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The Problem Stated

The problem of why God allows evil to exist is a major hurdle to developing faith in God in the first place.  Even after we come to faith, Satan will use this problem to try to trip us during difficult periods in our lives.  Years ago, I read a brief but well-reasoned book by Thomas Warren entitled Have Atheists Proved There Is No God?[1]  Through the years, I have not found a better book on the subject from the standpoint logic. Eventually I wrote a lesson arranging the basic arguments of that book into sermon form. The   material in this chapter  is adapted from that sermon, first presented many years ago.

As we consider this issue, keep two things in mind: (1) No matter how much explanation may be given, the ultimate issue will always be faith in the face of all storms of life.  (2) While logic and reasoning cannot remove the necessary hurdles which faith must cross, many unnecessary hurdles can be taken away by practical explanations.  Failure to remove those in the latter category would be a serious mistake. 

Without question, one of the most challenging hindrances to believing in and trusting God hinges on the question of why he allows bad things to happen to good people, as we often phrase it. The average person would pose his question something like this:  “Why does God allow disease, starvation, natural calamities, and such atrocities as war, murder, rape  and the abuse of children?”  The agnostic would frame his concerns more in this manner:  “If God wills evil, he is not good.  If God does not will evil, but it occurs anyway, then he is not all-powerful.  Therefore, since evil exists, God must be deficient either in goodness or in power.”  The atheist would state his case even more strongly:  “A good, all-powerful Being would eliminate evil completely.  But, evil exists.  Therefore, God does not exist!”

Definition of Key Terms

Before we proceed, a definition of basic terms is needed.  The definitions of good and evil are vital.  The only true evil is what is called “sin” in the Bible, for it violates our relationship with God and with our fellowman.  Conversely, the only true good is biblical “righteousness,” depicting something which is always good, and which promotes our relationship with God and others.  What we might call “instrumental evil” is something which leads men toward the ultimate wrong (sin).  The things in this category can be either stumbling blocks or stepping stones, but they are not inherently evil.  What we might call “instrumental good” is that which leads one toward the intrinsic good.

Thus, the same incident could be instrumentally good or bad, depending on how someone  viewed it and responded to it.  Sickness would be a good example of something that could be a blessing or a curse.  A health problem might cause one to curse God or turn to God, depending on the heart of the person with the problem.  Actually, pain itself is not necessarily evil.  It may be only the symptom of a health problem, motivating a person to get needed attention, or it may be the necessary result of having obtained life-saving surgery.

The definition of some attributes of God are necessary to our understanding of the problem of good and evil.  When we say God is “omniscient”( all-knowing), we are saying he knows all that is possible to know.  For example, he foreknew that man would sin and would need redemption.  Therefore, he created a world with that in mind, a world suitable for the spiritual development of man.  Our present world was never intended to be a permanent paradise—that is reserved for heaven! 

When we say God is“omnipotent” (all-powerful), we are recognizing he can do whatever is possible to be done.  However, some things are impossible by definition.  For example, can God make a rock too big to pick up, or a square circle?  The impression left by that question is that if God had more power, he could.  The fact is that some things are not subject to power¾even God’s power! He will do only that which is in harmony with his nature. He will not and cannot lie, for example.  Nor will he interfere with the free moral agency of man.  To describe God as just is to say that he must reward good and punish evil.  Since he created man as a free moral agent, his justice requires that he allow man to make real choices. 

One of the keys to understanding the problem of suffering and evil is to understand the definition of man.  By God’s design, man is a creature of choice, a free moral agent (and not a robot).  Therefore, man can choose to do good or evil, even though God desperately wants him to choose good!  God could not make man (by definition) and then refuse him the choices.  (He could have made robots without choice, but not man!) 

The atheist wants to know why God did not make man incapable of evil, but he is really asking why God made man in the first place (because free will is a part of the definition of man).  We desire to have children, even knowing that they will make some hurtful choices.  God wanted to bless us through relationships with him and with others, and you cannot have relationships if you are a robot—it’s an issue of choice.

Another vital definition is that of our physical world.  We must remember the purposes for its creation.  It was designed as the ideal environment for spiritual purposes.  Some of the necessary characteristics of such a world would include the following:

1.   It would not just afford pleasure without responsibility or adversity (or  we would all be spoiled brats!).

2.   Man would be allowed the atmosphere in which to freely exercise choices.  (Hence, some distance exists between him and God; he needs to see enough evidence of God to know that he is there, but not in a manner that overwhelms and forces decisions).

3.   It would be suited to meeting the physical needs of man.

4.   It would function in a law-abiding manner in order to teach the relationship of cause and effect.Without this feature, chaos would reign and such values as responsibility and morality could not be taught.  For example, an ax is excellent for chopping trees, but it also can be used to chop people.  Bricks have excellent qualities for building houses, but they can be used to bash in someone’s head.  What can be done about this dual purpose situation?  You cannot take away the choice from man, nor can you make the ax have one set of qualities when applied to a tree and another set when applied to a human!  Bottom line, we must learn the law of cause and effect: whatever we sow, we reap.  And this lesson cannot be learned unless axes always cut, and bricks are always hard!

5.   This world would provide challenge for man’s intellectual powers; it would teach him to deal with obstacles.

6.   Finally, such a world would need to be temporary, but highly significant with regard to the spiritual choices made in it.

Lessons to Be Learned

A word about the causes of human suffering is in order.  True evil (sin) always comes from man’s free choices.  God does not want man to make such choices, and he has worked amazingly through the centuries to influence the choices to be righteous ones.  One look at Jesus on the cross should be more than enough to make the point!  God, however, intends that we view all  challenges inherent in our temporary world   with faith and respond to them in faith so that he might accomplish his purposes through them.

Things such as illnesses are a part of a temporary world, and may become instrumentally good in helping us to lean on God.  Natural calamity reminds us of our frailty and serves to keep us conscious of our need for God.  Some, and perhaps most, of these calamities trace back to the changes in the earth’s environment after the Genesis flood—and sin caused the flood (thus indirectly, the changes).  Some calamities today relate to what we ourselves have done to pollute and harm our environment, but the fact that we experience natural calamities is consistent with God’s purpose to train us spiritually. They remind us that life is certain (in that it will end) and uncertain (in that the time of its end is unknown).

Next, let’s consider the design of human suffering.  God’s allowance of suffering relates directly to his goal of spiritually developing mankind. Most  human suffering is brought on directly by the free moral agency of man.  For it to have the desired impact on our choices, it must affect us randomly.  (If suffering only happened to the unrighteous, the temptation to seek God for wrong reasons would be tremendously strong!)

The benefits of suffering are multiple if we respond to our circumstances with faith in God.  Suffering sets the stage for a person to live a life of self-denial, which is the greatest life possible.  It affords a person the opportunity to develop  his moral character (James 1:2-4; Romans 5:1-5).  God can lead people to himself through suffering, either  originally or later (if they have left him).  It provides for a person’s love to be tested in the best way possible(as in having to choose suffering over sin).  Suffering can develop our compassion for our fellowman.  It helps a person to better appreciate his love for God and God’s love for him; his love for others and theirs for him.  It will help anyone better appreciate the life to come.  Finally, suffering influences others to become Christians, because they see our response to suffering to be far different from the responses of  unbelievers.  A cross borne courageously  in our lives is still the drawing card for others (Colossians 1:24).

The proper attitudes to maintain as we face human suffering are based on the possible purposes behind the suffering.  As we consider the several alternatives which God may be trying to accomplish in our lives, we learn the appropriate responses of faith.  One, God may chasten his children in order to mold them, in which case we humbly submit.  Two, we may suffer persecution because we are sons and daughters of God, in which case we rejoice.  Three, we may not be able to understand just why we are suffering, in which case we trust.  In all things, we look to the cross of Christ and see that God shared in our suffering, experienced it to the full degree and in so doing, showed us the greatest love.  Now he calls us to follow him, trusting that our eternal rewards will far outweigh the temporary struggles.

Once we are able to remove the obstacles to faith produced by the problem of pain and suffering, we are in a much better position to see God more clearly.

—Gordon Ferguson (November 1999)

[1] Thomas B. Warren.  Have Atheists Proved There Is No God? National Christian Press.