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Suffering and Evil

One of the questions that perplexes both Christians and non-Christians alike is, “Why does God allow evil and suffering to continue?”  Some would even say that the question of evil and suffering is the very reason they don’t believe in God.

For example, Dr. Bart Erhman, a well known professor of  New Testament at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, believes that if God loves us then He would certainly not let us suffer.  He said: “The problem of suffering has haunted me for a very long time.  It was what made me begin to think about religion when I was young, adn it was what led me to question my faith when I was older.  Ultimately, it was the reason I lost my faith.”

He would go on to say in his book, God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question–Why We Suffer, “I could no longer explain how there can be a good and all-powerful God actively involved with this world, given the state of things.  For many peopel who inhabit this planet, life is a cesspool of misery and suffering.  I came to a point where I simply could not believe that there is a good and kindly disposed Ruler who is in charge of it.”

J.L. Mackie in his book The Miracle of Theism stated it this way, “If a good and powerful God exists, he would nto allow pointless evil, but because there is much unjustifiable, pointless evil in the world, the traditional good and powerful God could not exist.  Some other god or no god may exist, but not the traditional God.” (from Tim Keller and The Reason for God)

To their philosophical argument I’d like to make a couple of observations:

  1. God has not chosen to reveal everything to us.  I confess that suffering and evil are mysterious in the sense that we don’t why they continue.  Yet, I realize that I am finite and God is infinite and in His sovereignty He has not chosen to reveal all things to His creation.  See Deuteronomy 29:29, Isaiah 55:8-9, and Romans 11:33-36.
  2. Just because evil and suffering “seem” pointless it doesn’t mean that it is.  It is natural for us in the midst of suffering to experience great hardship and certainly question how any possible good can come out of it.  Yet by saying “There is no point to this evil or suffering”, it implies that we have the ability to see every situation, every circumstance, from all perspectives…which the Scriptures remind us we cannot do.  We realize that God has a perspective that we don’t have.  If you were in the middle of Joseph’s situation in the Old Testament wouldn’t it have been difficult to see any benefit to him being sold into slavery or imprisoned?  Yet God took that suffering and used it for good.  Or image you are at the foot of the cross witnessing the crucifixion of Christ, wouldn’t it be hard to see any good that could come out of that?  Yet through His death there came resurrection!  Think about your own suffering.  There are no doubt some situations that you look back on and see how God was using it to deepen your intimacy with Him.  So just because suffering seems pointless, it doesn’t mean that it is pointless.

But if we are honest, that argument doesn’t  bring us comfort in the midst of our suffering.  So where can we turn?  We can turn to the cross!  For as the author of Hebrews says, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.  Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

Tim Keller has proved immensly helpful as I have wrestled with this issue and I want to share a quote from him.

The death of Jesus was qualitatively different from any other death.  The physical pain was nothing compared to the spiritual experience of cosmic abandonment.  Christianity alone among the world religions claims that God became uniquely and fully human in Jesus Christ and therefore knows firsthand despair, rejection, loneliness, poverty, bereavement, torture, and imprisonment.  On the cross he went beyond even the worst human suffering and experienced cosmic rejection and pain that exceeds ours as infinitely as his knowledge and power exceeds ours.  In his death, God suffers in love, identiying with the abandoned and god forsaken.”

“If we ask again the question: “Why does God allow evil and suffering to continue?” and we look at the cross of Jesus, we still do not know what the answer is.  However, we know what the answer isn’t.  It can’t be that he doesn’t love us.  It can’t be that he is indifferent or detached from our condition.  God takes our misery and suffering so seriously that he was willing to take it on Himself.”

In our worst pain and suffering we want to cry out “My God, My God why have you forsaken me?”  When our loved one dies we cry out!  When disaster happens we cry out!  When disease settles in and death is at our door we cry out!  When your loved one doesn’t remember your name we cry out!  The pain is real…

But remember the cross!  Christ cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” so that we wouldn’t have to!  He knows our pain!  He knows our suffering!  And through Him we know that nothing can separate us from His love (see Romans 8:28-39).

Here is one final thought from D.A. Carson in his book How Long, O Lord?: Reflections on Suffering and Evil

To focus on the cross not only grounds our faith on the God who is loving and faithful, but also gives us an example in his sacrificial and redemptive love that we can never outstrip.  When we suffer, there will sometimes by mystery.  Will there also be faith?  Yes, if our attention is focused more on the cross, and on the God of the cross, than on the suffering itself.”

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2 comments on “Suffering and Evil

  1. Thanks for sharing this, Willie. So many people are like Dr. Erhman. It seems to me that the answer essentially boils down to a question of faith. It’s kind of like an athlete who’s being considered for the Hall of Fame. The experts who vote say that they looked at his whole body of work. If one seriously looks at God and His whole body of work, he is really without excuse regarding God’s ultimate motives and plans for us.
    Love, Popsicle

  2. This article is well written and the “focus on the cross” message is great and gospel centered as it should be. Without writing a tumultuous amount on a subject that could be debated for decades, I’ll just say these two things: We live this side of the fall. God made clear the consequence of Adam and Eve’s sin. As we live in a fallen world, where sin brings about death and decay (not God’s original design), don’t fall into the trap of qualifying the “bad things.” When we do this, we begin to ascribe levels of goodness and wickedness to one another, which is legalism, which leads to self-righteousness and shrouds the gospel. Instead, find hope in the Cross, absolutely, but don’t forget that there is joy in the temporary nature of things as well. While premature death, disease, and destruction never make us happy, at least realize that it is death that gives us the chance to be reconciled with Christ. If we lived forever, this side of the fall, we wouldn’t have a chance to walk with Him again. It’s bittersweet, just like so many things in this life prove to be. Perhaps a good way to understand why bittersweet is the appropriate response is to think of chocolate. sweet chocolate is too pure, bitter chocolate too harsh, but when balanced…perfect. Bittersweet tells us we have compassion and love for the “temporary”, but a stronger passion and love for the “forever.” finally, lets always remember that while bad things can happen for no greater reason than the fact that we live this side of the fall, God is still in control, can and does work all things to His glory, and loves us more than we could ever comprehend. (i know there are easy holes in this last statement, but my point isn’t to speak of the Sovereignty of God right here.) God’s grace and peace to you, always…

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