According to a recent Barna research study, the number of young people in the U.S. who identify as atheists has doubled in a single generation. One of the most significant reasons many reject the idea of God is the reality of suffering and evil in the world. Philosophers refer to this as the Problem of Evil and it is generally stated in this way: a loving God would prevent suffering and evil if He could; therefore, God is either not loving or not powerful enough to stop it. Yet, Christians believe that God is both all-loving and all-powerful. Is this a contradiction? Or does the Bible tell us what we need to know to answer such a significant objection to God’s existence? Let’s spend some time considering what Scripture has to say about the issue.
First, let’s consider what we need to study:
- Is God Loving?
- Is God Powerful?
- Why Does God Allow Suffering and Evil?
If we can answer these three questions, then we can combat the Problem of Evil and help people who are suffering to see the goodness and power of God.
Is God Loving?
If God is not loving; that is, if He is not good, then it would be pointless to continue this discussion. Now, it is one thing to assert that He is loving just by stating all the good things He does. But is God loving in the midst of suffering? Let’s look at what the Bible says.
Psalm 23 details the life of David who is surrounded by suffering for so much of his life. David writes in verses 4-6:
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for you are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies… surely your goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
David recounts the goodness of God in the midst of great pain and evil. He does not praise God for removing suffering, but for being present in suffering. While David stares his enemies in the face, he is at peace because of the presence of the Lord. He does not praise God because God will certainly save him from his enemies, but that even if he were to suffer the worst possible fate, he would still be with God forever.
The Bible is absolutely filled with examples of God being good in the midst of suffering. In fact, to be in the world is to endure suffering, whether small or large. We have the promise that He will be with us and that He will rescue us out of this world whether it happens now or only when we get to heaven.
Is God Powerful?
So, if God is good, but there is still suffering, perhaps the reason is that He is unable to stop it. Not surprisingly, the Bible tells us that God can do anything, including preventing bad things from happening. Furthermore, there are many verses in Scripture that talk about deliverance from evil. Consider 2 Timothy 4:18: “The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom.” Or 2 Thessalonians 3:3: “But the Lord is faithful. He will establish you and guard you against the evil one.” We see examples throughout Scripture of God preventing great evils or avoiding certain disasters. God prevents the destruction of the Hebrew people at the hands of pursuing Egyptians in Exodus 14. God again prevents genocide of the same people in the story of Esther. Many other examples from both the Old and New Testament could be cited to support this.
But it is equally clear that God does not always prevent suffering and evil. So, if it is the case that God is good even in the midst of suffering, and that He is perfectly able to prevent it, we are left with one big question:
Why Does God Allow Suffering?
As we ask this question, we must first ask ourselves what sort of answer we want to hear.
Do we want to know why there is any suffering at all? If so, Genesis 3 begins to answer this question, and the rest of the Old Testament fills in the blanks. Suffering exists because sin has broken the perfection that existed in the Garden.
Do we want to know why God doesn’t prevent the worst kinds of suffering? If so, ask yourself how you would know if He did. That is, if God prevented all of the worst evil, then you would never know what those evils would have been, and then the second-worst evil would now be the worst from your perspective. In the end, this question is no different from asking why there is any suffering whatsoever.
Do we want to know why God allows a particular instance of suffering? There are times in Scripture when we see God give an explanation for certain evils. Think of Joseph being captured by his brothers and sold into slavery. Joseph himself says in Genesis 50:20, “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.” But many times, as in the case of Job, the reason for suffering is not given. Instead, we are asked simply to trust God.
So, Why Does God Allow Evil?
Two important and complementary answers are found in Scripture:
- God allows certain evils in order to accomplish certain good things. Think, for example, of the Babylonian Exile of the people of Judah. God tells His people that they are going into exile in order to be broken of their wickedness and idolatry. Or, think of the greatest example of all: the death of Jesus. God allows, and even clearly plans and purposes this evil in order to accomplish the greatest possible good.
- God also allows evil to exist in general because He has created the world with a certain order which He has freely chosen not to violate. Among the most important aspects of this created order is the free will that He gives to His creatures. Scripture makes it clear that God desires for His creatures to freely choose to love, worship, and obey Him. Love that is not free is also not real. So, God allows evil to exist because He created us with the ability to reject Him, and evil exists because we choose to reject God.
Now, as we close this discussion, we must remember that God is in control. His greatest desire is to eradicate all suffering and for us to live in perfect unity with Him forever. He promised to do exactly this, beginning all the way back in Genesis 3 and culminating in the final verses of Revelation. God’s immediate reaction to humanity’s betrayal was to promise to make everything right. He promised to personally enter into the suffering of this fallen world, thereby taking on all the sin and wickedness of humanity, putting it to death on the cross. God has always had a plan to deal with evil and suffering, and the Bible tells us the history of that plan. We, as Christians, are agents of that restoration; a restoration that will one day be complete.
Let’s close this discussion with the great promise of Scripture from Revelation 21:4: “He [God] will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”