When it comes to God’s greater purposes for suffering, we do not always know His reasons. But not having all the answers doesn’t mean we should fear questions.
Last time in Part One, we talked about using the Bible to encourage and strengthen people who feel dismayed by the sight of “bad things happening to good people.” But there are many who won’t accept that counsel.
After all, it’s one thing to bring Scripture to bear pastorally on the heart needs of believers, and quite another to face the barbs of critics who raise the question of evil rhetorically, as a challenge to the faith.
These folks say that the Christian’s claims of an all-powerful and all-good God are incompatible with each other: God is either bad for not stopping “pointless” evil or weak for failing to do so when He tries. Bible references don’t impress them, so we might try a different approach.
Ways to Answer
Let’s first take a look at the two most popular responses Christians offer:
1. The free-will defense. Autonomy has consequences. When the German people decided to give Hitler power and he encouraged them to persecute Jews, terrible things happened. Likewise, when a fellow decides to get behind the wheel after drinking, he may very well drive into the car of a family headed to church. Examples abound, including the case of Adam and Eve, whose disobedience had catastrophic consequences for us all.
To avoid such problems, God could have made us robots, driven by circuitry instead of values, judgments, and emotions. But He desires fellowship with humans, not animatronic devices.
2. Soul-making theodicy. Essentially, it espouses that ours is precisely the sort of world needed to bring about the development of virtue in people. After all, you can’t grow morally without personal trials. As some put it, you need first-order evils to foster second-order goods, like patience, courage, or charity.
A man I once knew at church ran a towing service and was known to offer kickbacks to police who called from an accident scene. One day, while he was loading a tractor on a trailer, it slid off the ramp. He was pinned underneath and engulfed in flames when the gas cap came off. He now testifies that in his year of recovery from third-degree burns, he found the Lord and thanks God for allowing the event. Through that time of sequestration and suffering, his soul was being “made.”
The Ensuing Conversation
When skeptics hear these responses, they meet them with fresh questions. Here are four common ones:
1. Natural disasters. While the free-will defense covers robberies, murders, and other human offenses, it doesn’t quite so easily account for earthquakes, droughts, and tsunamis. The sea and sky didn’t choose to start them; no free will there. So they argue that God must be culpable. Of course, Adam’s race can take the blame for the discombobulation of the earth, but to answer this charge, we must return to the purpose of the curse: the redemption of creation (Rom. 8:18-23). Remember, everything God allows—every storm and seismic shift—is designed to accomplish that shining purpose.
2. Gratuitous evil. To those who say that it all works out for the good, skeptics might cite the example of a deer caught in a cruel trap in the woods. She dies a tortured death. What possible use could this serve? They ask, How would God diminish His universe in the slightest by freeing the fawn? Skeptics claim that if there is even one instance of wasted suffering, then God—who could have prevented it—is less than perfect. Among the responses is the challenge to construct a better system, one in which the laws of physics—of life and death—are suspended whenever animals are concerned. Besides, who knows what lingering, miserable death the creature would eventually die.
It’s fair here to put the burden of proof back on the critic. Ask why this occurrence is utterly pointless. Just because we can’t specify the exact reason for pain, that doesn’t mean there isn’t one.
3. Hell. While the redeemed may grow through adversity, there is no remediation in hell, where the majority of people on earth—who take the “broad way”—spend eternity. So how could God create a world, knowing that most would suffer forever? After all, the Bible says the road to heaven is narrow, with relatively few taking it, while the one to hell is wide and well traveled (Matt. 7:13-14).
One way I respond is to say that God is making diamonds, not mushrooms, and it takes heat and pressure to do the job, with much of that coming from non-believers as their sin manifests itself in persecution, indifference, and dissipation. Also, we can think of history as a drama, where the splendor of redemption and sanctification is played out in stunning fashion against a backdrop of pervasive and daunting wickedness.
4. The Canaanite Genocide. Some critics know enough of the Bible to try to enlist it in debunking the faith. Faced with accounts of God’s command to kill everyone in Jericho (see Josh. 6), philosophers go in a number of directions. Some simply deny that God would order such a thing, but this dismisses the inerrancy of the Word. Others say that the parents deserved it and the children who were slain were spared judgment. Neither of these assertions is supported in the Bible; God did not see fit to provide us with a clear reason for His command.
While we can never fully understand it this side of eternity, we can know that God has His good purposes. What can be shocking at first can make sense when we have all the background. For instance, some life-saving medical procedures (to prevent breast cancer, for example) can seem overwrought, even horrifying, but we trust the doctors. How much more should we trust the Great Physician?
Yes, skeptics have their arguments, but we have answers. So do not be intimidated. And remember the greatest help in times of trouble is the Lord—His perfection is clear to His people, who see evidence of divine blessing and splendor everywhere.
by Mark Coppenger