Since Evil and Suffering Exist, a Good God Cannot
On Monday, September 10, 2001, the top story on the Chicago nightly news was the possibility that Michael Jordan might make a comeback. Every local station opened the newscast with the report that MJ had been working out and had promised to hold a press conference later in the week. Watching the news, you would have thought the only issue worth worrying about was whether Bulls fans could handle it if MJ came back to the game wearing a Wizards uniform.
On Tuesday, September 11, 2001, no one was thinking about basketball.
Because on Tuesday, September 11, terrorists hijacked two airliners and crashed the planes-with their civilian passengers-into the World Trade Towers in New York City. Another hijacked plane struck the Pentagon, while a fourth was prevented from hitting its intended target and went down outside Pittsburgh.
Thousands of Americans watched, horrified, as live TV coverage showed people leaping out of seventieth-story windows of the World Trade Towers to escape the searing flames inside. One man and woman were holding hands.
At 9:50 A.M., one tower collapsed straight down and vanished in a cloud of smoke and dust. It looked like something out of the movie Independence Day. The second tower collapsed forty minutes later. Dust and soot piled up in the streets around the trade center-burying bodies of the dead and dying. According to one Emergency Medical Service worker, "A lot of the vehicles are running over bodies because they are all over the place."
"Today, our nation saw evil," President George W. Bush said in an address to the nation that terrible Tuesday night.
WHERE IS GOD?
If there is a loving God in control of the world, how do you make sense out of the kind of evil and suffering that the world saw on September 11, 2001? Where is God when terrorist hijackers force their way into an airplane cockpit? Where is God when thousands of people are killed, and their families-including orphaned children-are left grieving?
If God is loving, all-powerful, and good, then it seems as if evil and suffering should not exist. After all, if God is all-powerful, then he should be able to prevent suffering. If he chooses not to, then how can he be considered good? For many people, that's one of the biggest objections to the Christian faith. Doesn't the very existence of such awful suffering prove that there is no such thing as a good, all-powerful God?
NO EASY ANSWERS
When I began my search for the answer to that question, the terrorist attacks hadn't yet occurred. But I had seen plenty of suffering as a journalist. What's more, my wife, Leslie, was facing the issue personally. Her uncle had just died, and her aunt had been diagnosed with both Alzheimer's disease and terminal cancer. Rocked by those experiences, Leslie was suspicious of anyone who might try to give easy answers.
"If someone thinks he can wrap everything up in a neat little package and put a fancy theological bow on it," she warned me, "go somewhere else."
I couldn't give you those answers in a neat little package even if I wanted to, because I don't have all the answers. I'm not sure anyone does. But what I can do is tell you the story of my struggle to make sense out of suffering. You can decide for yourself whether it makes sense to you.
IS IT GOD'S FAULT?
I decided to talk to a philosopher named Peter Kreeft about the problem of evil. I'd read some of Peter's books, and I knew he was smart and funny-and honest. I hoped he was also thick-skinned, because I planned to ask him some hard questions that might sound a little offensive to someone who believes in God.
I started at the beginning: "If there is a God, why didn't he make a world where people didn't hurt each other?"
Peter answered, "He did." At least, he added, that's what the Bible said things were like at the outset of human history.
(I have to say right here that I didn't always believe that the Bible was true. If that's the case for you, read the box "Can You Believe the Bible?")
"If God didn't create evil," I said, "then where did evil come from?"
"Once God chose to create human beings with free choice," Peter explained, "then it was up to them, rather than to God, whether there was evil or not. That's what free choice means. Built into the situation of God deciding to create human beings is the chance of evil and the suffering that results."
"Then why didn't God create human beings who were unable to choose to hate, or destroy, or to do all the other things that cause pain and suffering?" I pursued. "Why didn't he create people capable only of being kind and loving?"
"Think of it this way," Peter suggested. "If you push a button on one of those talking Barbie dolls, and it says, `I love you,' how meaningful is that? If `love' or `goodness' is something programmed into you, something you have no choice about, is it really love? Real love must involve a choice."
Thinking about my own relationships, what Peter said made sense.
"God gave people free choice because that's the only way they could experience love, which is the greatest value in the universe," Peter continued, "but then humans abused their freedom of choice by rejecting God and walking away from him. And that's how human suffering came into the world."
As a philosopher, Peter had some things to say about "moral evil" and "natural evil"-you can read about that in the box "Droughts and Drive-bys" if you're interested. But I wanted to get back to the main issue.
"So by creating people with choices, God in effect did create evil," I persisted.
"God did not create evil and suffering," Peter said firmly. "Now, it's true that he did create the potential for evil to enter the world, because that was the only way to create the potential for authentic love. But it was human beings, with our free choice, who brought that potential into reality."
"But if God is God, couldn't he have known what would happen?" I asked. "Couldn't he have anticipated the consequences of giving people free choice?"
"No doubt he did," Peter agreed. "But let me ask you a question: When you start a new relationship-whether it's a friendship or a relationship that might possibly lead to falling in love-can you foresee the possibility that the other person may sometime disappoint you or hurt you or even walk away from you completely?"
"So why do you ever make friends or start relationships?" Peter asked.
"I guess it's because it's worth the risk," I said slowly. "Having good friends, and all the wonderful things about being in love with my wife-that more than makes up for the risk of getting hurt."
"I think it's the same with God," Peter said. "He knew we'd rebel against him, but he also knew many people would choose to follow him. It must be worth it to him, because he not only created us with free choice, but he even created the way to bring us back to him after we rebel-through the suffering of his Son Jesus."
WHY DOESN'T GOD WIPE OUT
Peter had given me a lot to consider about where suffering comes from. But I wasn't about to let him-or God-off the hook yet.
"Even if God didn't cause suffering in the first place," I said, "why doesn't he put a stop to it now? If I sat and did nothing while my child got run over by a truck, I would be a bad father. When God sits by and refuses to perform miracles to keep people safe from even worse dangers than being hit by a truck, isn't he a bad God?"
"It looks like he is," Peter agreed. "But the fact that God deliberately allows certain things, which if we allowed them would turn us into monsters, doesn't necessarily count against God."
I couldn't see his reasoning. "You'll have to explain," I said.
"Okay," he replied. "If I said to my brother, `I could bail you out of a problem but I won't,' I would probably be irresponsible and perhaps wicked. But we do that with children all the time. We don't do their homework for them. We don't put a bubble around them and protect them from every hurt.
"I remember when one of my daughters was trying to thread a needle in Brownies. It was very difficult for her. Every time she tried, she hit herself in the finger and a couple of times she bled. I was watching her but she didn't see me. My first instinct was to go and do it for her, but I said to myself, She can do it. After about five minutes she finally did it. I came out of hiding and she said, `Daddy, Daddy-look what I did!' She was so proud she had threaded the needle that she had forgotten all about the pain.
"That time pain was a good thing for her. I was wise enough to have foreseen it was good for her. Now, certainly God is much wiser than I was with my daughter. So it's at least possible that God is wise enough to foresee that we need some pain for reasons which we may not understand but which he foresees as being necessary to some eventual good. Therefore he's not being evil by allowing that pain to exist."
A Bear, a Hunter, and God
I could understand that if there was a God, his infinite wisdom would be much greater than our finite knowledge. But I needed more help in grasping how that affects suffering. When I mentioned this to Peter, he responded with a story.
"Imagine you're walking in the woods and come across a bear with his leg in a trap. You want to help him, but he thinks you're out to get him, so he fights you every time you get close. Finally, you shoot him with a tranquilizer gun. Now he really thinks you're out to hurt him!
"Then, to get his leg out of the trap, you first have to push it deeper into the trap to release the tension on the spring. If the bear were still semiconscious, he would be even more convinced you were out to hurt him. But he would be wrong! He can see the situation only from his limited perspective, so he wonders, Why are you making me suffer?"
Peter let the story sink in for a moment. "Now," he concluded, "how can you be sure it's not like that with us and God? I believe God does the same to us sometimes, and we can't understand why he does it any more than the bear could understand what you were doing. As the bear could have trusted you, so we can trust God."
What if it's true that you can trust God the way that bear could trust me? How could God be using your pain and suffering to help you? I talked with a lot of people about their experiences with suffering, and some of the same themes kept coming up-themes they found echoed in what the Bible says about suffering.
Ask champion athletes whether they simply floated to the top of their sport or whether instead their training involved teeth-gritting sacrifice and suffering. They'll tell you, "No pain, no gain." They probably wouldn't go so far as to say the pain was good in itself, but something good definitely resulted from it.
Just as a grueling workout helps an athlete build stamina and strength, difficult life experiences can shape a person's character to make him or her a winner in some other way. The Bible describes it like this: "We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope" (Romans 5:3).
I saw a real-life example of that in a guy in his mid-twenties named Craig. Craig really knows how to reach out to and help hurting teenagers. He mentioned that the best preparation he had for his work was going through his own broken engagement. Do you think that was suffering for him? If you've ever experienced a broken relationship, you know it was! Do you think he "rejoiced" in it? Not at the time, I'm sure! But can you imagine going through a breakup yourself and wanting someone to talk to about it? Who would you rather talk to: someone who has never felt that pain or someone who knows just what you're going through?
If you could ask Craig whether God can use painful experiences to strengthen him, what do you think he would say? (By the way, Craig just celebrated his second month of marriage to a woman who appreciates the strength Craig developed in that other, painful relationship.)
Some people point to pain as an experience that redirects them. A woman I work with has a brother-in-law with Down's syndrome. For some reason, the connections that convey the message of pain through the nervous system don't work very well for him. He could rest his hand on the red-hot burner of an electric stove and not notice it until he was severely burned. If you or I did that, the pain we feel would make us snatch our hand back in a second. Physical pain protects you and me from something worse.
The Bible compares it to parental discipline: "Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it" (Hebrews 12:10-11).
That happened in a dramatic way in the life of a friend named Terry. He was going down the path of drug addiction and stealing, and it took the pain of a barroom brawl that knocked his teeth out, being robbed while he was stoned, and finally landing in prison to show him that crime and addiction are a dead-end road. In prison, he has committed himself to turning his life around.
I see it in less dramatic ways in my own life. Like the time I joined in on some thoughtless, unkind talk behind someone's back-and it turned out the person was right around the corner, hearing everything I said. I don't think I'll ever forget how miserable and embarrassed and sorry I felt-in fact, I hope I never do forget, because it was the kind of miserable feeling that made me realize I never wanted to do that again. The pain of that experience showed me some corrections I needed to make in my own behavior.
Let me emphasize, though, that the idea of God using pain to enable us to make midcourse corrections in our lives works better for understanding pain in my own life than for understanding pain in someone else's. If I tell someone, "God is letting you suffer because you've been going in the wrong direction," that's pretty much like saying, "It's your own fault you're suffering," When I hear people talking as if they can read God's mind about why a person is suffering, I cringe.