More pressing than the question of miracles or science and the Bible is the poignant problem of why innocent people suffer, why babies are born blind, why a promising life is snuffed out as it is on the rise, or why there is social injustice. Why are there wars in which thousands of innocent people are killed, children burned beyond recognition, and many maimed for life?
In the classic statement of the problem, 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.
The general tendency is to blame God for evil and suffering and to pass on all responsibility for it to him.
There are no easy answers to this profound question. It is not one to be treated lightly or in a doctrinaire fashion. We might paraphrase a famous expression. “They ignore scars who never felt a wound.” But there are some factors which should be kept in mind.
We must never forget that when God created man, he created him perfect. Man was not created evil. He did, however, as a human being, have ability to obey or disobey God. Had man obeyed God there would never have been a problem. He would have lived an unending life of fellowship with God and enjoyment of him and his creation. This is what God intended for man when he created him. In fact, however, the first man rebelled against God – and everyone of us has ratified that rebellion. “Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned” (Romans 5:12). The point we must keep in mind is that man is responsible for sin – not God.
But many ask, Why didn’t God make man so he couldn’t sin? To be sure, he could have, but let’s remember that if he had done so we would no longer be human beings, we would be machines. How would you like to be married to a chatty doll? Every morning and every night you could pull the string and get the beautiful words, “I love you.” There would never be any hot words, never any conflict, never anything said or done that would make you sad! But who would want that? There would never be any love, either. Love is voluntary. God could have made us like robots, but we would have ceased to be men. God apparently thought it worth the risk of creating us as we are. In any case he did it and we must face the realities.
We must also recognize that God could stamp out evil if he chose. Jeremiah reminds us, “It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not” (Lamentations 3:22, KJV). A time is coming when he will stamp out evil in the world. In the meantime, God’s love and grace prevail and his offer of mercy and pardon is still open.
If God were to stamp out evil today, he would do a complete job. His action would have to include our lies and personal impurities, our lack of love, and our failure to do good. Suppose God were to decree that at midnight tonight all evil would be removed from the universe – who of us would still be here after midnight?
And God has done something about the problem of evil. He has done the most dramatic, costly, and effective thing possible by giving his Son to die for evil men. It is possible for man to escape God’s inevitable judgment on sin and evil. It is also possible to have its power broken by entering into a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. The ultimate answer to the problem of evil, at the personal level, is found in the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ.
To speculate about the origin of evil is endless. No one has the full answer. It belongs in the category of “the secret things [that] belong to the Lord our God” (Deuteronomy 29:29).
We are faced with the stark reality of the fact of evil, and it is with this reality that we must grapple.
Part of our problem arises from our limited definition of the word good and our applying this term to God. Hugh Evan Hopkins observes. “In his famous essay on Nature, John Stuart Mill clearly sets out the problem with which thinkers all through history have wrestled: If the law of all creation were justice and the Creator omnipotent, then in whatever amount suffering and happiness might be dispensed to the world, each person’s share would be exactly proportioned to that person’s good or evil deeds. No human being would have a worse lot than another without worse deserts; accident or favoritism would have no part in such a world, but every human life would be playing out a drama constructed like a perfect moral tale. Not even on the most distorted and contracted theory of good which ever was framed by religious or philosophical fanaticism can the government of nature be made to resemble the work of a being at once both good and omni-potent.”1
“The problem arises largely from the belief that a ‘good’ God would reward each man according to his deserts and that an ‘almighty’ God would have no difficulty in carrying this out. The fact that rewards and punishments, in the way of happiness and discomfort, appear to be haphazardly distributed in this life drives many to question either the goodness of God or his power.”2
But would God be good if he were to deal with each person exactly according to his behavior? Consider what this would mean in your own life! The whole of the gospel as previewed in the Old and New Testaments is that God’s goodness consists not only in his justice, but also in his love, mercy, and kindness. How thankful all men should be that “He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor requite us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him” (Psalm 103:10, 11) .
The concept of the goodness of God in which he deals with a person on the basis of “just deserts” is also based on the faulty assumption that happiness is the greatest good in life. Happiness is usually thought of in terms of comfort. True, genuine, deep-seated happiness, however, is something much more profound than the ephermeral fleeting enjoyment of the moment. And true happiness is not precluded by suffering. Sometimes in his infinite wisdom, God knows that there are things to be accomplished in our character that can be brought only through suffering. To shield us from this suffering would be to rob us of a greater good. Peter refers to this when he says, “And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, establish, and strengthen you” (1 Peter 5:10).
To see the logical consequences of Mill’s “exact reward” concept of God in his dealings with man, we need only turn to Hinduism. The law of Karma says that all of the actions of life today are the result of the actions of a previous life. Blindness, poverty, hunger, physical deformity, outcastness, and other social agonies are all the outworking of punishment for evil deeds in a previous existence. It would follow that any attempt to alleviate such pain and misery would be an interference with the just ways of God. This concept is one reason why the Hindus did so little for so long for their unfortunates. Some enlightened Hindus today are talking about and working toward social progress and change, but they have not yet reconciled this new concept with the clear, ancient doctrine of Karma, which is basic to Hindu thought and life.
This Karma concept, however, does serve as a neat, simple, clearly understood explanation of suffering: suffering is all the result in previous evildoing.
But is there not a sense in which it is true that Christianity also holds that suffering is punishment from God?
Certainly, in the minds of many, it is. “What did I do to deserve this?” is often the first question on the lips of a sufferer. And the conviction of friends, expressed or unexpressed, frequently operates on this same assumption. The classic treatment of the problem of suffering and evil in the Book of Job shows how this cruel assumption was accepted by Job’s friends. It compounded his already staggering pain.
We surmise from the teaching of both the Old and New Testaments that suffering may be the judgment of God, but that there are many instances when it is totally unrelated to personal wrong-doing. An automatic assumption of guilt and consequent punishment is totally unwarranted.
To be sure, God is not a sentimental, beard-stroking grandfather of the sky with a “boys-will-be-boys” attitude. “Whatever a man sows, that he will also reap” (Galatians 6:7) is a solemn warning to everyone. God afflicted Miriam with leprosy for challenging the authority of Moses, her brother, whom God had appointed leader. He took the life of David’s child, born of his adulterous relationship with Bathsheba. Other examples could be cited. In the New Testament we have the startling example of Ananias and Sapphira, who were struck dead for lying, cheating, and hypocrisy. That there may be a connection between suffering and sin is evident, but that it is not always so is abundantly clear. There is the unambiguous word of Jesus himself on the subject. The disciples apparently adhered to the direct retribution theory of suffering. One day when they saw a man who had been blind from birth, they wanted to know who had sinned to cause this blindness – the man or his parents. Jesus made it clear that neither was responsible for his condition, “but that the works of God might be made manifest in him” (John 9:1-3) .
On receiving word of some Galileans whom Pilate had slaughtered, Jesus went out of his way to point out that they were not greater sinners than other Galileans. He said the eighteen people killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them were not greater sinners than others in Jerusalem. From both incidents he made the point, “Unless you repent you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:1-3).
It is presumptuous to assume automatically, either in our own case or in that of another, that the explanation of any given tragedy or suffering is the judgment of God. Further, as Hopkins observes, it seems clear from biblical examples that if one’s troubles are the just rewards of misdeeds, the sufferer is never left in any doubt when his trouble is a punishment.
Indeed, one of the profound truths of the whole of Scripture is that the judgment of God is preceded by warning. Throughout the Old Testament we have the repeated pleadings of God and warning of judgment. Only after warning is persistently ignored and rejected does judgment come. God’s poignant words are an example: “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked…turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?” (Ezekiel 33:11).
The same theme continues in the New Testament. What more moving picture of God’s love and long suffering is there than Jesus as he weeps over Jerusalem, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem…how often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!” (Matthew 23:37). And the word of Peter that “the Lord is…not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
How could a good God send people to hell? is a question many ask. God sends no one to hell. Each person sends himself. God has done all that is necessary for us to be forgiven, redeemed, cleansed, and made fit for heaven. All that remains is for us to receive this gift. If we refuse it, God has no option but to give us our choice. Heaven, for the person who does not want to be there, would be hell.
Though the judgment of God sometimes explains suffering, there are several other possibilities to consider. Man, as we saw earlier, is responsible for the coming of sin and death into the universe. We must not forget that his wrongdoing is also responsible for a great deal of misery and suffering in the world today. Negligence in the construction of a building has sometimes resulted in its collapse in a storm, with consequent death and injury. How many lives have been snuffed out by the murder of drunken driving? The cheating, lying, stealing, and selfishness which are so characteristic of our society today all reap a bitter harvest of suffering. But we can hardly blame God for it! Think of all the misery that has its origin in the wrongdoing of man – it is remarkable how much suffering is accounted for in this way.
But man is not alone on this planet. God tells of the presence of an enemy. He appears in various forms, we are told, appropriate to the occasion. He may appear as an angel of light or as a roaring lion, depending on the circumstances and his purposes. His name is Satan. It was he whom God allowed to cause Job to suffer. Jesus, in the parable of the good seed and the tares, explains the ruining of the farmer’s harvest by saying, “An enemy has done this” (Matthew 13:28). Satan finds great pleasure in ruining God’s creation and causing misery and suffering. God allows him limited power, but he cannot touch the one in close fellowship with God. “Resist the devil and he will flee from you” (James 4:7), we are assured. Nevertheless, Satan accounts for some of the disease and suffering in the world today.
In answer to the question of why God allows Satan power to bring suffering, we can learn from Robinson Crusoe’s answer to his Man Friday. “Well,” says Friday, “you say God is so strong, so great; has he not as much strong, as much might as the devil?” “Yes, yes,” says I; “Friday, God is much stronger than the devil.” “But If God much strong, much might as the devil, why God no kill the devil so make him no more do wicked?” “You may as well ask,” answers Crusoe reflectively, “why does God not kill you and me when we do wicked things that offend him.”
In considering pain and suffering, whether it be physical or mental, another important consideration must be kept in mind. God is not a distant, aloof, impervious potentate, far removed from his people and their sufferings. He not only is aware of suffering – he feels it. No pain or suffering has ever come to us that has not first passed through the heart and hand of God. However greatly we may suffer, it is well to remember that God is the great sufferer. Comforting are the words of Isaiah the prophet, fore-telling the agony of Christ: “He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). The writer of Hebrews reminds us, “For because he himself has suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted” (Hebrews 2:18). And “We have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning” (Hebrews 4:15).
The problem of evil and suffering is one of the profound problems of the ages. It is becoming increasingly acute in our time, with the advent of The Bomb. There are no easy answers, and we do not have the last word. However, there are clues.
First, as J. B. Phillips has put it, “Evil is inherent in the risky gift of free will.”3
God could have made us machines, but to do so would have robbed us of our precious freedom of choice, and we would have ceased to be human. Exercise of free choice in the direction of evil, in what we call the “fall” of man, is the basic reason for evil and suffering in the world. It is man’s responsibility, not God’s. He could stop it, but in so doing would destroy us all. It is worth noting “that the whole point of real Christianity lies not in interference with the human power to choose, but in producing a willing consent to choose good rather than evil.”4
Unless the universe is without significance, the actions of every individual affect others. No man is an island. To have it otherwise would be like playing a game of chess and changing the rules after every move. Life would be meaningless.
Second, much of the suffering in the world can be traced directly to the evil choices men and women make. This is quite apparent when a holdup man kills someone. Sometimes it is less apparent and more indirect, as when crooked decisions are made in government or business that may bring deprivation and results of natural disasters are sometimes compounded by man’s culpability in refusing to heed warnings of tidal waves, volcanic eruptions, floods, etc.
Third, some – but not all – suffering is allowed by God as judgment and punishment. This is a possibility which must always be considered. God usually allows such suffering with a view to restoration and character formation, and those suffering as a result of their deeds usually know it.
Fourth, God has an implacable enemy in Satan who is free to work his evil deeds until the final judgment by God. That there is in the world a force of evil stronger than man himself is clear from revelation and from experience.
Fifth, God himself is the great sufferer and has fully met the problem of evil in giving his own Son, Jesus Christ, at infinite cost to himself. The consequence of evil for eternity is forever removed; sin is forgiven and we receive new life and power to choose what is right as we embrace the Lord Jesus Christ.
Perhaps the greatest difficulty for faith is to believe that God is good. There is so much which, taken in isolation, suggests the contrary. Helmut Thielecke of Hamburg points out that a fabric viewed through a magnifying glass is clear in the middle and blurred at the edges. But we know the edges are clear because of what we see in the middle. Life, he says, is like a fabric. There are many edges which are blurred, many events and circumstances we do not understand. But they are to be interpreted by the clarity we see in the center – the cross of Christ. We are not left to guess about the goodness of God from isolated bits of data. God has clearly revealed his character and dramatically demonstrated it to us in the Cross. “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him?” (Romans 8:32).
God never asks us to understand; we need only trust him in the same way we ask that our child only trust our love, though he may not understand or appreciate our taking him to the doctor.
Peace comes when we realize we are able to see only a few threads in the great tapestry of life and God’s will, and that we do not have the full picture.
Then we can affirm, with calm relief and joy, that “in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
At times it is our reaction to suffering, rather than the suffering itself, that determines whether the experience is one of blessing or of blight. The same sun melts the butter and hardens the clay.
When with God’s help we can view all of life through the lens of faith in God’s love, we can affirm with Habakkuk the prophet, “Though the fig tree do not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation” (Habakkuk 3:17, 18).