Articles and Outlines - Contemporary Issues - If God is So Good - Why Does He Allow Suffering?


If God is So Good - Why Does He Allow Suffering?

Author: Russ Wise
Date: 2/15/2008 10:59:02 AM


 


The story was heart-rending! A mother and her three children were on their way to visit her husband and the children’s father as he lay in the hospital recovering from wounds he received fighting for his country in the Middle East. On their way they had an accident and the three children were killed. Some would ask where was God in this tragedy. How could this happen if God was good? Others would say – God does not exist. If there was a God he would certainly not allow something like this to happen.


This question or questions similar to it are asked daily by individuals who experience pain or distress and question whether God exists or whether he cares for those who suffer. Sadly, questions such as these cause some to question their faith and wonder if God really has the capacity to love them and see after their best interest. For many, the ultimate question is: If God exists why does he allow evil? On the other hand, If there is no God, why is there so much good in the world?


The above sentiment – If God exists why does he allow evil? – has become a growing concern for an increasing number of people inside the church and certainly outside the faith as well. The problem of evil has caused many to stumble. The question or issue that needs to be considered is how God’s nature relates to evil. Is God the initiator of evil or does evil spring from another source. If the latter, how does one rightly understand evil without unjustly blaming God.


A pertinent example is found in Lee Strobel’s book, The Case For Faith.1 Strobel tells how the evangelist and former associate of Billy Graham, Charles Templeton, came to lose his faith as a result of seeing a photograph in Life magazine. The photo was of a black woman in North Africa holding her dead baby in her arms. The child’s death came as the result of a drought and subsequent famine. Templeton could not get past the fact that all this woman needed was rain. His conclusion? If God truly existed and truly loved his creation he would certainly have brought rain for those who were so desperate. For Templeton, God did not seem to have this woman’s, nor her baby’s, best interest at heart. Templeton’s response is all too often the response of others . . . it’s impossible to believe that there is any thing or person or being that could be described as a loving God who could allow what happens in our world daily.2


John Stott, the British theologian, makes this observation regarding suffering. The fact of suffering undoubtedly constitutes the single greatest challenge to the Christian faith, and has been in every generation. Its distribution and degree appear to be entirely random and therefore unfair. Sensitive spirits ask if it can possibly be reconciled with God’s justice and love.3 


As previously indicated evil or the with-holding of what is perceived to be good, is either to be placed at the feet of a holy and loving God or is it to be accounted to another. Templeton among others was unable to clearly distinguish between God’s judgments and evil that is administered by the hand of another.


The problem of evil was succinctly defined by the philosopher, Epicurus. Either God wants to abolish evil, and cannot; or he can, but does not want to; or he cannot and does not want to. If he wants to, but cannot, he is impotent. If he can, and does not want to, he is wicked. But, it God both can and wants to abolish evil, then how comes evil in the world? People throughout history have attempted to identify the central problem – God may indeed be good but He is simply weak; God may be able to accomplish some good but He is not fully good; God is not personable but an energy force and so evil cannot be dealt with directly. It is an illusion. It really doesn’t exist! On the other hand there are those who believe that man creates his personal reality and that evil is really his/her fault. These views are at best confusing to most and often become obstacles to one’s understanding; however, there is an answer that I personally believe will satisfy the Truth seeker. We will consider it later!


The Standard for Goodness


            If we are to question the reality of God and whether evil negates His goodness, we need to first define what good is and how it relates to evil. Evil can be understood as the absence or corruption of goodness. We can only know of the existence of evil by knowing goodness. The reality is – evil presupposes a standard for goodness. Furthermore, God is the standard for holiness and absolute righteousness. God alone is pure and separate from all that is imperfect – impure. Therefore, God is the only possible standard for goodness! We could not know or understand the effect of evil unless we first knew goodness.


            God is not only holy, He is righteous and just. The scriptures tell us of His righteousness and justness.4 Strobel helps make the point by quoting Peter Kreeft, if there is no God, where did we get the standard of goodness by which we judge evil as evil? 5 We know evil is less than God’s perfection because we have the Father to compare it with. Another example would be to ask, how could I know if we are experiencing a dark and dreadful day unless I had previously experienced a gloriously beautiful day. It would be impossible unless there was a standard of beauty to compare it with. We can only judge evil by knowing God’s goodness.


            Another way to understand evil is to recognize that it does not exist by itself, because it does not exist apart from good. Evil exists as a corruption of some good thing; it is a privation and does not have essence by itself.6 In other words, we can only know or experience evil because there is a standard of righteousness and goodness.


            The fact that we have an objective standard of goodness indicates that God exists because he is pure and holy. Evil would be unknowable without such a comparison.


The Problem with Free Will


            Another concern that often causes individuals to question the veracity of Christianity is that “good” people suffer as well as those who seem to do evil. In their view, “good people” should be exempt from suffering. The plain truth is that the individual’s free will has opened the doorway to sin and the potential of evil.


            God, as a result of his deep and abiding love for us, allowed us to experience free will in all that we choose. He took the greatest risk in that He freely gave us the choice to follow His guidelines or choose for ourselves whom we would serve. Sadly, we chose to serve ourselves7 rather than our heavenly Father – our Creator. The result was disastrous. Adam and Eve’s failure became our universal condition. Sin entered a perfect and good world and mankind has suffered the consequences ever since. Free will has a cost.


            The original creation was deemed very good and without the destructive elements of sin, evil, and ultimately – death. God had provided man with a pure and perfect environment where he could enjoy the fruit of God’s creation. Sadly, our first parents chose wrongly and gave rise to their selfish desires. God made evil a possibility by allowing mankind free will, but man made it actual by preferring himself over his Creator.


God allowed man the freedom to choose his destiny and sin became our future. As a result, the ripple effect of that first offense has cascaded down through millennia. The tragic choice by Adam and Eve caused a ripple that has taken on a greater significance as it has intersected with the ever-widening ripples of millions of others and set a new standard of human misery. We, in good faith, cannot blame God for the devastation caused by the ripple affect that originated in the Garden of Eden – for us to do so would be to project our sin on God.


 God freely gave us choice (free will) as a result of His great love for us. Without the freedom to choose we cannot freely love. God did not create automatons without the ability to express feelings or obedience. He created us as free agents to choose for ourselves and ultimately experience true freedom – the freedom to love and to be loved. If God had created us without the choice to sin we would have not been able to love and subsequently be truly human. Surely God foreknew that evil was a potentiality when He gave mankind the gift of free will. It is because of that gift that God has suffered great sadness over his creation – in that we choose to reject His fellowship and stand in disobedience. In the end we cannot hold God accountable for our choice to serve our lusts.


Free will means that we choose our own destiny. It is not forced upon us – it is our choice. Since the vast majority of suffering in our world is caused by man’s sin (the ripple effect) it is of the greatest importance that we use our free wills wisely. To our benefit, God will not override man’s free will to bring about a different outcome. For Him to do so would be an affront to man’s genuine freedom and moral responsibility. God has given us His Word as a guide to instruct us in His ways – the ways of obedience. Our response is to rightly apply those principles in our lives so we might have His favor and enter into right relationship with our Creator.


Man’s Disobedience and Satan’s Gain


             Our potential for choosing unwisely did not begin in the Garden of Eden. It actually began in heaven when Lucifer decided to usurp the rightful position held by God.8 Lucifer’s pride caused him to make such an attempt and the result was devastating. Thus, the first ripple appeared and humanity has suffered its consequences to this day!


            Lucifer initiated sin (disobedience) and eventually enticed Eve to disobey God’s command related to the Tree of Good and Evil. Adam and Eve’s act of disobedience initiated a ripple that has had a destructive impact on mankind resulting in great suffering and evil. This ripple unleashed the ever-present enemy of man – his fleshly desires to have his own way. The flesh and its propensity for satisfying its lusts have caused far greater suffering and pain than Adam and Eve could have ever imagined. Once sinful disobedience was in place and God’s plan was overridden man has had to fight the enemy from without and from within. Another important point to understand is that when Adam rejected God’s protection His control was also forfeited. Adam and his offspring would suffer the repercussions of such a decision.9


            Adam and Eve are responsible for their personal sin against God just as Lucifer is accountable for his actions. The reality for us is that we too are responsible for our sinful actions as well. We have all transgressed God’s Law and we will suffer the consequences.10 The Bible gives us some understanding regarding the works of the flesh: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissentions, factions, and envy.11 These actions result in great suffering for those on whom the actions are perpetrated. Satan plays an integral part in their use to inflict harm on the innocent.


            Conversely – God’s plan is for man to exemplify the following attributes to further strengthen himself in an otherwise ungodly world. Paul encouraged his fellow believers with these words: Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think on these things.12


            One particular aspect of understanding why mankind suffers evil in his or her life is to realize that we are in the midst of a war for our allegiance. Whom will we serve – God or ourselves (the lusts of the flesh)? The latter will cause us and the balance of humanity to suffer sin’s consequences. Job is the perfect example! He lived a life that reflected God’s will for himself and his family. Yet God took everything away from him; his home, his land, his family and ultimately his health. Job’s response was not to blame God although his wife and his friends counseled him otherwise.13 He remained faithful and true to his understanding of God’s righteousness. He trusted God!


            Job did not understand the whys or the reasoning for his suffering and the subsequent evil that befell him, but he honored God and in the end God honored him. We never know when we are in the midst of our pain and suffering what the source is or who is to blame. Our response should mirror Job’s – trust God and believe He will use your pain to bring about His perfect will in your life.


Other Pathways to Pain and Suffering


            The consequences of man’s selfish desires cause other ripples to affect humanity and cause pain and suffering. God allows these ripples to play out in man’s circumstances with the hope that they will cause him to return to righteousness through repentance. God desires for man to see his error and return to the place where he is loved and subsequently restored in right relationship with his Creator.


            Sadly, we have exerted our free will and chosen to serve ourselves. A primary part of this rebellion is that we seek personal happiness over obedience to a loving Father who desires our best.


            Some time ago I was asked to help a young man understand the dangers of becoming involved in a Transformational Seminar14 After several hours of attempting to point out the pitfalls of The Landmark Education Corp. I was stumped when he said all I want is to be happy and I believe this is the way to true happiness. I was left with my hat in my hand because he just could not get past the idea that a loving God would surely want him to be happy. Every point I made he viewed through the prism of his desire for personal happiness.


            One of the major myths that we need to counter is that God’s primary purpose is to secure our happiness. The enemy of man’s righteousness has blinded his prey once again. Many in our culture believe this myth to be true. They do not recognize that God’s goal is to bring us into right relationship with Himself. Sadly, we have sought to transform ourselves rather than conform to the will of our God. God’s will is that we conform to His image and seek His Truth rather than our own. He is far more interested in building our character through suffering if necessary rather than contributing to our personal indulgences. We have forgotten that our primary reason for existing is to glorify Him (our Creator) and serve Him in all our ways. In short – our goal is to become Christ-like.


            Another opportunity for man’s suffering and an avenue for his pain to be accentuated is his proclivity to follow false teachings or false beliefs. Our belief system or worldview has great influence over how we interpret the circumstances in our lives. How we live our lives is largely shaped by what we believe – doctrinally. It – our worldview – will invariably have an impact on how we relate to others. If we believe in polygamy as fundamentalist Mormons do we will have a given set of circumstances that will shape our lives. We may have all the “scriptural” evidence needed to live our lives in such a system, but when we stand before a righteous Judge who spoke and taught otherwise we may find ourselves rejected.


            We could cite thousands of cases where individuals and families have been ensnared by destructive cults by the cunning of man or the deception of The Evil One. These decisions have consequences that stand outside of God’s reach. As stated earlier, He will not transgress our free will. He will, however, make every attempt to redeem it to serve our best interest.


            Paul Blizzard, a third generation Jehovah’s Witness was horrified when he was told that he needed to allow his six-year-old daughter to die because The Watchtower did not allow blood transfusions. His false belief system ran head-long into his personal life. It became a life and death scenario for himself and his family. Ultimately he found God’s Truth concerning the matter and escaped The Watchtower with his family’s well-being intact. False beliefs can bring great pain and suffering to those who fall under their spell.


            One pitfall that ensnares the unsuspecting is the notion that we can create our own reality. That’s right – some believe we can chart our personal destiny. For the most part those who hold such a belief are caught up in what has become known as the New Age – a remix of Paganism and the occult.


            Rhonda Byrne,15 the film producer and author of The Secret, teaches this idea – we are responsible for our personal destiny. In short, we create our future. Her film and her book are filled with anecdotes of how individuals have literally become healthy, wealthy, and happy by implementing her “secret”. The cold hard facts tell another story about The Secret. Don’t get me wrong – The Secret works! The problem is that it works as an extension of the occult influences in one’s life. The reality is that Ms. Byrne’s secret is the Trojan Horse that will ultimately bring destruction to its victim. Another false belief that lures the unsuspecting, but in the end destroys one’s relationship with a holy God. Perhaps there is one saving grace regarding man’s ability to create his personal reality – it takes God off the hook. If man is “God” then he is personally responsible for any negative outcomes he may endure as a result of following his deified instincts.


            An Eastern perspective on reality is also a pitfall that has ensnared millions of followers. The monist or pantheist worldview has caused much suffering and pain in the world. The idea that all is one or that we are all God is or can be an alluring proposition. However, on close examination the observer realizes that such a worldview has embedded within it an impure reality. Detachment and fatalism are unrelenting and unforgiving outcomes of these beliefs.


Detachment causes one to literally isolate himself from the rest of society – in his search for the divine within. Detachment causes the believer to discount the needs of others because, as you might suppose, they have caused or created their own reality and rightly deserve their punishment. They are responsible so the observer is given a pass. Fatalism is a great concern because it sends the believer into a downward spiral that will ultimately bring about a deep depression and eventual death. Fatalism does not allow for a loving God to intervene in one’s life to bring about beauty and wholeness. What happens – happens – and life is lived without redemption or forgiveness. In Hinduism one’s fate is indelibly written at birth depending which caste system he or she is born into.


            Satan, the Deceiver and the Father of Lies, has one goal in mind. That is to deceive as many people as he can to join him in his eternal state – in rebellion outside of God’s will.


            A growing number of individuals are turning to reincarnation16 as the answer to man’s dilemma concerning the problem with evil. In reincarnation the concept of evil is easily understood. It is a result of one’s past deeds that were deemed to be malevolent according to the Universe.17 The Law of Karma states that when one dies he or she is held responsible for his or her previous acts whether they be good or evil. 


Of course reincarnation plays a distinctive role in Eastern thought (New Age Pantheism) and diffuses one’s sense of a need for God. Those who hold to such a view would also be influenced by the other aspects of pantheistic monism. In my view, the predominate lure of an Eastern worldview is that the adherent does not have to give allegiance to a holy and jealous God, nor give credence to the claims of Jesus Christ on his or her life. In short, he or she does not see a need to offer his obedience or servant-hood to an authority outside themselves. Another reason many in the West give credibility to reincarnation is that in the end everyone reaches Moksha or to escape the wheel of rebirth and to experience union with the Divine – there is no hell in which one needs to be fearful.


Natural Disasters and Suffering


            We have identified several avenues by which evil and suffering find their way into our lives. They are for the most part satisfactory in helping us understand why man suffers evil. The ripple effect is all-encompassing and no one is exempt.


            Although we have considered many causes of man’s suffering we have not yet considered the pain and suffering brought about by natural disasters. The causes mentioned above and how man plays a major role in their affect because of his fallen state is understandable. However, the suffering brought to bear by natural disasters is quite another issue facing those who seek further understanding.


            Truth seekers from all persuasions find it difficult to adequately understand the seemingly random destruction and resulting suffering caused by such events. We had mentioned earlier that we do have a potentially satisfactory answer to the confusing views concerning the problem of evil. It is difficult to fully understand the information I am about to share with you since we have finite comprehension of how God works in our lives.18


            The one underlying question that is raised in each of the views regarding evil is that God is not fully good. Some believe He is limited because of weakness, powerlessness or the probability in some minds that He is not personable, but simply an energy force that has no ability to deal with evil. This idea that God is not fully good comes into play especially when natural disasters occur. So what purpose can such disasters possibly play in the lives of mankind – specifically for his good?


            Suffering that is caused by tornadoes, earthquakes, and hurricanes is perhaps the most difficult to resolve in our finite minds. Yet there is a reasonable answer to man’s question regarding such evil.


            Paul Copan makes the following observation concerning natural disasters, As surprising as it may seem, events such as hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes are actually necessary for the benefit of humankind. Planetary scientists affirm that these events must occur for the earth to maintain its delicate balances of atmospheric and other environmental conditions necessary for humans to survive.19  


            Copan references Hugh Ross regarding hurricanes by stating, [They] counterbalance the ocean’s tendency to leach carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This leaching, if unchecked, would result in a catastrophic cooling of the planet. On the other hand, hurricanes prevent the oceans from trapping too much of the sun’s heat by helping to circulate greenhouse gases globally as they shade the ocean locally, preventing heat from building up too dramatically for the safety of certain sea creatures.20


            Copan further makes the point regarding earthquakes, The shifting tectonic plates allows the essential nutrients for life to be recycled back onto the continents. Without earthquakes, ‘nutrients essential for land life would erode off the continents and accumulate in the oceans. In a relatively brief time, land creatures, at least the advanced species, would starve.’ 21


            Natural occurrences in the earth’s climate that include tornadoes, hurricanes, and earthquakes – according to Ross – actually allow for the survival of humanity. If the earth’s axis were to move slightly it would have a catastrophic outcome. According to some the non-existence of such natural occurrences (disasters) would potentially have an equally catastrophic affect on human survival. In this author’s view this is a theory that is or will be unlikely to be tested to our satisfaction. In the end only God knows for certain the potential outcome of man’s poor choices or atmospheric turbulence.


            On the other hand natural disasters may simply happen because we live in a world where adjustments to our environment must occasionally occur in order to keep our environment in alignment with natural forces. This possibility certainly has merit and may very well be the most acceptable to those who seek an understanding of such events – without causing a glitch in their world view.


            We as finite beings have somewhat muddied the waters. By our choice to serve ourselves rather than our Creator we have caused the ripples of rebellion to color our lives and our perception of who God is and how He has chosen to deal with us. Our free-will coupled with our self-serving choices has brought great pain into our world. Thankfully, God has extended grace and mercy toward us rather than what we deserve.


Living Life as a Pseudo-realist


            In God’s view human life is seen as a proving ground for the individual. God desires to have a loving relationship with man centered in fellowship.22 Our primary problem lies in the fact that we too often get caught up in our daily struggles and forget our purpose. We live life as if our present life is all there is to our existence. In short, we do not have an eternal perspective. Our focus is off and we are unable to correct it by regaining a true alignment – we need to allow our Lord to gently conform us into the individual He created us to be. In essence – to realign our true self into His image.


            Paul Copan makes this observation regarding man’s destiny, We make free choices that move us toward or away from God, that determine our heavenly (or damned) status. Our final bliss (or condemned status) is the result of freely made choices that have shaped the direction of our lives and our destiny. . . As we form our characters, we set our spiritual compass for that location in which the lives we desire for ourselves are most fully and naturally realized.23 


            Charles Templeton freely chose to reject God’s love and mercy. He could not reconcile the image in his mind of the little girl held in her mother’s arms with what he had previously believed to be a loving and caring God. Templeton, as others have done, decided to question God and ultimately deny God’s presence in his life.


We have considered several reasons for man’s pain and suffering. The perspective offered above may or may not provide an adequate answer to the question of suffering for Templeton, but it does, in this author’s opinion, shed some light on the path to better understanding man’s role in his present dilemma. In my view God has offered mankind the best possible outcome recognizing the situation we find ourselves in.


            God’s desire is for us to choose rightly and see our suffering and pain as opportunities to recognize His out-stretched hand of love and mercy. We can only know pain and suffering if we have once known Perfect Goodness. We are not well served if God were to shelter us from pain. However, we are well served by remembering that Jesus suffered the cross for our sake. God knows pain and He has suffered for and with us. The Father through Jesus has provided us the greatest example concerning suffering. He freely gave us freedom to choose how we would live – to either accept Him or to reject His favor. It is now our responsibility to choose how we will respond!


            His wish is that we will someday conform to His character and spend eternity with Him. Our ancestors, Adam and Eve, severed the bond between our Creator and His creation. Our responsibility is to regain that which was lost through our suffering and pain – rightly recognizing the joy we will experience because we have passed through the threshold of acceptance.


Notes:



  1. Strobel, Lee, The Case For Faith, Grand Rapids, MI, Zondervan, 2000, p. 10-18.

  2. Ibid., p. 15.

  3. Stott, John R.W., The Cross of Christ, Downers Grove, IL., Inter-Varsity Press, 1986, p. 311.

  4. Righteous: Ezra 9:15; Jeremiah 12:1; Psalm 11:7, 33:5; 89:14. Just: Genesis 18:25; John 17:25; Hebrews 6:10.

  5. Strobel, p. 34.

  6. Boa, Ken and Larry Moody, I’m Glad You Asked, Wheaton, IL., Victor Books, 1994, p. 129.

  7. Genesis 3:13.

  8. Isaiah 14:12-17.

  9. McCallum, Dennis, Christianity The Faith That Makes Sense, Wheaton, IL., Living Books (Tyndale House Pub.), 1992, p. 129.

  10. Romans 3:23; Isaiah 53:4-6.

  11. Galatians 5:20-21.

  12. Philippians 4:8.

  13. Geisler, L. Norman and Meister, Chad V., Reasons for Faith, Wheaton, IL., Crossway Books, 2007, p. 250-251.

  14. See: http://christianinformation.org/article.asp?artID=28 Transformational Seminars.

  15. See: http://christianinformation.org/article.asp?artID=109 The Secret.

  16. See: http://christianinformation.org/article.asp?artID=90 Reincarnation. 25-30% of professing Christians are believed to accept reincarnation as a valid teaching.

  17. See: http://christianinformation.org/article.asp?artID=109 The Universe.

  18. Isaiah 55:8.

  19. Copan, Paul, That’s Just Your Interpretation, Grand Rapids, MI., Baker Books, 2001, p. 98.

  20. Ibid., p. 98.

  21. Ibid., p. 98.

  22. 2 Chronicles 16:9; Jeremiah 29:11; John 4:23; 1 Peter 3:18.

  23. Copan, p. 107.

 




Author's Comments:
The question of suffering and evil has been a stumbling block to many who have questioned God's unfailing love. Our finite minds cannot conceive how God would allow such evil and suffering in His Creation. It is my desire that the reader find some consolation in the above treatment of the subject.

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