Wednesday, April 01, 2015

The Gospel as the Answer to the Problem of Evil and Suffering

On Tuesday, March 31, I had the opportunity to address a student gathering on the subject of suffering. I was given a list of topics from which to choose, and I chose this one from the list because I feel like I actually have something worthwhile to say about the matter. I do not say that in arrogance but in humility. I have had good mentors in the field of apologetics, and I have a Bible that I consider to be the infallible, inerrant and authoritative Word of God. My personal conviction is that apologetics is not about having 10,000 answers to 10,000 questions, but having the wisdom to apply one answer -- the Gospel of Jesus Christ -- to 10,000 issues. And so, in my talk this is what I sought to do. For the benefit of those who could not be present to hear this presentation, I am posting my manuscript, slightly altered.


Campus Outreach Presentation
Suffering and God’s Existence, Power and Goodness

I have a dear friend and sister in the Lord who was in the hospital for seven weeks of hospitalization, being treated for non-Hodgkins lymphoma and a host of related complications. During her several years of battling this cancer, she has been cared for by her loving and devoted husband. On the evening of March 18, I had to come to her bedside and notify her that her husband had suffered a massive heart attack and died. On Sunday night, she also died, and yesterday I had to go break that news to her aging mother.  

Almost three years ago exactly, I sat anxiously in a cold, uncomfortable room in the emergency room of Moses Cone Hospital with my sister-in-law. A doctor came in to bring us the news that her 35 year old husband, one of my dearest friends, a father of two children who were at that time aged 5 and 1, had died from a sudden heart failure. I could go on and on with stories like these. As a pastor, I have abundant opportunities to come alongside of people whose lives have been turned upside-down by tragedy.

The reality is that our world is filled with suffering, tragedy, and evil. Some of you have experienced your share of suffering; others of you have walked through it with people you love; none of us are exempt from it. I am a trained Christian Apologist – I have a master’s degree in Christian Apologetics, the field of study devoted to defending the claims of the Christian faith. As such, in my experience and research, I do not think that there is a more difficult question brought to us than the one we call “The Problem of Evil and Suffering.” It goes something like this: “If there is an all-good, all-knowing, all-powerful, loving God, why is there so much evil and suffering in the world?” If you have never been asked that question by an unbelieving friend, or a believing friend who is struggling to hold on to the faith in the midst of a tragedy, you probably will be asked it as you go through life. In fact, as suffering comes your way – and it will – you may be tempted to ask it yourself. I want to challenge you tonight by saying that your ability to respond to that question will have a direct impact on your influence for Christ, and perhaps even your own Christian growth. But I also want to encourage you, because there is an answer to this question.

Throughout Christian history, there have been many attempts to answer this question. If we are honest with ourselves, we know that a good many of these so-called answers are powerless to provide help, comfort, or intellectual satisfaction to those who question God’s existence, goodness, or power in the face of human suffering. Pat-answers are not helpful. They may appease a small number of people, but they do not help us grapple with the unsettling reality of a world filled with suffering – suffering that is so prevalent, so intense, and so seemingly unevenly distributed. Must there be suffering in the world? And if there must, why is there so much of it? Why is it so often unbearably intense? Why do some people experience so much of it, and others seem to experience so little? Why does so much of it seem to be gratuitous (in other words, with no explanation or purpose)? Wouldn’t the world be a better place without suffering? Wouldn’t it be significantly better than it is even if God only removed or prohibited the worst of the worst forms of suffering and evil? Can He? If He can, why doesn’t He? As you consider how you would respond to the problem of evil and suffering, I want to share with you a few answers that simply do not work, and then work toward a more satisfying, biblical response to the evil and suffering in our world and in our lives.

One attempt to answer the question is to blame it all on the devil. Surely most of us have at some time or another heard, perhaps even said, “The devil made me do it.” Make no mistake about it, the devil and his demons are real and they are at work in a plethora of evils. But this does not answer the problem. After all, the problem is predicated upon the existence of an all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing, loving God. The same Bible that tells us that the devil is at work to orchestrate evil and suffering in the world also tells us that his authority and power are limited by God. Therefore, not only does this line of thinking fail to answer the problem, it actually exacerbates it.

Another attempt to answer the question concerns human free will. This line of reasoning says that bad things happen because people make bad choices, which result in bad consequences. Again, there is some truth to this. Last week, a pilot intentionally crashed a plane into a mountain, killing 150 people on board. We can blame the loss of life on the choice that the pilot made. But, in a great many – perhaps the majority – of cases of intense suffering, there was no decision made to precipitate the suffering. Suppose lightning strikes a home in the middle of the night, sending the house into flames, killing the entire family and all their pets before they ever knew what happened. In March of 2013, a sinkhole opened up beneath a Florida home, and Jeffrey Bush was literally swallowed by the earth and his body was never recovered. Where does free will play into that scenario? But even where free will is the traceable cause, couldn’t (or wouldn’t) an all-loving, all-powerful, all-knowing God do something to “override” the free will decisions that bring suffering upon the innocent (at least)? Wouldn’t He want to?

Then there is the approach that I call “the poor god” response. This attempt to deal with evil and suffering was popularized by Rabbi Harold Kushner in his 1978 best-seller, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Kushner’s 14 year-old son had died from an incurable genetic disease, sending the Rabbi on a quest to answer the question of evil and suffering. His conclusion was that God is simply not able to prevent suffering. He is doing His best, and would like to be of more help to us, but bless His heart, He just can’t. Poor God! Kushner’s answer has been adopted by many people, but it does not answer the question we are asking. Our question involves an all-powerful God. Kushner removes the notion of God being all-powerful from the equation. That might help him deal with the problem of evil and suffering, but it creates a bigger problem: the problem of God. A being who is not omnipotent (all-powerful) does not meet the criteria of being called God. The real issue does not arise because God can’t stop evil and suffering. It arises because He can, and yet He does not.

The final failed attempt to answer the problem of evil and suffering is perhaps the most popular one among Christians today. In fact, for the last 1600 years or so, this has been the standard response Christians give to the question of suffering. It is called “the greater good” argument. It says that God only allows that evil and suffering in the world from which He can bring about a greater good or prevent a worse evil. This means that no evil or suffering is gratuitous; it all serves some bigger purpose. But, the actual evidence we see in cases of evil and suffering would not seem to support this, nor do we find any explicit statement in Scripture saying that this is true for every case of evil and suffering in the world. For example, what good has come from, or what worse evil was prevented by, the Holocaust? Can we point to anything that has happened or not happened in the world and say, “That was worth the wholesale slaughter of 6 million Jews”?

The greater good argument actually does much harm to the Christian view of God. In saying that God only allows such evil and suffering to exist from which He can bring about a greater good or prevent a worse evil, we are saying that God is somehow and somewhat dependent on the evil and suffering in order to bring about His greater purpose. Does God require the evil and suffering to occur in order to bring about the good? If God could bring about the good apart from the evil, why wouldn’t He? The greater good argument actually makes evil and suffering more sovereign than God in the world. If you are okay with that, then why should we even care about evil and suffering? Should we not just let suffering and evil abound so that God can bring about greater things and prevent worse things? Someone is asking themselves right now, “But what about Romans 8:28, which promises that God will work all things together for good?” We will say more about that promise soon, but for now suffice to say that this promise is true, and applies to some – perhaps even many – cases of suffering and evil. In those cases, God is bringing good from it, according to His promise. But Romans 8:28 does not say that God is doing this in every case of evil and suffering in the world, nor does it say that He allowed those things to happen in order to bring about the good. What God does with a situation is something altogether different from why God allowed the situation. 

Christians all too often say to someone who is suffering, “There, there now. Don’t worry. You know that God will bring good from this.” Let me ask you, what good could happen that would justify a wife losing her beloved husband or kids having their father taken away from them? When some good thing happens in their life, are they to look at that thing and say, “Well, we suffered a terrible tragedy, but at least this thing happened, so that makes it all worthwhile”? Good may come, but the sufferer may not recognize that it is the good that God is bringing through the suffering, and the good may actually not measure up to the bad thing that happened. So in pointing people to some nebulous “good” that may or may not ever occur, and which may in no way justify the bad, we are often filling them with false hopes or preparing them for disillusionment. Rather than pointing them to the “good”, we must point them to the God who is with them as they suffer, who loves them infinitely, and who has acted in time and space to eliminate suffering and evil through His redeeming grace. How do we do that? That’s what I want to help you do in the rest of our time.

The first thing we have to do is recognize that not all suffering is equal. There seem to be categories of evil and suffering (and I may use the words “evil” and “suffering” interchangeably here tonight).
1. Moral evils: Evil and suffering that is the result of the sinful decisions of someone, e.g., terrorism, murder, rape, assault, slander, persecution, suicide, etc.
2. Natural evils: disturbances in nature, e.g., earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, hurricanes, tornadoes, lightning strikes, etc.
3. Physical suffering: illnesses, ailments and injuries to the human body, e.g., cancer, heart attack, stroke, arthritis, etc.

Now, as you are probably aware, Christians are not immune to these categories of suffering. In particular, Christian suffering can be lumped into two categories:
1. Human life in a fallen world, i.e., the kinds of things I just described (moral, natural, and physical evil and suffering.
2. Righteous living in a wicked world: This is a special category for Christians. The Bible promises us often that we will suffer for the name of Jesus Christ. When we are faithful to Him, we may suffer innocently at the hands of those who oppose Him.

Now, when it comes to that kind of particular Christian suffering for the sake of righteousness, we do have promises in God’s Word to sustain us. This is where Romans 8:28 comes in, for the promise there is not that God will bring good from all suffering, but that He is at work in all things to bring good to those that love Him and are called according to His purpose. Later in Romans 8, we are told that none of these things can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord, and that we are more than conquerors through Him that loves us. We are promised comfort and help, even blessing. Some passages you may want to write down to look up later: Matthew 5:11; 2 Cor 1:3-7; James 1:2; 1 Peter 1:6-7; 3:14-18. I can repeat those if necessary. Because we have such specific promises about the suffering that comes to us as Christians living righteously in a wicked world, we don’t need to spend much time on this one. It is the other categories of evil and suffering that are harder to deal with.

The Bible tells us how evil and suffering entered into the world. In Romans 5:12, Paul says, “…through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned.” This explains how evil and suffering came into the world – through the sin of Adam. It does not, however, explain why God allows it to continue to such an extent. For this, we have to go back to the beginning of the Bible and see how God intended man to live, and the consequences which came into the world when man rebelled against God’s will.

Genesis 1-3 tells us that God created a world and placed mankind as creatures with the power of moral choice and the function of rational judgment. And upon completion of creation, God declared all that He had made to be very good. Although God had given Adam the power to make moral choices, He also placed certain limitations on those choices. He established a certain moral and physical ordering to guide man in his choices. God also provided man with certain promises concerning what he could and could not do. There is a moral standard, first expressed in Genesis 2:15-17. He put the man into the garden that he might cultivate and keep it. And He told the man that he could eat from any and every tree in the garden, save one. We might call this “the One Commandment.” Quite simply, it is to obey what God has spoken. This moral standard was later expanded and codified in God’s Law, summarized in the Ten Commandments, and distilled even further by the Lord Jesus into the two Great Commandments to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. The first man had the power to choose to obey, and therefore the power to choose to disobey. This power of moral choosing opens the possibility of wrong moral choices, and therefore the possibility (but not the necessity) of sin and evil.

God clearly told Adam what the consequences of disobedience were. He said, “In the day that eat from it (the forbidden tree), you will surely die” (Gen 2:17). This death included spiritual death, or separation from God, which occurred immediately, and physical death. Adam did not die physically on that day, but we may say that he began dying on that day. On that day of disobedience, his body, which would have otherwise lasted forever in that perfect society, became susceptible to corruption and decay.

With Adam’s sin, we have the first occurrence of moral evil. And with each passing generation, we see that moral evil compounding exponentially. Over the next few chapters of Genesis, we find murder, sexual sin, and a host of evils carried out by this dying race of men. Because the wages of sin is death, with the entrance of moral evil came the universal effect of physical suffering. Our bodies are born corrupted by sin, and therefore susceptible to all manners of physical decay. That does not mean that when someone suffers, we can point to a specific sin that caused the suffering. That is how Jesus’ disciples mistakenly assessed the situation with the man born blind in John 9. Some sin leads immediately to suffering, but other suffering is just the product of our general sinfulness and the compounded effect of sin on generations of humanity. And over the next several chapters of Genesis, we begin to see natural evils taking place, initially as God’s judgment on the sinfulness of the human race. In the days of Noah, the Bible says that the Lord “saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” He looked upon the earth and saw that it was corrupt and filled with violence, “For all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth” (Gen 6:5; 11-12). And so in a cataclysmic act of judgment, the Bible says that God sent a worldwide flood to erase all of humanity from the earth with the exception of one sovereignly and graciously chosen man and his family – Noah and his family. As the flood came upon the earth, the Bible says that two things happened: “the fountains of the great deep burst open, and the floodgates of the sky were opened.” Thus, with the flood, there was a geological and atmospheric upheaval in creation that remains to this day. All manner of natural evils (tornadoes, tsunamis, earthquakes, etc.) have their origin in the geological and atmospheric upheaval that precipitated the flood.

So we see that every category of human suffering is rooted in human sin. The philosophical and existential questions about the existence of evil and suffering alongside of an all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing, loving God shake a decaying, corrupted, human fist toward heaven as if God is to blame for the things we experience. But, if we take the Bible seriously, then we must recognize that this is not the way God intended human life to be lived. His created order was very good, until it was corrupted by human sin. But God is not detached and remote from us in our suffering in this fallen world and these corruptibly bodies. Rather, He has come into this fallen world, and taken upon Himself one of these corruptible bodies in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. The moral, physical, and natural evil and suffering that we experience in the world are not the root of the problem. They are the fruit of the problem, and the root is humanity’s sinfulness. And Jesus Christ came into the world to kill the problem at the root. In His perfectly righteous and sinless life, He lived out the life that Adam failed to live. And in His sacrificial death on the cross, He died the death that we all deserve because of our sin. He did this to free us from our bondage to sin, and to provide a way of deliverance from these broken down bodies and this corrupted world.

Listen to the phrases that the Prophet Isaiah used in Isaiah 53 as he foresaw what the Messiah, Jesus, would do: He was “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. … Surely our griefs He Himself bore, and our sorrows He carried. … He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; but the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him.”

So, what we find is a God who is loving and merciful, and faithful to His word, His will, and the creation order He established in the beginning. Sin was promised to have awful effects on us and our world, and God has allowed that promise to be fulfilled because He is not duplicitous and does not change His mind or alter His will. However, in the midst of all of this suffering that humanity has experienced since Adam’s sin, Christ has come to deliver us from sin, suffering, and death. He has come to restore us to a right relationship with our Creator within this fallen world, and opened the way to a perfect world where the Bible says that He will wipe away every tear, and there will no longer be any death, or mourning, or crying or pain. That is because in His glorious and eternal presence, there will be no sin, and therefore none of its horrible effects. God is still allowing the effects of sin to carry on in the world, in faithfulness to His purpose and Hiw Word. He did not act to eliminate sin temporarily in its fruits by a demonstration of raw power, but rather acted to eliminate it eternally at its root in a gracious act of redemption through the blood of Jesus Christ.

As I close, I want to share with you one passage – Luke 13:1-5.
 Now on the same occasion there were some present who reported to Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. And Jesus said to them, "Do you suppose that these Galileans were greater sinners than all other Galileans because they suffered this fate? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them were worse culprits than all the men who live in Jerusalem? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish."

In this passage, we find an instance of moral evil in the massacre carried out under Pilate’s command, and a case of natural evil in the case of the tower that fell. Jesus tells us that these things did not happen because those victims were any more guilty of sin than anyone else. They happened because we live in a world that has been broken by human sin. And therefore, Jesus’ call to His audience on that day is the same as ours today: “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” Suffering is inescapable, unpredictable, and universal in this broken world. But Christ has made a way to escape it forever by turning from sin and trusting in His saving power. If we refuse that offer, then the sufferings of eternity will infinitely outweigh the sufferings of this present world. But if we turn to Him in repentance and faith, then we can say with the Apostle Paul that these light and momentary afflictions are producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison (2 Cor 4:17).

Postscript 1: A few days before this talk was given, I was approached by someone with a keen interest in apologetics. When I mentioned that I was planning to give this talk, this person asked me, "Do you believe that evil is a 'thing' (in and of itself) or the privation of good? I am aware of the discussion about evil as an entity or a privation, but frankly I think that conversation only really matters to people locked away in rooms full of books. I don't have the luxury of those surroundings. I sit in rooms filled with suffering people, and they don't seem to care if evil is a thing or the privation of a thing. When I told my friend that her husband had died, she did not ask me if his death or her grief was a thing or a privation of a thing. So, I will let you answer that matter any way you want to. Because I do not believe that gratuitous evil and suffering is an indictment against God's character, I do not have to explain my way around that. Whichever answer you choose, it does not affect my position that evil and suffering are present in the world as a result of man's sin, nor my answer that God does not prohibit evil and suffering by raw power because, even though He is able to, He is also faithful to His Word and His promise that these consequences would flow into the world because of sin. Because of sin, we have corruptible bodies and a broken world. But God took upon Himself one of these corruptible bodies and inhabited this broken world to deliver us from evil and suffering eternally through an act of gracious redemption. He did not come into the world to liberate us from the symptoms of sin, but from the disease of sin.

Postscript 2: Following this talk, someone approached me to talk about how they had wrestled with the "greater good" perspective. This person said to me, “My mother died some years ago, and a short time later I came to faith in Christ. So I always considered that this was the good that came from my mother’s death.” Coming to faith in Christ is good. And, it may well be that the death of this person’s mother was a contributing factor to their coming to faith. For that, we can thank God that He brought some good out of a horrible situation. But, this is not the same thing as saying that “My mother died so I could be saved.” I told this person, “I am glad that in the wake of your mother’s death, you came to know Jesus. But I want to know something very assuredly: God did not kill your mother so that you could be saved. He killed His Son so that you could be saved.” There is a difference, you see, in what God does with suffering and why God allowed the suffering.

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