Why Must We Suffer?

By Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.T.S.

MANY FACTORS TODAY IMPACT how we feel about ourselves and life. We wonder why bad things happen to good people. We question the existence of an all-powerful, benevolent God in the face of seemingly insurmountable evil and social unrest. America is embroiled in doubt and fear, depression and anxiety, hopelessness and a loss of meaning; caught in a national angst we have not seen since the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the Great Depression. Some of us turn to psychology and psychiatry, hoping medication and talk therapy will cure our misery. Others turn to “religion.” Tragically, many Americans try booze and illicit drugs, and some choose to end their life. What is the answer?

How Could You?

I sat, alone, quietly, wondering what was about to happen. Misery had brought me to this place. I was so sick and tired of myself, yet I had no idea how to change me. And what if I cannot change? Would I be able to live, period? Perhaps you or someone you are close to has been at this point. My complaint, for lack of a better word, was simple: God, how could you? Why did you give me this life, this complete mess. I felt impotent and alone. Nothing thrilled me anymore. Not. One. Thing. I decided to find out why, or die. Why am I lost and alone, confused and burdened? I am so tired of hearing my own voice―especially the one in my head that never seemed to stop making excuses for my circumstances. It is quite unsettling to give one’s self an ultimatum. What happened to the hour I first believed? I saw the face of Jesus at age 13, and asked Him into my heart and my life. There was an unambiguous call on my life to serve as a pastor or teacher of the Word. Finally, my raison d être.

But things did not go “according to plan.” Life got complicated. I got lost on the way to my calling. I’d never really been happy in life, but at least I wasn’t a nihilist. My belief that something matters, no matter what that something is, seemed to propel me toward hope. A chance to see the horizon. Light. There has to be light, right? And doesn’t that light illuminate, reveal? Like that new GE light bulb, giving the best light, filtering dull yellow light to give incredible color contrast and whiter whites for exceptional clarity. That’s what I needed. Exceptional clarity. Let’s get real here. My life did not seem to be “exceptional” and I had absolutely no “clarity.” Instead, I was kneeling in my bedroom, alone, broke and broken, asking God, “How could you do this to me?” How could a Christian lose hope. Lose the horizon? Give up the reigns to a task master like substance abuse?

I didn’t stop there. I wanted to know why my grandmother and father got cancer. Why my father lost his dad when he was only 13 years old. Why he contracted COPD, emphysema, and chronic hypoxemia? When he eventually needed supplemental oxygen 24 hours a day, he said to me, “Well, this is the beginning of the end.” Shortness of breath robbed him of his many favorite activities: woodworking, painting, gardening, landscaping. No longer could he ride his lawn tractor without suffering compression fractures of lumbosacral vertebrae. He had stopped smoking after his heart attack at age 55, yet he still suffered the horrific medical consequences. He passed away in 2014 from pneumonia. Why God? He’d quit smoking decades ago. Why is he gone now that I finally have a life worth living? Why isn’t he here to see the amazing turnaround I’ve finally made? He’s not here to see me preparing for ministry. God, how could you? Thankfully, I am not prone to thinking this way any longer, but it took some exegetical research for me to determine the best way to address these issues without blaming God, my father, or others.

If God Loves Us, Why Must There Be Pain and Suffering?

If God loves us and is an omnipotent and benevolent God, why does He allows pain and suffering. These questions are not limited to skeptics and nonbelievers; they haunt many Christians as well. Surely, He can rid His creation of wars, murders, torture, sickness, tsunamis, earthquakes; He must be capable of arresting evil, right? This issue has stymied believers and non-believers for centuries. Richard Dawkins sees universal suffering as an indictment against the existence of a loving God. Further, he writes, “There is no good case to be made for our possession of a sense of right and wrong having any clear connection with the existence of a supernatural deity” (1). Dawkins believes theodicy (the “vindication” of divine providence in the face of the existence of evil) must keep theologians up at night. However, he provides no further evidence of this claim. Second, I and many other theologians and biblical scholars I know, are not suffering from insomnia over the conundrum of evil in the face of a “good” God.

Dawkins says it is “…childishly easy to overcome the problem of evil. Simply postulate a nasty god – such as the one who stalks every page of the Old Testament. Or, if you don’t like that, invent a separate evil god, call him Satan, and blame his cosmic battle against the good god for the evil in the world. Dawkins’ detractors see the foregoing comment as a straw man fallacy, especially because Christian theologians and biblical scholars do not claim that the issue of evil is easily overcome, nor do they believe Satan is “a separate evil god,” responsible for the existence of evil in God’s creation. Designating one cosmic power “good” and the other “evil” presupposes a third element for making the evaluation, namely an objective standard (or “measuring stick”) of good and evil. For the terms of “good” and “evil” to be meaningful, they must be linked to some objective standard, but “…then this standard, or the Being who made this standard, is farther back and higher up than either of them, and He will be the real God” (2).

C.S. Lewis writes, “Each [entity] presumably thinks it is good and thinks the other bad. One of them likes hatred and cruelty, the other likes love and mercy… Now what do we mean when we call one of them the Good Power and the other the Bad Power? Either we are merely saying that we happen to prefer the one to the other, or else we are saying that one of them is actually wrong, actually mistaken, in regarding itself good” (3). Lewis argues that no created being can be intrinsically evil or love evil for evil’s sake. He contends that there is no way that an evil being can stand in the same relation to its evil that an ultimate good being can stand to its goodness. He adds, “Goodness is, so to speak, itself: badness is only spoiled goodness. There must be something good first before it can be spoiled” (4). Augustine of Hippo postulated that evil has no existence of its own; instead, evil is the absence of good.

I understand this conclusion sounds a bit counterintuitive. So, let us take an exegetical approach to the origin of evil. When God created the heaven and the earth, He paused and saw that it was good (Gen. 1:10, 12, 18, 21, 25). On the sixth day, after surveying all He made, God said it was very good (1:31). When we read the account of creation in Genesis 1 and 2, we see no mention of God creating anything bad, corrupt, malevolent, ugly, or wicked. Yet, in Genesis 3 we are introduced to the serpent tempting Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The serpent, which had not been previously mentioned, suddenly comes on the scene and becomes a major player in the fall of man and introduction of original sin. So, good is morally “prior to” evil such that evil is damaged goodness and love of evil is desiring evil as though it were good. Natural laws and libertarian free will are necessary conditions for a variety of valuable relational situations (within humanity and with God).

Lewis believed pain is “God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world,” emphasizing pain’s capacity to shatter our illusions of self-sufficiency. But this is not a dyed-in-the-wool formula; pain only sometimes shatters our false sense of self-sufficiency and at other times drives us farther from God, depending on our response. Further, Lewis did not make sweeping generalizations about the purpose of all pain, although some interpreters mistakenly represent him as doing so. Moreover, Lewis did not address “evils” such as natural catastrophes that wipe out hundreds of people without giving them a chance to reorient toward God; nor did he engage human wrongful acts like the torture and murder of children who cannot respond productively to the pain. To be sure, however, God can work redemptively with pain when it does occur. There is simply no guarantee that all persons, even when pain exposes their insufficiency, will choose relationship with God.

If the universe is as scientists say it is, then what scope remains for statements about good or bad, right or wrong? What are we to conclude about evil and wickedness? If moral statements are about something, then the universe is not quite as science suggests it is, since physical theories, having said nothing about God, say nothing about right or wrong. To admit this would force philosophers to admit that the physical sciences offer a grossly inadequate view of reality.

Created Selves and Reality

As a created self, a finite personal being possessing intelligence, will, and agency, Satan’s true good would have been realized by accepting his place (as Lucifer) in creation, which he refused to do. We human beings are also created selves who must either accept our nature and ultimate destiny in God or craft for ourselves a destiny apart from God, which Lewis sees as “a free choice.” Essentially, a series of accumulative moral choices in which “good and evil both increase at compound interest” (5). It is inevitable that left unchecked, bad temper, jealousy, narcissism, selfishness, and other spiritual or character defects, gradually get exponentially worse and become Hell when projected out over an eternal future. Finding our true selves, then, is a matter of letting God heal and transform us spiritually. But God will never force himself upon us. He will not ravish, He can only woo. As perfect love, God can do nothing less than will our true good. Lewis said, “He cannot bless us unless He has us” (6).

Concluding remarks

We all hear the question so many typically ask, “Why would a loving God send someone to hell?” Yet, the truth is, people send themselves there. If you see someone walking toward a cliff and you yell to them, “Wrong way! There is a cliff ahead. You’re going to fall off and die if you don’t go the other way.” But if the person foolishly responds with “I’ll take my chances”, “I don’t believe you”, or “All roads lead to safety,” then he or she ends up falling off the cliff and into the abyss, who sent them there? They did! I wrote a poem during my active addiction that looked at the excitement and the peril of living my life right up to the edge of the abyss. Certainly, God did not want me to push myself away from Him, coming closer and closer to the cliff. He wanted to rescue me from myself, but I had to make the first move.

Lewis said a “Cosmic Sadist” might hurt us, but he could not do positive things such as invent or create or govern a universe. To hurt us, the Cosmic Sadist might bait traps, “…but he’d never have thought of baits like love, or laughter, or daffodils, or a frosty sunset. He make a universe? He couldn’t make a joke, or a bow, or an apology, or a friend” (7). It is goodness that is original and fundamental and evil that is derivative and parasitic. I, as Lewis, remain confident that the Christian worldview explains evil and suffering better than other worldviews explain it. Evil occurs within a total world context that includes other important phenomena that cannot be adequately explained by an evil source. The problem of evil itself, as Lewis indicated, can be credibly formulated only if these other realities are assumed. In the final analysis, when Lewis lost his wife Joy, he did not waiver one bit in his faith in God. His theory that pain is a catalyst for spiritual reorientation (a belief he articulated frequently and that many of his readers took as categorical) encountered the hard fact that sometimes we just have to endure pain that seems to serve no particular purpose.

Footnotes

(1) Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York, NY: First Mariner Books, 2008), 135.
(2) C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York, NY: HarperOne, 1952), 43.
(3) Ibid, 42-43.
(4) Ibid.
(5) Ibid., 132.
(6) Albert Schweitzer, The Quest for the Historical Jesus (London, UK: SCM Press, 2000).
(7) C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (London, UK: Faber and Faber, 1961), 65.

Why Can’t God Stop Evil?

One of the most troublesome questions Christians face when engaging in evangelism or apologetics is the problem of evil. This difficulty relates to two likely causes: lack of sufficient biblical knowledge on the topic; and, a pervasive spirit of empiricism, secularism, and militant atheism in Western civilization today. What is meant by “evil?” In a general sense, evil is the opposite or absence of good. The narrower scope signifies profound wickedness or immorality. Relative to the more specific definition, Merriam-Webster defines evil as “morally reprehensible: arising from actual or imputed bad character or conduct.”

At the heart of Christianity is God’s love and benevolence. Alvin Plantinga writes, “Perhaps the most widely accepted and impressive piece of natural atheology has to do with the so-called problem of evil” (italics mine) (1). Many secular philosophers and atheists believe the existence of evil constitutes a problem for the theist. They think the presence of evil makes belief in God unreasonable or rationally unacceptable. Much ado is made about “natural” evils, such as disease, earthquakes, tsunamis, famine, and hurricanes. In addition, there are evils that result from human cruelty, arrogance, avarice, the savagery of war, and stupidity.

Clearly the world contains a great deal of evil. If God is as benevolent as Christian theists claim, He must be just as appalled as we are at all this evil. But if He is also as powerful as they claim, then presumably He is in a position to do something about it. Why doesn’t God orient the world in a manner that eliminates evil? How could evil be a part of His design for creation and for mankind? Groothuis says, “The presence of evil in the face of a good God has classically been called the problem of evil” (italics added) (2). Epicurus said, “God either wishes to take away evils, and is unable; or he is able and unwilling; or he is neither willing nor able; or he is both willing and able.

Jeremey Evans writes, “Christians have generally agreed that evil is not a substance or a thing but instead is a privation of a good thing that God made” (3). Evans presented the proposition that because God created only actual things (of substance), and because evil is not an actual thing (substance), then God did not create evil. Groothuis speaks of the importance of definitively addressing the problem of evil. He says believers must stand firm in the gospel and refuse defeat of their faith based on one problem. God never does evil and is never to be blamed for evil.

Grudem notes the following from Scripture: “Jesus also combines God’s predestination of the crucifixion with moral blame on those who carry it out: ‘For the Son of man goes as it has been determined; but woe to that man by whom he is betrayed’ (Luke 22:22; cf. Matt. 26:24; Mark 14:21)” (italics in the original) (4). This verse is critical for confronting misconceptions from New Atheists regarding the crucifixion: e.g., Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011), who espoused that the crucifixion was an unnecessary and barbaric form of human sacrifice: what he called “propitiatory murder” (5).

What is the Free Will Defense?

Plantinga is perhaps the first prominent theological scholar to state that not even God can bring about a good state of affairs without bringing about an evil state of affairs. He calls this the Free Will Defense. Specifically, he says being free with respect to an action must mean a person is free to perform an action and free to refrain from it. It is within his power to choose (6). Emphatically, a world wherein man is significantly free (and freely performs more good than evil actions) is more valuable, all else being equal, than a world devoid of such freedom.

To create creatures capable of moral good, God must create creatures also capable of moral evil. Moreover, He can’t give such creatures freedom to perform evil and at the same time prevent them from choosing to do evil. Sadly, of course, man has proven himself capable of choosing to do evil as much as to do good. Our first parents made a conscious decision to disobey God’s one and only commandment and eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. This choice is highly significant in that it demonstrated man’s choice to look within for morality and purpose rather than heavenward.

The fact that free creatures sometimes go wrong cannot be counted against God’s omnipotence nor against his goodness. Plantinga says God cannot be expected to do “literally everything.” Sentient beings with free will, no matter the circumstance, will likely make at least one “bad” decision; one that might have the potential to be egregious. If God, who is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent, created the world—a good world wherein evil was possible and which became actual—then the proper conclusion would not be “God created evil,” but “the world contains evil(7). To say, for example, that I act freely on a given occasion is to say only this: if I had chosen to do otherwise, I would have done otherwise. It is paramount that we have the freedom to choose A (a good deed) or B (an evil deed). Anything less is devoid of the freedom to choose.

Groothuis says we cannot take up the problem of evil in a philosophical vacuum. The Christian faith is multifaceted and cumulative, as we learn from the progressive thread of redemption in Scripture. If so, then the biblical worldview cannot prima facie be refuted by one particular problem. Augustine believed evil is “privation” of the good; it is parasitic on the good, and not a substance in and of itself. Good itself is rooted in God’s eternal character, and cannot exist otherwise.

Groothuis astutely writes, “Since evil is a defection from good and parasitic on an antecedent good… it is impossible that God could defect from the good” (8). C.S. Lewis observed that no one does evil simply because he or she takes it to be evil. The “badness” of an action consists in pursuing [good things] by the wrong method, or in the wrong way, or too much. He writes, “Goodness is, so to speak, itself; badness is only spoiled goodness” (9). He provides the example of sadism as a sexual perversion, noting we must first have an idea of normal sexuality before we can talk about it being perverted.

A Final Thought

In light of God’s goodness and sovereignty, it must be noted that evil might be used in accord with God’s infinite wisdom to bring about His desired ends. Groothuis calls this evil’s “secondary status in the universe” (10). Despite the fact that God created all that we see, evil is not a direct “creation” of God. Evil comes about due to human mismanagement of people and of the environment. Consider this: the Fall (while based on human rebellion) opens up possibilities for virtue not otherwise attainable. Evil serves an instrumental purpose in the providence of God. This has been called the Greater Good Defense. In other words, evil is logically necessary to some good; this good outweighs the evil, and there are no alternative goods not involving those evils that would have been better.

Irenaeus called this the soul-making strategy. Origen joined in, saying, “Virtue, if unopposed, would not shine out nor become more glorious by probation. Virtue is not virtue if it be untested and unexamined. Apart from evil, there would be no crown of victory in store for him who rightly struggled” (11). Augustine noted God’s supreme power over all things, being Himself supremely good, stating God would not permit the existence of evil among His works if He were not able to bring good even out of evil (12).


Footnotes

(1) Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974, 1977), 7.

(2) Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 2011), 492.

(3) Jeremey A. Evans, The Problem of Evil (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishing, 2013), 1.

(4) Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MN: Zondervan, 1994), 328.

(5) Christopher Hitchens, The God Delusion (New York, NY: Hachette Book Group USA, 2007), 208.

(6) Plantinga, Ibid., 30.

(7) Groothuis, Ibid.,503.

(8) Ibid., 620.

(9) C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001), 44.

(10) Groothuis, Ibid., 637.

(11) Origen, quoted in Henry Bettenson, ed., The Early Christian Fathers (London, UK: Oxford University Press, 1956), 264.

(12) Augustine, Enchiridion on Faith, Hope, and Love, trans. J.F. Shaw (Chicago, IL: Henry Regnery, 1961), 11.