Trinity Baptist Church: Sunday School, Mar. 8, 2009
Week 4: The problem of evil, suffering, and divine judgment (RFG, Ch. 2, Ch. 5). If God is good, why is there evil in the world? How can a loving God send people to hell?
The problem of evil and suffering is a very sensitive one to treat apologetically because of the two very different motives people might have in appealing to it. On the one hand, the question might be purely intellectual and philosophical. In that case, I think that direct apologetic answers are appropriate. On the other hand, the problem might be extremely personal in nature. The person might have experienced terrible suffering themselves. In that case, I think that the biblical response is first to care for them (“weep with those who weep, mourn with those who mourn” Rom 12:15) and second to point them to Christ as the ultimate reassurance of God’s care. I’ll first deal with the intellectual answers and then move on to the personal answers.
God cannot exist because there is evil in the world.
This is obviously a false statement. Certainly the existence of evil in the world doesn’t disprove the existence of Zeus or Baal. Perhaps God is, as the Greeks thought, a fickle and occasionally malevolent deity. So when someone claims that God cannot exist because of evil and suffering, it is important that they recognize that they must be talking about a particular God with particular qualities.
God cannot be both all powerful and all-loving if there is evil in the world.
In other words, God is either able to put an end to evil, but unwilling to do so, or he is willing to put an end to evil, but unable to do so. However, there is a third possibility, which is that God is both willing and able to put an end to evil and will do so one day, but still has some purpose for allowing evil to continue in the present. In fact, this is precisely what the Bible tells us God will do one day. Throughout the Bible, God promises that one day he will judge the world and all people with justice and will right all wrongs.
There can be no purpose for the present evil and suffering in the world.
Hidden in this conclusion is the assumption that if we cannot see the purpose for the present evil and suffering in the world, then there cannot be such a purpose. Is this a valid conclusion? Imagine that I am a lumberjack and I observe a mother bird building her nest in a tree that I know will be cut down the next day, killing her and all her children. Let’s say I shake the tree until she flies away. But later she returns, and I again shake the tree until she flies away. This process continues until she finally leaves the tree and builds her nest elsewhere. From her perspective, there is absolutely no justification for what I have done. But she’s a bird, and I’m a human! Clearly, I have reasons that she doesn’t perceive and that she could not comprehend were I to share them with her. Don’t we, as humans, stand in far inferior relation to God than a bird does to a human? If we believe in a God so powerful as to have created the whole universe, and so loving that he sustains the whole universe, don’t we have a God so transcendent that he may have reasons that we cannot understand?
What are the Biblical answers to the problem of evil?
I think that it is important, as always, to turn to Scripture and to look for answers to the problem of evil. If we do so, I think we find some interesting things.
First, we find we are often rebuked for questioning God’s goodness as it relates to the presence of evil (Job 38, Rom 9:19-21). Why? We forget our position before God. We don’t come to God as nobly disinterested third parties asking an objective question. In fact, we come before God as the wicked perpetrators of all kinds of evil. It is one thing on a human level for an innocent man who has been the victim of robbery to cry out and ask why the police haven’t intervened. It is a very different thing for the robber to question innocently why the police haven’t intervened. We all come before God not only as the victims of evil, but always, always as the perpetrators of evil. For this reason, we should be humbled out of the often arrogant stance that we take towards the problem of evil, which is essentially this: “If I were God, I wouldn’t let this kind of evil happen”. God doesn’t rebuke us for asking the question, but for asking the question with the underlying assumption that we are sinless and good and that God’s goodness is in doubt. See Ez. 18:25-29.
We are also rebuked for asking this question because we forget how limited we are as human beings. When Job questions God’s justice, God responds not by explaining himself, but by pointing out Job’s incredible lack of knowledge compared to the infinite God of the universe. As we said before, if we don’t even understand some of the basic properties of the universe, if we find differential geometry or quantum mechanics hard to understand, why begin to think that we can understand God’s reasons for all he does. Again, God doesn’t rebuke us for asking the question, but for asking the question with the underlying assumption that God doesn’t have a good reason for what he does and that he should be accountable to explain his actions to us.
Nonetheless, I think that the Bible does provide some answers to the problem of evil, not necessarily the ones that we want, but I think ones that provide valuable help to those who struggle with this problem.
First, we need to remember that nature, as it now exists, is actually unnatural (i.e. at variance with God’s decreed purposes). The Bible teaches that sin entered the world through the Fall, when the first two human beings chose to exalt themselves over their Creator. The havoc that we see in interpersonal relationships, international conflict, famine, starvation, and murder are all consequences of the Fall. They were not part of God’s original plan. All of us are ultimately tainted by Adam’s sin. That is not to say that all our suffering is due to our personal sin. Jesus explicitly repudiates that view of suffering in John 9. However, we need to recognize that, if not for man’s sin, there would be no suffering. All of us, as human beings, are in some way responsible for that sin, so that none of us is completely innocent or untainted by evil. The fact that we sometimes suffer for other people’s sins is only a consequence of the way God has created the universe. Thus, we should not blame God but rather our separation from God through sin as the reason for suffering. Thus, unlike Eastern religions, which teach that good and evil are both aspects of God, Christianity teaches that God is absolutely opposed to evil and committed to what is good. Sin and evil enter the world not as God’s good creatures, but as interlopers and destroyers of God’s good creation.
Second, the Bible does provide one frequent reason that God permits evil: his patience and mercy. For those of us who cry out for God’s justice to descend and punish our enemies, consider whether we would really have desired that justice to be applied to us or to have descended before we put our trust in Christ. In fact, in Rom. 9:22, in which Paul talks about God’s vindication as a judge, he mentions tangentially that God is bearing patiently even with those who will never repent. A more explicit discussion of God’s patience is given in 2 Pet. 3:9 where Peter says that the delay in the coming of God’s judgment is due to the fact that “he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance”. And again, in Matthew 5:45, Jesus indicates that God displayed his perfection in his kind treatment of the unrighteous. The question “why does God permit evil to continue” often forgets that the Biblical remedy to evil is God’s justice. And God has delayed his justice out of his desire that everyone repent and be saved.
Third, I think it’s important to keep in mind that the Bible promises over and over very explicitly that one day God will put all things right. And on that Day of the Lord, or Judgment Day, God will be completely vindicated for all he has done so that “every mouth will be silenced” and God alone will be exalted (Rom 3:19; Is. 2:11). C.S. Lewis writes: “[We] say of some temporal suffering ‘No future bliss can make up for it,’ not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory. And of some sinful pleasure they say ‘Let me have but this and I’ll take the consequences’: little dreaming how damnation will spread back and back into their past and contaminate the pleasure of the sin.” (The Great Divorce). Are we so certain that heaven and hell, God’s final judgment will not vindicate his justice throughout history? Indeed, the Bible says precisely the opposite; that our present sufferings are not to be compared with the future glory that awaits us (2 Cor. 4:17).
Fourth, it seems odd that experience and the Bible itself (Luke 6:20, James 2:5) shows that those who suffer the most are often the richest in faith. If suffering and pain denies the existence of God, then wouldn’t we expect those with the happiest, richest lives to be the most religious, while those with the unhappiest lives would be atheists. And yet, we see almost precisely the opposite. Those places in the world which are most full of misery and suffering, are often also most rich in faith towards the God of the Bible. Faith in Christ is exploding among the poor in Africa and Southeast Asia while it is stagnating among the rich in the Western world. Isn’t this fact a powerful argument against the problem of evil as a valid argument against God? Isn’t it arrogant of well-fed Westerners to claim that suffering invalidates the God of love, while starving Africans sing His praise?
Finally, the vindication of God in the face of unjust suffering is a problem that all monotheistic religions must face. However, we need to recognize that the Bible makes claims of God that no other religion can make. What is the suffering that truly makes us question God’s goodness? It is clearly not the suffering of the wicked, which we can see as in some ways punitive, but rather the suffering of the righteous, the good, and the innocent. And it is not minor suffering that bothers us, but truly terrible suffering. But then, we might ask, what is the foremost example in history of the terrible, unjust suffering of a truly innocent man? There is really only one example: God himself, in Jesus Christ. The biblical God does not just provide an answer to the problem of evil; he actually takes into himself all of the worst, unjust suffering that the world has seen. The suffering of Christ is God’s ultimate vindication. He himself suffered who should never have suffered. He was cursed and despised who should have known nothing but adoration and praise. God made him sin who knew no sin so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. Only the biblical God himself suffers, demonstrating that he is both just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Christ.
I don’t believe that God is just; I believe in a good, loving God.
It is absolutely true that the God of the Bible is good and loving without any trace of evil, wickedness, or wrongness in his character. But if that is the case, then God must be opposed to evil in all its forms. In fact, the more we think that evil refutes the existence of the biblical God due to its inconsistency with his character, the more we must accept that God, if he exists, would detest and abhor all evil. The Bible promises that God has sworn to one day put all things right, to judge the world in righteousness, is actually a valid answer to this objection. Evil is entirely opposed to God’s character; therefore he must and will one day completely judge and consign all evil to destruction. In fact, this is precisely what hell is: it is the place where God justly condemns evil (apparently not just human evil; see Matthew 25:41). We need to remember that the Old Testament writers always saw God’s justice as a great good. In a world full of misery, full of the poor and the oppressed, crying out with no one to help them, God’s justice was seen as the cause for celebration and expectation. And even today, if you are a child prostitute in Indonesia or a slave in Benin, God’s judgment on evil and his liberation of the oppressed is a source of joy and hope.
How can we claim that God is a God of love if he punishes the wicked?
The God of the Bible punishes the wicked because he is a God of love. Think about the most horrific crime you’ve ever witnessed or heard about. Now imagine that it was perpetrated on your family, on your own child, or your own spouse, or your best friend. What must the infinite, omniscient loving God feel when he looks down on the world and sees the millions of atrocities that we commit every day? If he is truly the “father of the fatherless, and a defender of widows” (Psalm 68:5), does he look on the horrific suffering that occurs on this earth with indifference? No. Because he is a God of love, he is a God of wrath and anger against sin and evil.
Imagine that your landlord had illegally evicted you from the apartment so that you and your family were forced to live on the streets. What if the judge at the hearing, after carefully listening to the testimony of the police, the housing authorities, and your lawyer, merely shrugged his shoulders and walked away? How would you feel? You would be indignant! You would rebuke the judge as unjust. Unlike this judge, God is truly the ultimate just judge. He will not let the guilty go unpunished, because by his nature, he is righteous, just, and fair.
“But wait”, you say, “shouldn’t God just forgive us?” Perhaps. But that is a different question. It is one thing for a guilty criminal to confess with tears, plead guilty, and throw himself on mercy of the court. It is quite another thing for a guilty criminal to waltz into the courtroom full of pride and demand to be set free. If God is just, as the Bible teaches he is, then the real question is not “how can God be just?”, but rather “How can God be both just and forgiving?”
How can a loving God would allow hell?
At the outset, I think it’s important to recognize that hell is not something that we should take lightly. Do we not realize that we (Christians!) deserve hell? That by our sin, we have purchased infinite condemnation and are only rescued from it by the unmerited favor and untold suffering of our Savior? If so, then let’s make sure that we don’t talk flippantly about hell. Furthermore, let us have the mind of Christ, who wept over Jerusalem (Luke 19:41), and who came to seek and save that which was lost. God himself takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but instead desires that “all men be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:3-4). We should speak of hell with tears in our eyes and humility in our hearts.
The argument against hell that I think is most strong is the idea that if God is just, he cannot exact eternal suffering for a finite amount of sin. Therefore, hell cannot exist. However, this argument underestimates the magnitude of our sin. If I strike a stranger, that is wrong. If I strike a friend, it is even worse. If I strike my wife, it is truly horrible. The magnitude of the offence clearly grows in proportion to the person offended. What, then, is our guilt before our perfect, loving, infinite Creator? Knowing that we wrong him every day that we live, can we really begin to play down the magnitude of our sin? Is it unreasonable to think that sinning against an infinitely loving God to whom we owe absolutely everything incurs infinite guilt? Second, the Bible teaches that our state before God is not one of moral sickness, but of moral deadness (Eph. 2:1-5). It is not that God needs to simply forgive us our external faults, it is that our hearts are steadfastly opposed to God and all his ways (Romans 8:7) and need to be changed by God. Then it is not a matter of God refusing to forgive people who are basically good; instead we are radically evil (Gen 6:5) and are only restrained from total wickedness by God’s grace. Our choice is either to receive God’s saving grace in heaven (and here right now!), or reject God’s grace in hell.
However, I think that ultimately the only argument that we can (or perhaps should) rest on is the teaching of the Bible, and especially of Jesus. It is clear that the Bible teaches that hell exists, and warns and pleads with humans to repent that they might be rescued from it. I understand someone who finds the idea of hell troubling because it seems to contradict what we know of God’s infinite goodness and mercy. When I myself feel this way (as I sometimes do), it is to Jesus that I turn. In my most doubting and depressed moods, I cannot doubt the goodness and mercy of Jesus. There is no one more merciful than he was. Yet he himself talked about hell at great length (Matthew 10:28, Matthew 23:33, Luke 12:5, Luke 16:19-31). If Jesus did not find the existence of hell a contradiction of God’s mercy, then I am content to trust in him. I believe that at the Last Judgment, we will ultimately see God’s justice and mercy both perfectly vindicated (Isaiah 2). The good news of the gospel is not that God is unjust, but that in his justice and his mercy he sent Jesus to take the eternal punishment that we justly deserve: “For God so loved the world that He gave his one and only son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). No one who desires to be saved from hell needs to go there. God offers free forgiveness to all who repent and believe in the salvation purchased for us by Jesus.