A Broken and Dying World
Last Sunday, I stared at the headline from the UK Telegraph: “Christians Crucified Again for Refusing Islam.” The word “again” almost made it sound like a joke until I followed the link and saw photos of Christians in Syria nailed to crosses – dead or dying. Former Muslims all, they converted to following Christ. They were given an opportunity to recant their faith in Christ and return to Islam but they refused. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) accused the young men of ridda, “defection from Islam,” a crime that carries the death penalty.
As I was reading, a breaking news report popped up on the screen: “A strong earthquake in southern China’s Yunnan province toppled thousands of homes on Sunday, killing at least 367 people and injuring more than 1,800.” The death toll has grown to over 600 with 2,400 injured.
Now we have reports and gut-wrenching videos of ISIS beheading the children of Christians, their mothers raped and their fathers hanged. CNN reported 300,000 Christians are fleeing Iraq to escape the genocide.
What kind of God allows such evil and suffering in the world? When people struggle to believe in God, that’s the question that tops the list.
But the tragic headlines don’t tell the full story. Personal loss, pain and suffering can crush our hopes.
At a young age, Ted Turner, founder of TBS and CNN, considered being a missionary. When his younger sister, Mary Jane, died of leukemia at 12 (Ted was 15), he rejected his religion. He explained later, “I was taught that God was love and God was powerful and I couldn’t understand how someone so innocent should be made or allowed to suffer so.”
Actor Tim Allen’s father died when Tim was 11 years old. A drunk driver crashed into their car as his dad was driving home from a college football game. Nearly 50 years later, Allen still claims that his father’s death “changed everything forever.” In a recent interview he said, “Part of me still doesn’t trust that everything will work out all right. I knew my father was dead, but I was never satisfied with why he was dead. I wanted answers that minute from God. ‘Do you think this is funny? Do you think this is necessary?’ And I’ve had a tumultuous relationship with my creator ever since.”
Where is God?
If God is all powerful and all good, then why is the world he created so seriously broken and why doesn’t he do something about it?
Anyone who thinks that this is not a legitimate question is not living in the real world. It is at the very heart of understanding the very nature of the universe and our place in it.
And it’s not just Christians who are challenged by the problem of evil. Every worldview struggles with the real presence of evil and suffering in the world. For the atheist, the existence of the very concept of moral good/evil is difficult to explain arising from a materialistic universe. Why are such categories pervasive throughout cultures and history? Some try to claim, “Moral codes are so different among different cultures.” That is true in the margins but the core moral code is historically and cross-culturally consistent.
C. S. Lewis describes his struggle with this when he was an atheist, “My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?”
And for the transcendentalist who claims that good and evil are just words for neutral actions, the idea that cruelty and kindness are two sides of the same coin is not only silly but disturbing.
So how do we respond?
Giving an Answer for Hope
If you are looking for a survey of comprehensive answers to the problem of evil, I won’t give them here. If would like some practical or academic approaches you can check here and here, respectively.
But comprehensive arguments are not usually needed. What most people are looking for is hope there is some resolution to why the world God created is so broken and why he apparently does not intervene to make it right. Finally tuned arguments have their place, but God’s story in Scriptures takes evil head on with no apologies.
Let me give the elements of a resolution in the form of bullet points that address key parts of the struggles we have.
1. Evil is not a thing. It is not the opposite of good. Evil is a parasite. It cannot exist on its own. It needs good to feed off of, to twist and pervert. In fact, everything that we call evil is something good that has been twisted or perverted. Good can exist without evil but evil cannot exist without good.
2. God did not create evil. He created a world in which evil was possible. This is a variation of the “free will defense.” Because God imbued humanity with the freedom to choose to love him, necessarily they had the choice not to love him. This choice and its catastrophic consequences are described in detail throughout the Scriptures.
3. The flash points are God’s goodness and God’s power. If God is all-good, wouldn’t he want to eradicate evil and suffering? If God is all-powerful, isn’t he able to do it? So what is he waiting for? How bad does it have to get? Maybe he isn’t all-good or all-powerful; which is the same as not being God at all. But, God is all-good and all-powerful, and he will. . . (see the next point).
4. God will remove the presence of evil and its consequences. This is the beautiful truth of the biblical worldview. God wants us to have confidence about what the ultimate future holds for us. Right now, we are distressed because of the timing. Like the Psalmist we cry, “How long?” (Psalm 6:3). So, if someone says, “God has not destroyed evil;” he must really say, “God has not yet destroyed evil.” He knew we would be troubled by this so he said, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
5. God endured the consequences of evil himself. God did not sit in the situation room and watch his creation struggle through the ravages of evil and its destruction. He became a man and endured the worst that suffering can inflict on a man.
God with us
A favorite writer of mine is Shusaku Endo, one of Japan’s most celebrated novelists. As a Japanese and a Christian, Endo realized that he could not rely on a religious heritage as a backdrop for his books. So he fashioned his stories reflecting the Buddhist first truth, “Life is suffering.” His characters are flawed, awkward and sinful. Yet they labor to remain faithful to Christ and serve others.
He captures the apparent lack of God’s intervention in suffering in his most celebrated book, “Silence” (which is being made into a movie starring Liam Neeson and directed by Martin Scorsese, 2015 release).
His novels explore the Christian faith in ways that are uncomfortable to the Western Christian mind. Whereas American Christians may say, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life;” Endo explains, “Life is suffering. God came and suffered with us and for us.”
The hope that we have in the risen Christ, whose sufferings secured the beachhead for the eventual reclamation of creation, helps us to endure whatever miseries come our way. To paraphrase Pascal, life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards. We know what the ultimate future holds, so that gives meaning and hope to today.
And when live it, people will ask what we believe that gives us hope in a world that groans with hatred, death and despair (1 Peter 3:15).
Here are some helpful books if you are interested in reading more about the problem of evil.
D. A. Carson, How Long, O Lord? Reflections on Suffering and Evil. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1990.
Philip Yancey, Where is God When it Hurts? Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002
C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain. New York: HaperOne, 1940
John S. Feinberg, The Many Faces of Evil: Theological Systems and the Problem of Evil. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1994.
Peter Kreeft, Making Sense Out of Suffering. Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Books, 1986.
Alister E. McGrath, Suffering & God. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995.
Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974.