Luis Palau Association
The Problem of Evil and Suffering

20 May 2014

The Problem of Evil and Suffering

Posted in Articles, Spiritual Growth

When asked what questions they would like to ask God if given the opportunity, forty-four percent of Americans said they want to know, "Why is there evil or suffering in the world?"

John Hick noted, "To many, the most powerful positive objection to belief in God is the fact of evil." Peter Kreeft agrees, saying, "The strongest argument for atheism has always been the problem of evil." That's been the case the past twenty-five hundred years, since the days of Buddha's "enlightenment."

The ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus (342?-270 B.C.) stated the problem in four parts: "God either wishes to take away evil, and is unable, or He is able, and unwilling; or He is neither willing nor able, or He is both willing and able. If He is willing and is unable, He is feeble, which is not in accordance with the character of God; if He is able and unwilling, He is envious, which is equally at variance with God; if He is neither willing nor able, He is both envious and feeble, and therefore not God; if He is both willing and able, which alone is suitable to God, from what source then are evils or why does He not remove them?"

What Epicurus failed to consider is that, in light of his eternal purposes, God may choose to allow evil for a time. It wasn't his idea, it's certainly not his ideal, but he's not going to instantly obliterate the universe to eradicate it, either.

Still, many atheists cite this problem as proof positive that they know better than God. Nietzsche, for one, called God "the greatest immoralist in deeds that has ever existed" and decried the religious theories that attempt to explain human suffering as equally immoral, especially those theories that infer that suffering is rightly brought on as a divine punishment of humanity's supposed sinfulness.

Some writers claim the problem of evil and suffering actually is the source of humanity's varied religious impulses. Echoing Feuerbach, Holbach, and Freud all in one breath, Michael J. Buckley remarked that the aboriginal source of religion "is ignorance and terror, and the model on which the imagination fashions its creations is the human person writ large. Once fashioned, this chimerical agent is open to prayers and sacrifices, appeal of penitence and self-denial, which will disarm his anger and control the outrages of nature. Religion is the magical way of controlling the causes of human tragedy."

The implication? Buckley is blunt: atheism evolves into antitheism, actively seeking to destroy religion, which he sees as opposed to his "scientific" way of thinking. "Take, for example, the attribute of 'goodness,'" writes Buckley. "Theologians call god 'good,' and human beings have some idea what is contained in that predicate. Then realize that this god is also omnipotent. Try to combine these two predicates in the face of human pain, the desolation of war, the destruction of earthquakes and disease. It makes no sense to say that this omnipotent god is good.... The goodness of an omnipotent god is contradicted at every turn of human history."

Buckley claims it makes more sense to say this life doesn't make any sense at all; nature alone calls the shots, arbitrarily, certainly without any reference to morality, necessity, or purpose.

Hans Küng observes that "even in antiquity, philosophers strove in the name of morality to deprive the gods of power, a tradition that can be traced up to Nietzsche, Sartre and Camus.

Albert Camus, the French writer and philosopher, rejected God for allowing the world to be a place "in which children suffer and die." His answer, then? Indiscriminate rebellion - as if that could possibly make things better.

What about classic Christianity?

Philosopher Mortimer Adler says: "Christianity is the only logical, consistent faith in the world. But there are elements to it that can only be described as mystery."

In writing about the origin of evil, John H. Gerstner admitted: "This is the most difficult problem in all of theistic theology and philosophy." Yet to be honest to reality, we must consistently avoid the irrational options of denying the existence of evil or of God.

If any period of history has conclusively proved the reality of evil, it's the twentieth century. Albert Einstein said it bluntly: "I do not fear the explosive power of the atom bomb. What I fear is the explosive power of evil in the human heart."

Thomas E. Dewey stated: "Our problem is within ourselves. We have found the means to blow the world physically apart. Spiritually, we have yet to find the means to put together the world's broken pieces."

More recently, Arthur C. Clark lamented, "This is the first age that has paid any attention to the future; which is a little ironic seeing that we may not have one."

In the face of such actual and potential evil, does religion offer any hope?

Actor Richard Gere says he was disappointed by what he found in Christianity: "I was raised a Methodist but found that Christian religions failed to answer crucial questions like, What is the nature of suffering and where does suffering come from? How can suffering exist? Why does evil exist? Why did God create good and evil? I finally found [in Buddhism] a system willing to engage those questions and many more."

For Gere, as a Buddhist, suffering is the result of an evil act and bad karma. What he missed back in Sunday school, had he read his Bible, is that Christianity takes the issue of suffering very seriously. Only four chapters in all the Bible - the first two in Genesis and the last two in the book of Revelation - say nothing about sin and its terrible consequences.

The scope of this article doesn't allow me to address Gere's questions at length. Others already have covered this subject well. In his book, The Problem of Pain, for instance, C. S. Lewis wrote: "God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world."

In A Severe Mercy, Sheldon Vanauken in turn asked God some tough questions when his young wife died: "How could things go on when the world had come to an end? How could things - how could I - go on in this void? How could one person, not very big, leave an emptiness that was galaxy-wide?"

Still, let's briefly consider the crucial questions Gere raises.

What is the nature of suffering?

The Bible says both humanity and nature suffer the consequences of humanity's sins against God and hurtful deeds against each other. We both sin and are sinned against.

Novelist Harriet K. Feder suggests that in times of great evil and suffering, the question we should ask is not "Where is God?" but "Where is man?"

Stanley Hauerwas, professor of ethics at Duke University, says that when a disabled child is born, the religious question we should ask is not "Why does God permit mental retardation in His world?" but "What sort of community should we become so that mental retardation need not be a barrier to a child's enjoying a gratifying life?"

Dr. Harold O. J. Brown, director of the Rockford Institute Center on Religion and Society, observes that "an unfocused, intuitive awareness of God, without knowing Him personally, leaves us totally bewildered by and unprepared for the suffering of this world."

Much suffering is the result of sin, whether our own transgressions or the iniquities of others. Brown says: "The scope of human sin from Adam to the present, the pain it caused and continues to cause, is an incredible burden. As the Lutheran theologian Paul Althaus expressed it, the burden would be too much to bear except for two world-transforming facts: first, the victory Christ won on the cross over Satan and sin; second, His impending return in glory."

Brown continues: "These truths do not solve the problem of evil or answer all of the questions it forces on us here in time, but they do put everything in perspective. Philosophers and theologians can help us deal with the problem of evil, but the ultimate answer will come only when "God will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes' (Revelation 7:17)."

Where does suffering come from?

The Bible gives four specific answers.

First, from natural disasters, such as an earthquake or a large storm. The suffering that results from these disasters happens to both the righteous and the unrighteous (Matthew 5:45).

Second, from man's inhumanity to man, including armed conflicts. Because of greed and pride, individuals try to hurt others (James 4:1-2).

Third, from our own erroneous actions. If I walk off the roof of my office and fall to the ground, breaking my leg, I am suffering because I broke God's laws of physics. We also suffer when we break God's moral laws. Some, not all, suffering is allowed by God as a punishment for sin. Often, God simply lets us live with the consequences of our actions (Galatians 6:7-8).

Fourth, from the unseen hand of Satan, our adversary. The abiding lesson of the book of Job (one of the oldest Hebrew Scriptures) is that even the wisest of men and women cannot always comprehend in a purely rational manner where evil, suffering, and pain come from. Often it can be understood only from a divine perspective, from the propositional revelation that God is far above us, God is good, God is in control (even though Satan opposes us), God has his purposes, and God will gain the victory through our perseverance.

The one mistake we dare not make, Philip Yancey reminds us, is to confuse God (who is good) with life (which is hard). God feels the same way we do - and is taking the most radical steps possible (Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, and more to come) to redeem the present situation.

How can suffering exist?

The Bible presents a paradox. In a remarkable exercise of his sovereignty, God has given humanity the freedom to make moral choices. In more than twenty passages, the Bible clearly states that every person makes wrong moral choices. Because by nature we tend to choose our will over and against God's will, "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). Such acts of rebellion against God produce most heartaches and suffering.

An atheist may rightly reject such an answer, but only if he or she is first willing to face a much more difficult question. Harold Kushner describes the atheist's dilemma this way: "He has to explain why there is love, honesty, generosity, courage, and altruism in the world, and why it feels so good and so right when we let those qualities into our lives."

Scott Peck concurs: "Dozens of times I have been asked by patients or acquaintances: 'Dr. Peck, why is there evil in the world?' Yet no one has ever asked me in all these years: 'Why is there good in the world?' It is as if we automatically assume this is a naturally good world that has somehow been contaminated by evil.... The mystery of goodness is even greater than the mystery of evil." Whether due to a brain tumor or debilitating syndrome, no one ever has uncontrolled fits of goodness.

Still, why does evil exist? Contrary to Gere's thinking, the Bible makes it clear God did not create evil. Evil entered the universe through the fall of Satan, an archangel who dared to rival the Almighty.

The prophet gives us a picture of this: "You said in your heart, 'I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly, on the utmost heights of the sacred mountain. I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High. But you are brought down to the grave, to the depths of the pit" (Isaiah 14:13-15).

Another prophet writes: "'You were blameless in your ways from the day you were created till wickedness was found in you.... So I drove you in disgrace from the mount of God, and I expelled you, O guardian cherub, from among the fiery stones. Your heart became proud on account of your beauty, and you corrupted your wisdom because of your splendor. So I threw you to the earth; I made a spectacle of you before kings" (Ezekiel 28:15-17).

Jesus himself said, "I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven" (Luke 10:18).

But before his expulsion from heaven, Satan drew perhaps a third of the angels into his rebellion. Ever since, the Devil has schemed against God and His people. Satan knows he's doomed, but, like any common criminal, he wants to take as many with him as he can. Misery loves company, but the tragic irony is that hell will be the epitome of loneliness.

Some joke that they want to spend eternity in hell so they can party with their friends. Yet hell, by definition, is separation from relationship with God and others forever. In the words of C.S. Lewis, "The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell."

No wonder Jesus warned, "Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in hell" (Matthew 10:28).

So, while the problem of evil and suffering is a serious problem, it certainly isn't sufficient cause for unbelief or rebellion against God. Instead, it should drive us to God, asking for His will to "be done on earth as it is in heaven" (Matthew 6:10).

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