Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Some thoughts on evil and suffering

Twice in recent weeks, I’ve had serious conversations with people about what theologians call “the problem of suffering.” It’s an old problem—as old as the Book of Job—if God is good, why doesn’t He stop evil and suffering? And if God doesn’t stop evil, is it because He can’t? If God is all good, but does nothing to stop suffering, He must be limited in His power. And if He is all-powerful, He can’t be good; only an evil deity would stand by and watch babies die under the debris of a house in Haiti.

I have books (massive books!) on my shelf that deal with the problem of evil. The newest I’m reading right now, If God is Good by Randy Alcorn. (Last year I read his massive book Heaven; now an equally massive treatment of another important topic.)
I can’t deal with all the issues involved in such a topic in a column like this. But what I can do is have you do a little mind experiment with me that’s helped me with this problem, and has helped others as well.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that God is real, that’s He’s good and that He’s all powerful. Now let’s pretend that from now on, God punishes all evil and rewards all good, and He does it immediately. So if you help the proverbial little old lady across the street, if you look down you’ll see a dollar waiting for you on the corner. Smack you thumb with a hammer and say a naughty word? Well, hope you don’t mind the case of acid reflux that you get.

You get the picture. Do good, get good. Do bad, get bad. Not someday—right now.
Why then would we do good at all? We’d do good for the goodies. Why avoid evil? To escape pain. In such a world, morality would be impossible. All you have left are human hamsters pressing the bar for a bite of food.

We don’t live in that world. Instead we live this world:

God is all good, all powerful, and all knowing; He hates evil and suffering and will judge evil and end all suffering, but only after accomplishing a greater and eternal good.

Isaiah 25:8 says, “He will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign LORD will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove the disgrace of his people from all the earth. The LORD has spoken.” Right now, in a world in which evil exists, suffering results. God has begun the process by entering into suffering Himself—on the cross.

Years ago, a graduate student interviewed me as part of a research project on religious views of the Holocaust. “How has the Holocaust impacted your faith?” she asked. I think I surprised her. “In view of the Holocaust, I think I could not believe in God if God has simply stood by and done nothing. As a matter of fact, I could not believe in God in the face of all suffering if He had stood by and done nothing. But He did something. He became flesh and endured human life and died on a cross. That’s a God worth believing in.”

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