Rape, violence, illness, abuse, earthquakes, serial killers, mental illness, disabilities, death, despair. How can anyone possibly believe in an all-loving, all-good higher power in a day and age when we witness all of these things so tangibly? It’s the age-old question that I myself struggle with at times: How can there be a good God who loves the world while the world is such a tragic place?
This question by itself accounts for why a great number of people today reject the idea of God. Evil and suffering are far too real and personal to look past for many who have suffered or have seen the suffering of others.
But is the presence of evil and suffering in our world enough to discount all other evidence for the existence of God? Is the old saying often attributed to the Greek philosopher Epicurus true, that God must prevent evil or else he is not omnipotent, he is malevolent or both?
We have already discussed in a previous post why it would be impossible for there to be a God who is not good (see previous post). The question really is whether God could have good reasons for temporarily allowing evil and suffering to exist for ultimately good purposes. If this is theoretically possible, then the question of evil by itself is not enough to disqualify God from existence. In fact, I believe that the Christian explanation of evil and suffering is far more intellectually and emotionally satisfying than any other.
First, we must recognize that the majority of this horrific evil in the world is caused by us. People choose to murder, people choose to steal, people choose to leave their wives or husbands, people choose to be abusive, people choose to cause suffering. This is primary evil. Cancer and earthquakes, on the other hand, are secondary evils, ones that are not directly caused by humans. Rather than attributing these things to chance, the Biblical explanation is that these “natural” evils are not natural at all, but are the result of humanity’s rebellion against God. The earth, in other words, is cursed. Things are not as they should be. The question then is not why evil exists, but why God does not always intervene.
Second, we must ask whether this life is all there is. If there is no afterlife, then of course the evil and suffering in this world are paramount. If we only have this life, we should care first and foremost about this life, and so should God. However, if it is possible that this life is not all there is, if this life is not the ultimate point, then we have a whole different ballgame. An afterlife affects the scenery heavily in that there is a promise of something beyond what we currently experience, where there is no suffering for the afflicted and the righteous, and eternal suffering for the wicked. Such an afterlife would make this life just a blip on the radar in light of an eternal existence. It would offer eternal rest for many who have suffered in this life and eternal unrest for many others. This is significant. It means that God would not be in the position of having created people exclusively for an experience of suffering. It opens up the possibility for there to be a greater purpose for even the deepest suffering. “The Biblical view of things is resurrection–not a future that is just a consolation for the life we never had, but a restoration of the life you always wanted. This means that every horrible thing that ever happened will not only be undone and repaired but will in some way make the eventual glory and joy even greater” (Timothy Keller, The Reason for God).
Third, if there is indeed an afterlife, it makes perfect sense that God would care more about our eternal existence than our temporary one on earth. This is not at all to say that God does not care about our suffering on earth, but rather that he would understandably place more importance and value in where we end up forever afterwards: eternally with him where there is no more suffering, or eternally cut off from relationship with him where there is plenty more suffering. Of course, God would use whatever circumstances we find ourselves in now to bring us to a place where we can see our need for him and choose him in order to achieve the ultimately good purpose of us spending eternity with him in Heaven. Suffering often brings us to such a place of realization that we need help. As Keller points out, “Tucked away within the assertion that the world is filled with pointless evil is a hidden premise, namely, that if evil appears pointless to me, then it must be pointless” (The Reason for God).
Fourth, to claim that God never intervenes to prevent evil is simply not a claim which can be certified. On the one hand, there are many (and I mean many) people now and throughout history who claim that God has indeed intervened in their suffering. To say they are all wrong on the grounds that there is still evil in the world elsewhere is of course biased and horrifyingly illogical. On the other hand, the Biblical account of things says that God also chooses to use his people as his “hands and feet” in the world today, and we do indeed see that kind of intervention happening both through individuals as well as organizations such as World Vision and Compassion International which work around the world to physically aid those who are suffering.
Finally, Christianity alone claims that God did not distance himself from our suffering, but rather entered into it.
“Christianity alone among world religions claims that God became uniquely and fully human in Jesus Christ and therefore knows firsthand despair, rejection, loneliness, poverty, bereavement, torture and imprisonment. On the cross he went beyond even the worst human suffering and experienced cosmic rejection and pain that exceeds ours as infinitely as his knowledge and power exceeds ours. In his death, God suffers in love, identifying with the abandoned and god-forsaken. Why did he do it? The Bible says that Jesus came on a rescue mission for creation. He had to pay for our sins so that someday he can end evil and suffering without ending us” (Timothy Keller, The Reason for God).
This point, of course, does not tell us why suffering exists, but does everything to show that God does indeed care for the suffering of his creation, so much so that he stepped into it intentionally. Keller also raises perhaps a sixth point, which I will not address in detail here, that God would in essence need to erase humanity in order to erase all evil and suffering.
Is the presence of evil and suffering in our world enough to discount all other evidence for the existence of God? It wasn’t for philosopher Antony Flew. Flew was an atheist for a long time before determining that the evidence did indeed point to the existence of God. The problem of evil, however, prevented Flew from believing in anything more personal about God. However, we have seen that it is possible for God to temporarily allow evil and suffering for an ultimately good purpose.
So what about evil and suffering allows or prevents you from believing in God?