when that being said “I love you,” God would know he meant it. Real love is always voluntary, it is never forced or coerced or imaginary.

Furthermore, since the problem of evil and suffering in the world is man’s fault and not God’s, God certainly could wipe away all evil and suffering in an instant. But then that would mean He would have to wipe away us. Jeremiah once wrote:

Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. (Lamentations 3:22 NIV)

Indeed, it is a measure of God’s compassion that He doesn’t stamp out evil.  If He did, this world would be lonely place.

The truth is, God has already done something about the problem of evil in the world. He did the most dramatic, stunning, and powerful thing He could do: He sent His only Son, Jesus Christ, to die for sinful (evil) men. God made it possible to deal with evil and suffering and yet also make it possible for all men to escape judgment and punishment. God arranged for His Son to take evil man’s punishment.

These are the things to be kept in mind when trying to answer the question of evil and suffering in the world. In all likelihood, those things won’t completely satisfy the person asking the question if they don’t hold the same Bible-based worldview we Christians do, but this must be your mindset and starting point.

A basic problem with the question

The stumbling block for some people is trying to reconcile the notion of an all-good God with evil. If God is so good, how can He possibly allow evil and suffering? The basic problem with that question is our understanding of the word of “good.” What is “good” for us and what is a “good” God? Is a “good” God a God who only lets “good” things happen to us? Does a “good” God treat us like we deserve to be treated? Here’s the thing, when you get right down to it, we don’t know what’s “good” for us. A great many of you reading this might think a million dollars would be very good for you. But would it? What you do with that million dollars? Would it strengthen your relationship with your spouse? With God? Would a million dollars make you happy?

Let’s take that notion of happiness. Ask almost anybody and they will say that happiness is the greatest good in life; that they deserve to be happy. In fact, some people will go so far as to say that God wants them to be happy. But is that true? Those people think that happiness has to do with comfort or security and good feelings. But true, lasting happiness is much deeper than mere feelings. And as hard as it may be to believe, suffering doesn’t preclude the possibility of happiness. There may be times when our greatest happiness can only be achieved through what appears to us as negative experiences. Take away those so-called negative experiences, like suffering, and God would rob us of a rare chance to experience some profound opportunities of personal and spiritual grow and to see a side of happiness we would miss out on otherwise.

And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. (1 Peter 5:10 NIV)

Bad karma?

Okay, so man is pretty ignorant about what’s good for him. Some people can accept that. So where does evil come from, then? When there is no apparent explanation for acts of evil or evil events, how do we explain it? Some people fall back on the law of karma. It’s not just drugged out hippie tree huggers that believe in karma. The so-called “law of karma” says that what happens to you today is the result of your actions, either in the past or in a past life. So things like physical ailments and a run of bad luck are the results of things you did in the past or in your past life. People who subscribe to the dopey “law of karma” do little to help themselves or others when they suffer because, after all, God is only giving them what they deserve in the first place.

There is a grain – a very small grain – of truth in this. Think about this verse in relation to “bad karma”:

Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. (Galatians 6:7 NIV)

Isn’t Paul talking about “bad karma” here? Doesn’t this mean that human suffering is a punishment from God? It certainly sounds like it when, for example, preachers across the country blamed Hurricane Katrina on the sins of Louisiana during Mardi Gras. Or when you, as a Christian, go through a rough patch after you committed some sin. Isn’t that how God works? How many times have you said something like this: “What did I do to deserve this?” How about Job? His friends all thought his suffering was brought about by his wrong thinking.

The short answer is this: To think that every bad thing that happens to you or somebody else is God’s judgment or punishment is nothing more than superstition. However, the longer is answer is, well, a bit longer. God does indeed notice our sins. Much of the suffering we endure may well be the natural results of a sinful lifestyle, like a hangover, for example. Then there are Bible characters like Miriam, whom God afflicted with leprosy because she challenged the leadership of Moses. And David. God took the life of David’s newborn son because of David’s sin. And what about Ananias and Sapphira?

One of the great, profound truths of Scripture is that God always warns people ahead of His acts of judgment. For example:

But unless you repent, you too will all perish. (Luke 13:3b NIV)

Say to them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, people of Israel?’ (Ezekiel 33:11 NIV)

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. (Matthew 23:37, 38 NIV)

If apparent evil or sufferings come along, you or whomever is experiencing it will be left without any doubt if it is the result of God’s judgment. He will make that known.

Another possibility

We’ve noted that evil and suffering on Earth are often the result of man’s inhumanity to man. Man sins, evil ensues. Or a man builds his house on a floodplain and eventually that house will end up under water. A child is run over and killed by a drunk driver. Someone you love accidentally takes too many pills and suffers the consequences. Things happen – bad things – that are completely out of your control but are easily explained when you have all the facts.

But, man is not alone on this planet. There is an enemy here. You can’t see him, but he’s here all the same. He appears in many forms, sometimes he appears as an “angel of light” or as a “roaring lion.” Satan is his name and his sole purpose in life is to bring as much chaos and trouble into the life of man as he can. He was allowed by God to cause the sufferings of Job. In the parable of the wheat and the weeds, the farmer’s harvest was ruined by Satan, whom Jesus referred to as “an enemy,” in Matthew 13:28 NIV.

Satan exists today to cause trouble. And he’s expert at it. While our great enemy has limited power, he cannot – cannot – touch the one in close fellowship with God:

Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. (James 4:7, 8 NIV)

Man isn’t the only one

There is one other thing to keep in mind when considering the problem of evil and suffering in the world. Our God is not far away and distant from His creation. He is not far removed from His people. God not only sees our suffering, He actually feels it. There is no pain, physical or otherwise, that you have ever experienced that has not touched God first.

He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. (Isaiah 53:3 NIV)

Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. (Hebrews 2:18 NIV)

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. (Hebrews 4:15 NIV)

Summary

The problem of the continued existence of evil and suffering is a question many people like to ask and its answer is multi-faceted. The Bible doesn’t spell out an answer in a verse or two, but it gives us tiny clues from the Old and New Testaments.

First, evil and suffering resulting in loss and tragedy is more often than not the result of the thoughtless, sometimes sinful actions of people. J.B. Phillips, in his book God Our Contemporary, wrote this:

Evil is inherent in the risky gift of free will.

He’s right.

Second, evil and suffering in the world can often be traced back to bad, thoughtless, or evil decisions made by people. The oft-cited “law of unintended consequences” kicks in and innocent people suffer because a decision somebody made, or a law or regulation passed by government.

Third, sometimes suffering may touch us because God in His sovereignty allows it to for a purpose, often known only to Him.

Fourth, the enemy of God and man is at work in this world, and he has a limited free hand in what he is allowed to do on Earth until his final judgment.

Lastly, there is not a human being alive on Earth who has suffered as much as God has. God feels the suffering of all people, all the time. God has confronted the problem of evil and suffering head-on in the Person of His only Son, Jesus Christ. In dealing with man’s problem, God gave everything He had to give. The consequences of man’s sin have been dealt with forever in the work of Jesus Christ. No man need suffer alone or suffer for no reason when he may embrace the Savior and His work.

Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior. (Habakkuk 3:17, 18 NIV)

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