Come, Let Us Reason Together: A Forum about Central Issues of Faith & Skepticism
Cedar Creek Baptist Church - Tawa J. Anderson
Wednesday, March 16 – The Problem of Evil
NOTE - the following are expanded teaching notes from a youth Q&A forum at Cedar Creek Baptist Church in Louisville, KY, last night. Hope you enjoy them!
Why do bad things happen to good people? This is one of the most haunting questions facing modern man. Why does such seemingly senseless tragedy strike such seemingly innocent victims? Why are many babies born with deformities or handicaps? Why are young women in southern Sudan raped and beaten by armed militia from the north? Why are girls in Thailand sold into sexual slavery to provide a few months income for their families and to satisfy the perversions of Western tourists? Why did an unimaginably powerful earthquake in Japan cause a massive tsunami and cause so much destruction and death?
To put the question in another way, why does God allow bad things to happen to good people? If God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving, why is there such deep and senseless evil and suffering on earth? David Hume, the eighteenth century atheist philosopher, stated the logical problem of evil when he inquired about God, "Is He willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then He is impotent. Is He able, but not willing? Then He is malevolent. Is He both able and willing? Whence then is evil?"
According to Hume, and many skeptics since, an all-powerful and loving God would not permit the existence of the evil that we perceive and experience. Indeed, since Hume’s day, the ‘problem of evil’, as it is known, has been the strongest challenge to Christian belief, and a key argument put forward in favor of atheism. The argument is basically thus: ‘if the Christian God exists, then evil would not be. Evil is, therefore God is not.’
We all struggle to understand why God allows horrible things to happen to people who do not deserve it. Tonight we are going to ponder this issue together. I want to suggest that we can come to a better understanding of why bad things happen to good people by identifying the who, the why, the what, and the how of evil and suffering. Who causes evil? Why does God allow evil? What does God do about evil? And How are we to respond to evil? As we search out an understanding of the who, why, what, and how of evil, I pray that God will illuminate our hearts and minds.
Before we delve into the who, why, what, and how of evil, we need to establish two preliminary facts. First, if Christianity is true, then there are no truly ‘good’ people. Second, if there is no God, then there are no truly ‘bad’ things to happen to people. We could spend an entire week talking about both of these fundamental truths, but we simply do not have the time. Thus, I am going to just touch on them briefly and then move on.
I. There are no “Good People”, only “Relatively Good People”
The Bible insists, and human experience confirms, that there are no truly ‘good’ people. Psalm 14:2-3 reads: The Lord looks down from heaven on the sons of men to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. All have turned aside, they have together become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one. Romans 3:9-20 quotes Psalm 14 and builds upon it, insisting that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin. Verse 20 concludes: Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.
The bad news of humanity, which must be understood before we can acknowledge the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, is that we are all alike sinners deserving of God’s just condemnation. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Only after acknowledging universal sinfulness can we proclaim that we are all justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. The bad news precedes the good news. This is crucial when we consider why bad things happen to ‘good’ people. The bottom line is that no one is truly ‘good’; there are only ‘relatively good’ people. We are ‘relatively good’ in comparison to Hitler or Charles Manson. But none of us is ‘relatively good’ compared to God. God alone is good. We are good only insofar as we have the spirit of the living God within us. This truth has no impact upon our existential experience of evil and suffering, and it does not answer the question that we have asked. It just helps us to realize that we have to put good in quotation marks. The real question is ‘why do bad things happen’, period.
II. Outside of Christianity, there are no “Bad Things”, only “Things I Don’t Like”
Now consider this – what makes ‘bad’ things bad? To consider something ‘bad’, there must be some kind of objective standard to which it is being compared. As Christians, we certainly have this standard – something is ‘bad’ insofar as it falls short of the goodness and glory and perfection of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But what about others? Where does their definition of ‘bad’ come from? For most Eastern religions, including Buddhism, Hinduism, and Sikhism, nothing is truly and objectively ‘bad’. Something may be maya, that is, illusory; but fundamental reality is one, Brahman, and transcends our categories of good and evil. There is not good and evil, there is only ‘is’. Evil is an illusion; suffering is an illusion. Thus, in those worldviews there is no point in asking the question ‘why do bad things happen to good people?’, because there are no ‘bad’ things.
How about the atheist? He fares no better. If there is no God, there is no objective standard of ‘good’ and ‘bad’. There is only ‘what I prefer’ and ‘what you prefer’; or what different cultures prefer. Without a transcendent source for morality, we are driven to some form of ethical relativism. But then the whole argument against Christianity based on the existence of pointless evil and suffering collapses. C. S. Lewis writes:
“My [old atheistic] argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? … Of course, I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too – for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my fancies. Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist – in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless – I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality – namely my idea of justice – was full of sense.” (C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity)
If there is no God, then there is no such thing as objective evil; but then there is no problem of evil to begin with. An atheist can rail against the existential unlikeability of things that happen, but he can hardly shake his fist at the God in whom he willfully disbelieves, and blame God for allowing evil to persist. Only the Christian can raise the question of why bad things happen to ‘good’ people, because we have a transcendent standard by which some things are indeed declared ‘evil’ or ‘bad’. Again, this does not minimize the reality and significance of evil and suffering—it only sets the framework for our discussion. There are no ‘good’ people, because we are all sinners by nature, and unless Christianity is true, there are no ‘bad’ things to happen to anybody. With that groundwork in place, let’s proceed to our discussion of the who, why, what, and how of evil.
III. Who Causes Evil? The impact of human sin
First, who causes evil? Where does it come from? Why is there suffering at all? In Genesis 1, God creates the universe and everything within it. In verse 31, we read: God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. In the beginning, creation was good. There was no evil, no suffering. But in Genesis 3, the picture changes. Adam and Eve disobey God, rebel against God’s loving Lordship, and plunge all of creation into a state of fallen sinfulness. Their sin affects not just their own relationship with God, but the status of the entire created order. Where does evil come from? Quite simply, from the sin of mankind. Why are young girls in Thailand sold into sexual slavery? Because of the moral evil of men and women around them—their parents’ sinful decision to sell them off, the sinful institutions in their country which perpetually impoverish their families, and the sinful perversions of sex tourists who come to Thailand solely to despoil and molest enslaved Thai women. Why do deformities and handicaps affect many children? Because the fall of man introduced sin and imperfection into the created order, including the genetic reproduction of humanity. Evil exists because human sin exists.
IV. Why does God Allow Evil?
Second, why does Almighty God allow evil? Granted that evil stems from the sinfulness of humanity. Why does God allow it? If God is all-powerful, why doesn’t He stop children from being born deformed? Why doesn’t He stop women from being abused? Why doesn’t He protect New Orleans from being decimated by hurricanes and floods? Before I begin to answer this question, I want you to note the irony of this complaint against God. Atheists frequently want to be left alone to do what they want to do, morally and intellectually speaking. In other words, they want God to let them do what they want to do. If they want to have sex with a multitude of women, let them. If they want to think that words are a power game and have no intrinsic meaning, let them. They want to be left alone. They certainly do not want ‘God’ (in whom, again, they do not believe) to interfere in their lives and disrupt their plans. And yet they raise a howl of protest against intuitively-known evil, and insist that if there was an all-powerful God, He ought not to let such things occur. They want God to intervene and prevent other people from perpetrating evil (that is, from doing the evil that they want to do), but they forbid God from intervening and preventing themselves from perpetrating what others might perceive as evil. Which is it? Do they want a God who intervenes in earthly affairs, or not?
A) Human Freedom
Why does God allow evil to occur? Why does He permit relatively good people to endure incredible suffering? First off, we must acknowledge that if God so desired, He could eliminate all evil and suffering with one word from His mouth. After all, God is all-powerful. However, we might not like what was left of the world if God did that, as we will come to see presently. At any rate, we can point to three broad reasons that God allows evil to occur. First, and most commonly and generally, God permits evil to occur because He has endowed men and women with free will, and does not intervene to prevent His creatures from carrying out their freely-chosen evil intentions. We are all consciously aware of having the power of choice – the ability to determine what we do today and tomorrow. To be sure, we are strongly influenced and directed by our particular genetic make-up, as well as our environmental upbringing. Nonetheless, we choose our course of action. Thomas could decide to go out after church on Sunday and bring sandwiches and cold ice tea to the homeless people living on the streets of Louisville. Christian, meanwhile, could choose to slip thumbtacks into the shoes and hats of those same homeless people. One would be choosing to do good, the other to do evil. But both would be making a decision to act. God would not approve of Christian’s actions. Christian would be acting contrary to God’s prescriptive will – that is, what God desires and directs to happen. Christian’s act would fall under God’s permissive will – that is, what God allows to happen, even though it may be contrary to His character and commandments. The vast majority of evil and suffering we complain about is due to the sinfulness of mankind. The argument that God should not allow such evil to occur is really a demand that God should make man to be something other than what He is—that mankind should be compelled and forced by God to act rightly, instead of being exhorted, encouraged, and entreated to do what is right. A world without evil would be a world without free-willed men; a world of robotic androids, incapable of forming relationships, incapable of expressing worship, incapable of ‘doing good’ because they are incapable of choosing their path in any way. That is why we as human beings really do not want God to eliminate all evil and suffering—because if He did, we would cease to be conscious of anything. Removing the possibility of human-perpetrated evil also removes the possibility of human good.
B) Suffering as Discipline and Judgment
There are two other reasons that God permits evil and suffering. On the one hand, He sometimes allows us to experience a wake-up call—such as when a man who has been eating deep-fried fatty foods for years suffers a mild heart attack and ponders his need to alter his lifestyle and diet. God sometimes leads us through suffering in order to refine our character and will. Other times, suffering is a more direct judgment for sin, as when God judges His chosen nation of Israel in the Old Testament for their rebellion against Him, and sends them into exile in Babylon.
C) Suffering/Evil and the Greater Good
On the other hand, God often uses apparent evil to accomplish a greater good which we can not see because of our limited human perspective. Indeed, the comforting promise of Romans 8:28 is that we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. From my perspective (and I know there are many who disagree with this), God does not approve of or will the evil that occurs, but He does redeem it, working in the midst of great evil to accomplish greater good.
V. What does God Do about Evil and Suffering?
Indeed, that is part of the answer to our third question: What does God do about evil? Granted that mankind is the source of evil, and that God permits it primarily because He has divinely created us to be creatures with the freedom to choose good or evil—what does God do about it? Is He merely standing on the sidelines, cheering on the ‘good guys’ while booing the ‘evil ones’? Is He wringing His hands helplessly, weeping over His inability to rein in the forces of doom and darkness? In addition to working good out of evil, I suggest that there are four things that we can identify God as ‘doing’ about the evil and suffering in the world.
A) Grieves Over
First, God grieves with us over evil in the world. In Matthew 23:37, Jesus cries out: O 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, but you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. Jesus is grieved by the unwillingness of the people of Israel to acknowledge and embrace His messianic ministry. Throughout Scripture, we see God expressing sympathy for those who are suffering, and promising to provide comfort to those who are afflicted. God grieves with us as we suffer, and carries us through the darkest times of our suffering.
B) Condemns and Judges
Second, God condemns evil. In Matthew 23:23, Jesus expresses strong anger and condemnation towards the evil of the religious leaders of Israel. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. If you want even stronger expressions of condemnation for evil, check out the Old Testament prophets. A brief taste from Amos 2:6 – For three sins of Israel, even for four, I will not turn back my wrath. They sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. They trample on the heads of the poor as upon the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed. Father and son use the same girl and so profane my holy name. God judges and condemns evil in all forms, from whatever corner it comes. God’s Church is not exempt from condemnation—if and when evil is perpetrated by professing Christians, God can and will condemn it also.
C) Absorbs and Endures
Third, God takes evil upon Himself. God descends to earth in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Though a righteous, sinless man, incarnate God suffers intense evil at the hands of sinful men. Whatever suffering and evil we have endured, Jesus has gone through similar or worse. Furthermore, when Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem, He assumed upon Himself the evil that we have committed, and endured the punishment that we had earned. For example, 2 Corinthians 5:21 reads – God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. As Jesus hangs on the cross, bearing upon Himself all of our evil and consequent punishment, God the Father judges the evil present upon God the Son. Jesus experiences this divine abandonment, and cries out: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Never lose sight of the fact that the suffering of the cross is real, and that Jesus takes evil willingly upon Himself. God does not just witness evil from the sidelines; He enters into human suffering and takes it upon Himself.
D) Ultimately & Finally Defeats
Finally, God gives His divine and certain promise that evil will one day be defeated and eradicated. We live as fallen creatures in a fallen creation, but God has assured us that He will one day remake creation and re-establish for all eternity a righteous, perfect order. Revelation 16-20 (like many other biblical passages) describe the future defeat, judgment, and demise of Satan and other workers of evil; Revelation 21 then opens with a beautiful picture of the paradise that awaits us when evil is eradicated. Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. God grieves over evil; He condemns it; He takes it upon Himself to redeem us; and He will ultimately defeat and demolish all evil and suffering.
VI. How are We to Respond to Evil and Suffering?
With all that in mind, then, how are we to respond to evil? Are we to throw our hands up in the air and cry: ‘There’s nothing we can do about it! We live in a terrible world!’? Or are we to take a shotgun and shoot whoever around us seems to be most evil? How does God desire us to respond to evil around us, and the evil that we ourselves endure. First, we need to have the same attitude as that of Christ Jesus, as Philippians 2:1-11 reminds us. We must grieve with others who encounter evil and experience suffering, and seek to comfort them and carry them through their trials. We must also condemn the evil that exists in our society—as well as the evil that exists within ourselves. We must not be content to accept the inevitability of evil and suffering, but rather are called by God to strive against it. In the Lord’s prayer, we pray: Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. We truly desire for God’s will to be done here, and thus we struggle and fight against evil, injustice, and sources of human suffering.
Finally, when we experience evil personally, we must keep fresh in our minds the convicting, challenging, but comforting words of the apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 – Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. Yes, our suffering may be intense; the evil we encounter may be gratuitous, grievous evil. But we must keep in mind the victory over death and evil and suffering that is ours through faith in Jesus Christ. Just as Christ won the victory over sin and death through His glorious resurrection, so too we are assured of our own victory over evil and death. Just as Christ was raised from the dead to eternal life with God the Father, so too we are assured of our own resurrection to eternal life.
Who causes evil? We do. Why does God allow evil to persist? Because He created us with the freedom to choose, for good or for evil, and allows us to act accordingly. What does God do about the evil that He permits? He brings good out of it, grieves over it, condemns it, takes it upon Himself, and ultimately defeats it. How are we to respond to evil? We are to grieve over it, condemn it, and keep our eyes focused upon the redemption of our suffering through our future resurrection.