Laura Fischer; Box 189
Dr. Ringenberg; Contemporary Christian Belief
Resolved: That suffering and evil do not rule out an all-loving and all-powerful God.
Our group proposes to prove to you that the existence of suffering and evil in the world does not rule out an all-loving and all-powerful God. This is an important issue in apologetic debate, for it strikes at the heart of many people—I might even go so far as to say all people—on both sides: those who believe in the Christian God and those who don’t. In fact, the apparent contradiction between an all-loving, all-powerful God and a world that includes death, pain, murder, rape, depression and despair has kept many from believing that this God exists.
When I was in high school, my brother Peter had a girlfriend named Angel who belonged to this last group. She had been sexually abused by her father for many years, and she could not understand why God had allowed this to happen to her. Because I had been molested as a child myself, I was able to come to her from a position of understanding and empathy. I gave her all the arguments I could at the time, as best I knew how—arguments that I had been pondering for years, and that had me convinced, mostly, though I still suffered occasional doubts. I told her that God loved her, that He didn’t want this to happen. “I believe that He was with you,” I told her. “And I believe that God was crying.” I told her that God allows people to make their own choices, and her father sinned when he chose to abuse her, and that it was wrong and I was sorry it had happened. But still, she could not accept it. Her basic objection was the same one we all face—if God is powerful enough to stop this evil, why didn’t He?
Finally, I had to tell her that I didn’t know. I fell back on a rather cowardly and inconsistent proposition, one that certainly didn’t satisfy even me—that there must be a reason for it, even if we don’t understand. “Maybe it happened to me so that I would be able to help others,” I said, a bit helplessly. “Maybe even to help you.” But I’m not sure that I actually did help her. Even today, I don’t know where she stands with God.
The world around us cries out for an all-powerful and all-loving God. It is riddled with disease, physical and spiritual. This seems inconsistent with the God of theism, and so the question is asked: “Why did God create a world with such rampant evil in it?”
The answer is, of course, that God did not create a world with evil in it. The world He made was “very good” (New American Standard Bible, Gen. 1:31). This world had no death and disease, no suffering, no sin, no cruelty. Then humanity failed the only test set for it, and everything else fell with them. As Win Corduan puts it, “Yes, God would create only the best world. No, this cannot be it” (135).
The loving God made His world to be beautiful and wonderful, and death and suffering are enemies that do not belong in the world He created. Thus, in His love He suffers when we suffer. “God grieves over this situation even more profoundly than you do, if you can imagine that,” Gregory Boyd says to a woman who lost her infant in childbirth (14).
That seems straight-forward enough, and makes belief in a loving God more tenable. God and humanity are now allies in a war against evil and suffering. But it does seem inconsistent with God’s omnipotence. After all, if God is all-powerful, He ought to be able to finish this war tomorrow. So the question is modified. “Why does God not destroy the evil in the world?”
This is a bit trickier, and there are many answers. One is the idea of God allowing humans to have free will, which requires allowing humans to make bad decisions that perpetuate or cause evil. Yes, God can intervene and supersede man’s will, as He can overcome any principle He set in this creation if He so chooses. As C. S. Lewis remarks:
We can, perhaps, conceive of a world in which God corrected the results of this
abuse of free-will by His creatures at every moment, so that a wooden beam became
as soft as grass when it was used as a weapon, and the air refused to obey me if I
attempted to set up in it the sound waves that carry lies or insults. But such a world
would be one in which wrong actions were impossible, and in which, therefore,
freedom of will would be void (21).
We can question why God chose to give man free will in the first place, but that reaches beyond the scope of the current argument.
Another explanation for why God does not destroy evil immediately is that we are in the middle of the story of history. The world began in perfection and fell into ruin, and that is where we are right now. But in the end of the story, God, in the form of Jesus, will return to earth in all His power and destroy evil forever, and “there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain” (Rev. 21:4).
God can and does intervene in specific cases. Scripture is full of miracles, signs and wonders, and many in the world today testify to His extraordinary goodness and miraculous love. But, no, He does not prevent pain from touching every person in the world. He did not intervene in my case, nor in Angel’s. So the question is modified again. “Why does God not destroy the evil in my life?” It is the question of Job, of Paul, even of Jesus, in His moment of greatest suffering when the Father turned His face away. “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34).
And here we must fall back on faith, the ultimate bedrock of the Christian’s life in Christ. We are told over and over again in Scripture that God will never abandon us, that He is working good through our sufferings (Rom. 8:28). We may not understand His timing, but our lack of understanding does not prove a lack of perfection in God. As Elisabeth Elliot says, “Those who … fling soul and body down in joyful abandonment to whatever choice the Father may make for them, rest in the confidence that God will make no errors, in timing or anything else” (175). Sometimes all we can do is say with Job, “Though He slay me, yet will I hope in Him” (Job 13:15).
All the intellectual arguments in the world will not be enough to convince someone who wants to believe that suffering and evil do, indeed, rule out the existence of an all-loving and all-powerful God. In my talks with Angel, I began to see that it didn’t matter what I said to her. She had already heard all of the arguments, from my brother and from others. I do think that she wanted to believe in a loving God, but she could not make that leap of faith. Sometimes nothing we say will be enough.
If I were able to talk to her again, though, I would point her to Jesus. Boyd makes the argument that Jesus is our “picture of God” (15). “He had compassion on suffering people and treated them as casualties of war. He expressed God’s heart by bringing relief to people’s suffering” (14). And He himself suffered the most terrible death of all. Through Him we see the heart of God, what He seeks to do, what He does, how He loves, and how He feels (16).
When Jesus saw Mary and Martha mourning for the death of their brother, He did not tell them that God had a plan in this, that it had happened for a reason, or that the world was just a terrible place that they would have to get used to. He wept. And then He performed a miracle, raising their brother up from the dead.
This is God. Whether or not He chooses to use His power in this or that crisis of suffering, He can and does mourn with us. He has lived through all that mankind suffers, and He understands.
We cannot, in all likelihood, accomplish the second part of Jesus’ two-step comforting plan. But we can weep. We can empathize, we can pray, and we can love. In this, as in all things, we must follow Christ.
Again, “Though He slay me, yet will I hope in Him” (Job 13:34). This is not a position of passivity, but a constant, active decision that requires a great deal of strength. We know that God is all-loving and all-powerful, despite the existence of evil and suffering, and this belief is as much a choice of free will as anything else we do. In fact, you might argue that the ability to make this choice is why we were given free will. And so it all comes back to the individual, created by God and free to do what he or she wishes to do. What do you choose?
Boyd, Gregory A. Is God to Blame? Beyond Pat Answers to the Problem of Suffering. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2003.
Corduan, Win. No Doubt About It: The Case for Christianity. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1997.
Elliot, Elisabeth. A Path Through Suffering. Ann Arbor: Servant, 1990.
Lewis, C. S. The Problem of Pain. New York: Macmillan, 1943.
New American Standard Bible. The Lockman Foundation. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1960.