Tonight, I want to talk to you about the problem of evil. The problem of evil, as it is called, is far and away the most popular objection that atheists and critics of Christianity raise against the existence of God.
Many critics of the Christian faith believe that the existence of evil and suffering in the world disproves the existence of the all-powerful, loving God described in the Bible.
Atheists say, “If God exists and is loving He would put an end to evil. If He is all-powerful, He could put an end to evil. Since evil persists, the all-loving, all-powerful God described in the Bible must not exist.”
Have you heard people reason this way?
Well, this evening I want to answer some of the toughest questions and objections that atheists and critics of the Bible are raising regarding evil and the suffering that accompanies it. I hope that doing so will be an encouragement to you and that it will also help equip you with some ways to answer the questions yourself.
So, let's tackle this first objection (the one that I brought up a moment ago):
SKEPTIC: Are you serious?
CHARLIE: Dead serious.
Atheists face a big dilemma when they point at things in the world and say, “God would not allow this evil to take place.”
Here’s the problem. There can be no such thing as evil apart from the existence of God. Why not?
Without God, without a moral law giver, we would not have any objective (real) standards (laws) by which we might deem something to be evil. We would not be able to conclusively say, “Kidnapping children and murdering them is evil.”
In an atheistic universe, where no moral laws really exist, there could be no such thing as evil. And yet evil does exist! The existence of evil is the number one reason most atheists give as to why they don’t believe in God. They are convinced that there is evil. They point to things like slavery, racism, rape, kidnapping, molesting children, murder, and they say, “These things are truly evil.” And rightly so! These things are evil!
Well, it is this evil that actually exists that verifies there is an actual, objective, real moral law in the universe. But there can be no such thing as an objective moral law apart from a moral law giver, God.
So, the reality of evil is actually evidence for the existence of God, not against—which is amazing really! Because the problem of evil is often considered to be their strongest argument against God. And yet when thoughtfully considered, the reality of evil actually turns out to be evidence for God!
SKEPTIC: Well, that’s an interesting way to look at it Charlie, but if God exists, He should put an end to the evil and suffering.
CHARLIE: I agree. And He will. Just because He has not yet put an end to evil, does not mean that He will not put an end to evil. The Bible tells us that God is going to put an end to the evil and suffering that's taking place on the Earth. John the apostle tells us that in the new Heavens and new Earth (that God is going to create)...
So, God is going to end evil and suffering. It’s just going to happen according to His timing, not ours.
SKEPTIC: Great, but why doesn’t He just intervene right now and put an end to all the evil we see?
CHARLIE: Well, think through this with me. For God to put an end to evil and suffering, God would have to stop every act that causes any suffering. To do that, He would have to stop those who cause the suffering.
This would include:
• anyone who has ever stolen anything
CHARLIE: That list is going to be pretty long isn’t it?
SKEPTIC: I guess so.
CHARLIE: Wouldn’t that mean He would have to put a stop to you too? Haven’t you, by your own actions, caused some of the suffering that exists in the world?
SKEPTIC: Ohh...I guess so.
CHARLIE: Well, then, you should be thankful God allows evil. God has not destroyed evil because He would have to destroy us. By permitting evil and suffering to continue for the time being, God is actually showing the world mercy.
SKEPTIC: I never thought about it like that.
CHARLIE: Now, as I said a moment ago, there is coming a day when God will stop evil (2 Peter 3:7-13). He will judge unrepentant sinners, put them away forever, and create a new Earth where there will no longer be any death, mourning, crying, or pain (Revelation 20-22).
In the meantime, God is using the suffering that exists for good. (See Gen. 50:20, Rom. 8:28, Philippians 1:12). Often, when a person is suffering, they turn to God and receive the kind of help they truly need, a relationship with God Himself.
I’ll talk more about how God works in and through suffering later.
SKEPTIC: Well Charlie, let’s suppose there is a God. The God of the Bible can’t be the loving God that Christians believe in, for the God of the Bible says that He is the one who creates evil in Isaiah 45:7. Surely a loving God would never create evil.
CHARLIE: Let’s look at Isaiah 45:7. This isn't a verse that your average nonbeliever is going to bring up on the street, but it's a verse that atheists bring up in debates and on their websites when discussing the problem of evil. So, let's quickly address it. Notice what God says:
SKEPTIC: Haa!! There you go! If the God of the Bible is the creator of evil (“I make peace, and create evil”) then I don’t want anything to do with Him! A loving God would never create evil.”
CHARLIE: Well, what are we to think about that? First off, this passage of Scripture only reads this way in the King James translation of the Bible. If you have a King James translation of the Bible, you might circle that word “evil” in your Bible at Isaiah 45:7. The Hebrew word there, translated “evil” by the King James translators is the word “ra.”
A better translation of “ra” is actually “calamity” or “disaster.” And that is the way that the more modern translations translate the word (e.g., NKJV and NASB). The word calamity describes an event that causes great and often sudden damage or distress. Isaiah 45:7 is not saying God creates evil (that which is morally wrong). It is speaking of the disasters or the calamity that come when God executes His righteous judgment against sinful people.
Thousands of years ago a man who walked by the ancient cities of Sodom and Gomorrah on his camel and saw dead people all over the place and smoke rising from the two cities, might have asked himself, “Why does God allow all this evil, death and destruction?”
Well in reality, the “disaster” he saw was not the result of some random natural occurrence. Nor was it the result of evil men slaughtering innocent people. It was a direct and righteous judgment of God on evil.
SKEPTIC: Well, that may explain that verse, but if God is the creator of everything (as you Christians suggest) and evil is something, then how can you say that God is not the one responsible for the existence of evil?
CHARLIE: Good question. Let me ask you a question congregation:
Is God the creator of everything? Who says Yes? Who says No? Who thinks this is a trick question? Who won’t raise their hand this evening no matter what I ask? Okay, very good.
The answer to the question is Yes. The Bible tells us that this is the case in Colossians 1:16:
“For by Him all things were created that are in Heaven and that are on Earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him.”
Uh oh. If God created “all things,” as this verse and others teach, does that mean that God did create evil?
Well, let me ask you another question: Is evil something? What is evil? Are there evil molecules or atoms floating around? Is evil some slimy blue goo that accidentally gets on people and causes them to do bad things?
No. Evil is not something you can touch. The Bible teaches that evil is not a thing that God created, but rather: a departure from the way things ought to be. In other words, we might say that evil is:
• a non-conformity to the way things ought to be
So in response to the critic’s charge that God, being the creator, must have created evil, we say: God is the creator of all things, but because evil is not a thing, it does not follow that God is responsible for the existence of evil.
SKEPTIC: If God is not directly responsible for the origin or existence of evil, then where did evil come from?
We contend that evil, rather than being a creation of God, is the result of mankind using his freedom to depart from God’s will.
SKEPTIC: So Charlie, let me make sure I understand what you're saying. You’re saying that the Bible places the blame for evil at the feet of man, not God.
SKEPTIC: “Okay, but the Bible says that everything God created was good. How could Adam and Eve have done that which was evil if they were truly good?”
We believe that one of the good qualities God created mankind with was free will. Freedom to choose between opposing options, morally speaking, is a good thing. God gave that freedom to Adam and Eve and he gives that freedom to us as well.
And even atheists will acknowledge that freedom is good. You never hear people marching through the streets shouting out: “Down with freedom! We don’t want to have choices! Put us back into slavery!” Never. People march for freedom and for liberty. Free will is a good thing. So, God created mankind with free will. [Credit here to Dr. Norman Geisler for a lot of this wording]
Evil originated (and continues today) because of what humans (free moral agents) did and continue to do with their free will. It did not originate with God making a less than perfect world as described in the book of Genesis.
SKEPTIC: All right, but I still think God (if He exists) is the one to blame for the presence of evil! According to the Bible, He’s the one who created the people with the free will who commit evil!
CHARLIE: Well, let me ask you this. If a man stabs somebody with a knife, who is to blame? The knife company who made the knife or the man who did the stabbing?
SKEPTIC: Well, obviously, the fault is with the man who misused the knife, not the knife maker—unless you live in California...with all our lawsuits.
CHARLIE: Well, just as the knife maker is not to blame for the misuse of the knife, the same is true when it comes to the presence of evil in the world. The world God made was very good. The sin, evil, and suffering that has come into the world is a result of mankind’s misuse of his freedom.
And not only did evil originate with mankind’s misuse of freedom, the majority of evil today is the result of men continuing to misuse their freedom.As C. S. Lewis pointed out, most of the evil and suffering in the world has been produced by human beings with whips, guns, bayonets, gas chambers, and bombs. [C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, p. 89.]
Think of how much better life could be on the planet if there were no criminals, no corrupt politicians, no racists, no gangs, no iron-fisted dictators, no terrorists, and no wars. Think of the billions of dollars that could be spent on improving the quality of life for people if they didn't have to be spent fighting terrorism, crime and other evil doers. That kind of life is coming during the thousand year reign of Christ. We look forward to that!
SKEPTIC: If the evil and suffering in our world originated with mankind’s misuse of freedom (and continues because of his misuse of freedom), why didn’t God just create a world without human freedom?
CHARLIE: That’s a good question. God certainly could have created a world without freedom. But a world without freedom would have been a world without humans. Would it have been a place without hate? Yes. A place without suffering? Yes.
But it also would have been a world of robots. Why?
Well, to guarantee a world free of suffering, God would have create a world in which sin (that brings about suffering) never takes place. To do that, God would have to create creatures without free will (i.e., without the freedom to sin). The creatures would have to be creatures that God pre-programmed to always do what God wanted them to do.
Could God have created creatures like that? An army of robots that marched around 24 hours a day singing worship songs? Sure. He certainly could have done that, but the fellowship, the worship, and so on, would all have been meaningless to God!
In order for a meaningful, genuine, loving relationship to exist between God and people, people must be free, free to love Him or free to hate Him. If there’s no choice allowed (or free will), love is not meaningful.
Has anybody ever told you that they love you? Obviously, it’s a blessing to hear those words. But what if someone was holding a gun up to some stranger’s head, forcing the person to tell you: “I love you!”
Well, that profession of love would be meaningless to you. Why? The person was coerced. He or she had no option. She had to say she loved you. She had no choice.
The same would be true for God if He had created us without free will. A relationship with robots who have no freedom or free will would be meaningless to God.
So God saw it worth it to grant mankind real freedom. You can freely love Him or hate Him. You can freely obey Him or sin against Him.
That freedom that God has given us, although it allows for the possibility of evil and suffering to take place, also allows for real love, the highest good, to take place.
And a world in which real freedom exists, is the very kind of world that most people want today. Do a little survey on the street sometime. Ask people if they would like God to force them to live their lives in accord with all of His holy commandments twenty four hours a day with no freedom to do otherwise. No way! The answer on the streets will be, “Absolutely not!” Most people want the option to move freely about (often times from one unholy pursuit to another).
So in this respect, God has given mankind the very world that mankind actually wants to live in, a world in which true freedom exists. Unfortunately, our misuse of the freedom God has given us is what has led and does lead to so much suffering.
SKEPTIC: Well, yes freedom may be good. And there is a lot of evil that results from mankind’s ‘misuse’ of it. But I have a hard time believing in a God who would allow hurricanes and earthquakes and other natural ‘evils.’
CHARLIE: Well in response, first off, I’ll point out that none of these things (hurricanes, earthquakes) are inherently evil. There is nothing immoral about an earthquake or hurricane.
A lot of times the suffering related to these natural phenomenon is closely connected to man’s exercise of his own freedom. For example, take hurricane Katrina. If you build a city like New Orleans on soft sand, silt, and clay, straddling the Mississippi River, just inland from the ocean, several feet under sea level, in an area known to flood–you’re going to have problems. Don’t blame God when the whole city ends up under water.
We need big storms. They bring lots of fresh water up from the ocean to water hundreds of miles of dry wheat and corn fields, so millions of us can eat! There’s nothing wrong with rain.
SKEPTIC: Well, what about earthquakes?
CHARLIE: Again, there is nothing evil about an earthquake. In fact, geologists tell us that tectonic plate activity is good for the health of the planet. The relief of the Earth’s internal pressure is what keeps the planet from exploding. The movement of the Earth’s plates also recycles nutrients that collect in the ocean and returns them back to the continents. In order for plants to grow and to continue to nourish humans, the crust of the Earth must be replenished. But if you decide to build a skyscraper in San Francisco, right near a fault line, where major earthquakes are known to strike, you are asking for trouble. God’s not forcing anybody to live in a tall building right near a fault line!
I think the angels are probably looking down on us wondering, “Why do they do that? What are you doing?! Move. Put your buildings over there. And don't build them so high!"
You may have heard that on January 9, 2010, a 6.5 earthquake hit northern California just three days before the 7.0 quake in Haiti. No people died in the California quake and an estimated 230,000 died in Haiti. Why such a difference in the death toll?
Well, there are a few factors: the California quake was not quite as powerful as the one in Haiti; the population density of the areas was different, and so on.
But in the United States, we place a high value on human life and so we take safety very seriously. So we have strict building codes. We send out building inspectors. We come up with evacuation plans. We offer first-aid courses. We have standards for construction materials. And as a result, many of our buildings, especially the newer ones that were built under these more up-to-date building codes, are much safer when an earthquake hits.
When a country like Haiti, that has been run into the ground by corrupt politicians, does not follow stringent building codes (and is largely unable to because their government has squandered the billions of dollars in aid that has been sent to them in the past) a lot of people are going to die when the Earth’s plates shift.
We shouldn’t blame God for it.
SKEPTIC: What about tsunamis? The suffering that tsunamis bring is not the result of corrupt politicians.
CHARLIE: Again, there is nothing inherently evil about a tsunami. They occasionally happen and we all know that. If you choose to build a home right at sea level on the beach, you’ll have to live with that decision. The view is nice, but you must realize there could be trouble. Don’t blame God if a large wave rolls through your living room.
SKEPTIC: But Charlie, even if the suffering that comes when buildings fall and cities flood is connected to the decisions we make (and even our sin), couldn’t God stop some of these events?
CHARLIE: He certainly could. And I suggest that He does. I believe God does stop (or prevent) certain events. Life could certainly be much worse! But when He does prevent tragedies, loss of life and so on, what happens? Life continues on as though He hasn’t done a thing. To the onlooker, it appears that God hasn’t stopped anything. It’s just another great day!
SKEPTIC: “Maybe He should put up a visible sign or something to let us know that He’s stop- ping or preventing something.”
CHARLIE: You mean like a rainbow or something?
CHARLIE: When God does prevent something, a good portion of humanity goes on their happy way, ignoring God, sinning, thinking there is no need for God (“Who needs God? Everything is great! The sun is shining. My house is standing. I’ve got a good job, a spouse. Life is wonderful.”)
And then they die and judgment falls on them for their sins. And they end up in Hell. That’s not good.
God does not want a person to live a care-free, comfortable life only to wake up on the other side of death still in his sins. So God, in His wisdom, does permit some suffering. And much good comes as a result. Allow me to share with you eight ways God uses suffering for good. You might jot these down.
1. God uses suffering to help advance the gospel.
In Philippians, chapter 1, Paul said:
Paul was suffering unjustly in a Roman prison when he wrote this letter to the church at Philippi. And he writes the Philippians and says, ‘Don’t worry about me. Rejoice! My suffering is turning out for the “furtherance of the gospel.”’
If Paul had not been suffering from some sort of physical condition that required him to stop in Galatia, the people of Galatia may have never heard the gospel.
In God’s eyes, it is far better that one man or woman suffer for a short time here in this life, than a large group of people suffer for all eternity!
Are you suffering in some way? There may be people—people whom you love and have been praying for—that may be drawn to God as a result of seeing you walk with the Lord through the valley you’re in. This is one of the reasons that God allows suffering (to advance the gospel).
So, we don’t look at death like the world does. Do we sorrow when one of our children dies? Of course, but not like the world sorrows because we realize this child has gone into the presence of God and we will see him again. Christian, in the face of death, we need to keep a Biblical perspective: Believers in Jesus Christ are leaving this world behind for a much better one! Hallelujah for that!
A second way God uses suffering for good…
2. God uses suffering to draw people back to Himself.
Many prodigals, who would have been content to continue running away from God, have been drawn back to Him through some adversity.
When the prodigal son in Luke 15 “began to be in need” and found himself eating the food that the pigs ate “he came to his senses” (v. 17) and went home to his father. The Bible says:
2 Corinthians 7:10
Notice that. Sometimes it is the will of God for you to suffer! Why? Well because it produces repentance. Are you suffering in some way this evening? If you are, I encourage you to examine your life! Your suffering may be (I emphasize may) from the Lord for the purpose of waking you up to some area of sin in your life that He wants you to abandon.
C.S. Lewis, in his book The Problem of Pain, wrote: “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.” [1962 edition, p. 93]
I agree. Pain does have a way of waking people up. It has wisely been said that, “Some people will not look up until they are flat on their back.” Suffering can shock people out of their lives of indifference to spiritual things.
Now, it is important to point out that although God does use suffering for good, a person’s suffering is not always related to sin:
Even the child of God who is walking uprightly will experience suffering, Job being a classic example. And there are good reasons why God allows believers to suffer as we will continue to see.
3. God allows suffering to train you to live a righteous (and therefore more joyful) life.
Suffering as a result of sinful behavior is something God uses to train us to live a righteous life. Suffering has a purifying effect upon those who are willing to accept it for that purpose.
A person who spends time in the hospital because of some sinful activity is going to think twice before he’d engage in that activity again. Suffering trains us to live a righteous life.
The Psalmist said:
Psalm 119:67, 71, 75
4. God uses suffering to keep you humble and to humble the proud.
Pride is a sin that leads to a host of destructive sins. And God knows the danger of it. So, with Paul for example, God permitted Satan to afflict him with some degree of suffering to keep Paul humble. In God’s great love for Paul, He permitted a thorn in his flesh (2 Corinthians 12:7).
5. God allows suffering to help build perseverance, character, and hope.
As you endure adversity, you are trained to persevere, your character is changed and your hope (confidence) in God is strengthened.
God is more interested in you knowing Him and in your character than your comfort! The greatest goal of the Christian life is not happiness and freedom from pain, but knowing God and Christlikeness. Your character has eternal ramifications and God will use tribulation to shape and mold it.
6. God allows suffering to help you develop compassion, kindness, and sympathy for others.
One reference to this in the Scriptures is found in...
The comfort you receive from the Lord, the wisdom you gain, the precious truths you discover, during a season of suffering will be invaluable in helping you minister to other people who are suffering or who will be. I still find myself sharing things God showed me in the valleys I’ve been through ten/twenty years later.
7. Suffering can help bring praise and glory to God.
We read of one example in John 9.
8. Your suffering can help keep others from suffering.
An example of this is seen in the life of Joseph in the book of Genesis (Gen. 37-50). His brothers cast him into a pit, then sold him as a slave down to Egypt, where he ended up in prison, wrongly accused of a crime he did not commit. What a trial! Yet years later Joseph was able to say to his brothers…
Joseph rightly saw that God had sovereignly worked in the midst of the suffering to bring about great good—“the saving of many lives” (Gen. 50:20).
And the Bible is full of accounts like these that remind us of God’s amazing ability to accomplish great good in the midst of trials and suffering. We see this in a very clear way in the suffering Jesus endured.
And yet, the Bible teaches that it was through Jesus’ suffering that God brought about the greatest good that has ever occurred.
Because of Jesus’ suffering, you can now have your sins forgiven.
God allowed the evil actions of men to help accomplish His goal in making a way of salvation possible for you and me.
What an amazing God we have! If God can bring about this incredible good (everlasting life for sinners) from the greatest evil ever done, surely He can work in the midst of your suffering! And indeed that is what He is doing.So, I encourage you in closing...
As you walk through the valleys of life, keep in mind that you are walking with...
• a God who knows what it’s like to suffer
Followers of Jesus Christ, you are in good hands! Our God is good and He loves you! I encourage you to look to Him and trust in Him wherever you may find yourself in life – on the mountain top or down in the valley! Amen?
Thank You for the light of Your Word to us this evening. You haven’t left us in the dark regarding suffering. And God we are thankful that we don’t have to suffer alone! You’ve promised to never leave us or forsake us. You’ve promised to work all things together for good. What precious promises these are!!
Father, we want to be Your hands and feet to the people in the world who are suffering. We don’t want to just acknowledge the evil and suffering around us and have some theological ability to reason about it. We want to be the kind of people who visit people in the hospitals, who bring meals to someone who’s bedridden. We want to confront evil and help ease the suffering of people around us. So we pray for Your help doing that. Empower us Father by Your Holy Spirit.
Father, we pray for those here today who are sufferingin some way that You would minister to them. We pray for healing. Provision. Restoration. Wisdom. Peace. Bless them. Draw them close to You through the trial they are in. Work in them mightily. And bring glory to Your name.
And God, for anyone here this evening who does not know You in a personal way, we pray for their salvation...Click here for steps to peace with God.
Charlie Campbell is the Director of the Always Be Ready Apologetics Ministry and a popular guest speaker at churches and conferences. He is the author of three books:
His DVDs and books have been endorsed by:
• Norman Geisler
He resides in southern California with his wife and five children.Scheduling Charlie to Teach:
Additional Resources by Charlie Campbell