Why does God allow evil and suffering? This is a valid and frequently asked question, and the only honest response is that no one knows for certain; because no one has all the answers. ‘Like the bailiff who said, “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God?” And the man answered, “Sir, if I knew the whole truth and nothing but the truth I would be God!” That much is true. But we are not God, are we, and so none of us has all the answers.’ Citation
Steve Jobs, the inspirational CEO of Apple Computers, made the following connection, as recorded by his biographer Walter Isaacson: ‘Even though they were not fervent about their faith, Jobs parents wanted him to have a religious upbringing, so they took him to a Lutheran church most Sunday’s. That came to an end when he was thirteen. In July 1968 Life Magazine published a shocking cover showing a pair of starving children in Biafra. Jobs took it to Sunday school and confronted the church’s pastor. “If I raise my finger, will God know which one I am going to raise even before I do it?” The pastor answered, “Yes, God knows everything.” Jobs then pulled out the Life cover and asked, “Well, does God know about this and what’s going to happen to those children?” “Steve, I know you don’t understand, but yes, God knows about that.” Jobs announced that he didn’t want to have anything to do with worshipping such a God, and he never went back to church.’ Like many of us, Jobs struggled with the idea that God could see and know the details of the injustice in the world and do nothing to prevent it. Citation
How can a loving God allow suffering to continue in the world which He created? Why does God even allow wicked people to do some of the vile things they do? ‘Most people acknowledge that evil is real and it has always had devastating effects on our world. From the sexual abuse of children to the horrific terrorist attacks of 9/11, evil continues to rear its ugly head in our own time.’ Citation In fact, on the very evening I was writing this – 22nd May 2017 – there was a devastating terrorist attack at the MEN Arena in Manchester. Thousands of people attended a pop concert; many of them young children – the youngest victim was an 8-year old girl! As the evening ended and the crowds streamed towards the foyer to exit the arena, a suicide bomber affiliated to ISIS, detonated his device, killing 22 people and maiming or injuring 64 others. It was an act of pure evil.
Indeed, the number one reason people cite for not believing in Christianity is because of all the evil and suffering in the world. And yet, the number one reason people accept the Christian message is also because of all the suffering in the world. In a nutshell, they know that evil and suffering are not right and so they turn to Christ seeking help and get their answers. But when I meet people who say they don’t believe in God because of all the injustices in the world, I want to ask them: How then do you explain the reason all the evil and suffering in the world? Is it just a dog-eat-dog existence; survival of the fittest; with the most dominant or evil people doing whatever they want to do whenever they want to do it? Is that how life is, or how it’s meant to be? No! Well then how do they explain all the evil and suffering in the world? What explanation can they give?
Simply acknowledging that evil happens and that’s just the way it is, is so… inadequate! Think of it like this: If there is no God then there is no judgement and that means that some people would literally get away with murder. But that can’t be right, can it? Deep down we know that. But if there is no God then why do we even care or get upset or feel injustice at evil and suffering? If that’s just the way things are, then why does it bother us so much? Why? Because we know that’s not the way it is meant to be. Friends, one day everyone will stand before the judgement seat of God and give an account for their lives; everyone will answer for what they have done or failed to do.
Coming back to our question: why does God allow evil to happen? ‘God is capable of preventing evil, and God desires to rid the world of evil. So why does God allow evil and suffering to continue? Perhaps another way to look at the question is to consider the alternative ways that people might choose to have God run the world. For example:
- God could permanently change everyone’s personality so that they are not able to sin. [But then we would be like robots and] that would mean we’d no longer have freewill and so there would be no chance of a meaningful relationship between us and God.
- Another option is that God could compensate for people’s evil actions through supernatural intervention 100 percent of the time. God would then intervene and stop a drunk driver from causing an accident or stop terrorists from flying airplanes into buildings [or suicide bombing the Manchester Arena]. But while this solution sounds attractive, it would very quickly lose its attractiveness as soon as God’s intervention infringed on something we wanted to do. We want God to prevent horrible evil actions, but are we willing to let “lesser-evil” actions slide? Again we don’t really want to be controlled, do we? We want to retain control over our own lives. We value our freewill.
- Another alternative would be for God to judge and remove those who choose to commit evil acts. But the problem with this is that there would be no one left, because God would have to remove us all. [None of us are perfect, so when it comes to evil or sinfulness where do you draw a line?]
Instead of these alternatives, God has chosen to create a “real” world in which real choices have real consequences.’ Citation People often say life is so unfair, or they ask, ‘why do bad things sometimes happen to good people?’ Friends, nobody, not even God, ever promised that life would be fair.
Still, it is legitimate to ask: If God is all knowing, if He is a God of love who knows everything about us – even down the number of hairs on our head, and our very thoughts – then why doesn’t He intervene to end human suffering and to stop all the evil in the world? If God is love why doesn’t He intervene to save ‘innocent’ lives and heal ‘good’ people? Christians worship a God who, we are told, loves us and knows everything about us and yet, He often remains silent in the face of untold suffering! How do we reconcile this? What about, for example, the abduction of Madeleine McCann on holiday in Portugal in 2007? How do we reconcile such events with a God who loves us and knows everything about us? If we had known that something was going to happen to an innocent 3-year old Madeleine we would have done something to prevent it, wouldn’t we? Why does God allow these things to happen, why doesn’t he intervene to stop them?
In the book, ‘Where Is God When It Hurts?’ Philip Yancey wrote: “If God is truly in charge why is he so capricious, unfair? Is he the cosmic sadist who delights in watching us squirm?” – He goes on to show that God is not like that, at all. – Scripture assures us that our God is a suffering God, being himself far from immune to suffering. We need to see him weeping over the impenitent city of Jerusalem and dying on the cross.
In another book, The Cross of Christ, John Stott wrote: ‘I could never myself believe in God, if it were not for the cross. (…) In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it? I have entered many Buddhist temples in different Asian countries and stood respectfully before the statue of Buddha, his legs crossed, arms folded, eyes closed, the ghost of a smile playing round his mouth, a remote look on his face, detached from the agonies of the world. But each time, after a while I have to turn away. And in imagination I have turned instead to that lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross, nails through hands and feet, back lacerated, limbs wrenched, brow bleeding from thorn pricks, mouth dry and intolerably thirsty, plunged in God-forsaken darkness. That is God for me! He laid aside his immunity for pain. He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death. He suffered for us. Our sufferings become more manageable in the light of his.’ Citation
There’s an anonymous piece of prose that’s been around for some time, called, ‘The Long Silence’. Let me read it to you:
At the end of time, billions of people were scattered on a great plain before God’s throne. Most shrank back from the brilliant light before them. But some groups near the front talked heatedly – not with cringing shame, but with belligerence.
‘Can God judge us? How can he know about suffering?’ snapped a pert young brunette. She ripped open a sleeve to reveal a tattooed number from a Nazi concentration camp. ‘We endured terror… beatings… death!’
In another group a Negro boy lowered his collar. ‘What about this?’ he demanded, showing an ugly rope burn. ‘Lynched … for no crime but being black!’
In another crowd a pregnant schoolgirl with sullen eyes: ‘Why should I suffer?’ she murmured. ‘It wasn’t my fault.’
Far out across the plain there were hundreds of such groups. Each had a complaint against God for the evil and suffering he permitted in his world. How lucky God was to live in heaven where all was sweetness and light, where there was no weeping or fear, no hunger or hatred. What did God know of all that man had been forced to endure in this world? For God leads a pretty sheltered life, they said.
So each of these groups sent forth their leader, chosen because he had suffered the most: A Jew, a Negro, a person from Hiroshima, a horribly deformed arthritic, a thalidomide child. In the centre of the plain they consulted with each other. At last they were ready to present their case. It was rather clever.
Before God could be qualified to be their judge, he must endure what they had endured. Their decision was that God should be sentenced to live on earth, as a man!
‘Let him be born a Jew. Let the legitimacy of his birth be doubted. Give him a work so difficult that even his family will think him out of his mind when he tries to do it. Let him be betrayed by his closest friends. Let him face false charges, be tried by a prejudiced jury and convicted by a cowardly judge. Let him be tortured. At the last, let him see what it means to be terribly alone. Then let him die. Let him die so that there can be no doubt that he died. Let there be a great host of witnesses to verify it.’ As each leader announced his portion of the sentence, loud murmurs of approval went up from the throng of people assembled.
And when the last had finished pronouncing sentence, there was a long silence. No one uttered another word. No one moved. For suddenly all knew that God had already served his sentence.
Back to our question, why doesn’t God intervene to end human suffering and to stop all the evil in the world? Why doesn’t He intervene to save ‘innocent’ lives and heal ‘good’ people? Why didn’t he intervene and stop Madeleine McCann from being abducted?
Friends, the thing is, we want God to intervene when we want him to intervene… but we don’t really want Him to intervene all the time. We don’t want God to intervene and bring judgment on the world, or to treat us, or our loved ones, as our sins deserve. We only want God to intervene to stop horrible things happening or to intervene when it suits us. But if God constantly jumped in to fix the world’s problems, then God would have to impose his will over ours; over mankind, and that would destroy the greatest of all freedoms, our free will. If God intervened and imposed His will over ours, He would forfeit the chance of receiving any love that is worth having. Real love, genuine love cannot be forced or commanded. In his book, ‘Mere Christianity’, C.S. Lewis wrote: ‘Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having.’
But how, then, do we reconcile suffering and God apparently remaining silent and not doing anything about it? Why did God even allow evil and suffering to enter the world in the first place? The short answer is we don’t know for certain why God allowed evil and suffering to enter the world, but that doesn’t mean God isn’t concerned about it. He is! God is not indifferent. He cares massively; that’s why He sent Jesus. One thing we do know for certain is that much of the suffering in the world is caused as a direct result of our own sinfulness (drunkenness, adultery, greed, selfishness, lust). God values our freedom; our free will; he respects our choices; he doesn’t want to force us or control us to have to obey him, like robots.
“God didn’t create us to be robots. He created us [in His own image] to be powerful expressions of Himself. When He did this, God made it possible for Him to feel heartache and pain from our choices. All parents understand this pain. God took a risk by giving us a choice to serve Him, ignore Him, or even mock Him. And our freedom of choice is so valuable to Him that He restrains Himself from manifesting His presence in a way where our freedom of choice would be removed.” Citation
Let’s go back to the beginning, to the fall of mankind; and see what happened… The Bible tells us that God created us is his own image… male and female he created them. In all of creation we are unique and special because we are made in the image and likeness of God – who created mankind to have authority and dominion over the earth and to take care of it, with God, but under God’s direction. And because we are made in God’s image we have been endowed with a personality and character and freewill; the ability to choose for ourselves. But we chose wrong; we chose to ignore God and do things our own way, and we messed up… that’s the problem (what the Bible calls sin) that separates us from God! Sin might be a little word (just three letters) but it’s not a little thing. The fact is, sin has major consequences on our world and everything in it; catastrophic consequences! Because Adam and Eve disobeyed God and chose to follow Satan’s ploy, they relinquished their God-given dominion and rights over to Satan. They became enslaved to sin (cf. John 8:34). And the result of this has affected everything – even Creation itself is out of kilter. The earth has been cursed because of our disobedience; blighted because of sin and evil entering the world. God said to Adam, “the ground is cursed because of you” (Genesis 3v17).
This is the greatest environmental disaster that has ever happened. The world is no longer the place that it was originally created to be… earthquakes, tsunamis, droughts, floods, wars, famines, disease, death… In the beginning God created the earth and it was good; a perfect creation (Genesis 1:31). But today it is a groaning creation, filled with suffering, death and pain. All of this is the result of sin entering the world.
If we turn to the beginning of the Bible, to Genesis chapter 3, and look at Adam and Eve’s relationship with God, we get an exposé or a depiction; a picture of what went wrong and how evil and suffering came into the world. You remember the story: The LORD God then took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden, to work it and take care of it. And in the middle of the garden were two special trees: One was ‘the tree of life’ – giving everlasting life to those who eat its fruit – the other, ‘the tree of the knowledge of good and evil’ – bringing death to those who eat from that tree. Now God made Adam and Eve to live in fellowship with Him, in paradise forever, and so God said they could eat from any tree in the garden, including from the tree of life, but God commanded: you must not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die (Genesis 2:17).
Then in Genesis chapter 3 the devil or Satan, disguised himself as a serpent; a snake, and he came to the woman and slyly suggested that God didn’t really have man’s best interests at heart. And so the serpent craftily planted doubt in the Word of God and tempted Eve with the proverbial ‘forbidden fruit’, (that’s still one of Satan’s major tactics; causing doubt and then using falsehood mingled with truth). First the serpent caused doubt: “Did God really say you must not eat from any tree in the garden?” Then the falsehood: ‘You won’t surely die’, he said, ‘God knows that if you eat it you will be just like God knowing good and evil.’ It was a part-truth to disguise the lie: True, they did become like God in knowing good and evil, but a lie in saying they wouldn’t die. That one small challenge or questioning of God’s Word turned out to be the mostly deadliest of ‘snakebites’! Sin entered the world; and sin is infectious, it spreads like wild fire and passes from one generation to the next.
In a nutshell, sin is contagious and it spreads. All of us have “sinned”. Romans 3v23 puts it like it is: ‘For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.’ None of us are perfect. All of us fall short.
Children, even infants, don’t need to be taught how to sin: it just comes naturally to them… throwing temper tantrums because they can’t get their own way, hitting other toddlers in the playgroup, claiming something as ‘mine’ and not sharing! Mild stuff, granted, compared to what we might generally consider sin but nevertheless sin, all sin, is rebellion against God’s perfect standard. When God says, ‘love your neighbour as yourself’, and we don’t, we sin. And if we only ever sinned once in our entire life then, by default, we’re not innocent, not 100%, and God, who is absolutely pure, 100% holy, cannot be where sin is! It’s like trying to mix oil and water… impossible!
Sin is a bit like when toxic waste is spilled into a river: Years ago people thought nothing of polluting streams and rivers with chemical waste and rubbish. It just seemed so unimportant; nothing really to worry about! But today we know that just two or three parts in a million of certain chemicals can seriously damage people’s health, even kill them! Sin is like the pollution in streams: even tiny amounts are deadly because it spreads like a virus. And sin also spreads and passes from one generation to the next. We are all sinful… we are born that way; we inherit it!
Do you know how a worm gets inside an apple? Maybe you think the worm burrows in from the outside. No, scientists have discovered that the worm comes from the inside. But how does he get in there? Simple! An insect lays an egg in the apple blossom. Sometime later, the worm hatches right in the heart of the apple and then it eats his way out. Sin is a bit like that: it is already in our hearts before we are even born; sin is passed on in our genes, from mother to child right the way back to Adam and Eve.
Sin is when we do things our way instead of God’s way. SIN is like saying Shove off God I’m in charge No to your rules!
A lot of the evil and suffering in the world is caused by mankind; as a direct result of our own sinfulness but of course, that is not always the case. Nice people, ‘good’ people still get sick and they die through no fault of their own. We catch a cold or the flu because of a virus, not because we have been particularly sinful! Toothache is mostly the result of neglect not sin. Poor diet, lack of exercise, hereditary diseases are all causes of ill health, sickness and suffering, but this is not necessarily because of a person’s sin. The point is, all of our bodies get sick and eventually they wear out and we die. Sickness and death are the consequence of everything that has gone wrong in our world. Whatever the immediate cause of anyone’s illness or demise, however, we can always trace the origin back to Satan, the author of all that is wrong and evil in our world.
It is an undeniable fact however, that God sometimes intentionally allows, or even causes sickness to accomplish His sovereign purposes, ‘as a method of discipline or as a judgment against sin (see Psalm 32v3-5). King Uzziah in the Old Testament was struck with leprosy (2 Chronicles 26v19-20). Nebuchadnezzar was driven to madness by God until he came to understand that “the Most High rules in the affairs of men” (Daniel 4). Herod was struck down and eaten by worms because he took God’s glory upon himself (Acts 12v21-23). There is even at least one case in the Bible where God allowed disease (blindness) not as punishment for sin, but to reveal Himself and His mighty works through that blindness (John 9v1-3).’ Citation Conversely, when we look at the story of Job, or Paul’s thorn in the flesh, we see that sickness can also be a trial, allowed by God for the testing and refining of our faith. C.S. Lewis described suffering as God’s megaphone through which He calls on people to turn to Him. – It is through suffering that people often find God.
But in all of this, we need to understand that evil and suffering in the world is not the way it was meant to be. We know that, don’t we? That’s why we so often cry out, ‘it’s not fair, it’s not right!’ And that’s why Jesus came… He came to put the wrong right. In fact, in all of His healing miracles (which served to authenticate his teaching) Jesus is saying: ‘This is not the way it was meant to be (in the beginning) and this is not the way that it one day will be (when the Kingdom of God reaches its climax; when Jesus returns and the earth is made new).’ In all of his healing miracles and, ultimately, in his own resurrection from the dead, Jesus demonstrates God’s power to defeat Satan, to defeat sickness and death, and to forgive us.
Jesus called the devil, ‘the ruler of this world’ (John 14:30). We live in enemy controlled territory. But the reality is we were not really made for this world, at least, not the world, as we know it! Mankind was made for something far better; we were created to walk in personal fellowship with God and to help take care of God’s perfect creation, with God but under God’s rule. We were created to live and to take care of paradise – Eden – which is why our inmost being; our very souls and, indeed, creation itself, is constantly yearning for more, for ‘something better’. Our soul, our inmost being is homesick. We constantly crave for something more, something better: We want to be younger, fitter, healthier, happier, and richer; we want to live longer – for ever – we want paradise. Eternity runs through our veins, yet we live in finite time. We might not articulate it quite like that, but that’s the reason why we are never satisfied, and never will be in this life. We always want more because our souls are homesick… we yearn to be rid of sickness, sin and death and for things to be good and wholesome and perfect again… Paradise!
In conclusion, and as I draw things to a close, we don’t know for certain why God allowed evil and suffering to enter into the world but that doesn’t mean God isn’t concerned about it. He is. People ask, well if God is so concerned why doesn’t he do something about it? Friends, ‘God has done something about it. Jesus suffered and died so that we could be forgiven and participate in the ‘new creation’ where there will be no more suffering.’ Citation
I met a man recently who was full of hope: he’d had a dream of a wonderful world where everything is perfect and this filled the man with hope. This is how he dreamed:
- He dreamt of a perfect world without war and terrorism and weapons of mass destruction; a world where people can travel safely on aeroplanes or on the London underground, and where people can go to work in tall skyscraper buildings without fear of something horrible happening to them or to their loved ones.
- He dreamt of a world where someone had actually made poverty history, where there was no more hunger or famine, or national debt, or squalor, or misery or austerity. It was world of plenty where there is no such thing as the homeless, the hungry or the destitute.
- He dreamt of a world where our streets are safe to walk, even for a woman and even at night; a world where our children, or grandchildren, are never picked on or bullied at school or college (nor grownups picked on in the work-place), and where Christians are not persecuted or ridiculed for their faith: a world where peace and love and harmony reign, a world where everyone gets on with their neighbour and where sin and wickedness simply do not exist.
- He dreamt of a world where there is no more sickness, or ageing, or pain. A world where diseases, such as AIDS and cancer and heart disease and arthritis and depression are all just things of the past and no one even remembers them. A world where there is no more loneliness, no more crying, no more pain.
- He dreamt of a perfect, paradise world, where people will live forever, where they will work, and eat and play and sing and worship God, and where they will live in an intimate face-to-face relationship with God forever… it’s a perfect world in which mankind will rule and reign with Christ over creation. Man and God together again just like it was in the beginning.
But friends, this is not a pipedream; it is not false hope or a denial of the truth. To a Christian this is not a dream at all: it is a reality! A God-given promise of a new world that will, one-day be brought into existence. This is God’s plan – which the Bible tells us about from cover to cover, from Genesis to Revelation – a plan that is still today approaching fulfilment and is almost complete but for one thing… it is what Christians are waiting for; the return of Christ, and when God will bring about the fulfilment of his promise; to rid the world of everything that is wrong and bad and to bring about the renewal of all things (see Revelation chapter 21).
Why doesn’t God do something about all the suffering in the world? He has done something about it; He sent Jesus; He is doing something about it (God is not inactive or impotent), and one day, soon, He will do something about it, conclusively (when Jesus returns). On that note: No one knows when Jesus will actually return, but one thing is for certain: He is coming: you can count your life on it, and bank your eternity on it! – “The second coming of Christ is mentioned over 300 times in the NT… that’s an average of once in every thirteen verses. Citation Jesus is coming again: His return is more certain than the sun rising tomorrow morning! It will be too late to do anything about it then because, in the words of C.S. Lewis: “Once the author steps on the stage, the play is over.”
Until then, there is still time to do something about it. Turn to Christ… it’s your call. Let me close with this…
One night, prior to the Second World War and just before the invention of radar, a battleship spotted an intermittent light fast approaching it from out of the darkness. The captain of the battleship alarmed but ready for action, ordered his signalman to flash a message in Morse code. “Unidentified vessel, change your course immediately.” No sooner had the message been dispatched than back came the same reply. “Unidentified vessel, change your course immediately.” The captain saw red and instructed his signalman to send a new message: “Change your course immediately, I am a Captain.” The response was again instantaneous and read: “Change your course immediately. I am a Seaman, Third Class!” By now the captain was furious and so one last time the signal went out, “Change your course immediately, I am a BATTLESHIP.” As before the response came back just as swiftly, “Change your course immediately, I am a LIGHTHOUSE… your call!”
What would have happened to the battleship if the captain had continued on the same course? It would have ended up on the rocks, wouldn’t it? And that’s the same for some of you here tonight; you’re heading for the rocks. Time to change direction, while there is still time… your call!