Whatever questions we may have about the reason behind our pain, Christians can’t possibly conclude that God is aloof from suffering, that He doesn’t care about evil, or that He hasn’t done anything about it. Today, Barry Cooper presents three truths that help us trust in the goodness of God when facing the darkness of this world.
Stephen Fry, a popular comedian in the U.K., caused a stir a few years back when he was interviewed on TV.
“Suppose it’s all true,” said the interviewer, “and you walk up to the pearly gates, and you are confronted by God. What will Stephen Fry say to Him, her, or it?”
Fry replied: “I’d say, bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare You create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault? It’s not right. It’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?”
Often, in situations like this, believers feel honor-bound to speak up on God’s behalf. In the words of the poet John Milton, they seek to “justify the ways of God to men.” To try to explain why this kind of evil exists in the world, given that God is good, loving, and all-powerful.
This is what is known as a “theodicy,” which is a combination of two Greek words smooshed together: theo being the Greek word for God, and dikaios meaning justification. So a theodicy is a “God-justification.”
Stephen Fry isn’t the first to raise this issue, of course. For centuries, philosophers have talked about “the problem of evil.” It goes like this. Given the indisputable existence of evil in the world—bone cancer in children, for example—God is either powerless to do anything, in which case He’s not God. Or He does have the power to do something but refuses to do so, in which case He’s not good. Either way, the argument goes, the biblical claim that God is both all-powerful and all-good is absurd and untenable.
It’s important to say first of all that although the problem of evil is a significant problem for believers to address, it’s a much bigger problem for nonbelievers. Because to even talk coherently about such a thing as evil requires moral absolutes, grounded in some transcendent truth. Without that, how can we judge whether something is “evil” or that something is “good”? All we would have in the universe are things which happen. No right, no wrong; just things happening.
But saying that the problem of evil is bigger for nonbelievers still doesn’t explain why God allows evil.
We might say, “Well, human beings have free will and they’ve rebelled against God, and that’s why we see evil in the world,” but that of course doesn’t explain why evil came to exist in the first place. Why would a good being—like Satan before he fell, or Adam and Eve before they fell—why would a perfectly good being be inclined to choose evil over good? Where did that impulse come from? And why would God permit it?
These are hard things to reflect on, especially if we’re in the midst of suffering ourselves or have had some great evil done to us or have seen evil done to others. And while the Bible does not give us a full answer as to why the good God allows evil to take place, it does have much to say about evil and suffering. For me, there have been three things in particular that have been personally helpful.
The first is that God does not expect us to stoically endure when we’re suffering. In fact, He encourages us to pour out our hearts to Him. When I read Job or the Psalms, for instance, I see multiple examples of God’s people crying out to God, and God’s reassurance that to do so is good and right. There’s no minimizing the pain, pretending it doesn’t exist, or “pull yourself together.” He doesn’t always end suffering immediately, of course—He didn’t for Job—but in preserving these scriptural words for us, God gives us a voice, a vocabulary to use when pain would otherwise be trapped inside us.
The second thing I found helpful is simply to remember my own limited perspective. Often, from my narrow perspective, and especially if I’m in the middle of suffering, I can’t see a purpose in it. But logically, of course, that doesn’t mean that my suffering actually is purposeless. In fact, as I look back on my life, the times when I’ve felt God draw closest to me, when I’ve experienced Him most sweetly, when I’ve been changed by Him most deeply, have been (paradoxically) times of suffering. The Baptist pastor C.H. Spurgeon talked about personal suffering as a kind of prophet, a John the Baptist, roughly clothed, but heralding the immanent closeness of His Lord and Savior. God does have a purpose in allowing suffering, even when we personally do not know what it is.
The third thing that has been helpful for me is seeing that the Bible itself recognizes suffering and evil for what they are: alien impostors that will one day be dealt with. It simply isn’t true to say that God refuses to do anything about it. The Son of God came specifically to overthrow evil and suffering and death in me and in the universe as a whole. And so, I’m not measuring God’s goodness or power or love by fixing my eyes on my suffering but by fixing my eyes on the hill outside Jerusalem where the Son of God suffered for me.
Whatever questions we may have about why evil and suffering exist in a world where God is in control, the cross makes it impossible to conclude either that He is somehow aloof from suffering, that He doesn’t care about it, or that He hasn’t done anything about it.
Bone cancer does not have the last word. Christ does. We may not know why God allowed it in the first place or permits it in the meantime, but we do know this: Christ suffered Himself to deal with evil, and on Christ’s return, evil, suffering, and death itself will finally be put to death.