John Stott wrote, “The fact of suffering undoubtedly constitutes the single greatest challenge to the Christian faith.” Virtually all theologians agree. There is no tougher area of theology to consider. And yet, today fewer Christians wrestle with the problem of evil – – and that may be the biggest problem of all.
The problem of evil is the question of how it can simultaneously be true that:
- God is all-powerful and all-knowing.
- God is good.
- Yet, evil and suffering exist.
From the finite vantage point of our minds, it may seem as though the only reason that suffering exists is because God can’t stop it (he’s not sovereign or all-powerful) or he won’t stop evil (he’s not benevolent or good).
I won’t lay out a Christian response to the problem of evil – – though I’m doing that in my current sermon series at The Red Brick Church – – and I believe there is a completely satisfying answer. But here I want to make the point that as troubling as it may seem to consider why God allow suffering, it is far more troubling to never wrestle with the question of why God allows children to be harmed or for hurricanes to come.
Let me explain why it is a problem if we are not somewhat conflicted about suffering. First, understand that the problem of evil is unique to people of the Bible.
- Polytheists don’t struggle with the problem of evil. They believe that suffering flows out of the conflicts of many flawed gods.
- Atheists don’t struggle with the problem of evil. Suffering is simply another aspect of material reality.
- Monism (Hinduism or Buddhism) believes in the unity of everything which will one day be achieved.
- Deists holds that God wound up the clock of the universe and is now watching it tick. He is not involved.
Only people who believe in one, sovereign, good God wonder why God allows suffering. And struggle we do! Given that we live in a fallen world where little girls are sold into sex slavery, why wouldn’t anyone struggle with the problem of evil?
Fact: right now, somewhere in the world there is someone being raped or murdered.
Fact: God hates rape and murder.
Fact: God could stop rape and murder.
The question is not why has so many pages have been written about the problem of evil. Rather, the question is why aren’t people asking about it more? While preaching through Job I’ve considered why aren’t thinking about the problem of evil more. I’ve come up with the following possibilities:
- A person might not struggle with the problem of evil because he or she has a thin understanding of the experiences of life. A five year, who has been protected from suffering, has probably never cried out, “Why?” But those who have watched loved ones waste away to cancer, or lose their minds to Alzheimer’s wonder why God allows it.
- A person who is cocksure or cavalier about theology might not struggle. I’ve heard people say, “There is no problem of evil. God allows pain for his glory.” While this s a true statement – – it is amazingly insensitive and non-pastoral, and it is unhelpful when comforting someone whose child has been murdered.
- Others have personalities that are not given to theological reflection. They are blessed with a deep and child-like faith.
- Admittedly, some no longer struggle over the difficult question of the problem of evil because they have very mature faith. They have worked through their concerns and now they trust God.
I would call those first two possibilities shallow Christian responses to the problem of evil. Many of us are guilty of them at some point to one degree or another. But the above reasons are not the alarming explanations for why people are not struggling with the problem of evil. Here’s another set of reasons people aren’t wrestling with the problem of evil.
- Many people do not wrestle with the problem of evil because they do not really believe that God is sovereign. Deep down they have accepted the answer that God feels bad about evil but he isn’t really big enough to stop it.
- Others don’t wrestle with the problem of evil because they are what Christian Smith has called “moralistic therapeutic deists.” That is, they believe in a distant God, who is easy to please, who exists to make us feel better. They comfort themselves with simple platitudes like, “Well, it must all work together for good,” but they do not consider their relationship to God or who He really is.
- Still others don’t wrestle with the problem of evil because they do not believe God is just – – deep down they do not believe that wrong behavior must given an account to an all-powerful God who will judge evil. They never picture themselves giving an account to God.
If you think about this latter list, what you see is that these reasons have in common is that they are characteristics of people who do not believe in the God of the Bible.
Again, the problem of evil is a question posed to those concerned with the God of the Bible. When people stop asking the question, it shows that people are not really contemplating a good and sovereign God.
In my decades of pastoral ministry, I have done many funerals for those who are not Christians – – and, of course, many for those who are – – and I have had very few people say to me in anger – – “Why did God let this happen?” And to be honest, I think it is a problem. Job was upset with his suffering because he believed in a good God who is in control and he wanted to know “Why?” The fact that we so rarely face people asking Job’s passionate questions is because we live in a culture where, increasingly, people do not believe in a sovereign, good God. Indeed, it may be that most people with whom we rub shoulders are deists, not theists.
Which is to say, the real problem of evil is when we stop believing enough in the sovereignty and goodness of God to ask the really hard questions.