The Lord is sovereign, powerful, and good. Evil exists and creatures bear moral responsibility for it. In making sense of the undeniable presence of sin, along with injustice and suffering it causes, many people deny one or more of these essential truths. People postulate that God is not truly in charge of the world and rendered finite by sin. They also may think that He is somehow limited in His ability to effect change in the world, or perhaps He is both good and evil (a strange mixture of both). Some even try to deny the reality of evil, rendering it an illusion or a matter of perception. Still others deny responsibility for their sinfulness, shifting the blame to other people or a bad environment.
The word theodicy comes from the Greek Theos (“God”) and the root dik (“just”), and seeks to justify the ways of God to man, showing how God is on the right and is glorious and worthy of praise, despite contrary appearances. Christian philosophers and theologians have explored several approaches to the problem of theodicy. Christian philosopher, C. Stephen Evans says that two of the more important Theodicies are the “soul-making theodicy”, which argues that God allows evil to make it possible for humans to develop certain desirable virtues. The “free will theodicy” explains how God had to allow for the possibility of evil if He wished to give humans (and angelic beings) free will. Theodicies are often distinguished from defenses, which argue that it is reasonable to believe that God has reasons for allowing evil even if we do not know what those reasons are.
Certain forms of theodicy speculations vary widely. Some teach a false universalism, whereby everyone will be saved in the end. Others say that one will retain his/her freedom in sin, even in his/her resurrected heavenly state, which leaves open the possibility of sin occurring again in the eternal state. Dr. Packer notes, “Some Calvinists envisage God permissively decreeing sin for the purpose of self-display in justly saving some from their sin and justly damming others for and in their sin. But none of this is biblically certain. The safest way in theodicy is to leave God’s permission of sin and moral evil as a mystery, and to reason from the good achieved in redemption.”
Regarding the coexistence of God and sin, it is important to note that humility is needed because one can only see and know in part, and because God has secrets He has chosen not to reveal to man. A study of the Bible declares that God is always perfectly and solely sovereign, powerful, and good. It is entirely clear from Scripture that God is angry because of sin and evil, and that creatures—not the Creator—are responsible for it. Sin never destroys the plan of the Lord, never limits His power to act, and never stops Him from doing good in the midst of the worst evil. From the appearance of Satan in the Garden onward, sin and evil are not dealt with systematically, but in such a way as to compel the Christian to continued faith in God—trusting in His ultimate providence that one day the presence and power of sin will be no more. To assume that God cannot (making Him not sovereign or not powerful) or will not (making Him not good) is to judge God before He judges evil, rendering the verdict prematurely. Since people are in the middle of history, until God is done with all of His work, one must not judge Him, but rather trust Him until He is finished with sin and history as we know it.
Evil is never outside the providential control of the Lord. The Lord is at work doing His good purposes in the context of evil. The story of Joseph is an example of this in the final dozen chapters of Genesis. In Genesis, we read of Joseph’s betrayal at the hands of his brothers, his unjust suffering, and his eventual rise to power because the Lord was with him, whereby many lives were saved. When Joseph confronted his brothers, the providence of God was at work in his life, as Genesis 50:20 teaches, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive as they are today.” A descendant of Joseph named Jesus Christ suffered similarly. Jesus was betrayed by his brothers, suffering the worst injustice in history when He was hung and died in shame on a Roman cross. At that moment, it would have been tempting to ponder if God was not sovereign and had lost, or if He was good, perfectly, just, and powerful enough to stop injustice. Three days later, Jesus rose from His grave, atoning for mankind’s sins, and was fully vindicated as sovereign, good, and powerful.
God used the freely chosen evil of Judas, Herod, Pilate, the Gentiles, and Jews to accomplish His perfect purpose in the same way He used the Chaldeans—an evil nation—to punish the persistent sin of Judah and Jerusalem. This does not mean that their evil is His responsibility. In a cosmic way, the God of all providence uses evil to judge evil. Even as His hand brings punishment to Israel and death to Jesus, He also brings redemption and resurrection into the context of judgment and death.
A day is coming when Christians will also rise to Jesus. On that Day, our faith will be sight, and we will see God fully vindicated, as we enter the best possible world after passing through this world which prepares us for it. Until that Day, our answer to the question of how God’s sovereignty relates to sin is ultimately a prayerful, worshipful, humble, and continual meditation on Romans 8:28, which promises, “We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
Dr. Albert Mohler, the President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said, “The problem of evil and suffering is undoubtedly the greatest theological challenge we face.” Since the problem of evil is the greatest theological challenge Christians face today, we will explore the meaning of theodicy in the Book of Job, Christian theology, and also aim to help readers to form a Christian response to the problem of evil.
Theodicy and the Book of Job
The question Job faces is this: “Will Job serve the Lord for nothing when evil comes upon Him?” Job is never told why he is suffering or going through what he is—even by the Lord when He speaks to Job. Ultimately, the Book of Job and the Old Testament wisdom books simply call one to submit to the Lord humbly. Job is not finally given an answer to the problem of evil, nor is his question of why everything is happening to him ultimately answered. What is answered, however, is the fact that God has His purposes for His children who are experiencing suffering. The reason suffering exists is because we live in a post-Genesis 3 world, where the creation is cursed and people are under bondage to sin.
The Book of Job does not give an answer concerning the question of the problem of evil, but it does call Christians to humbly trust in the Lord. Whether in the midst of pain, suffering or agony, the Lord will sustain His people through it all for His purposes and glory. Job was humbled by the Lord when He revealed Himself to Job in chapter 42:5-6. Like Moses and Isaiah, it was God’s visible glory that humbled Job (Job 42:5-6).
Job did receive a reply, not the answer to the question of, “Why is this happening to me”, but an answer as to who: God! Job didn’t get an answer as to why he was suffering, since the Lord never told him about the test. But Job did receive confirmation of his assumption that suffering is not always for sin (despite his friends’ beliefs on this issue). This is evidenced by Job’s vindication by the restoration of his blessings in chapter 42:12-17. The Lord revealed His omnipotence as Creator in contrast to Job’s finite understanding and powerlessness as a created being. The Lord revealed His infinite knowledge in contrast to Job’s limited human perspective.
The Book of Job is a commentary on the complicated issue of suffering. While there may be many Theodicies found within its pages, it seems to have far more to say about how the problem of evil and suffering is dealt with than it does about the problem itself. To be sure, one can inspect Job’s example and conclude that justice prevailed in the end. God not only made restitution to Job, but Job found himself more abundantly blessed than he had been before his suffering. Likewise, we can demonstrate how Job’s affliction served as a discipline and worked to transform him into an even more righteous man. In other words, pain (in this situation) led to greater good. Even the well-reasoned explanation of his suffering would have been wholly insufficient to Job amid his agony as the concrete problem of evil demands more than an abstract, philosophical answer. For this reason, in spite of the counsel of his three “friends”, Job cries out to God himself for a suitable explanation (Job 31:35).
In fact, the Book of Job perhaps serves more as a critique of theodicy than a source of theodicy. Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar defended God’s justice, often with very logical arguments and rational reasoning, and yet, God said of them in the end, “you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (42:7 ESV). How can it be that the one with no answer to his suffering is commended, while those with the best theodicies are under wrath? Let’s now turn to consider the arguments of Job’s three friends.
Eliphaz, the first to speak, offers a straight-forward hypothesis: “Who that was innocent ever perished?” (Job 4:7). Because Job is suffering, Eliphaz suggests he must have sinned; thus Job himself is responsible for his own pain. This argument treats suffering as punishment and blames human free will (as opposed to God) for evil; it would likely have resonated well with a Hebrew audience. However, not only does Eliphaz oversimplify the problem, but he becomes increasingly arrogant in arguing. He begins gently and obliquely—only indirectly referring to Job—but by his third speech, he does not hesitate to hurl insults and directly accusing him of sins. Moreover, Eliphaz implies that he is somehow a prophet who has heard God’s voice and now speaks on His behalf (Job 15:8, 22:22). Therefore, while Eliphaz offers what may seem like a decent theodicy, his ignorance is evident by the end of the book, and even worse, he does nothing to comfort his friend in need.
Bildad also offers a theodicy: “Does God pervert justice?” (Job 8:3). His argument is very pragmatic, insisting that if Job repents, God will restore his fortune; he even uses examples of history to demonstrate his point (Job 8:8-19). However, as Job maintains his integrity, Bildad’s language intensifies. Certainly the idea that suffering may serve as a “wake up call” is valid; even Jesus uses examples of suffering to call people to repentance (Luke 13:1-5). However, Bildad commits a logical fallacy by assuming that this is necessarily the case with Job, which reveals the limits of his theodicy.
Zophar does not offer nearly as complicated an argument as the first two friends; in fact, one might wonder whether or not he gives any argument at all! Instead, he merely asserts himself (rather arrogantly, at that) and expects Job to change his mind. Like the others, he assumes that Job has sinned and thus is quick to clear God of any wrongdoing. With that said, he is perhaps the least compassionate of the three friends, verbally assaulting Job and even refusing to speak when his third opportunity arises. Therefore, whether he has offered an adequate theodicy or not is irrelevant; he is among the “miserable comforters” (Job 16:2) who completely fail to listen to Job.
Certainly, the arguments of the three friends were flawed; assuming Job had sinned, his suffering is problematic. After all, if suffering always indicates sin, what might one say about Jesus? Perhaps the inclusion of Job in the Hebrew canon was to caution against this type of thinking. But is the Book of Job critiquing only these three failed theodicies? Or could it be that it demonstrates the limitations and weaknesses of theodicies in general?
The Lord’s answer to Job out of the whirlwind could be called autotheodicy. “Who is this that darkens counsel,” he asks, “by words without knowledge?” (38:2 ESV). As God begins to question Job, He reveals Job’s ignorance and limitations of understanding: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (Job 38:4 ESV). In fact, the entirety of God’s answer to Job is designed to emphasize man’s utter weakness and inability to comprehend the things of God.
At the end of the day, Job recognizes that he lacks the wisdom to make sense of his suffering, but finds comfort in how the Lord’s ways are above his own understanding. If we use this lens, to examine the earlier speeches of Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, it becomes evident why the Lord accuses them of speaking falsely—they boast of knowledge and understanding, but they do not truly know. Furthermore, they hide behind their arguments as a means of avoiding the actual responsibility of a friend: comforting the one who suffers.
Surely, the Lord’s speech to Job could be used to construct a theodicy based on the sovereignty of God; the clay has no right to question its potter, one might remark (Romans 9:20-21). It would be foolish to take this argument and use it to escape the command to “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15 ESV). It was the three friends’ obsession with theodicy that rendered them “miserable comforters” to Job (16:2). This tendency to reduce evil and suffering to a purely rational problem—especially a problem to which one claims to possess the solution—is precisely that which the Book of Job criticizes.
Suffering As a Test of Fidelity
Job 1:8-12, 21 and 2:10 teach that suffering is a test of fidelity. Satan questions Job’s motives for religious devotion: “Does Job fear God for nothing?” (verse 9). It is not the Accuser, but the Lord who initiates the testing of Job, for the Lord says: “Have you considered my servant Job? There is none on earth like him” (Job 1:8). God’s statement that Job is his servant implies more than mere servitude; it means God and Job are in a covenant relationship based on solemn oaths.
As in Genesis 3, God set the stage and allows man to be put to the test. Here the Lord sees fit to use secondary means to accomplish His purpose. That purpose is not just to test Job as an end in itself, but to give Job the opportunity to honor his Lord to whom he has pledged his allegiance with a solemn oath. That devotion becomes a significant part of the cosmic struggle between Job’s adversary and the Lord. Dr. Elmer Smick, Professor of Old Testament Language and Literature at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, commenting on the purpose of Job says, “Understanding this struggle is basic to understand the basic to understanding the Book of Job as well as the whole historical-religious drama of the Bible” (Genesis 3:15; Romans 16:20).
The Accuser insinuates that Job’s allegiance is hypocritical (Job 1:9). If only God would remove the protective hedge He has placed about Job (v.10), this “devout” servant would curse God to his face. The attack is on God through Job, and the only way the Accuser can be proven false is through Job. Satan is given limited but gradually increased access to Job—first to his possessions, then to his family, and finally to his physical well-being. Through it all though the primary purpose of Job’s suffering was that he should stand before men and angels as a trophy of the saving might of God, an exhibit of that divine wisdom which is the archetype, source, and foundation of true human wisdom.
The Lord’s question in Job 1:8 is in the form of a four-line poem. He speaks about Job with affection and pride. In praising Job, the Lord repeats what has been said in Job 1:1. Righteous men are rare. It may be hard to find a few (Genesis 18:22-33) or even one (Jeremiah 5:1) in a city. But it is possible; and when the Lord observes a good man, he is delighted (Isaiah 42:1).
Cynicism is the essence of the satanic. Satan believes nothing to be genuinely good—neither Job in his disingenuous piety, nor God in His disingenuous generosity. Faith in God’s goodness is the heart of love, hope, and joy and all other radiant things: cynicism is studied disbelief, and a mind turned in upon its malice is the final horror of the diabolical. Satan asks his sneering question in Job 1:9-10, “Does Job fear God for nought?” Satan knows enough about religious people to be persuaded that they are in it for what they can get out of it. This is undoubtedly sometimes right. But “worldly cares and the false glamour of wealth and all kinds of evil desire” (Mark 4:19, NEB) soon deflect such people from God. Satan knows how hurtful a taunt it is to remind God of such disappointments. Satan’s argument is clever in that he argues that Job’s godliness is artificial. Job’s faith has never been proved by testing, and this makes God no better. The Lord has made it easy in Satan’s view for Job to be good. The Lord has secured Job’s devotion by “bribery” and shielded him from harm. The repeated thought in Job 1:10 is an accusation. The hedge is a protective fence (Hosea 2:6), but it could also imply that Job has been hemmed into an insufficient experience of life.
The questions of the Book of Job have now been raised and considered. God’s character and Job’s are both slighted by Satan. Is God so good that He can be loved for Himself, not just for His gifts? Can a man hold onto God when there are no benefits attached? Satan suggests a test to prove his point. Satan’s language is abrupt; he commands God to test Job. This is further evidence that Satan does not belong to the circle of God’s servants. The Lord accepts the challenge. Satan is given permission to do what he likes with all Job’s property, with the exception of not touching his person. Satan goes out, eager to get on with his mischief.
Job’s exclamation in Job 1:21 is the noblest expression to be found anywhere of a man’s joyful acceptance of the will of God as his only good. A man may stand before God stripped of everything that life has given him, and still lack nothing. His essential being came into life naked from his mother’s body, and in that second birth into another word which is death, he will pass in similar nakedness.
Job only sees the hand of God in these events. It never occurs to him to curse the desert brigands, to curse the frontier guards, to curse his own servants, now lying dead for their watchlessness. All second causes vanish. It was the Lord who gave; it was the Lord who removed; and in the Lord alone must the explanation of these strange happenings be sought.
Whatever is behind his wife’s words Job rejects them with fury in Job 2:10. He does not call her wicked, merely foolish—that is, lacking in discernment. Job’s wife thinks God has mistreated Job and deserved a curse. Job finds nothing wrong with what has happened to him. At this point, Job’s trial enters a new phase, the most trying of all. Instead of helping, the words of his wife and his friends cause him more pain and put him under more pressure than all the other things that have happened to him so far. He has never cursed God, but all his human relationships are broken. His attitude is the same as before (Job 12:1). It is equally right for God to give gifts and to retrieve them (round one); it is equally right for God to send good or evil (round two). Receive is a good active word, implying cooperation with Providence, not mere submission. Such positive faith is the magic stone that transmutes all to gold; for when the bad, as well as the good, is received at the hand of God, every experience of life becomes an occasion of blessing. The cost is high because it is easier to lower your view of God than to raise one’s faith to such a height.
One watches the struggle as Job’s faith is strained in every way by temptations to see the cause of his misfortune in something less than God. Satan’s predictions do not come true as Job did not sin. However impious and shocking some of the statements Job makes during the dialogue may seem to us, his transgression of the conventional bounds of decorous religious talk might incur the disapprobation of the cautiously reverent men, but the only censure they receive from God is that Job obscured the divine purpose by speaking in ignorance (Job 38:2).
Suffering As a Recompense for Sin
Job 8:2-7 teaches that suffering is a recompense for sin. The disagreement between Job and his friends becomes wider in the first speech of Bildad. He does not begin as nicely as Eliphaz, but accuses Job bluntly of being a windbag, vehement but empty (Job 8:2b). Bildad is objective and analytical in his speech about God and man. As a result, he is a neat but superficial thinker. He is a moralist, and in his simple theology everything can be explained in two types of men—the blameless (Job 1:1), and the secretly wicked (Job 8:13b). Francis Anderson, a Fellow of the Australian Institute of Archaeology, writing in the Tyndale Old Testament Commentary Series on the Book of Job says: “Outwardly the same, God distinguishes them by prospering the one and destroying the other.” To suggest that this ever happens is to throw doubt on the justice of God, and this, according to Bildad, is what Job is doing. So Bildad asks: “Does El twist justice, or does Shadday twist right?” This bicolon illustrates the poetic device of spreading over two parallel lines words which make up a single phrase. This is not synonymous parallelism since God’s name is ‘El Shadday’, and what He is doing is ‘genuine justice.
Dr. David Clines, Professor of Biblical Studies at the University of Sheffield (England), commented on Job 8:2-7 says: “Bildad, like the other friends, believes firmly that suffering is punishment.” In the way, Bildad applies that belief to Job’s case he differs from the other friends. Eliphaz takes it for granted that Job is essentially a righteous man (Job 4:6), and only temporarily chastised by God (Job 5:17-18) for some imperfection inevitable in any mortal (Job 4:17). Bildad, on the other hand, leaves the matter of Job’s righteousness more in doubt when he rests the whole of his encouragement to Job upon the condition “if you are innocent and upright” (Job 4:6). Job’s continued existence is prima facie evidence of his innocence, and Bildad wants to offer Job hope (verses 6-7, 21-22); he is far from hostile to Job despite the reproachful opening of his speech (Job 8:2).
Job did not say what Bildad was accusing him of. Job believes in God’s justice, but he cannot see it. The Shuhite sees the dangerous implications of Job’s unanswerable questions. God’s actions match a man’s behavior, so Bildad reasons backwards. Job’s children must have sinned according to Bildad. Job had been concerned about this very point and by sacrifice had provided against even their hidden sins (Job 1:5). Bildad does not recognize the possibility of forgiveness. Nothing can come between sin and its consequences. The only alternative is to be pure and upright (Job 8:6)—on this basis Job might seek God and be rewarded.
Job’s life will thus be transformed from small beginnings to a splendid end (Job 8:7). Anderson points out, “Some commentators have found an inconsistency in the advice to make supplication (Job 8:5b), literally ‘implore favor.’ This passage does not teach a subscription to the doctrine of grace on Bildad’s part.” Dr. Derek Thomas, Associate Professor of Systematic and Practical Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary, commenting on this says, “For Bildad, everything is so utterly simple and straightforward: we get what we deserve. Those who prosper in this world do so because they are righteous. Those who suffer do so because they are wicked. There appears to be no exceptions to this simple rule.” Some exceptionally evil people do well in this world. It was, as must be pointed out, something that bothered the Psalmist in Psalm 73:3, “For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.”
Suffering as Submission to the Mystery of God’s Sovereignty
Job 31:35-37, 38:2-7, and 42:1-6 teach that suffering is a means for submission to the mystery of God’s sovereignty. Job 31:35-37 is the final challenge where Job demands a hearing with the Lord. Far from being abashed, Job is belligerent to the last, eager to have his case settled, confident of the outcome, he is capable of giving a full account of all his steps.
Job’s troubles began when a great wind killed his children (Job 1:19). The Lord was in that storm, and now He speaks from the tempest (Ezekiel 1:4). Job is first rebuked (but not derided) in Job 38:2-7 for speaking without knowledge.
The Bible does not consider ignorance to be either sin or the root of sin. “Darkens counsel” has become a celebrated expression, but as commonly quoted, it is applied to muddled talk that obfuscates issues. Darkens counsel does not refer to the inconsequential debate between Job and the rest; counsel relates to the plan of God. Since in the end, the Lord will say that Job spoke the truth about Him, it introduces a serious contradiction here if the Lord accuses Job of obscuring the divine purpose. Counsel often refers to the advice dispensed by a wise man, as such it is a good parallel to knowledge. Job is completely in the dark because he lacks counsel and knowledge, which the Lord will now supply for Job.
In Job 42:1-6, Job is satisfied as his vision of God has been expanded beyond all previous bounds. Job has a new appreciation of the scope and harmony of God’s world, of which he is but a small part. This discovery does not make Job feel insignificant, but helps him realize that he cannot even begin to imagine what it must be like to be God. The world is beautiful and terrifying, and in it God is everywhere, seen to be powerful and wise, and more mysterious when He is known than when He is but dimly discerned. The Lord has spoken to Job, and that fact alone is marvelous beyond all wonder. Job has grown in wisdom through this process and is at once delighted and ashamed.
Job’s first spontaneous outburst, so different from the reserve of his reply to the first speech is an expression of unrestrained admiration. In Job 42:2, he exclaims, “You can do everything! None of your plans can be frustrated!” In verse 3a, Job repeats the questions that the Lord had asked him in chapter 38, verse 2, and now answers it. Job admits that he spoke out of limited knowledge, speaking too confidently about things too wonderful for him to understand.
In verse 4b, Job quotes the words the Lord had spoken twice (Job 38:3; 40:7), and to which he had declined to respond at the end of the third speech. Now he answers, and his reply is positive. It has two sides, as inseparable as the sides of a coin. Job has gained knowledge of God and himself. God comes first, and fills his vision: “now my eyes sees Thee”. The hope of Job 19:24-27 has found its first fulfillment. Dr. Robert Fyall, Professor of Old Testament Studies and Hebrew at St. John’s College in Scotland, teaches that the phrase “now my eyes see you” leads Job to repentance, not for the many sins alleged by the friends, but for ignorance and presumptuousness.
The Debate over God’s Providence in Church History
Some people believe in God, but deny the Christian understanding of God’s providence. Deists believe that God created the world, but left it alone to run on its own. To them, God is not involved in the affairs of people and doesn’t lovingly steer history toward a particular goal. Process theologians believe in God, but deny that He created the world or that He is omnipotent. In their view, God forever influences the world and does the best He can to bring about good and avoid evil, but is limited in what He can accomplish. Moreover, since the world has always existed and will always exist, it is not headed toward an ultimate goal.
The Christian view is distinct from both these views. It affirms that God created the world, that God is omnipotent, and that He is personally and intimately involved in the world as He omnisciently steers the entire cosmos toward a final destiny. There have been several different understandings of the extent of God’s control of the world. In the first few centuries of church history, theologians reacted strongly against the prevalent opinion of the time that things happened by fate. As a result, they emphasized human freedom and tended to believe that God did not control everything that happened.
Augustine altered this view in the late-fourth and early-fifth centuries. In reaction against a widespread view that lives are determined by either a good god or an evil god who is equal, or nearly equal, in power (Manichaeism). Augustine insisted that things occur by the will of God alone. Augustine’s views have been hugely influential throughout church history. Some theologians pushed his view of providence so far that they denied human beings are free (i.e. Gottschalk of Orbais in the 9th century), but most continued to affirm freedom while also insisting that God controls all things. The theological term for this position is called compatibilism, for it insists that belief in human freedom is compatible with the belief that God controls everything.
The present debate surrounding the providence of God began in the early 16th century. The French Reformer, John Calvin, strongly emphasized Augustine’s view that God controls all things, including who will and will not be saved. Shortly after Calvin died, a theologian named Jacob Arminius argued that this emphasis on divine control is incompatible with human freedom and undermines the biblical teaching that God wants everyone saved. The view of Jacob Arminius is called incompatibilism for it asserts that human freedom is not compatible with God’s control. Arminius still believed that God “controls the world” in the sense that God is sure to achieve His overall objectives, but felt that God has purposely decided not to control some things so that a person’s decision to believe or not believe in Christ is free. According to this view, God foreknows who will and will not believe, but does not control who will and will not believe.
The Problem of Evil
A mother drowns her five children. Mass graves are found in Iraq. A sniper lies in wait, holding a community hostage. A hurricane hits the people of the Gulf region in the United States. An oil spill happens in the Gulf Region of the United States. The deadly ocean tsunami of 2004 affects hundreds of thousands of people leaving them without a home. If God is benevolent and Almighty, how can He allow such atrocities? Does He close his eyes? Is He nowhere to be found? Are some things beyond His control? Kenneth Richard Samples serves as the Vice President of Theological and Philosophical apologetics at Reasons to Believe, a non-profit and interdenominational organization, explains the challenge of the above questions, “The greatest challenge to the truth of Christianity lies with the perennial problem of evil. The dilemma of evil raises questions about whether the Christian concept of God is even coherent. Many people cite the existence of evil and suffering as their number one reason for rejecting belief in the Christian God.”
Entire books have been written on the issue of the problem of evil. As one briefly examines non-Christian viewpoints and explores the nature and purpose of evil one can develop a basic Christian response to this apologetic challenge. While the issue of evil and suffering raises difficult questions, historic Christianity supplies unique and convincing answers to them.
There is evil in the world. From World War I to the modern conflicts in the Middle East and around the world, it is simply not possible to deny that there is evil in the world. Dismissing evil as an illusion is a serious departure from reality. Evil is ugly and painful, and its resulting consequences are devastating. The fact of evil in the world and specifically in human beings raises serious questions about its relationship to the Christian vision of an infinitely loving and powerful God. Some people argue that evil and the Christian God cannot logically coexist. They suggest that the existence of evil inevitably leads to a denial of God’s existence.
Why Does God Allow Evil and Suffering?
People often ask, “Why does God allow evil and suffering?” Christians must avoid presumption concerning the causes of evil and suffering because this question remains a profound mystery. As described in the introduction of this article, attempting to explain why there is evil in a world made by a good God is called theodicy (justifying the ways of God). While much more could be said regarding this issue, three points come to bear on this challenging question that need to be highlighted.
First, God has a morally adequate—but not yet fully revealed—reason for allowing evil and suffering. The Lord assures His people that his decrees and actions are righteous and holy. The Scriptures are replete in declaring God’s moral perfection and His dealings with mankind just. The patriarch Abraham says in Genesis 18:25, “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” And the Psalmist proclaims in Psalm 89:14, “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne.” Dr. Greg Bahnsen, considered one of the greatest apologists in church history, said, “While God has a morally justifiable reason for all he does, as the sovereign ruler of the universe the Lord seldom chooses to explain himself to his creatures.”
Nor is God, in His decisions, subject to the critique of finite and imperfect human beings. Even if God were to explain in detail his ultimate purposes to human beings, there is no real reason to think that mere creatures could fully understand His majestic ways. God’s excellent discussion with Job concerning the problem of evil and suffering subsequently reveals God’s inscrutable wisdom and Job’s limited comprehension of the Creator’s purpose in creation and redemption (Job 38:1:-11; Isaiah 55:8-9; Romans 11:33-36).
Secondly, God’s sovereignty and glory will be displayed by His ultimate prevailing over evil. The Westminster Shorter Catechism begins with the question: “What is the chief end of man?” The answer: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” All of God’s great works (creation and redemption) are intended to display God’s sovereignty and glory. However, God’s final prevailing over evil and sin will all the more exhibit His splendor and dominion.
This prevailing has already begun with the life, death, and resurrection of the Divine, Messiah: Jesus Christ. God’s plan to deal with evil is prepared for in creation but executed in redemption. Satan and his forces are already defeated foes with Christ’s first coming as Savior (Hebrews 2:14-15), and all evil and human sin will forever be vanquished at Christ’s second coming as Judge and King (Revelation 21). After these cataclysmic eschatological events, the Lord will bring forth the new creation, forever free from evil and its consequences.
Revelation 21:1-3 speaks of God’s creating a new Heaven and a new Earth along with the Holy City—the New Jerusalem. At that glorious time, all sin, suffering, and sorrow will be forever eliminated. God will have eradicated the problem of evil. The Apostle John provides a prophetic glimpse of this glorious eternal age to come in the book of Revelation, when he states, “They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4).
Thirdly, God allows evil and suffering because of the greater good that results from it. According to Scripture, the greater good for humanity came out of the greatest acts of evil. Jesus Christ, none other than God in human flesh, came to reveal God’s love to humanity. Though He is perfectly holy and blameless, He was rejected by both the religious and political authorities, falsely accused, convicted, and subsequently beaten and executed as a common criminal. Jesus suffered the agony of Roman capital punishment—crucifixion. However, God had planned this incredible miscarriage of justice from all eternity (Acts 2:22-23). Out of this horrible incident of malice and agony came divine redemption for sinners. God brought the greatest good out of the greatest evil.
Lastly, Augustine’s words explain this the best, “For the Almighty God, who, as even the heathen acknowledge, has supreme power over all things, being Himself supremely good, would never permit the existence of anything evil among his works, if He were not so omnipotent and good that He can bring good even out of evil.”
God’s Purposes for Evil and Suffering
While Christians should be cautious about claiming to identify God’s purposes behind specific incidents of injustice and suffering, the Bible does reveal insight into how God uses evil and suffering for God. First, God may use evil and suffering to get an unbeliever’s attention and ultimately to draw the person to Himself (Zechariah 13:7-9; Luke 13:1-5; John 9). Christian apologist Walter Martin used to say that some people will not look up to the Lord until they lay flat on their back. Evil and suffering can shock people out of their lives of diversion and indifference to spiritual things, and even sometimes out of their false sense of control. In this way, problems may be used by God’s grace to bring a person to faith. As C.S. Lewis so eloquently put it: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
Secondly, God may use the results of evil and suffering to build the moral and spiritual character of His people or to express fatherly discipline (Romans 5:3; Hebrews 10:35; 12:4-11). Courage is forged only through facing one’s fears, just as steel must be refined by fire. For faith to grow, it often has to be tested by fire. God expresses more concern for His children than for their comfort. Therefore God uses evil and suffering to facilitate the believer’s moral and spiritual maturity. The Apostle Paul, who endured much evil and suffering, explains the causal relationship between suffering and character, “But we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Romans 5:3).
A loving earthly father disciplines his children. Though unpleasant at the time, discipline is crucial to a child’s growth as a responsible person. God similarly allows evil and suffering to bring about discipline in the lives of His children. As the writer of Hebrews declares, “Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons” (Hebrews 12:7). The assuring guarantee for the Christian, however, is that God does not allow evil and suffering to come into a Christian’s life without producing a greater good for that person. The Apostle Paul set forth that divine promise in Romans 8:28, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” With that said, facing evil and suffering is never easy, even if a person knows that God is ultimately in control.
Three critical comforts can help Christians when confronted with evil and suffering. First, Christians can know that they never suffer alone. God is acquainted with suffering for He has suffered in Christ. Jesus came into the world as a man, suffering with human beings and for them. God Himself entered into the raw, ugly mix of evil. Of all the world’s religions, only Christianity reveals the God who suffers with and for humanity! His suffering in His earthly life and relationships—and on the cross—can transform His people’s experience of suffering.
Even now Jesus serves as the great High Priest interceding for believers during their trials and difficulties. Jesus is not aloof or indifferent to human anguish, for He suffered as the God-Man. The author of Hebrews describes Christ’s role as a sympathetic High Priest in Hebrews 4:14-1 which says, “Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are- yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”
Second, God calls His children to live a life of faith (confidence and trust) in the goodness and sovereignty of God despite the presence of evil and suffering. Scripture points to the compelling examples of Abraham, Moses, Job, and Paul. In the words of a familiar song, Christians don’t know what the future holds, but they do know who holds the future. Faith is trusting in the character of God when circumstances are painful and confusing. Christians can trust God in the midst of suffering because they are aware of His character and promises. The Apostle Paul assures the Church through asking and answering a probing question, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? No in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8:35, 37).
Finally, evil and suffering go beyond a logical or philosophical problem-they are deeply personal and human problems. When people face suffering, they need comfort and reassurance. Christians can and should confront evil and suffering in a powerfully practical way by comforting those afflicted by evil and by easing the suffering of the people around them.
The historic Christian answer to the problem of evil and suffering is found in the example, as well as the identity of Jesus Christ. God came in the flesh to heal His children’s suffering to comfort as well as to teach, and ultimately to destroy the power of evil. The suffering of God in the finished work of Christ is the solution to the problem of evil for human beings.
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Bahnsen, Greg L., Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith, ed. Robert R. Booth (Texarkana, AR; Covenant Media Foundation, 1996), 170.
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