Genesis 18:25, “…Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?”
Why evil and suffering exists is a question pondered by philosophers, theologians and skeptics across the globe and throughout all history. If the all-powerful and loving God of the Bible exists, why does he allow evil in the world? Why didn’t he stop Satan or ‘defeat’ him a long time ago? Why does he not intervene and stop the likes of Hitler or Stalin? Why do babies die? Why do earthquakes happen? Why do people get cancer?
The Greek philosopher Epicurus (341BC-270BC) said, “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?” (chapter 13 of ‘De Ira Dei’)
First of all, we should not expect to understand God’s reasons, as he has infinite understanding and can see the whole picture of eternity, unlike us.
Isaiah 55:8-9 says, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
Romans 11:33-34, “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgements, and his ways past finding out! For who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been his counsellor?”
Psalm 147:5, “Great is our LORD, and of great power: his understanding is infinite.”
Isaiah 40:28, “Hast thou not known? hast thou not heard, that the everlasting God, the LORD, the Creator of the ends of the earth, fainteth not, neither is weary? there is no searching of his understanding.”
We believe as Christians that any suffering or pain is used for a greater cause for good by God.
However, many skeptics are not satisfied with this answer and view it as an ‘easy way out’ or a ‘God of the gaps’ argument, so we will also examine what the Bible has to say about the existence of evil.
Each and every person to ever live has experienced some kind of pain or suffering in their lives. For many people, this contradicts their own understanding of what God should be like.
The Bible does teach that God is all-powerful (Jeremiah 32:17, “Ah Lord God! behold, thou hast made the heaven and the earth by thy great power and stretched out arm, and there is nothing too hard for thee:”), as well as being loving and merciful (1 John 4:8, “He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.” and Luke 6:36, “Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful.”)
So the issue lies in reconciling this powerful and yet loving and merciful God with the pain and suffering that happens in the world. He has the ability to stop it, and the mercy to, so why doesn’t he? This is a huge stumbling block for many people and can and has led to many people rejecting the existence of God.
Philosophers of the world have put forward many arguments to try and explain why God would allow evil. These are called ‘theodicies’.
We will briefly explain a few of these to show some theories about the subject of evil, but be careful not to pay too much attention to these arguments, as the Bible warns us against philosophy (man’s understanding or man’s tradition) in Colossians 2:8, “Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.”
- The free will defence – argues that evil is the result of human error, which arises out of free will. However, if we didn’t have free will, we would just be a world of robots, so evil is just an unfortunate and unavoidable outcome of free will, and if God were to intervene he would remove our ability to choose.
- The Augustinian theodicy – Augustine proposed that God created everything good, and it was the result of Adam and Eve’s actions in the Garden of Eden that sin and the knowledge of sin entered into the world. Man’s disharmony with God leads to evil both in the natural world and in the way humans treat each other. God sustains a world in which evil occurs because of how valuable our free will is. Finally, he also said that the existence of evil has an aesthetic value, in that it highlights the goodness of God and his creation.
- The Irenaean theodicy – Irenaeus said that when God made people in his image and likeness, he had to give them free will so that they could make decisions of their own. He believed that God made us in his image (with free will), but we have to grow into his likeness, by developing and maturing through overcoming evil and temptation.
- Hick’s Irenaean theodicy – John Hick developed his own Irenaean approach to evil, and said that we have to spiritually mature before we can be in the likeness of God, and that we cannot be created in the direct presence of God or we would be so overwhelmed with his goodness that we would not have free will. He calls this an epistemic distance, a distance of knowledge. Therefore all evil exists to prove us and help us grow.
While these arguments do often contain elements of the truth, we will focus on what the Bible says about the existence of evil, rather than how men try to argue it, particularly as many of the world’s philosophers are often atheists.
Distinction between the saved and unsaved:
God sees a distinction between the saved and the unsaved. When we are born again and receive Christ, we become the sons of God, John 1:12, “But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name:”.
While it is true that God is loving and merciful, he does not love those who reject him in the same way that he loves his children. He does not owe any mercy or protection to those who deny he even exists. The unsaved are quick to blame God for evil, but they do not give him the recognition for the good he does, they just require something to blame.
God wishes for all people to come to the knowledge of the truth and be saved (1 Timothy 2:4), but he does not offer them all his mercy.
The Bible tells us that God is angry with the wicked.
Psalm 7:11, “God judgeth the righteous, and God is angry with the wicked every day.”
Psalm 5:5, “The foolish shall not stand in thy sight: thou hatest all workers of iniquity.”
God’s amazing promises of love, protection, mercy and so on, only extend to the saved.
Psalm 86:5, “For thou, LORD, art good, and ready to forgive; and plenteous in mercy unto all them that call upon thee.”
Proverbs 15:29, “The LORD is far from the wicked: but he heareth the prayer of the righteous.”
John 9:31, “Now we know that God heareth not sinners: but if any man be a worshipper of God, and doeth his will, him he heareth.”
1 Peter 3:12, “For the eyes of the Lord are over the righteous, and his ears are open unto their prayers: but the face of the Lord is against them that do evil.”
God offers his abundant mercy and blessings to those who believe on his name, and when we are born again we can claim these promises and know that he will take care of us.
For example, consider these Bible verses showing God’s promises and protection for the saved.
Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the LORD, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end.”
Romans 8:28, “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.”
1 Peter 3:13, “And who is he that will harm you, if ye be followers of that which is good?”
Romans 8:31, “What shall we then say to these things? If God be for us, who can be against us?”
Psalm 27:1-3, “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? the LORD is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? When the wicked, even mine enemies and my foes, came upon me to eat up my flesh, they stumbled and fell. Though an host should encamp against me, my heart shall not fear: though war should rise against me, in this will I be confident.”
Psalm 46:1, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”
Psalm 4:8, “I will both lay me down in peace, and sleep: for thou, LORD, only makest me dwell in safety.”
Proverbs 16:7, “When a man’s ways please the LORD, he maketh even his enemies to be at peace with him.”
Hebrews 13:5-6, “Let your conversation be without covetousness; and be content with such things as ye have: for he hath said, I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee. So that we may boldly say, The Lord is my helper, and I will not fear what man shall do unto me.”
Why do the saved suffer?
There are a number of reasons, for example:
- Suffering can be used to chastise or teach us.
The Bible teaches that as we are the sons of God when we get saved, God will chastise us and discipline us as a father does his son. If we are led astray or turn away from God, he will use chastisement and punishment to bring us back to the right path or help us to realise our mistakes.
Hebrews 12:5-7, “And ye have forgotten the exhortation which speaketh unto you as unto children, My son, despise not thou the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of him: For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth. If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not?”
Job 5:17, “Behold, happy is the man whom God correcteth: therefore despise not thou the chastening of the Almighty:”
Psalm 94:12, “Blessed is the man whom thou chastenest, O LORD, and teachest him out of thy law;”
God judges believers separate from the world, by chastening us while we are on earth.
Revelation 3:19, “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent.”
- Suffering can humble us.
God could use suffering to teach us to depend on him and wait for his perfect timing for events to happen, as well as teaching us obedience and increasing our faith.
Psalm 119:67, “Before I was afflicted I went astray: but now have I kept thy word.”
Psalm 27:14, “Wait on the LORD: be of good courage, and he shall strengthen thine heart: wait, I say, on the LORD.”
Romans 5:3, “And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience;”. Tribulations increase our patience.
- Suffering can prove or test us.
There are many examples of situations in the Bible where God allowed his people to suffer or be tested to prove their faith.
For example, Genesis 22:1-2, “And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am. And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.”
God tested Abraham by asking him to sacrifice his son Isaac, and Hebrews 11 tells us that Abraham did it by faith, “Accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead”.
Many people know of the suffering of Job in the Bible, and how he lost everything. However, he is a great example of staying close to God in times of need and knowing he will always bless you and bring glory from it.
God proved Job as Satan accused him before God that he would curse God to his own face but he never did after all he went through.
Job 1:9, “Then Satan answered the LORD, and said, Doth Job fear God for nought?”
Job 2:3-5, “And the LORD said unto Satan, Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil? and still he holdeth fast his integrity, although thou movedst me against him, to destroy him without cause. And Satan answered the LORD, and said, Skin for skin, yea, all that a man hath will he give for his life. But put forth thine hand now, and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse thee to thy face.”
Job 1:22 says, “In all this Job sinned not, nor charged God foolishly.”
In the final chapter of the book of Job, God rewards Job for his faith and patience, and it says, “So the LORD blessed the latter end of Job more than his beginning” and that “the LORD gave Job twice as much as he had before”.
We should try, as Job did, not to charge God foolishly, but have the spiritual discernment to know whether trials and tests come from God or if they are the wiles of the devil. The New Testament writers could see the difference, as in 1 Thessalonians 2:18 it says, “Wherefore we would have come unto you, even I Paul, once and again; but Satan hindered us.” In Acts 16:6 (speaking of a different event), it says, “Now when they had gone throughout Phrygia and the region of Galatia, and were forbidden of the Holy Ghost to preach the word in Asia,”. So they could discern between the actions of Satan and the Holy Ghost, and we should use similar knowledge to judge whether God is guiding us, or whether it is Satan’s manipulation.
If we stay faithful to God through times of suffering, he will always use it to create a good situation, and so that all things work together for good. For example, things we experience in our individual lives could give us a good witness to the unsaved so that we can show them God’s mercy. Or it can show them that we understand what they are going through, or help to increase our faith and bring us closer to God.
- Suffering can be as a result of persecution.
Finally, the Bible says in 2 Timothy 3:12, “Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution.”
When we strive to do what is right by God and live a godly life, we will be persecuted by unbelieving family members or friends, or at work and so on. This is not just some, but “all” that live godly in Christ.
Satan will try to devour us and bring us down, to stop us doing God’s service and will.
However, the Bible says that we should glory in this persecution, because we will be blessed for it.
Matthew 5:11-12, “Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.”
2 Corinthians 12:10, “Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.”
1 Peter 3:14, “But and if ye suffer for righteousness’ sake, happy are ye: and be not afraid of their terror, neither be troubled;”
Mark 10:29-30, “And Jesus answered and said, Verily I say unto you, There is no man that hath left house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my sake, and the gospel’s, But he shall receive an hundredfold now in this time, houses, and brethren, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands, with persecutions; and in the world to come eternal life.”
Psalm 34:19, “Many are the afflictions of the righteous: but the LORD delivereth him out of them all.”
1 Peter 5:10, “But the God of all grace, who hath called us unto his eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after that ye have suffered a while, make you perfect, stablish, strengthen, settle you.”
God will not force people to love him, obey him or believe in him. It has to be the result of free will. Our salvation and our love for God would be meaningless if we had no freedom to choose it and we were simply forced into it by not being able to decide.
He did not stop Adam and Eve eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, even though he knew it would happen. He did not bless Job immediately, he gave him time to show his faith and patience. He did not stop Abraham from sacrificing Isaac until Abraham had stretched forth his hand to kill him, showing that his mind was fully decided.
So because of this freedom and choice, we have to choose to accept God’s free gift of salvation and then inherit his mercy and blessings. The unsaved cannot expect any blessings of God until they accept the true gift of eternal life through Jesus Christ.
The majority of the world exercises their free will to disobey God and his commandments, but we know that God’s commandments are not grievous (1 John 5:3), they are carefully designed for our wellbeing and to help us live the best and most beneficial life we can.
Therefore, the natural consequence of breaking God’s law is suffering. Galatians 5:14 says, “For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” If love fulfils the law, breaking the law will cause the opposite of love.
Sin (breaking God’s law, 1 John 3:4), causes death, pain, suffering and evil. For example, consider David in 2 Samuel 11, he laid with a married woman and then caused the death of her husband Uriah when she became pregnant. Not only did Uriah die as a result of David’s sin, but also the child died too.
Much of the suffering that happens in our world is a result of disobedience to God’s law, for example, murder, rape, adultery, stealing and so on.
People often question why the innocent suffer, but there is no such thing as innocence. Romans 3:23 says, “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;”. Romans 3:10 says, “As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one:”. Anyone who suffers pain or affliction is not innocent, they have all lied or stolen or blasphemed, or broken God’s law in some way. They are just as guilty for their sin, and as God is a perfect judge he cannot leave any sin unpunished.
However, this may not explain natural disasters, such as floods, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, etc. The best explanation for these is that it is often God’s judgement on a godless nation or on wicked people. God may often pour his anger out on the wicked using nature, for example Noah’s flood.
If it is not from God, it can often just be a natural action/reaction from living in an imperfect world where sin abounds. Romans 8:22, “For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now.” We live in a broken world awaiting redemption.
Usually, God reserves his punishment for the unsaved until after death. Being sent to hell is the result of rejecting God, where the unsaved are punished for eternity.
While evil people often do not seem to suffer on this earth, but even prosper (for example, Psalm 13:2, “…how long shall mine enemy be exalted over me?”, and Psalm 73:3, “For I was envious at the foolish, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.”), their day of judgement will come and they will pay to God, the righteous judge, for what they have done, and will be punished (Hebrews 9:27, “And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgement:”).
Nahum 1:2-3 says, “God is jealous, and the LORD revengeth; the LORD revengeth, and is furious; the LORD will take vengeance on his adversaries, and he reserveth wrath for his enemies. The LORD is slow to anger, and great in power, and will not at all acquit the wicked: the LORD hath his way in the whirlwind and in the storm, and the clouds are the dust of his feet.”
Romans 12:19, “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.”
Finally, if the unsaved experience evil, it is possible that good can come out of it. During tragedy, many people think to turn to God for prayer or help, and there is the possibility they could get saved from it.
It can also teach the difference between good and evil, and show the existence of evil and the need for a good God and a saviour. We should see the suffering around us and treat others how we would want them to treat us, its good to go through struggles to have a stronger personal understanding to others who we see suffer.
Experiencing physical pain is beneficial to us to learn to stay away from anything that causes harm and not to repeat those same experiences.
One of the most important aspects of the gospel is the need to see our sin and that we have a debt to pay because of it. Sinning and experiencing evil can help people to see they are lost and humble them so they are more open to salvation.
God himself suffered:
Furthermore, one important consideration is that God is not ignorant of suffering. He himself was manifested in the flesh as Jesus Christ and experienced intense suffering, shaming, betrayal, rejection, humiliation and so on, as a man. Not only is he fully aware of pain and suffering as he went through it himself, but also the reason he did this was because of his love for the whole world.
Romans 5:8, “But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
1 John 4:9, “In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him.”
So God manifested the ultimate love towards us by coming to earth, dying on the cross and being resurrected on the third day, to pay the debt for our sin for us and to give us eternal life. Rather than sorting out individual problems and issues in everybody’s lives, he gives them the free gift (Romans 6:23) of eternal life which is a long-term fix for our problems, as we have the blessed hope (Titus 2:13) and can be assured we are going to heaven when we die. This is much more valuable than any temporal happiness we can have while on earth.
As the verses show, for example Romans 5:8, Christ died for us “while we were yet sinners”. So God does love the unsaved and wishes for them to be saved and become his sons, but his love is different for them in that he does not offer them mercy and guidance in this life.
He paid the ultimate sacrifice by sending his only begotten Son to die, and if they reject this he does not owe them anything. John 3:36, “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him.” His wrath abides on them.
2 Peter 3:9, “The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.”
God does not want any person to perish, but he is angry with the wicked, so he gives them over to their own lusts and allows them to continue in their sin until their day of judgement.
In conclusion, suffering can be a result of being unsaved and due to the sins of the world, as well as being separate from God. God can cause earthly suffering to execute his judgement, but whether people appear to suffer on this earth or not, if they are unsaved they will suffer throughout all eternity.
For the saved, suffering can be allowed for a range of reasons, for example chastisement, teaching, strengthening or persecution from the world.
Evil is often fantasised as a ‘good versus evil’ battle, but the reality is that God holds all the power. Everything that occurs to us in our lives is the will of God and part of his plan, and only happens because he permits it.
Skeptics are often quick to question God’s existence because of evil. A more important consideration should be, if God does not exist, why does evil? If God does not exist, we have no comfort for our suffering, we have no assurance of heaven after death, we only have the pain we all experience in this world. There would still be no explanation for evil. But if we accept the existence of God, we can understand the reasons why we suffer and pray earnestly to God for his mercy.
Finally, regardless of our suffering in this present world, we know that one day if will all be over. At the end of all things, all evil, death and hell will be thrown into the lake of fire and gone forever.
Revelation 21:4-8, “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And he said unto me, Write: for these words are true and faithful. And he said unto me, It is done. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely. He that overcometh shall inherit all things; and I will be his God, and he shall be my son. But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death.”
Other passages in the New Testament also speak of looking forward to be comforted. We should take our eyes off this world and set our affection on things above, look to the next world. For example, Romans 8:18, “For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.”
1 Cor 2:9, “But as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.”
One day our tears shall be wiped away, and we will no longer have death, sorrow, crying or pain. We will see the glorious things God has prepared for us, and the sufferings of this present time will be forgotten.