Everyone has wrestled with the question: “How can God be perfectly loving and all powerful, and at the same time allow suffering and evil in his world?” It’s a tough one for skeptics and Jesus followers alike. The famous 18th century skeptic, David Hume asked, “Is he willing to prevent evil but not able? Then his is impotent. Is he able but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?”
Another trustworthy source of philosophical genius, The Simpsons, had one episode that showed a kids’ Sunday School class were the teacher says at the end of her lesson: “And that, students, is why God causes train wrecks!” Even without any backstory of her lesson, I can state categorically that train wreck causing is not the modus operandi of the God of the Bible.
Having lost my marriage of 33 years, my pastoral ministry, my income, my house and my health (I broke my neck and was diagnosed with bone cancer) all in a two month period in 2008, I’ve thought a lot about this testy topic of suffering and evil in God’s world. How does all this happen to me, let alone all those whose suffering incomprehensibly trumps my own? Where is God when bad things happen to people he loves? The God of the Bible is supposedly both great (all powerful) and good (totally loving). So what’s up with all the chaos in the world that he called “good” and the humans with which he populated his world and called them “very good”?
The stupid things we do to ourselves, the evil things we do to each other, not to mention nature when it turns on us with such fury in earthquakes, tornadoes, tsunamis, and floods, are all problematic if we are to believe the biblical account of a good and great Creator. What about diseases like smallpox, polio, cancer, car accidents or drownings? Millions of East Africans face famine and starvation due to dictatorial and corrupt governments. Hundreds of millions have been displaced and are on the run from their persecutors or other brands of villains throughout the world. Every day, children die in childbirth, terrorists murder masses of innocents, and children are kidnapped, raped, and sold into forced labor. Over forty thousand people die of starvation and related diseases every day.
These are not abstract statistics, but realities with which we must empathetically lament as well as intellectually grapple!
In this multi-part series I’ll offer a few things for you to think about. I certainly don’t have all the answers and I’m not wedded even to my best shot at such lofty philosophical problems. Frankly, I’m finding myself circling more and “landing” less on some of these issues these days. Behind every answer seems to be another question lurking. We’ll all take our inadequately answered ambiguities to the grave. I’ve heard it said that when we’re in his Presence we won’t care about the things that puzzled us in this life, although I suspect some inquisitive types will insist on spending their first millennium or so in pursuit of answers to their questions. But I don’t know.
Paul, a pretty hefty thinker in his own right, expressed relief in knowing that we’ll all know better than we know now:
“We know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears… For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13)
The more I experience God and talk to him about the way he does stuff, the more I realize I can’t fit him in my head. If I could, he wouldn’t be big enough to worship. Oz Guinness says, “God is always bigger than our misunderstandings of him.”
With respect to the ways of the divine, formulas, 280-character tweets, or pithy Facebook memes don’t do it for me. Though as Solomon opined, “The more the words, the less the meaning,” it will take a few more than a few words to unpack how I view the problem of evil and suffering in the world. I’ll be content if just to get you to think a little bit through the lens of Scripture. At minimum, while discussing the problem of pain, I hope I don’t add to your own problem with it!
If what I say confuses more than clarifies, put this down and just read the Bible! At the end of the day, understanding God is not nearly as important as loving him and showing it by doing what he says.
In the next post we’ll begin at the beginning, way back there to a good garden with a “bad” tree in it.
Here are the links to each of the posts in this series: