Ask Steve: Evil and Suffering

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Question: Steve, I never know what to say when I hear someone state that they don’t know if God exists because of all the suffering and evil in the world. Does the problem of evil defeat Christianity? What should I say to those who think this?

Answer: The problem of evil and suffering is one of the most difficult issues to address, especially to a non-Christian world. Unlike other topics in the Bible that are clear, such as the exclusivity of salvation in Christ, characteristics that define Christian growth, and even the attributes of God, evil and suffering provides no definite answer to those who wonder why they are currently going through inexplicable pain and hardships. On a larger scale, why would God allow such things as the Holocaust, mass genocides of children, physical handicaps, rape, and diseases in the first place?

The traditional argument raised by skeptics is that if God is all powerful and all good, evil cannot possibly exist. Since evil exists in the world, then that must mean God is either not all powerful or not all good. As the 4th century B.C. Greek philosopher Epicurus once asked, “If God is not limited in either power or benevolence, why is there evil in the world?”

The intent of this response is to reconcile an all powerful, all good, and all just God with the existence of evil in the world, and to show that the Christian worldview is the most rational explanation as to why evil exists, and where evil is ultimately going. In the world of theology, this is called theodicy.

Deuteronomy 29:29 reads, “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons, that we may observe all the words of this law.” This means that there are certain things that God revealed to us – such as what we need to know for our salvation and sanctification – but other things that only God knows. We are not commanded or expected to seek out answers to these questions and topics. And one of those questions is why evil exists or the reason behind the sufferings or heartaches of particular people (such as a premature death of a family member, an unexpected disease, a financial crisis, etc). In these cases, we are only called to trust, obey, and fear God implicitly, which is what the whole book of Job teaches.

From God’s perspective, there is no problem with evil. God is all powerful and all good, which means that He is entirely just and righteous in all His dealings. God wields His justice in accordance with His wisdom. This is not out of accord with the fact that evil exists. In fact, if evil did not exist, then how can we know the depth of God’s justice, since there would be no injustice/evil to demonstrate that on? God is not capable of evil because of His immutable character. He is forever holy, which encompasses His attributes of love, righteousness, and justice. However, created beings (such as humans) are not holy and infinite as G0d is, which is why they are capable of erring. That is where evil originally stemmed from.

God created finite human beings who are capable of choosing good or evil, and man chose what is evil. Thus, evil is the degradation of what was once good, since God created all things in the very beginning to be good (Gen 1:31). Man is held responsible for the evil and sufferings of this world, which is why they will be ultimately judged (Matt 7:23; Rev 20:11-15). They will not be able to claim ignorance or shift blame on others. If God is the one who creates evil, tempts man, or does evil Himself, then God wouldn’t be good. He would truly be the one to blame. However, God did not create or performs evil, but allows evil to exist, which has its origins from Satan, the fallen angels, and fallen humanity, and uses it in His master plan to accomplish His good purposes, both during and at the close of history. God will punish all evil someday, otherwise He wouldn’t be good and righteous (Ex. 34:7).

The Bible not only tells us that God always does what is right, but He does all things for His glory. He allows evil and suffering to exist so He can show the full array of His divine attributes. If evil, sin, and suffering did not exist, then He cannot show compassion and mercy to those who suffer or need forgiveness for their sins (because everything in the world would be perfect). We would also not be able to demonstrate these characteristics as well. If evil did not exist, then God cannot display His righteous justice against those who transgress His holiness by their evil deeds, whether lying, stealing, adultery, idolatry, etc. That is why Paul quotes, concerning God’s dealings with Pharaoh in ancient times, “For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘FOR THIS VERY PURPOSE I RAISED YOU UP, TO DEMONSTRATE MY POWER IN YOU, AND THAT MY NAME MIGHT BE PROCLAIMED THROUGHOUT THE WHOLE EARTH.’” (Rom. 9:17).

This passage in Romans 9 also goes on to explain that God raises up vessels that are both good and bad so that He can display His divine attributes of compassion and judgment. This fact explains the wonders of God to show that He truly is God, since only a holy and all-powerful God can display His attributes for His creation to see. Romans 9:19-23 says, “You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?” On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? ‘The thing molded will not say to the molder, “Why did you make me like this,” will it? Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for common use? What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? And He did so to make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory…”

In other words, the world, as it is, is the most appropriate world to bring God the most glory. Not only does God exercise the full arsenal of His attributes for His glory, but for the whole of creation to experience. For the saints who are redeemed in Christ, this is a wondrous observation, since we not only get to see the omnipotence, omniscience, and righteous judgment against evil on display, but His infinite love and mercy that is expressed in God’s salvation of those whom He predestined before creation. This is all the more reason for us to praise Him, which is what we will do for all eternity in heaven.

As I mentioned, God does not reveal the reason behind certain types of suffering, or even why righteous people suffer, but we should remember to remain humble, be dependent on God, and trust in Him during these frightening times. Because of multiple factors going on, the reason for suffering is not always apparent or easily comprehending to the human mind. Scripture depicts suffering happening at times because of what God allows Satan to do to us in order to strengthen our faith or refine us (Job 1-2; Eph 6:10-12). Suffering happens as a natural consequence of sin, which brought death, suffering, and disease to all humanity, regardless of whether they are believers or not. Evil and suffering can even be used by God to disciple His children if they need to repent and get back on the track of obedience to God (Matt 5:26; 18:15-20; Prov 3:11-12). There are other times when God uses trials and persecution so that we can respond in obedience, which leads to increased eternal blessings (Jas 1:12; Rev 2:10). Yet there are also situations in which God allows evil and suffering in our lives in order to use our situations to impact other people (ex. the salvation of others), which we do not know most of the time. In essence, God causes all things to work out for good to those who trust in Him (Gen 50:20; Rom 8:28).

Regardless, the presence of evil, suffering, and death is meant to teach us one thing: sin is destruction, an offense to God, therefore we need to repent before God. The presence of evil is not meant to dissuade belief in the existence of God, but rather reveal it. Because if there is no God, then there is no absolute standard of right and wrong. So how do we know what is evil if there is no unbending standard of good to compare it with? If such a standard exists, then it can only come from God. No atheistic worldview can adequately explain this moral issue.

The tension between evil and suffering and a good God is solved in that God is not the creator of evil, but uses it in His sovereign plan to bring out His ultimate good for His glory. He has a sufficient reason to allow it to exist, which is to demonstrate the fullness of His glorious attributes throughout history, to explain the seriousness and consequences of sin and evil to people, and to bring about His perfecting work in finite beings who would otherwise not learn dependence, perseverance, compassion, and self-control had it not been for evil. Sin and evil will one day be judged and forever cast away, with only joy, happiness, and good existing forever afterwards (Rev 21-22). Until then, we should remain humble in our outlook on life, come to God for salvation (before He rightfully judges evil), and depend on God for our strength in doing His work in the world.

The question is not, “How can a good God allow bad things to happen to good people?” Rather, the question should be, “How can a good God allow people to live after they have sinned continuously against Him?” God could have killed us the moment we told our first lie or thought an hateful thought, but God allows us to live because of His great mercy, so that people would come to repentance and faith in Christ (Jn 3:16; 2 Pet 3:9).  

Next time you are faced with the temptation to question God on evil and suffering, reflect on what author C.J. Mahaney once said, “I don’t know what tomorrow holds, but this I do know: Because of the cross, I will do much better than I deserve.”

Recommended Resource: If God is Good by Randy Alcorn

 

Answer provided by Steve Cha, author of Hollywood Mission: Possible: