Why do bad things happen to good people?
How can a good God who loves us permit all the suffering in this world?
These and other questions related to the problem of evil came up in a recent conversation I had with a friend. He is grappling with his Christian faith and turned to me in hopes of finding a sounding board off which he could bounce ideas and questions.
My friend has been listening to a lot of podcasts lately, and also debates online between Dr. Jordan Peterson and prominent atheist Sam Harris. His mind is swimming with competing explanations for how humanity got here to begin with, and where we are going.
We talked for over 2-hours this most recent time. Before that, we had perhaps two or three other conversations of at least an hour each on related topics.
Ours was a good and honest discussion, and I was honored that my friend felt safe turning to me.
Yet at the same time, I recognize he is not only looking for safety. He told me he had been trying to better understand his faith and worldview, and to clarify these.
Did what he believed about God and life make the best sense of all the evidence and experiences at his disposal, or was there more to the story?
Clarity Over Agreement
It occurred to me at various points in the chat with my friend that I was eluding to certain passages of Scripture to answer his questions which I could only loosely paraphrase. But this tact is only useful insofar as the other person is also familiar with the passages in question, and I was not fully confident my friend knew all the passages I was eluding to.
And so it happened that I decided, after getting off the phone with my friend, to sit down and write about the problem of evil, and about God’s goodness.
This, after all, is the primary reason I write. In writing, I feel most confident that I have said what I intended to, and I have the easiest time afterward looking back over what I have said to ascertain whether my thoughts were clear.
My point in writing here is not to prove anyone wrong, or to seem more clever than famous atheists, nor even to persuade anyone from believing whatever they want to.
It has been my experience that people tend to believe what they want, and no amount of persuasion will talk someone out of an idea they are committed to.
Yet saying that last bit is a sorry excuse for not making one’s case in important matters. While it may be hard to convince someone of a different perspective by explanation, it is downright impossible when we refuse to put ourselves out there.
Answers in Genesis
My formative years were greatly influenced by a few critical sources which persuaded me of my perspective and attitude.
First, I grew up attending AWANA. Between that and the home education I received, I learned to memorize and recite Bible verses. The aim of AWANA clubs is that children should “study to show thyself approved, workmen that need not be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” This, I was told, was primarily the Bible as God’s revealed Word. Yet I was also encouraged to study and rightly divide more general truth.
Second, I grew up playing with LEGOs and watching Star Trek: The Next Generation. From these leisure time activities, I developed a love for putting things together and exploring deep ideas.
Third but not least, Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis was a major factor in how I came to interpret the Bible and the modern world in the way that I do, especially when it comes to questions of origins.
Who is God? He is the eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing, good Creator.
Where did we come from? God made us.
And what about the problem of evil? Satan and man’s sin are squarely to blame.
It would be fair to say that where many young American children are indoctrinated with a skepticism toward Christian faith due to the claims of secular science, I was raised to be skeptical toward the claims of secular science due to my Christian faith.
God or man – who knows best? Operating from one premise or the other makes all the difference in the world as to how one answers the big, important questions in life.
The Problem of Evil: Is Man Good?
In Genesis, we read that God created everything – the sun, moon, stars; darkness and light; the dry land and the oceans, lakes, and rivers; the plants and animals; mankind – in six days, and that He rested on the seventh.
After each day of Creation, God looked at what He had made and pronounced it good. The only exception came after He made man in His image on the sixth day. In that case, God said that everything He had made was “very good.”
The fact of man being God’s image-bearer is a puzzle at first blush. From my studies and reading, I have reached the conclusion that God made man special from all the animals in the respect of man’s mental, emotional, and spiritual attributes reflecting God’s.
After God made Eve, He commanded mankind to “be fruitful and multiply, fill the Earth and subdue it.” His intention was evidently that men and women, as reflections of Him, would rule the Earth as regents with and for Him.
Then Eve was tempted by the serpent. She succumbed, eating the forbidden fruit and giving some to Adam as well, who also partook.
From then on, mankind has been born with a sinful nature. Between the Creation and this point, man was innocent and “very good.” No more was this the case after what is commonly referred to as “the Fall.”
In other words, the problem of evil in the world traces it’s origin back to Adam and Eve giving in to the serpent’s encouragement to disobey God.
Sin Brought Death
In Romans 5:12, the Apostle Paul writes.
“As sin entered the world through one man,
and death through sin,
so also death was passed on to all men,
because all sinned.”
In verse 18 of the same chapter, he continues.
“As one trespass led to condemnation for all men,
so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.”
In 1 Corinthians 15:22, Paul writes again.
“As in Adam all die,
so also in Christ shall all be made alive.”
Someone reading this might object. How is it fair that sin and death infected the entire race, even the entire world merely because Adam and Eve took a piece of fruit God told them not to?
Yet this question seems dependent on several faulty assumptions. At the risk of offending sensibilities, I would point out that the chief of these is that we are to judge God instead of the other way around.
In the Old Testament book that bears his name, Job inquires of God at length why he was even allowed to be born. What kind of sick, cruel joke was it that Job had faithfully served and obeyed God, yet he had lost his wealth, social standing, family, and even health in a rapid-fire series of disasters?
In contrast to the capricious gods of ancient peoples we read about in the mythologies of the Greeks, Norse, Egyptians, and others, I think Yahweh God demonstrated remarkable patience and grace.
In response to Job’s inquiries, God asked Job a series of questions in return. These can be neatly summarized in two lines from that section.
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.”
Understanding the problem of evil requires humility on our part.
We see with Paul in the New Testament and with Job in the Old that we must go back to the beginning to find answers to questions like those my friend and I recently discussed.
God is not changing the subject by asking Job where he was during the Creation. This is God’s subtle way of reminding Job of their respective places. And this is not a minor point. God is God. Man is man.
The problem in our day is that we have this backwards. Due to supposedly unprecedented technological advancement and the subsequent prosperity it has brought, mankind assumes himself to be superior to all those who came before.
C.S. Lewis was familiar with this feature of the modern world several decades back. He used the phrase “chronological snobbery” to describe it.
Because modern man in the developed world believes he is more highly evolved than all who came before, he assumes that the further back in time a person lived, the greater the degree of superiority we can feel towards him.
If you go back several thousand years to the authors of the Biblical canon, the condescension with which modern readers come to the Bible becomes very great indeed.
And if we are far superior in understanding and sophistication to those men, it naturally follows that we do not revere the things those men wrote down.
And if we do not revere the things those men wrote, we put ourselves in the seat of judgment over the Bible, demanding that it prove itself worthy of us instead of the other way around.
To have our dysfunctional perspective reframed to a proper understanding of our position relative to God’s is essential to our humbly seeking God and the answers found only in Him.
Assumptions Challenged Concerning The Problem of Evil
Do we have the right idea about God when we assume that goodness on His part necessitates preventing all wrong-doing or suffering, even death?
The Bible tells us that God is good, and that He loves us like children. Why then does God not put an end to these things? Or why did He not prevent them to begin with?
To answer these questions, one must be willing to have their assumptions about God’s character and nature, and of good and evil, and of man’s free will challenged and corrected.
We want to believe we have the freedom to make our own choices. And my conviction is that God has indeed given us this by virtue of creating us in His image.
Someone may reply by pointing out that God is all-powerful and sovereign over Creation. Yet it does not automatically follow from this that God is obligated to exercise His power and sovereignty in all the ways we assume best.
On this point, the prophet Isaiah records the words of Yahweh.
“For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
In other words, our default assumption ought always to be that God has ways and thoughts that we do not readily know or comprehend even when we are told of them. Embracing this truth requires humility and faith on our part. This is easier said than done, I readily admit, but there is simply no way around it.
The Problem of Evil: Is God Good?
Does it necessarily follow that the goodness of God is called into question by the reality of death and suffering in this world?
My friend asked me about the Flood, and what in the Old Testament is referred to as genocide by some.
When God destroyed all life on Earth except what took refuge in the Ark, or commanded the children of Israel to kill every man, woman, child, and animal in the towns of certain people groups of the Promised Land, was God still being good?
Set aside for the time being the fact that there is more to these stories than what is characterized in such summaries of them. These questions beg another.
If we readily admit, as most men instinctively do, that there is such a thing as objective, universal good, where did that standard come from?
If the God of the Bible is the eternal Creator, and the universe His finite Creation, then goodness must come from God rather than the other way around.
In other words, God decides what is or is not good. We are not at liberty to devise a standard of goodness and then impose the same on our Maker. We do not have the authority to invent a morality against which God is to be measured and found wanting.
To this line of reasoning, my friend replied that we would consider it evil if a man today did many of the things God did or commanded others to do in the Bible.
Yet what is the assumption here? Does God have to abide by all the same rules we do in order to be good?
On Goodness and Disparity Divine
One of my sons just the other night smirked when I told him he could not watch Netflix on his Kindle because it was bedtime.
He smirked because I had told him this right after pausing the series Victoria on Amazon Prime, since my wife and I like to watch that in the evenings after the children go to bed as of late.
If it was bedtime and not time to watch a TV show, then what was I doing?
We readily accept that we and our children do not have identical sets of rules. Some things are permissible for us which are forbidden or carefully restricted for our children, typically due to maturity.
Yet with God we have more than just a difference in maturity level, though God is and always has been fully mature where we are not and may never be. Yet even where human beings might grow to full maturity, we remain finite where He is infinite. And He continues to be God whereas we will never be.
Is it acceptable to us that there are things God is permitted to do which are not evil in His doing, but which would be evil for us to do?
What defense can be made of any assumption God must abide by the same rules He establishes for us?
Yet to this, someone will shake their head and ask what it means that God is good. In reply, all I can say is that it does not mean the same thing as when we say that a man is good.
“And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good?
No one is good except God alone.”
And as the Apostle Paul writes:
“Let God be true though every one were a liar.”
Free Will and Predestination
Evidence abounds in the Scripture for the reality of both God’s sovereignty and man’s free will.
By God’s sovereignty, I mean that He is the God above all gods, the King above all kings. He is the original uncaused Cause by, through, and for whom everything else exists.
By man’s free will, I mean that God created man with a nature – mental, emotional, and spiritual – which empowers him to make decisions.
A more comprehensive treatment of the debate between competing explanations of exactly how God’s sovereignty interacts with man’s free will I will save for another article. For now, suffice to say that it is difficult if not impossible to imagine a universe in which man could have the ability to make choices if God were constantly intervening to prevent us from making any wrong ones, or rejecting him.
And whatever the plausibility or implausibility of alternative possibilities, we know that the universe in which we live sees men with the ability to choose.
This is terribly inconvenient when people other than ourselves do evil things. We often wish they could not, and that God would keep them from being able to.
Yet seldom if ever will you hear someone lamenting that they themselves are free to make mistakes in the moment they are making them. Only after we have made a poor choice and must suffer the consequences of it do we ask why God did not or could not have kept us from it.
But again, this is the universe we live in. This is the way things are, and we must conclude that it suits some larger purpose and design of God that we and others can make bad decisions, and that the consequences are the price we must pay for the luxury of free will.
The Problem of Evil vs. The Greatest Good
My friend asked me in our recent conversation why God did not choose to reveal Himself to all men, women, and children everywhere.
“God’s a smart guy.”
He surely could figure out a way to make His existence and nature clear to everyone everywhere. How was it fair of God to cast everyone who is not a Christian into Hell when they die if apparently not everyone even has the opportunity to hear the gospel?
To this I directed my friend’s attention to the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. We read in the gospel accounts of this miracle that far from being finally persuaded as to Jesus being the Messiah by a dead man being resurrected, the religious leaders who were opposed to Jesus in that moment began plotting seriously how they could put both Jesus and Lazarus to death.
Remember something I said at the start. People will ultimately believe what they want to believe.
The religious leaders who opposed Jesus did not at any cost want to believe that Jesus was the Messiah because they hated him. There was no miracle compelling enough, therefore, that they would be persuaded by it to become Christians.
Should we assume that the nature of God and man should be altered so that all or at least most men are persuadable? If we do assume that, I think we have not considered the ramifications.
And besides this, we must return to the earlier point that such is not the way God set up the universe.
Moreover, He was under no obligation to set it up in any other way than what He did.
Moreover, we should consider that the greatest good is actually achieved by God having set things up in precisely the way He did.