Big topic here. And no, I’m not going to pretend to dazzle you with answers on why there is evil and suffering in the world. The greatest minds of the world have wrestled with this topic since humanity has walked the earth. What we are going to talk about is why evil and suffering are necessary with God’s existence. If the two previous remarks seem similar to one another, I assure you they are not. The biggest reason is if God doesn’t exist there should be no problem with evil and suffering. So what do I mean by that? We’ll get to that in a little bit.
Before we launch into it though I’d like to present you a link about a family who one day received the worst phone call any parent could receive; the death of a child. And in their case it wasn’t just one, it wasn’t two, it was THREE of their daughters dying in a car accident while heading to the wedding practice for their brother. The mother, Debbie Mayer, would want all of you to take a walk into her life “After the Crash.”
Now that we are willing to look soberly at this topic, let’s get going. First off, evil. When we speak about evil, we imply the opposite or absence of good. Now good can mean a lot of different things to people, as well as evil. Regardless, they are diametrically opposed. Many philosophers would say that evil is the absence of good. Intuitively we know there has to be good in order for there to be an evil. One cannot call something evil unless you know what good is. So there has to be a standard of good.
Okay, what is that standard? Many theists and probably deists would say that standard is God. God, by His nature, is good. If God is not the standard of good, then what is, and how do we arrive at it? Is good based on a social trend? Is it based on cultural mores? If not God, then what would the standard be? And again, how would we arrive at it? The atheist Michael Shermer in his debate with Frank Turek said ‘we should be good for goodness sake.’ Well what in the world does that mean? What is the ‘goodness sake’ standard? And who sets the standard for what goodness’s sake is?
‘we should be good for goodness sake.’ Well what in the world does that mean?
The reality of the problem of evil and suffering is that it should only be a problem for the person who believes in God or the person who has an inclination (but maybe not a commitment) to God. Anybody who has spent time in nature knows the animal kingdom apart from ourselves doesn’t spend time pondering what is evil and why there is suffering. It is purely survival and anything goes. Made famous in his memoir to his suddenly departed friend A. H. Hallam, Tennyson remarks:
Who trusted God was love indeed And love Creation’s final law Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw With ravine, shriek’d against his creed (2)
More recently, a book that tends to grapple with this reality of suffering in the animal kingdom and theistic responses to it is Michael J. Murray’s book Nature Red in Tooth and Claw: Theism and the Problem of Animal Suffering. (3)
We know that in the greater animal kingdom suffering is rampant. In his book River Out of Eden contemporary popular atheist Richard Dawkins says this; “(T)he universe we observe is precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference (1).
I would contend one of the biggest rejections for belief in God, and certainly for self-proclaimed Christians who have walked away from the faith, Charles Templeton and Bart Ehrmann, to name a few, was because they couldn’t reconcile how a good God could allow evil and suffering to take place. When I was an unbeliever and even as a young Christian, I grappled with this a bit myself. As I became more mature in my faith and relationship with God though, I asked myself, even if God Himself told me the reason he allowed the evil or suffering to take place, would that satisfy my hurt of the loss I’m feeling and the emotions behind it? I think no. No reason from anyone could quell my hurt. Does that mean God is a monster for allowing it?
Let’s look at what it would mean if God stopped all evil and suffering from happening.
First, we’d have to define the lanes here. What spectrum of evil and suffering would we want stopped? Suffering, for example, has a vast spectrum physically and psychologically. Now we as free creatures have a will to do or not to do (if you are a determinist and reject free will, as some do, then this portion will not be particularly helpful). When I walk through my house in the dark inevitably I’m going to stub my toe. That will hurt and sometimes very much. Should God have stopped that from happening? When I was a senior in high school I fractured my femur in a football game. Out for the year and football career over. Should God have stopped that? I know for a fact the life I lead now would be different from the life I would have led had I not been injured and my career continued. Imagine football with no injuries? Imagine any sport with no injuries because God would take it all away before it happened? What would the sport look like?
Imagine a war where God prohibited anybody from dying? What would the outcome be if the oppressor or resistance didn’t harm anyone, if God stopped it all before it could happen? Could you call it a war? What would that look like? Just one big disagreement? Nobody could even throw a punch at someone because God would stop it. How would this worldview affect our justice system? After all, people who are incarcerated suffer. Is God to take that suffering away as well?
Imagine all the people without jobs if there was no evil or suffering? Police, firefighters, doctors, nurses, lawyers, insurance agents, military, etc…I’m sorry to dig at the John Lennon fans out there, but his “Imagine” song was more akin to a place called heaven, nothing that we could conceive of here in a world of free agents, i.e. free, rational decision-makers.
So what would our lives look like if God stopped everything bad that could happen to us based on a decision we made, whether it was to act or not to act? Imagine how we hurt people psychologically with our words because of emotions getting a little out of hand. What if God stopped all of that as well? What would our social interactions look like? I hope you’ve got the idea now as to the broad spectrum the topic of evil and suffering covers. So where do we set the boundaries and who among us decides what those boundaries are?
Well maybe God could just stop the real tragedies like the Mayer sisters, or the youngster who commits suicide because of being bullied. Or maybe God should stop the cancer eating away at the little girl, or stop the older pedophile from preying on another victim. These are the real tragedies right? Couldn’t God just stop these? We’ve already briefly played out a scenario involving war, but the short answer is yes, He could. He is all powerful and could stop all of this from happening. In fact none of this could have happened. But is it feasible for God to do this and to still provide an environment where His creatures come to freely know Him and enter into a relationship with Him?
So when a world is created with free agents (yep that’s us) then those agents are allowed to enter into relationships freely, and not through compulsion. When that happens choices are made and people get hurt, all kinds of hurt. And when we think about the nature of God, that the universe had a beginning to its existence (see “the cosmological argument” section), then we know that this Creator is personal, because a choice was made to bring this world into being, which means God cares about this creation because He created it; which means this Being, though not needing anything, desires a relationship with His creatures. And that relationship can only be entered into by free choice. Did you compel your spouse to marry you?
So people will ask, if God loves us this much, why would He send people to a place called hell? The Bible is very clear in the fact that hell is an eternal state, just as heaven is an eternal state. It’s just that hell is an eternal state void of a relationship with God. And why should a good God be interactive in an eternal place like hell when people didn’t want a relationship with Him while they were physically walking the earth? Remember, He is a just God (see “justice” section) and He rewards people eternally with their temporal wishes on this Earth. God is perfectly within the realms of justice by rewarding you an eternal home without Him since you declined to have a relationship with Him in this life. The harsh reality here is that God sends nobody to hell, it’s really your choice on where you want to go. In fact the Bible is very clear that He is longsuffering and desires all to be saved and come to the saving knowledge of Christ (Ezk 33:11, Matt 18:14, 1 Tim 2:4 and 2 Peter 3:9). The decision is ours, not His, on where our eternal place is. The judge just executes the sentence, for we are the ones who perpetrate the crime. John 3:17-21 is very clear what Christ’s mission to us was, and it was not condemnation. Romans 8:1-4 makes this point again.
So getting back to the reasons for allowing these terrible things to happen, who is to say? Who could argue that God doesn’t have manifold reasons to allow these occurrences of evil and suffering to take place in order for something better to take place at a later time? As hard as it is to imagine with even the most heinous atrocities. Nobody is in a position to say. We just cannot know the future like that. It’s an insurmountable burden of proof to take on and try to defend. And from a non-theistic standpoint, why would you really care anyway? After all, if everything ends at the grave, life is ultimately absurd and you won’t remember anything in this life. So who cares if you die horribly at the age of 18, or peacefully at the age of 92? It doesn’t matter ultimately. For in a world void of God and over at the grave one has to face the fact that nothing you do in your earthly life has any ultimate significance. This brings us to our next set of questions.
So if God does not exist, how are we to understand evil and suffering? How do we even define them if the standard of good is not God’s nature? Is it defined by public opinion? Is it defined by a public figure, alive or deceased? Is it defined by a society, current or defunct? What is evil and suffering for me may not be the same for you, at least perhaps not on the same magnitude. Why would it be sad to see a 2 year old girl die of cancer if it was her completely random biological makeup to do so and nobody could have intervened because there is no God. Just bad luck I suppose? Why does it really matter a lick if someone dies at 2, 22, or 102 if there is no God? Because they didn’t get to experience life as a whole (whatever that means) even though they die and don’t remember any of it because there is no life beyond the grave.
We as humans need to wake up and really sense the gravity of our current worldviews. If there is a God, which I believe the evidence strongly indicates (please peruse the “Evidence” section), then this has eternal consequences. And if there is a God, we should be asking ourselves how has He revealed Himself? The Christian here would answer through Jesus of Nazareth. Other religions would answer in some other revelatory or non-revelatory way. We need to weigh the evidence and decide.
What the Christian worldview possesses is an answer to the suffering of the world through the person of Jesus of Nazareth. We have a man, a real flesh and blood historical figure who claimed a divine mission and special relationship to God, in fact He said He and the Father were one (John 17:22). He performed many miracles and healings. He came onto the scene unexpectedly and even more paradoxically He foreshadowed the fact He would have to die for the sins of humanity. And then what? He suffered. He suffered horrible torment in His scourging and then His crucifixion. Did you know the word excruciating actually means ‘out of the cross?’ That Roman way of execution was so horrific the experience of the event became a word which would reflect unimaginable suffering.
For C.S. Lewis clearly sensed the gravity of this discernment when he penned “if Christianity is false, it is of no importance. If it is true it is of the utmost importance. The one thing it cannot be is moderately important.”
So Jesus not only tells us in John 16:33 that we’ll have trouble in this world, He actually took our sins to the cross and suffered in our place. But our suffering needn’t be eternal. He suffered to repair the relationship to God that we didn’t and don’t want to have. Imagine that; our God suffered in the form of a man so we wouldn’t have to die in our trespasses? This is a completely foreign and novel idea in the world of faith systems. It would be like the judge finding the accused guilty and instead of saying, “bailiff take this man away,” the judge gets up and says “bailiff, take me away.” Really? If you don’t understand this please see the ‘Forgiveness’ section and then come back here. And informed Christians understand the purpose of life is not happiness, it is communion and worship of their God. They understand that in a world of free agents, suffering must occur, evil must occur. But that only in a world of free agents could someone freely come to the knowledge and discernment of a loving God, even though we may not like the taste of how evil and suffering impacts us.
C.S. Lewis clearly sensed the gravity of this discernment when he penned “if Christianity is false, it is of no importance. If it is true it is of the utmost importance. The one thing it cannot be is moderately important.”(4) How important is it to you? You have an appointment that you will not miss. That appointment is death. And now you are one day closer to that appointment. How do you make sense of evil and suffering without God? Is Dawkins right? Is this all just blind, pitiless indifference? Bad luck? Then why argue about any of it or complain about it if there’s no ultimate truth behind it and it’s just our purely random biological programming to play it out. So now you see the problem of evil and suffering is only a problem for the believer or seeker if God exists, and not for the committed atheist if their worldview is true. Why? Because nature is red in tooth and claw.
(1) Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden (New York: Basic Books, 1995). p. 133
(2) Alfred Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam, A.H.H. (London, 1849)
(3) Michael J. Murray, Nature Red in Tooth and Claw: Theism and the Problem of Animal Suffering (Oxford, 2008)
(4) C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (Geoffrey Bles, Macmillan Publishers, 1952)