Answers In Theodicy:
Some of the most difficult questions concerning the integrity of God have to do with the problem of suffering. In this special study we attempt to answer some of these questions. Although this is not an easy subject to undertake, even so, we believe holding a right concept of God demands it. Finally, it is our hope this study will provoke you to a more indepth investigation of this extremely critical issue.
The Problem Of Suffering
by: Allan Turner
In dealing effectively with the question before us, it is first necessary to point out that, for the most part, suffering is the direct result of evil, whether it be moral or natural evil. Moral evil is the unrighteousness that occurs first in the hearts of free moral agents and then manifests itself in sinful deeds. Greed, hatred, selfishness, deceit, theft, lust, and envy are but a few examples of these immoral deeds. On the other hand, natural evil derives from either natural processes or a perversion thereof. Examples of the former would be flood, lightning, earthquake, tornado, hurricane, etc., all of which result in suffering and death. Examples of the latter would be genetic defects, diseases, insanity, famine, suffering, and death itself. Sometimes moral evil and natural evil may be combined in a single event. For example, murder is an illustration of moral evil on the part of the murderer which results in natural evil (i.e., death) for the victim.
The Problem Of Theodicy
“There Is No God”
On the other hand, if when the atheist says “destroy” he really means defeat, without eliminating free moral agency, then this argument still fails. In this argument, the atheist assumes that evil will never be defeated. But one could know this only if one were omniscient. Therefore, one would have to presume to be God in order to disprove God! Actually, once the time factor in premise # 3 of the syllogism is made explicit (viz., “3. But evil is not yet destroyed”), then there remains a possibility that God may yet defeat evil sometime in the future. This, of course, is exactly what the Bible says will happen—there is a day of reckoning that will bring about justice for all (Ecclesiastes 12:14; Matthew 12:36; Acts 17:30,31; Romans 2:16; II Corinthians 5:9-11). In that day, Death and Hades, and, by implication, all pain and suffering, will be cast into hell (Revelation 20:11-15).
“God Is Not All-Powerful”
“Are you capable of forgiving and loving God even when you have found out that He is not perfect, even when He has let you down and disappointed you by permitting bad luck and sickness and cruelty in His world, and permitting some of those things to happen to you? Can you learn to love and forgive Him despite His limitations...as you once learned to forgive and love your parents even though they were not as wise, as strong, or as perfect as you needed them to be?”Kushner's argument, when put into syllogistic form, looks like this:
Of course, a finite God would not be worthy of worship. Every finite being is a creature, and worship of the creature, rather than the Creator, is idolatry (cf. Isaiah 44:9-20; Romans 1:25). The finite godist's argument is defeated in the same manner as we defeated the atheist's argument. The third premise should read, “3. But evil has not yet been destroyed.” In other words, there is the possibility that evil will eventually be destroyed. If the finite godist were to insist that this will never happen, then he is making the claim that he actually knows more than any finite creature is able to know. Again, the Bible tells us that evil will eventually be destroyed in a devil's hell.
“God Is Not All-Good”
It is hard to read what Roth has written without shuddering. Such a view is the complete antithesis of what the Bible says about God. This syllogism is defeated the same way as the previous two. Premise #3 is changed to: “3. But evil is not yet destroyed.” Again, this opens up the possibility for the eventual defeat of evil. As a matter of fact, if there really is an all-powerful, all-good God, and the Bible says there is, then His very existence automatically guarantees that evil will one day be defeated.
A Fourth Position
The first version says God had to include evil in the world as a necessary contrast to all the good in His creation, so that the good could be appreciated. How could we appreciate beauty if we never saw anything ugly? How could we appreciate light if there was no darkness? Would we really enjoy pleasure if we had never experienced pain? So goes the argument. This line of argument has several weaknesses. First, it only applies to natural evil (e.g., suffering) and not to moral evil. Nevertheless, any viable solution to the problem must take into account both natural and moral evil. Second, it cannot be proved that one must know evil in order to appreciate what is good. How about Adam and Eve? What was not good about the creation before sin? Did they not enjoy themselves before sin? Nonsense! Furthermore, we can imagine that butter pecan ice cream would still be good even if we had never tasted vinegar. And we do not think that we will need to remember all the evils and sufferings of this present world in order to enjoy the pleasures of heaven. Finally, there is no Bible support for such a view. Such an idea is purely philosophical speculation.
But, there is a second version that must be taken much more seriously. We will call it the “soul-building” view. The idea is that moral perfection cannot be created ex nihilo, it must be developed. But since such growth is impossible apart from the experience of evil, it was therefore necessary for God to include evil in the world by His own decision and purpose. According to this view, God caused evil to be in the world because evil is necessary for man's spiritual growth. This view rejects the idea that Adam and Eve were created morally perfect beings who then fell from that original condition. They could not have been perfect moral creatures originally because, it is argued, moral creatures must mature or develope into perfection. In other words, “a world in which there can be no pain or suffering would also be one in which there can be no moral choices and hence no possibility of moral growth and development” (John Hick, “An Irenaean Theodicy,” Encountering Evil: Live Options In Theodicy, pp. 46,47). Why? Because a morally wrong act is by definition an act that brings harm to another person; but, if pain and suffering is environmentally impossible, then no action could be morally wrong; and no man would ever face the challenge of overcoming the temptation to harm someone else. Consequently, no moral growth would occur. Therefore, it was necessary for man's environment to contain all the elements that it now does in terms of natural or physical evil, including diseases, accidents, and natural disasters. Hick, and those who hold this view, see this world as only one stage of the total soul-building process. There must be further stages of development, they tell us. Eventually, the end of these stages will be achieved when man reaches perfection (i.e., universal salvation). According to Hick, “Without such an eschatological fulfillment, this theodicy would collapse” (ibid., p. 51). Of course, Bible believers must reject Hick's theodicy as incompatible with the truths taught in the Bible. Consequently, it is totally insufficient in explaining the problem of evil.
There is another variant of this version that must be given further consideration. Norman L. Geisler, a respected, conservative theologian who believes in the inerrancy of the Bible, begins his view with a dilemma. His assumption is that a totally good God must always do His best; but, because this world has so much evil in it, it is obvious that this world is not the best of all possible worlds. He writes: “The dilemma seems most painful for theism. God must do His best, yet this world He made is not the best. Is there any way out? Only one: this is not the best of all possible worlds, but it is the best of all possible ways to achieve the best of all possible worlds” (Norman L. Geisler, Philosophy Of Religion, p. 326, italics omitted). Geisler agrees with Hick that “it is not possible for God to create directly a world with achieved moral values of the highest nature” (ibid., p. 366). Thus, Geisler writes: “A sinless heaven is better than an evil earth, but there was no way for God to achieve a sinless heaven unless He created beings who would sin and did sin in order that out of their sin He could produce the best world where beings could sin but would not sin. An imperfect moral world is the necessary precondition for achieving the morally perfect world” (ibid., p. 326). “...and without the presence of evil, the greatest lessons of life will never be learned. Jesus was said to have 'learned obedience through what He suffered' and thereby was `made perfect' (Heb. 5:8)....In the final analysis obedience to God is the ultimate lesson to learn. And the very best way to learn it is by disobedience to God. For if God never permitted actual disobedience, how would man ever learn from experience (and experience is the best way men learn) that obedience is better than disobedience?...” (ibid., pp. 363, 364). “The presence of evil is in fact a necessary condition for the maximization of moral perfection for the free creature” (ibid., p. 365).
Professor Geisler explains natural or physical evil the same way—it is the best way to achieve the best possible world. Some virtures are possible only if evil is present in the form of pain, suffering, and misery. Some virtures are acquired by experiencing suffering (e.g., patience, trust, courage, and hope). Others are acquired by interacting with others who are suffering (e.g., sympathy, mercy, and selfless love). In other words, according to Geisler, “some virtues would be totally absent from a world without physical evil” (ibid., p. 389).
Although Geisler gives lip-service to the idea that God did not cause evil but only permits it, nevertheless, he really says much more than this. Geisler actually says that moral evil is a “necessary precondition,” a “morally necessary prerequisite,” a “necessary condition” for achieving the best possible world. A sinless world, according to Geisler, “could not fulfill the requirements” for the best possible world. In reality, Geisler's concepts of permission and necessity are incompatible. If evil is truly necessary for God's purpose, then He must do more than just permit it to occur. He must purposely design a world in which evil will occur. Professor Geisler seems very confused (this is not the first time the professor has appeared to be confused) because he says one thing, namely, “if God is responsible only for the possibility of evil, not its actuality, then the antitheist cannot validly conclude that God is responsible for all actual evil in the world” (ibid., p. 329), which is absolutely correct, as we will discuss shortly, but his view does not depend on the mere possibility of evil among free moral agents; it actually requires evil.
Geisler's position is that man has to sin! In fact, in view of his acknowledgment that Jesus learned obedience, he would, if forced to be consistent, have to admit that in learning obedience by the things that He suffered, Jesus had to sin in order to learn how not to sin. Bible believers, of course, must reject totally such an erroneous and unscriptural position. Furthermore, all that is really needed for one to mature morally is the possibility of moral evil, which would make temptation real and victory over it a character-building experience. Also, to say that the development of the so-called highest virtues is really necessary for God's purpose for man, is really without any scriptural or logical support. It would seem correct to say that if the occasion ever arose for a fully-mature moral creature to exercise any of these virtues, then he would do so. And, if no situation ever occurred where it would be necessary to demonstrate sympathy or forgiveness, then this would not leave a gap in one's character. Could God not be God if He had not had the occasion to exercise his grace and forgiveness on a lost and dying world? Nonsense! If there had never been any sin in God's creation and, therefore, no need for forgiveness, God would still have been just as much God as He is right now. We think the same is true in the case of man. If he had never sinned, the absence of such virtues that could develope only in connection with sin (or natural evil) would not detract one iota from his character.
Finally, this position confuses the questions of the origin of evil and the use of evil after it is already in existence. It is true that once evil is already in existence it can be used as a means of character-building, regardless of how it came into existence. But this view focuses on the origin of evil and actually makes character-building the very rationale for evil's existence, and thereby places the full responsibility for its origin on God. This view, then, is wrong, wrong, wrong!
We have read the arguments of the atheists as they protest the concept of a loving and all-powerful God in view of all the awful suffering in this present world. Their logic is unconvincing. We do not think they have a case at all. We have read the arguments of the finite godists and found them wanting. We have examined the arguments of those who would make God responsible for the origin of evil and have found them not just insufficient, but unscriptural as well. Examining the wisdom of man and finding it totally lacking, we now turn our attention to the wisdom that comes from above.
The God who has revealed Himself both in nature and in the Bible is not a finite god. He is, instead, uncreated, immutable, eternal, indivisible, and absolutely perfect. He is not some impersonal force, like the pantheists teach, but a personal being. He is, in fact, tripersonal: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In this one eternal substance or state of being God there is neither confusion of persons nor division in essence. God is omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient. He is eternal, existing before time and beyond time. He is absolutely transcendent (i.e., existing apart from) with reference to the universe and yet operates in every part of it as its sustaining cause. Although the world had a beginning, there never was a time when “I AM WHO I AM” did not exist. He is a necessary being who depends on nothing; on Him everything else depends for its existence. The world exists because God created it ex nihilo (out of nothing). It is not, as the materialists say, eternal. It had a beginning.
In the same manner, man, like the world, also had a beginning. He is different from his Creator in that he is finite in nature; but, he is like his Creator in that he was made in His image (i.e., a spiritual being). The infinite God's creation was special and man is unique. Observing what He had made, God pronounced it “very good” (Genesis 1:31). Unfortunately, it did not stay that way!
There are some things that even an all-powerful God cannot do! He cannot be not truth. He cannot be not righteous. He cannot be not just. He cannot be not good, etc. If God is God, then He cannot be not God. Any self-limitation does not affect God's omnipotence. In the same vein, God cannot give man the freedom to choose, without coercion, good or evil, and then guarantee the result. God cannot make us free moral agents and not free moral agents at the same time. As long as this is something God chose to do of His own free will, then it in no way reflects on His omnipotence. Now, because God made man a free moral agent, the possibility of moral evil existed. But, admitting to the possibility of evil is a long way from the idea that evil was necessary. Man, the Bible teaches us, did not have to sin. If we cannot admit to this truth, then any further study of this subject is sure to be fruitless.
Man, Not God, Is Responsible For Evil
Evil, it seems, is, by nature, a lack of or deprivation of the good. Like a parasite, evil exists only in good things as a corruption of them. It is like rot to a tree or rust to iron—it corrupts good things while having no nature of its own. For example: the corruption of an educated mind is ignorance; the corruption of a prudent mind is imprudence; the corruption of a just mind is injustice; the corruption of a brave mind, cowardice; the corruption of a calm, peaceful mind is lust, fear, sorrow, and pride. Like darkness, which is the absence of light, evil is the absence of what is good.
Man, who was, along with the rest of creation, very good, corrupted himself. He has no one to “blame” but himself. Man dies spiritually (i.e., is separated from God) because he sinned; man sinned when he violated the law of God (I John 3:4); he violated the law of God by exercising a choice God had given him; “choice” implies a God-given free moral agency; and last of all, free moral agency makes man personally responsible for his own sinfulness. This sinfulness has produced serious consequences. Sin has had an effect on the whole man, both body and soul. Although spiritual death is experienced when one becomes alienated from God by sinful conduct, physical death is experienced by every person because ever since Adam's sin, man has not had access to the tree of life. Without access to the tree of life, Adam eventually died and so does all his posterity (Romans 5:12). Therefore, the source of the corruption that is in the world (cf. Romans 8:18-23) is man, not God!
And Not Just Moral Evil, But
First of all, the introduction of moral evil into the original pristine environment of God's creation by Adam and Eve implanted an element of corruption into the universe that will remain until the second coming of Jesus. Therefore, much of the evil that is in the world today can be traced directly back to the events that took place in Genesis 3:1-6. And although man is to blame, the curse actually came from God (Genesis 3:14ff). This, of course, does not make God “responsible” for natural evil, for it is a consequence of man's sin. What it tells us, though, is something about the seriousness of sin. The God who loves His creation had to curse it. Why? Because, the whole duty of man is to fear God and keep His commandments (Ecclesiastes 12:13). When man does this, God is able to “bless” him, when he does not do this, God is judicially obligated to “curse” him (cf. Deuteronomy 11:26-28; James 4:12). Sin is serious business! Sin is terrible! Sin is devastating! If God is going to remain just, then sin, the violation of His law, must not go unpunished!
Sometimes people say, “Why do I have to die because Adam sinned?” Of course, if Adam and Eve had not sinned, and we are now speaking only theoretically, then we surely would have (cf. Romans 3:23), and, as a result, would have caused all the consequences we are now discussing. This brings us to our second point about physical evil. Sometimes we bring about our own suffering by our own sins. We may contract lung cancer through smoking or a venereal disease through promiscuity. Then there is all the pain and suffering and eventual death that one may bring upon himself through drug or alcohol abuse. One may be injured or killed because of his disregard for the traffic laws. Consequently, much suffering is caused by our own free will choices. In fact, this is exactly what James 1:15 teaches: “Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death.”
A third way that physical evil derives from moral evil is through the sinful acts of others. A drunken driver may injure or kill others in an auto accident. A jealous husband may shoot his wife. A greedy robber may injure or kill his victim. A mother may inflict her innocent child with physical abuse. A tyrant may decide to commit genocide. The examples seem endless, but in each one of these cases, the suffering endured by one person is the result of the sinfulness of someone else.
A fourth way physical evil may derive from moral evil is through the activity of satan and his minions. Just how much satan and his evil horde is able to do today is a matter of dispute; but to think he does not still go about as a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour would be a serious mistake. Satan is still active in the world today. If we are not careful, he can hurt us with his entrapments. Although he has been limited, there are still many “fiery darts” in his quiver (cf. Ephesians 6:16).
Finally, it should be noted that God Himself may use natural evils as a means of chastening or punishing His people. That God has done this in the past and continues to do this in the present is clearly taught in the Bible (Job 33:13ff; 37:11-13; Hebrews 12:3-11). However, God does not cause natural evils as part of His original purpose for man; rather, He does so as a reaction to or in response to sin. If there were no sin, then there would be no reason for correction, chastisement, or punishment. Therefore, even God-inflicted natural evils stem ultimately from the presence of moral evil in the world.
Man's Capacity For Pain Is Not Evil
So far, we have concerned ourselves with, “Why is there suffering?” Now we turn our attention from the theoretical aspects of this question to the practical side, which asks, “How can I live with suffering?”
What's The Point Of It All?
When God executes wrath, vengeance, and punishment, it is only in a judicial sense that He does so. When God, as Lawgiver, executes judgment, justice demands that one either be vindicated or punished, that is, one receives either a “blessing” or a “curse” (Deuteronomy 11:26-28; James 4:12). In this sense, punishment is retribution (i.e., “the wages of sin,” Romans 6:23) to vindicate Law and satisfy Justice, and is, therefore, an action based upon the principle of Righteousness. Without reward and punishment, there is no justice. Without justice, there is no judgment. Without judgment, there is no law. Without law, there is no lawgiver. Finally, if there is no lawgiver, then there is no God like the one described in the Bible.
Too often, punishment is thought of as being remedial. In other words, many think the primary purpose of punishment is to make one better. As we have pointed out in this study, this is simply not so. Although it is true that correction or reform can be, and in some cases is, a residual effect of punishment, it has as its major objective the vindication of Law and the satisfaction of Justice. If this is not true, then our atonement through Jesus' vicarious death is not possible. If the punishment Jesus experienced on the cross was actually designed to make those who rightly deserved it better—and not to vindicate Law and satisfy Justice—then there is no way He could have experienced that for us. On the other hand, if punishment is necessary to uphold Law and satisfy Justice, then it was possible for Christ to be “the propitiation for our sins” (I John 4:10). Praise be to God, the Father, and His glorious Son, this is exactly what happened at the cross of Christ! The substitutional death of Jesus on the cross made it possible for God to give those of us who actually deserved the punishment a clean slate. Because Jesus paid the full price for our redemption through His suffering, justice was done (i.e., God remained just) and God was able to justify those who exercise faith in His Son (Romans 3:25,26).
God's love, mercy, and grace abounded unto us through the cross of Christ. The sacrifice of God's Son was the only means whereby God, who loved us, could save us from the punishment we all richly deserved. But, not only does God suffer with us, He actually suffered for us: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 7:24,25).
How fair was it for the Creator of the universe to have to interject Himself into His creation and become “obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross”? There was nothing fair about it at all! As strange as it may sound, God's love and grace are not fair! If we want fair, then we have to deal with God's Justice; but then the best we can hope for is to be consumed by it. God's love and mercy are not fair. Why? Because Jesus, the only one to ever keep the law perfectly, paid the penalty for violating it! Praise God! Remember, God was not just permitting evil to occur to Jesus and He was not just exacting judicial punishment from the one suffering on the cross; He was actually hanging there Himself, because the one hanging there that day was none other than God in the flesh, drinking down, to the last dregs, the full bowl of the “wages of sin.”
Was it fair? No! Was it easy? No! Listen to His cry as He experienced the full impact of God's judicial wrath, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?” Despite the awfulness of His pain, despite His humiliation, despite the loneliness He was experiencing as He was being rejected by His nation, despite His being a sin-offering, despite the alienation He must have been experiencing, He was still saying, “My God.” He had not lost His trust in His Father. He had been stripped of all His human rights, His privacy, His status in the eyes of the law, but they could not strip Him of His absolute trust in His Father. In other words, like Job, Jesus was saying, “Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him” (Job 13:15). As we listen to His words from the cruel cross, we hear Him say, “Father, into Your hands I commend My spirit” (Luke 23:46). Here is absolute trust. Here is victory over suffering. Here is victory in the face of death. Although His Father had just delivered Him over to cruel men to suffer and die (cf. Acts 2:23), He says, in essence, “You I trust!” Faith (i.e., trust), hope, and love will do it every time (I Corinthians 13:13)! If we believe that the one who loves us is allowing us to pass through the fire of suffering for some good purpose, then we will be victors over whatever happens to us. Remember, “all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called accoring to His purpose” (Romans 8:28). Jesus, because He loved us, was willing to submit to the will of His Father through suffering so that mankind could have the hope of redemption. Wasn't this a good enough cause? Obviously, God seemed to think so.
Yes, take a real good look at Jesus, because He is “the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him, endured the cross, despising the shame, and has set down at the right hand of the throne of God...[and] consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls” (Hebrews 12:2,3).
Yes, look at Jesus, for in the midst of what, for all intents and purposes, appeared to be defeat, we see the greatest victory mankind has ever known. “And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifested in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen by angels, preached among the Gentiles, believed on in the world, [and] received up in glory” (I Timothy 3:16).
How much does God love us? Latch on to the truth that He loves us a Calvary's-worth. Be convinced that Calvary speaks the truth of God's magnificent love and then ask yourself what is it that could separate you from that love. “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things? Who shall bring charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written: 'For Your sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.' Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:31-39).
As Jim McGuiggan so effectively pointed out in his excellent little book, The God Of The Towel, will hunger and thirst convince us that God doesn't love us? How could it? Hunger and thirst were God's experience in Christ to show us that He does love us. Can persecution (i.e., being led to the slaughter) while others jeer, convince us that God does not love us? How could it? The slaughter of the Lamb of God became God's own experience in the flesh to show us that He does love us. In other words, what the apostle Paul said in Romans 8:31-39 is: If I had a wife and men were raping and humiliating her while compelling me to helplessly stand by and watch, I would not be convinced that God does not love me. If I had children who lay brutally deprived of food, lifting up weak and skinny arms in voiceless appeal for me to do something, I would not be convinced that God did not love me. And if the world brutalized me in every conceivable way and God stood by to watch it, I could not be convinced that He does not love me. I would cry, complain, agonize, and probably protest, but I would remain persuaded beyond any doubt that God loves me. This is why I am able to live with suffering.
The skeptic may ask, “Is it not unreasonable to think that a good God would so order His universe so as to make his subjects happy?” And maybe the thought is not really unreasonable, even for a Christian. How can free-will worship possibly be worth the excessive amount of evil that exists in the world? We just do not really know. But, if the loving, kind, merciful, and all-wise God of the universe thinks there are more important ends to be gained from this fallen world than our unbroken enjoyment of life on this earth, then we will have to either trust Him or rebel.
But, if one event in all the history of mankind is true and unmistakably plain in its message, it is the CROSS OF CHRIST: the true image, imprinted indelibly in our hearts, of the all-good, all-powerful Creator of the universe, in the form of a defeated man, dying contemptibly in the shadows of one dark afternoon some twenty centuries ago, because...He loved us.
Thank You God for everything You've done for us. Help us always to glorify You in our pain and suffering. Again, from the bottom of our hearts, thank You!...Thank You!!...Thank You!!!