I get lots of questions about God, Christianity, religion, and the Bible. Every once in a while, someone will throw in an unusual question, but much of what is asked touches on the same handful of topics. Undoubtedly one of the most common questions has to do with how there can be a good and all-powerful God as well as evil and suffering in the world. It is a very good question, and one that is worthy of a book-length response. But instead of taking you down a very long road, let me briefly share with you a few ways I respond to this question.
I almost always begin by affirming that there is a lot of evil and suffering in the world. Rather than going for some big defense of God right out of the gate, I generally find it best to recognize that there is some significant common ground between me and the question asker. Too often, when someone asks a God question, we are quick to point out our differences rather than where we agree. Christians can wholeheartedly agree that there is real and horrible evil and suffering in the world, and we should be quick to do so.
Right on the heels of establishing common ground, I will probably ask the inquisitor a few personal questions to find out what kind of evil and suffering he or she has been personally exposed to or is even experiencing now. If she prayed when she was 8 years old that her father would not die (and yet he did) or if he has a family member who is in the midst of a terrible battle with cancer, rushing off into some long-winded apologetic is not what is called for. For many people, the God and evil question is not an intellectual question, it is an emotional one and it calls for an empathetic and caring response.
If someone really is struggling with the intellectual question, it's not uncommon for me to explain along the way that the existence of an all-powerful, loving God and evil and suffering in the world is not logically inconsistent. It would only be logically inconsistent if there is there is no good reason for God to allow evil and suffering. As parents, we certainly know there are times when loving our children means letting them suffer, and so while it may be hard to think of what good reasons God might have for a tsunami or mass murder, it really isn’t right to say that it is a logical impossibility.
One of the more satisfying responses I share with people has to do with the nonsensical nature of evil and suffering. So often when we see bad things happen in the world, we find ourselves shaking our head. This is true for both Christians and non-Christians. And in many ways, it has to be this way. God made us for the garden where all things work in harmony and where evil and suffering are non-existent. The reasoning capacity he gave us was for that kind of world; it was not for the kind of world that came after sin entered in. So when we find ourselves unable to make sense of all the bad things that happen, we are probably thinking rightly, in accordance with how we were made.
No doubt there are those who experience much more suffering and evil than others do, but one thing many fail to see is that we all have been handed a death sentence. I like to explain to others that since the fall, each has been appointed to die. Some will die sooner and in more painful ways, but we will all die. And we all die because according to God’s holy standard, we deserve it. I guess what I am saying here is that while God is indeed loving and all-powerful, he is also holy through and through and will mete out judgment on all our sin. In fact, if we understood the true gravity of sin towards God, we would probably wonder why we don’t all suffer a whole lot more.
Finally, in the course of most conversations on this matter I want to mention that God himself is not unacquainted with suffering and evil. God the Father watched his own Son die the most unjust death ever recorded on earth. And don’t think for a second that it was something both sailed through. Remember Jesus prayed in anguish for the horrid cup of suffering to pass him by. But God the Father had good reasons for letting wrath pour out on his Son, for it was in allowing that wrath that God’s holy demand for justice was met. And because it has been met, that means that whatever evil and suffering and earthly death that comes our way it need not be the end of the story.
John likes to help people wrestle with the big questions of life in his work with Search Ministries. He served as a pastor in Houston for 16 years, earned his doctorate at Biola University, and is a contributing author of Reasons to Believe: Thoughtful Responses to Life’s Toughest Questions.