Evil? Suffering?

“Why do evil and suffering exist if God is all-powerful?”

The question of evil and suffering in the world is a deep and weighty question, one with which we must certainly wrestle. Whether stated or not, I think we all struggle with the reality of life’s harshest moments and events. I think it is poignant because when we ask this question we have in mind both the horrific events of history that inflict cataclysmic terror on mass peoples as well as the no less tragic events of our own lives and those we love. What do I do with the realities of the Holocaust, natural disasters, or nuclear fallout? Furthermore, what we do with a family member’s cancer, sudden and unexpected deaths, or the reality of poverty all around me?

We ask these questions from the deepest of places and for the sincerest of reasons. I think that an appropriate and worthwhile starting point for us has to be the book of Genesis. The first several chapters begin for us the coming drama of God’s interaction with the world. What I think that we have to first acknowledge is that creation, as we now know it, is not in its intended state.[1] We use the word “fallen” often in churches, and we reference Adam and Eve’s fall into sin as the inauguration of a lot of bad things in the world. While sin may begin in the simplest of ways, the ripple effect and ongoing calamity caused by this breach from God’s intended wholeness is vast and rampant, so much so that all creation becomes undoubtedly intertwined with man’s fall into this broken state.[2]

I don’t doubt that you would agree that all of the evil and suffering that we know all too intimately is not a part of God’s intention for this good creation. I think the deeper issue that you and I both wrestle with is: So why doesn’t God do something about it? I think what is at the root of this burning inquiry in all of us is the desire to look to God and say, “Why don’t you just fix this already!?” That may seem drastic to you, or perhaps you’ve been afraid to voice that pain or confusion because it seems like a lack of faith or an un-Christian response. I encourage you to be honest and transparent about what’s really at heart.

Scripture includes much more lament and questioning of God than we often acknowledge. Take, for an example, the gripping cries of Psalm 88:

Wretched and close to death from my youth up,

I suffer your terrors; I am desperate.

Your wrath has swept over me;

your dread assaults destroy me.

They surround me like a flood all day long;

from all sides they close in on me.

You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me;

And darkness is my only companion.[3]

Here, there is no doubt that the psalmist experiences a dark and hopeless time, attributing the wretched state of his existence to God himself. It is important that we recognize that Scripture, when read in its entirety, does not leave us in this place of lament and hopelessness, but I also want us to acknowledge the struggle and honesty that must accompany true faith.

Now, this psalm and our own logic force us to a deeper question: Does God cause all of this? Wrapped up in all of the conversation about evil and suffering is a discussion about God’s sovereignty, or his rule and control of the universe. We read such verses as this psalm and others that seem to point so strongly to the reality that God is in control of all things. God makes evil happen, even if to bring about greater good, it would be said. This would seem to come to fruition quite clearly stories like Noah’s, in which the earth is destroyed, and Job’s, in which a man of no fault suffers greatly. Yet, we cannot escape even these passages without dealing with the reality of human culpability.

We can remind ourselves of Noah’s drunkenness, Daniel’s prayer of confession, or the hand of Job that covers his mouth with nothing left to say in defense. Abraham may be revered as a man of faith, but his misdeeds are clear to Hagar. Moses’ great ministry is not without blemish, and David’s heart after God was often found pursuing less than godly activities. We are reminded, if we think momentarily, that Scripture and our own experience teach us that we are deeply flawed human beings living lives in which the ripple effects of sin continue to abound. Human responsibility for sin and evil is as clear throughout Scripture as is God’s sovereignty. In reality, “only the strange, silent figure of Isaiah 53 stands before us as one who, it is said, remains innocent and righteous.”[4]

In all of this, I want to reiterate that I do not believe that Scripture offers us a clear and simple picture of a God who is the puppeteering master of an otherwise flawless, pre-scripted drama. We are not given the story of a God whose is the all-knowing governmental rule of some vast and quantifiable mechanism that He just can’t seem to be able to keep functioning properly. Nor is God distantly uninterested and uninvolved. What the Bible tells us about God, ourselves, suffering, and evil is a far more complicated and mysterious matter than that. We will not end this conversation with a definitive and logical explanation for God and every event in the world. [5]

What we do find is a messier picture than we might like to have, but please hear me when I say this: the story that we find ourselves a part of is one in which God has chosen to redeem and recreate rather than to scrap or dismiss. Creation is flawed and difficult and messy, but God continues to choose to work in and through human beings. Despite the way in which evil has so permeated our being, so much so that we have all but lost sight of what it means to be truly human, God continues to be at work bringing out life in the face of death, working to restore creation to its intended wholeness. One author reiterates this really well in saying:

If the human story includes more sadness and wreckage than we can imagine, it also reveals – in a way that is equally hard to imagine – that God keeps on coming back to rescue his children…History is, in fact, the death struggle of the raging forces of evil on the one hand and the rescuing God on the other. And history tells us that the God who has rescued before will do it again.[6]

We inherit a grand narrative in which God has determined to punish and judge evil and also to bring about His grace in the midst of our lives.

We have begun with the question of “Why?” I think these are honest responses to evil. But, we need not stay there. If we look to the Bible we are confronted with a God whose stance is staunchly against injustice, unswervingly erring on the side of righteousness, and so utterly holy in Himself that no evil can stand against Him. As we started with a difficult question, I find it helpful for us to consider another. What would it look like for such a God to deal with evil and suffering?

In the words of N.T. Wright, the Bible tells us that when our God deals with evil,

…he will look like a young Jewish prophet journeying to Jerusalem at Passover time, celebrating the kingdom, confronting the corrupt authorities, feasting with his friends, succumbing in prayer and agony to a cruel and unjust fate, taking upon himself the weight of Israel’s sin, the world’s sin: Evil.[7]

Friends, evil and suffering may pose us questions, but we must also conclude with the confession that we are to be part of its undoing. We live today in light of the cross and resurrection, participating in God’s work of reconciliation, creating and imagining a new world, and waiting with eager expectation for a new creation in which we know evil will not rule the day.



[1] Augustine, On Nature and Grace III.1

[2] Augustine, On the Merits and Forgiveness of Sins, On the Baptism of Infants II.2; Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 91.1

[3] Psalm 88: 15-18

[4] N.T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God (Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2006), 72-73.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Cornelius Plantinga, “God Providing Rescue,” Deep Down Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Faith Alive Resources, 2012).

[7] Wright, 99.

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