We Christians believe that God is all powerful, all knowing, all present, all good, and worthy of our trust. At the same time, we also believe there’s an abundance of evil in the world.
Now God could eliminate evil and suffering immediately, …but He doesn’t. The fact that He doesn’t seems to create problems in many people’s minds. Some see it as a logical inconsistancy: that it is impossible for an all powerful, all knowing, good God to allow evil to exist. Rather than earnestly searching the Bible for the answer, they take the easy way out by concluding God isn’t all powerful, all knowing, all good, or He doesn’t exist.
But God does exist, and there is much evidence for this fact . Evil also exists, for which we also have much evidence. So how do we reconcile the fact that both God and evil exist at the same time? Why would a good God allow evil and suffering?
Before I answer the question, it is important to recognize that there are two different kinds of evil: moral evil that has to do with doing things that are wrong, like theft, rape, murder, etc., and amoral evil that is the bad things that happen as a consequence of sin or living in a fallen world. You can loosely equate amoral evil with suffering. God doesn’t do moral evil, but sometimes He does do amoral evil…
Who is he who says, and it comes to pass, when the Lord doesn’t command it? Doesn’t evil and good come out of the mouth of the Most High? Why does a living man complain, a man for the punishment of his sins?
– Lamentations 3:38 (WEB)
I form the light, and create darkness. I make peace, and create calamity. I am Yahweh, who does all these things.
– Isaiah 45:7
Does evil happen to a city, and Yahweh hasn’t done it?
– Amos 3:6
We see here that God does do evil, but it is not the moral kind of evil. Humans are the ones who do moral evil. God just responds to our moral evil with amoral evil, which leads to suffering. But He never does amoral evil capriciously – there is always a good reason, whether we can see that reason or not. The most important question we must try to answer when we see God do or allow evil is “Why?” What are some of the reasons God does or allows evil?
First, the evil that happens to us is ultimately a consequence of our sin. The evil and suffering we see on the news and experience in life is the accumulating consequences of the sin of every individual who lives or has ever lived. Think of the world like a big swimming pool, and God’s Laws like the rules posted at the pool. God posted those rules so that swimming in the pool would be safe, enjoyable, and beneficial for everyone. If one of the rules is “Don’t pee in the pool”, but everyone pees in the pool and continues to do so, it’s not God’s fault when the pool becomes unpleasant, and then foul and unhealthy. Every individual experiences the accumulating result, not just of his own peeing in the pool (which seems so insignificant), but of everyone else peeing in it. Likewise, everyone in the world suffers the result not only of their own sins, but that of others. Multiply the wrong that man does by billions of humans over time, each disobeying God many times in life, and the consequences are also multiplied. This is why the world is the way it is today, and why it’s getting worse. God doesn’t want people to suffer – that’s why He posted the rules. But we bring suffering on ourselves when we don’t do things His way: we don’t love others above ourselves, we don’t care for the needy, we don’t respect authority, etc.
Now God could miraculously keep the pool clean no matter how many people pee in the pool, but God is not an enabler. He does not shield us from the consequences of our actions. Since we choose our own way, we must take the consequences of our choices and learn from them. By suffering the results of our sins and those of others, hopefully we get some clarity to see that God’s way is better than our way – that not peeing in the pool is better than peeing in it.
Second, God does or allows amoral evil to limit the consequences of our sin. At the Fall, God cursed His creation. He did this, not because He was angry and wanted to vent, but to slow down the spread of sin. It’s like we were piloting a ship and, due to some fault of our own, we rammed into an iceberg. At that point, the ship was doomed to sink. But God closed the bulkheads so that it would sink slower, to give people more time to be rescued. Those bulkheads limited the passenger’s movement through the ship, but they also gave the passengers more time to be rescued. In the same way, God slows down the spread of sin by limiting man in various ways. He shortened man’s lifespan. He confused man’s languages at the tower of Babel. He sometimes destroyed those who rebelled against Him. These are necessary evils to slow down the spread of sin and its consequences – things which would not have had to happen if we didn’t go our own way.
Third, sometimes God causes suffering as earthly punishment for our sin – not as the ultimate form of eternal justice, but in hope that we will repent. In the book of Judges, Israel wandered away from God many times, and each time, God allowed them to suffer when their enemies overcame them, and each time they turned back to God. Later, when Israel rebelled against God, He strengthened other nations such as Assyria and Babylon to bring them into captivity. While they were in their captivity, they repented (as seen in the books of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Daniel). In the last days (which I believe we’re in), man will have become so hardened to God that He will bring harsh judgments that have never been seen before (described in Revelation 6 and following). Yet man will not repent but continue to curse God:
The fourth poured out his bowl on the sun, and it was given to him to scorch men with fire. People were scorched with great heat, and people blasphemed the name of God who has the power over these plagues. They didn’t repent and give him glory. The fifth poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and his kingdom was darkened. They gnawed their tongues because of the pain, and they blasphemed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores. They didn’t repent of their works.
– Revelation 16:8-11
The goal of this kind of suffering on earth is not to destroy man but to give him more reasons to repent so he won’t be destroyed in hell (the ultimate form of justice). God does not want man to go to hell (John 3:16, 1 Timothy 1:15). Hell was created for the devil and his angels. But if man stubbornly refuses to repent, destruction is the only other option, for God will not allow man to do to heaven what he’s been doing to earth.
Fourth, God allows evil to discipline us and prove or test us in this life that we are fit for the next. It’s kinda like going through basic training, only a lot more difficult. When I joined the Air Force, I first went to basic training to prepare me for my life in military service. Basic was hard for a reason. It not only prepared me for service, it proved I was fit for service. Some recruits washed out because they were not fit physically or mentally. But for those of us who made it past boot camp, we found life in the service afterward was nothing like boot camp. It was much better. I didn’t have to crawl through mud, survive on k-rations, or be shouted at for my remaining years of service. While I was in basic training, I took the hardness like it was supposed to be: a temporary inconvenience. I treat the unfair difficulties of life today the same way. They are temporary, and one day in eternity I will see the good that will come as a result of patient endurance (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).
I think people get into trouble when they think life here on earth is supposed to be comfortable and happy. That’s like thinking basic training is supposed to be comfortable and happy. Life is a preparation and test for eternity. Yes, we experience happiness at times, but that’s not what life here is about. It’s about continuing to trust God under difficult and even unfair conditions. This is faith: fully trusting in God, even when it sometimes appears He is not worthy of trust.
Take for example Job who was God’s pride-and-joy as it were. God allowed Satan to do a lot of extremely painful and unfair things to Job and his household. Even though Satan caused Job’s suffering, God was also implicated by letting down the ‘hedge’ so Satan could attack Job. Job recognized God had a part in his suffering and he complained bitterly about it. He even despaired of life. And yet he still trusted in God. In a moment of lucidity, he recognized that this was a test and that he would come out like gold (Job 23:10). Job continued to trust in God (Job 13:15), even though he couldn’t see God as good at the time. By the end of the book, Job passed the test (Job 42:7), and God restored double to him. This is what tests of faith are all about. They always focus on our belief in God’s character: In spite of appearances, do I believe God is really good? is He really all powerful? does He really care? etc.
I’ve read and studied the book of Job and wondered, after all was over, how Job felt about God who allowed him to suffer and his children and servants to die. How can anything make up for that? But I’ve read quite a few autobiographies of men and women who have suffered in Job-like epic ways. Those who passed the test came out grateful, not just for surviving, but for going through the suffering itself, for in their suffering they came to know the goodness of God. Here are a few examples:
Christiana Tsai (1890-1984) contracted a form of malaria that left her in pain with an extreme sensitivity to light for the rest of her life (over 50 years). She spent much of that bedridden in darkened rooms. She wrote, “For a time, each step of progress was followed by a relapse. I’d get better, then the symptoms would return, and down I’d go again. But all through the darkness, the light of God’s love never failed me. I could never tell of His great goodness to me, even if I had a thousand tongues, nor could I ever write of all His care and provision, even if, as the Chinese say, ‘the pen I hold could bloom,’…”
Helen Roseveare (1925-2016), a missionary to the Congo, was taken prisoner by rebels, beaten and raped. She said, “In the weeks of imprisonment that followed and in the subsequent years of continued service, I have looked back and tried ‘to count the cost,’ but I find it all swallowed up in privilege. The cost suddenly seems very small and transient in the greatness and permanence of the privilege.”
Darlene Deibler Rose (1917-2004) was a POW in a Japanese prison camp. She lost her husband, all of her possessions, and suffered hunger, disease, beatings, and more. At one point, she thought God had left her. But afterwards, she said, “I understand something of the cost, beloved. I don’t even think about that anymore. I’d go anywhere for Him. I’ll tell you why, tonight. Because the compensations are so tremendous! I wouldn’t trade places with any of you tonight! Those were not terrible years, they were the sweetest years that God ever gave me. Because then He taught me that He would never leave me nor forsake me.”
Perhaps another illustration will help. I like watching the show “How It’s Made”. In some factories, after a product is made it goes through a bunch of harsh tests before it goes to the consumer. The purpose of the tests are not to destroy the product but to prove the product is ready for the real world outside of the factory. From the product’s point of view, it may appear that the factory is trying to destroy the product when it gets subjected to various stress tests, but that is not the case. In a similar way, life on earth is like being in a factory where we are being made and stress-tested to see if we are ready for eternity. These tests are not focused so much on doctrinal understanding, obedience to the Law, or on how well we hold up physically or mentally under suffering, but on our faith in God: Will we continue to trust in God in the most difficult of circumstances or not? These tests have to be very difficult at times to prove whether our faith is real or not. But when we continue to trust God, we sense His presence and see His goodness, as many have discovered by experience. By itself, suffering will not bring about our good. It is persevering faith in God in the midst of suffering that results in the good.
You see this testing theme throughout scripture. God placed the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the garden of Eden to test Adam and Eve’s belief in what God told them (Genesis 2:16-17, 3:1). God allowed Satan to test Job (Job 1:12, 2:6). God fed the Israelites manna and gave them rules about how to collect it to test their obedience (Exodus 16:4). God led the Israelites through the wilderness for 40 years to test them (Deuteronomy 8:2). God left some of the surrounding nations in the Promised Land to test Israel’s obedience (Judges 3:4). God allows injustice to continue for a time to test the hearts of man (Ecclesiastes 3:16-18). God allowed Jesus to be tested by Satan in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1). Jesus allowed Satan to test Peter (Luke 22:31-32). God allows believers to be tested through suffering to prove our faith (1 Peter 1:6-7). Hebrews 11 is about the faith of many biblical characters, some of which suffered agonizing deaths, yet they trusted God to the end because they were looking forward to the eternal benefits:
These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them and embraced them from afar, and having confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.
– Hebrews 11:13
In the next chapter, all believers are invited to join with them in enduring suffering through faith (also Acts 14:22, Philippians 1:28-30). Difficult tests are the only way to prove faith.
Fifth, God sometimes allows evil because He will bring great good out of it in the end. One example was how Joseph’s brothers mistreated him, wanting to kill him, yet selling him into slavery. Joseph suffered unjustly for a time as a result. Yet he recognized in the end that God meant it all for good (Genesis 50:20) – even in the details of their earlier animosity towards him. This is a picture of what happened later when God allowed the Jews to kill Jesus so that both Jew and Gentile could be saved (Acts 2:22-23). God took the evil that Satan had instigated and turned it into the best thing that could happen to Jews and Gentiles. God works in this way not only to bring good to us but glory to Himself. He takes the most impossible situations and turns them around into good for those who love and trust Him.
A more modern example of this is in the autobiography of Captain James Riley. He suffered shipwreck with his crew on the coast of Africa in 1815. They nearly starved to death and became naked, abused slaves in the hot Sahara desert. His suffering was in many ways worse than that of Job. Yet after he was rescued, he recalled the many ways God showed His goodness to them during their sufferings, including some literal miracles. His biography became one of Abraham Lincoln’s three most influential books (the others being the Bible and Pilgrim’s Progress), and was probably the primary work that led to the freeing of the slaves in the United States. God took one man’s suffering and brought good to millions out of it.
Sometimes God allows suffering for a combination of these reasons, but He never causes or allows suffering on earth on a whim or because He’s having a particularly bad day. God allows suffering in my life for my ultimate good, whether I can see that good at the time or not. That doesn’t mean I have to like it or that I look forward to it, but I do look forward to the benefits that will come.
So, if God causes or allows suffering, what is the difference between God and Satan? There is a big difference. Nature-wise, God is the creator of all, and infinite in all His attributes. The devil and everything else that God created are finite and totally dependant on God for continued existence. Character-wise, God and the devil are also not the same. God desires His creation to work together as designed for the good of His creation and for His glory. Satan desires to destroy whatever God does, or blame God for things, so that God does not get the glory. It is not God’s intent to cause man to suffer (Ezekiel 18:31-32, Lamentations 3:33), but sometimes God uses suffering as a means to an end, and other times man leaves God with no other option than to cause suffering.
Suffering is the norm for life here on earth. Jesus told us ahead of time that there is going to be suffering, especially for those who follow Him:
Jesus said, “Most certainly I tell you, there is no one who has left house, or brothers, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or land, for my sake, and for the sake of the Good News, but he will receive one hundred times more now in this time, houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and land, with persecutions; and in the age to come eternal life.”
– Mark 10:29-30
“Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his lord.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will keep yours also.”
– John 15:20
In the parable of the sower, it is assumed that difficult times will come that will cause many to fall away from God (Matthew 13:21). Paul even said that those who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution (2 Timothy 3:12). But this suffering does not mean God has forsaken us. Instead, it means we are God’s sons and He is training us (Hebrews 12:3-11). So we are to trust God anyway by enduring through trials and persecution (1 Corinthians 4:12). We’re even supposed to rejoice in it, not for the suffering itself, but for the benefits that come later (Matthew 5:12, 1 Peter 4:13).
A strong faith that can survive no matter what circumstances may throw at it can only come about by a close, personal, living relationship with God. Nobody is going to trust God in difficulties merely by having a good understanding of Bible doctrine or following church dogma or practice. That is dead knowledge. It takes exercising weak faith through trust and obedience, taking God at His word, to grow in faith. It takes knowing God and seeing Him at work in your life for faith to grow strong enough to stand up to whatever life throws at it. (This is why Job continued to trust God after God appeared to act like the devil.) As that happens, God rewards faith by doing amazing things for us – even public things that those around us can see. As we see Him work when we trust and obey, our faith grows more. True faith is not blind. It trusts God because it sees God work for good.