Chapter Summary Excerpts from
If God Is Good: Faith in the Midst of Suffering and Evil
by Randy Alcorn
Understanding the Problem of Evil and Suffering
Chapter One: Why is the Problem of Evil and Suffering So Important?
More people point to the problem of evil and suffering as their reason for not believing in God than any other—it is not merely a problem, it is the problem. You will not get far in a conversation with someone who rejects the Christian faith before the problem of evil is raised. Pulled out like the ultimate trump card, it’s supposed to silence believers and prove that the all-good and all-powerful God of the Bible doesn’t exist.
Suffering and evil exert a force that either pushes us away from God or pulls us toward him. If you base your faith on lack of affliction, your faith lives on the brink of extinction and will fall apart because of a frightening diagnosis or a shattering phone call. Token faith will not survive suffering, nor should it.
Chapter Two: What is the Problem of Evil and Suffering?
If God is all-good, then he would want to prevent evil and suffering. If he is all-knowing, then he would know how to prevent it. If God is all-powerful, then he is able to prevent it. And yet…a great deal of evil and suffering exists. Why?
The problem of evil has found a prominent voice in what may seem the most unlikely place…the Bible. No other book asks so bluntly, passionately, and frequently why God permits evil and why evil people sometimes thrive while the righteous suffer. Barely have the first two chapters of the Bible described the original creation, saying, “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good” before a terrible shadow falls—evil and suffering burst into the world.
Chapter Three: What is Evil and How Does it Differ from Suffering?
Evil, in its essence, refuses to accept God as God and puts someone or something else in his place. The Bible uses the word evil to describe anything that violates God’s moral will. The first human evil occurred when Eve and Adam disobeyed God. From that original sin—a moral evil—came the consequence of suffering. Although suffering results from moral evil, it is distinguishable from it, just as an injury caused by drunken driving isn’t synonymous with the offense.
Chapter Four: What are Some Possible Responses to the Problem of Evil and Suffering?
Besides the irrational solution that evil and suffering do not exist, and the atheistic solution that God does not exist, the most popular ways of addressing the problem of evil minimize one or more of God’s attributes, especially his power, knowledge, or goodness. In contrast, the Bible never shrinks God but always magnifies him.
To glorify and magnify God is not to make more of him than he is; that’s impossible. Rather, it’s to affirm his greatness, attempting to do justice to his infinite majesty and power and wisdom and love, even though inevitably we’ll fall short.
To address good and evil without gazing upon God is fruitless. Good flows from the life connected to God. Evil flows from the life alienated from God.
Chapter Five: A Closer Look at Central Issues in the Problem of Evil
Believers share common ground with unbelievers. We feel mutual horror at the reality, depth, and duration of human and animal suffering. We share a conviction that this kind of pain is terribly wrong and that it should be made right. In this way, evil and suffering serve as a bridge to the biblical account and its promise of redemption.
Paul insists that our sufferings will result in our greater good—God’s people will be better off eternally because they suffer temporarily. From Paul’s perspective, this trade-off will in eternity prove to be a great bargain.
In fact, the argument for the greater good may be the strongest biblical case for God permitting evil and suffering. However, it requires trust, since the promised greater good is future…If Paul is right, then by eliminating temporary evil and suffering, God would also eliminate eternal good.
Understanding Evil: Its Origins, Nature, and Consequences
Chapter Six: Evil’s Entry into the Universe: A Rebellion of Angels
Scripture addresses when evil came into being, but not how…God has chosen to remain silent on this question, which may mean something significant. If evil is irrational, how can its point of origin be rationally explained? Perhaps God does not offer any explanation because evil defies explanation. It might make sense to an all-knowing God but no sense at all to us.
In cultures where everyone realizes there’s a supernatural world, demons make themselves known as false gods to intimidate people, demanding worship and exacting retribution. In modern Western cultures where people routinely deny the supernatural, demons often accomplish their purposes more effectively by flying under the radar and working covertly. If we had eyes to see, we’d realize that all around us, fallen humans become the unwitting tools of evil spirits, harming themselves and others, and living wretched lives, sometimes quietly under the facade of social respectability.
Chapter Seven: Humanity’s Evil and the Suffering it Has Caused
Somehow, as the first human couple weighed their alternatives, evil entered their hearts. Adam and Eve rebelled, choosing to violate God’s explicit command. They trusted a fallen creature’s logic, rather than their Creator’s goodness, when he’d given them no reason to doubt him. They ate, the curse fell on them, their pain greatly increased, the earth became a world of hurt, and they forfeited paradise.
A just and merciful God chose a measured punishment for the first human sin: suffering. Had God meted out the full and immediate punishment, the first humans would have died on the spot (see Romans 6:23). In that case, there would have been no redemptive history—no human history at all.
The history of the human race, in every culture and time, demonstrates the dire consequences of living life as we prefer rather than as God commands.
Chapter Eight: Inherited Sin and Our Sin Nature
The sin nature refers to our fallen state that distrusts, dishonors, and rejects God.
The sin nature compels us to love ourselves. In our reckless pursuit of self-gratification, we impose upon ourselves gnawing emptiness rather than the joy and contentment that comes in loving God and others.
Though we naturally resist the biblical revelation about our sin natures, we find freedom when we recognize its reality.
To view evil accurately, we must see it above all as an outrageous offense against God.
We tend to minimize our sin because we fail to see its real object… because we do not see God and see how our sin hurts him, we don’t see either the frequency or the gravity of our offenses. We imagine our sin has no effect on him.
We couldn’t be more wrong.
Chapter Nine: A Deeper Consideration of What Our Sin Nature Does and Doesn’t Mean
Apart from Christ…I am Osama bin Laden. I am Hitler. Only by the virtue of Christ can I stand forgiven before a holy God. This isn’t hyperbole; it’s biblical truth. Unless we come to grips with the fact that we’re of precisely the same stock as…Stalin and Mao, we’ll never get over thinking that we deserve better. Evil done to us will offend us, and having to suffer will outrage us. We’ll never appreciate Christ’s grace so long as we hold on to the proud illusion that we’re better than we are. We flatter ourselves when we look at evil acts and say, “I would never do that.” Given our evil natures and a similar background, resources, and opportunities, we would.
Chapter Ten: Natural Disasters: Creation Under the Curse of Human Evil
Earthquakes and tsunamis are not moral agents and therefore cannot be morally evil. A tidal wave is not malicious—water cannot have malice any more than it can have kindness.
The best answer to the question “Why would God create a world with natural disasters?” is that he didn’t. Many experts believe the world’s atmosphere originally acted like an umbrella, protecting its inhabitants from harm. But now the umbrella has holes in it, sometimes protecting us, sometimes not. While Barbara Ehrenreich blames God for death and disaster, Scripture blames human evil for the cataclysmic Fall and consequent distortion of a once-perfect world (see Romans 8:18–22).
People who have survived disasters often say they understand on a far deeper level the biblical truth that this world as it now is—under the Curse—is not our home.
Problems for Non-Theists: Moral Standards, Goodness, and Extreme Evil
Chapter Eleven: A Case Study: Bart Ehrman, a “Christian” Who Lost His Faith
Even Christians who do not outright reject their faith may quietly lose confidence and commitment because of their struggle with this issue. Christian students in every university, including Christian ones, face frequent, impassioned arguments against biblical teachings, whether from professors, fellow students, or textbooks. Knowing a few Bible stories proves insufficient when facing an issue of the magnitude of evil and suffering.
We all trust something. When we abandon trust in God’s revelation, we replace it with trust in our own feelings, opinions, and preferences, or those of our friends and teachers—all of which can drift with popular culture, including academic culture.
Ehrman’s story should challenge us to come to the problem of evil and suffering with a Christian worldview rooted in a well-informed belief in the reliability and authority of God’s Word. If we vacillate on that conviction, we will first reinterpret the Bible, then outright reject it.
Chapter Twelve: Non-Theistic Worldviews Lack a Substantial Basis for Condemning Evil
I have talked with individuals whose ethics have evolved over time, who now believe that any consensual sex between adults is moral. Adultery is consensual sex. So is it moral? Well, yes, some convince themselves, so long as they commit adultery with a person they genuinely love. But how moral is this same adultery in the eyes of the betrayed spouse?
Choosing moral behaviors because they make you feel happy can make sense, in a Bertrand Russell/Sam Harris sort of way, but what if it makes you feel happy to torture animals or kill Jews or steal from your employer?
Such hopeless subjectivity is no moral framework at all…if there is no God who has revealed his standards and no God who informs our consciences—then surely any morality we forge on our own will ultimately amount to a mirror image of our own subjective opinions.
Chapter Thirteen: The Unbeliever’s Problem of Goodness
From a non-theistic viewpoint, what is evil? Isn’t it just nature at work? In a strictly natural, physical world, shouldn’t everything be neither good nor evil? Good and evil imply an “ought” and an “ought not” that nature is incapable of producing.
We have no logical reason to take good for granted; its existence demands an explanation. Setting aside the issues of …how life can come from nonlife, great goodness and nobility pose a serious problem: why would we expect to find such goodness in a world that came about through blind force, time, and chance?
The atheist who points out the horrors of evil unwittingly testifies to good as the norm. When we speak of children dying, we acknowledge they usually don’t. When a natural disaster hits, 99 percent of the world remains untouched. Though fallen, nature still contains more beauty than ugliness.
Chapter Fourteen: The Unbeliever’s Problem of Extreme Evil
The atheistic worldview simply cannot account for superhuman evil. Death, yes; suffering, yes. But calculated, relentless, exhausting brutality toward the weak and innocent? The death camps? The Nazi doctors? The Killing Fields?
Why commit evil just for evil’s sake, or why take pleasure in inflicting suffering? All pragmatic, naturalistic, and evolutionary explanations of such evil prove inadequate.
The Bible, on the other hand, speaks of an unseen realm full of powerful spirit beings that project their cruel and malignant thoughts and wills on humans. These beings, far more powerful than human beings, also exceed humans in their evil. These malevolent beings push us to expand our evil beyond the boundaries of what could be expected even of fallen humans.
No naturalistic worldview can explain extreme evil. Since non-theists believe in nothing outside of the visible realm, they must explain such evils on the basis of human perversity alone.
Proposed Solutions to the Problem of Evil and Suffering
Chapter Fifteen: Is God’s Limited Power a Solution?
If God lacks power, his good intentions are inadequate. Probably you already have friends who can’t control the universe. Do you really need another one, named “God”?
Those who believe in a God of limited power might respond, “It isn’t that God can’t do anything, just that he can’t do everything.” But what can he do? If God is doing the best he can, then he doesn’t permit evil and suffering, rather he is overtaken by them, since he can’t stop them. Why frustrate God with prayers he can’t answer, since if he could, he already would have?
Limiting God may appear to get him off the hook for life’s difficulties. It might make us feel warmer toward him. But this is a god of man’s invention, not the God revealed in Scripture.
Chapter Sixteen: Is God’s Limited Knowledge a Solution?
A loving God took a calculated risk, open theists suggest, but had he known the horrible things that would occur—the rapes and killings and tortures and abuse—he might never have created this world as he did. Hence, proponents of open theism argue, God cannot be held responsible for his creatures’ evil, since he could not foresee it.
Open theists suppose we should find comfort in believing God has not ordained our suffering from eternity past. I find it easier to trust a God who has known all along and planned how he will use the tragedy for his glory and our good, than one who just found out about it but chose not to stop it anyway.
Open theism is not only biblically wrong; it’s a shallow answer to the problem of evil.
Chapter Seventeen: Is God’s Limited Goodness a Solution?
A good man does not knowingly allow his neighbor to beat his child. If he had all power, he would not only stop the man from beating the child, he would not allow him to begin beating the child in the first place. Such an appraisal is completely apt regarding humans.
But we err in judging God by our standards.
We can envision a dog recognizing his master as good when he feeds and walks him, but questioning his goodness when he doesn’t let him have a Hershey bar. He might even write a book (Dog’s Problem?) or go on the lecture circuit telling everyone why his master isn’t good.
The existence of evil does not contradict God’s goodness, since God can ultimately use evil to bring about a greater good.
Chapter Eighteen: Is God’s Limited Love a Solution?
While few critics make a philosophical argument that God lacks love, many, when personally facing evil and suffering, interpret the terrible things happening to them to mean that God doesn’t love them after all. Doubt about their salvation may grip them, causing despair.
God’s attributes, while varied, work together in complete harmony. If in our eyes his holiness contradicts his love and his justice conflicts with his mercy, then that is our problem, not his. The almighty God who created us is the same holy God who condemned us as sinners and the same loving God who went to extraordinary lengths that we might go to Heaven. God’s self-consistency demands the simultaneous and full expression of his holiness, his love, and all his other attributes.
Evil and Suffering in the Great Drama of Christ’s Redemptive Work
Chapter Nineteen: Evil and Suffering as Seen in Scripture’s Redemptive Story
God’s redemptive plan was not an ad-lib response to unanticipated events. From before the very beginning, God knew the very worst. And the very best it would one day bring.
God wrote the script of the unfolding drama of redemption long before Satan, demons, Adam and Eve—and you and I—took the stage. And from the beginning, he knew that the utterly spectacular end would make the dark middle worth it.
You may feel your choices have been reduced to whether you want Jell-O, or a window opened, or an extra blanket. On the contrary, your choice of whether you will trust God and worship him today reverberates throughout the universe, honoring or dishonoring your God. It also has enormous implications for eternal rewards God promises us in the next life.
Chapter Twenty: If You Were the Author, How Would You have Written the Story?
As a member of the real-life story’s cast, you might wish for a world untouched by evil and suffering. That’s understandable, because life is hard as the story unfolds; and it will be hard until it culminates or you leave the stage, having played your part.
But if you sat in the audience, which story would you prefer to watch? And if you wrote the story, which version would you prefer to write? And even as a cast member, having endured such difficulty, ten thousand years from now at the ongoing cast party in honor of the Writer and Director, when grand tales make the rounds at dinner tables on the New Earth—which story do you think you would cast your vote for?
“All’s well that ends well” is a cliché, but there’s truth in it. There’s no substitute for a happy ending.
Chapter Twenty-one: Jesus: The Only Answer Bigger than the Questions
The Cross is God’s answer to the question “Why don’t you do something about evil?”
But what if God did do something about it? What if what he did was so great and unprecedented that it shook the angelic realm’s foundation, and ripped in half, from the top down, not only the temple curtain but the fabric of the universe itself?
A powerful moment in the movie The Passion of the Christ occurs when Jesus, overwhelmed with pain and exhaustion, lies on the ground as guards kick, mock, and spit on him. A horrified woman, her hand outstretched, pleads, “Someone, stop this!”
The great irony is that “Someone,” God’s Son, was doing something unspeakably great that required it not be stopped.
Had someone delivered Jesus from his suffering that day, he could not now deliver us from ours.
Divine Sovereignty and Meaningful Human Choice: Accounting for Evil and Suffering
Chapter Twenty-two: God’s Sovereignty and Its Reach
God didn’t devise his redemptive plan on the fly. Evil didn’t take him by surprise. God isn’t the author of evil, but he is the author of a story that includes evil. He intended from the beginning to permit evil, then to turn evil on its head, to take what evil angels and evil people intended for evil and use it for good. In the face of the lowest evil, God intended to show his highest good.
It is possible to plan for something you know is coming without forcing that thing to happen. God didn’t force Adam and Eve to do evil, but he did create them with freedom and permitted Satan’s presence in the garden, knowing they would choose evil and knowing that what he would do in his redemptive plan would serve a greater good.
Chapter Twenty-three: “Free Will” and Meaningful Choice
God is intelligent, creative, communicative, and free to choose. To be made in his likeness likely includes having these attributes, though on a finite level. We think because he thinks, we speak because he speaks, we create because he creates, and we choose because he chooses. These things all come from God and comprise part of what it means to be human.
God sovereignly created angels and human beings and gave them freedom to choose. He knew what choices angels and humans would make under what circumstances. While he could have intervened to stop them from sinning, he wanted them to choose freely, not under constraint. Furthermore, he planned to use the evil and suffering he foresaw to reveal himself in Christ and his redemptive plan.
Chapter Twenty-four: This World’s Structure is Necessary for Meaningful Choice
Meaningful choice requires a cause-and-effect system in which choices generate consequences.
I’ve heard people argue that a good and all-powerful God should miraculously intervene every time someone intends to do harm.
If God disarmed every shooter and prevented every drunk driver from crashing, this would not be a real world in which people make consequential choices. It would not be a world of character development and faith building. It would not be a world where families put their arms around one another to face life’s difficulties. It would be a world where people went blithely along with their lives, content to do evil and put up with it, feeling no need to turn to God, no incentive to consider the gospel and prepare for eternity. In such a world, people would die without a sense of need, only to find themselves in Hell.
Chapter Twenty-five: Meaningful Human Choice and Divine Sovereignty Working Together
Our problem is both our unwillingness to understand and our incapacity to turn our wills toward God. Once we grasp the depths of this problem, we will fully appreciate the wonders of his grace. Without that insight, we might imagine ourselves in Heaven congratulating one another that we had the savvy and strength of will to turn to Christ. But God leaves no room for such boasting.
God’s amazing grace doesn’t end at our conversion. Even the regenerated human will depends upon the divine will to live as it should. Philippians 2:12–13 speaks both to those who understate and those who overstate the role of the human will: “Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.” We must will and work, and God must will and work.
Chapter Twenty-six: Further Thoughts on God’s Sovereignty and Human Will
We can believe in God’s sovereignty and still lock the door. “If a man is lazy,” says Ecclesiastes, “the rafters sag; if his hands are idle, the house leaks” (10:18).
These verses don’t attribute sagging rafters and leaking houses to God’s sovereignty. They lay responsibility on people to take action. Students who don’t study and set the alarm to get up for class aren’t trusting God; they’re just being irresponsible.
No contradiction exists between praying, “Lord, please protect us and the children on this drive,” and then putting on seat belts. Prayers for healing do not conflict with the common grace of medical treatment…why should we choose between the two? Believers understand that [medical treatment] before, after, and while we pray for the sick helps them in two vital ways.
Chapter Twenty-seven: The God Who Brings Good Out of Bad
God’s glory is the highest good of the universe…permitting evil and suffering—and paying the price to end them—will all ultimately reveal his character and cause his people to worship him forever.
If we recognize God’s sovereignty even over Satan’s work, it changes our perspective.
You might not know whether demons, or human genetics under the Fall, or a doctor’s poor decision, or God’s direct hand have brought about your disease, but you know as much as you need to—that God is sovereign, and whether he heals you now or waits until the resurrection, he desires to achieve his own good purpose in you.
If the world is as random as some theologians suggest, it would seem that people, demons, and luck determine our destinies. We can drive ourselves crazy with such thoughts—or embrace God’s higher purpose in painful and even tragic events.
The Two Eternal Solutions to the Problem of Evil: Heaven and Hell
Chapter Twenty-eight: Heaven: Eternal Grace to Unworthy but Grateful Children
Here, we have bodies and work, rest, play, and relate to one another—we call this life. Yet many have mistakenly redefined eternal life to mean an off-earth disembodied existence stripped of human life’s defining properties. Eternal life will mean enjoying forever, as resurrected (which means embodied) beings, what life on Earth at its finest offered us. We could more accurately call our present existence the beforelife rather than calling Heaven the afterlife. Life doesn’t merely continue in Heaven, it emerges at last to its intended fullness.
How will we feel when the great shadow departs forever?
How will we feel when everything happy comes true, and everything sad comes untrue?
We will feel, perhaps, like it couldn’t get any better than that.
But each new day will prove us wrong.
Chapter Twenty-nine: Hell: Eternal Sovereign Justice Exacted upon Evildoers
When most people speak of the horrors of Hell, they talk as if it means the suffering of innocent people. That would indeed be terribly unjust—but nowhere does the Bible suggest the innocent will spend a single moment in Hell.
We rarely see ourselves as worthy of Hell. After all, we are not Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Bundy, or Dahmer. Guilty people can always rationalize sin. Hell exists because sin has no excuse.
Hell is not evil; it’s a place where evil gets punished. Hell is not pleasant, appealing, or encouraging. But Hell is morally good, because a good God must punish evil.
We cry out for true and lasting justice, then fault God for taking evil too seriously by administering eternal punishment. We can’t have it both ways. Sin is evil… To fear and dread Hell is understandable, but to argue against Hell is to argue against justice.
God’s Allowance and Restraint of Evil and Suffering
Chapter Thirty: Why Doesn’t God Do More to Restrain Evil and Suffering?
God may already be restraining 99.99 percent of evil and suffering. God may also be preventing 99.99 percent of disasters.
Why haven’t tyrants, with access to powerful weapons, destroyed this planet? What has kept infectious diseases and natural disasters from killing 99 percent of the world’s population rather than less than 1 percent? How much evil and suffering is too much? Could God reduce the amount without restricting meaningful human choice, or decreasing the urgency of the message that …we need to turn to the Redeemer before we die?
Suppose we rated all pain on a scale of one to ten… God could reduce the worst suffering to level three, but then level three, now the worst, would seem unbearable. Any argument that judges God’s goodness strictly by his elimination of pain will, in the end, not leave us satisfied if he permits any pain at all.
Chapter Thirty-one: Why Does God Delay Justice?
God’s is not a vending-machine justice in which a coin of righteousness immediately produces reward or a coin of evil yields swift retribution. Packaged theologies seek to neatly account for everything, but as Job, Psalms, and the prophets repeatedly demonstrate, that’s not how life works.
Yet God doesn’t delay justice so long as we often imagine. The wheels of justice may seem to turn slowly, but they turn surely. Some rewards of goodness and punishments of evil come in this life. And though ultimate rewards and punishments await the final judgment, considerable justice, both reward and retribution, gets dispensed immediately upon death, when God’s children immediately experience the joy of his presence and the unrepentant suffer the first justice of Hell (see Luke 16:19–31). This means that the maximum duration of injustice experienced by any person cannot exceed his life span.
Chapter Thirty-two: Why Doesn’t God Explain His Reasons?
Sometimes we make the foolish assumption that our heavenly Father has no right to insist that we trust him unless he makes his infinite wisdom completely understandable to us. This lays an impossible demand upon God, not because of his limitations, but because of ours. A physicist father bears no blame because he can’t explain quantum mechanics to his three-year-old.
We lack God’s omniscience, omnipotence, wisdom, holiness, justice, and goodness. If we insist we have the right, or even assume we have the capacity, to understand the hidden purposes of God, we forfeit the comfort and perspective we could have had in kneeling before his vastly superior wisdom.
He is infinite; we are finite. He is the Creator; we’re the creatures. Shouldn’t that say it all?
Chapter Thirty-three: Understanding that God is God and We are Not
Of all there is to know in the entire universe, how much do you know? Let’s say you’re the smartest human being who’s ever lived and that you know one percent (of course, nobody knows nearly that much). Now, is it possible that in the 99 percent of all there is that you don’t know, there exists or will exist enough goodness and happiness in the universe to outweigh all the evil and suffering?
Is it possible that in the 99 percent you don’t know, a good God exists who has legitimate reasons for not making his purposes clearer and for not forcing people to recognize his existence? Is it possible that some rational explanation exists—if you were smart enough to understand it—for why this good God permits evil and suffering?
We reveal a staggering arrogance in assuming God owes us an explanation for anything.
Evil and Suffering Used for God’s Glory
Chapter Thirty-four: Pain and Suffering in God’s World
Worse things can happen to us than dying young of a terrible disease. We could live in health and wealth, but if we die without Christ and go to Hell—or if we know Christ but fail to draw close to him—this is immeasurably worse than the disease that gets our attention and prompts us to look to him.
When Nanci and I passed through a particularly difficult period of our lives, we felt like we’d “done our time,” as if we shouldn’t have to face more difficulty for awhile. But that’s not how it works…As everyone living with ongoing disabilities, diseases, and heartaches knows, in this life God does not parcel out a certain amount of suffering, so once it runs out we’ll face no more. But the promise remains: “Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love” (Lamentations 3:32).
Chapter Thirty-five: Apparently Gratuitous Evil and Pointless Suffering
Not seeing the point in extreme suffering doesn’t prove there is no point. Evils such as rape and murder certainly look gratuitous. But are we qualified to say they really are? Didn’t the violent, excruciating death of Jesus, when it happened, appear both gratuitous and pointless in the extreme?
Behind almost every expression of the problem of evil stands an assumption: We know what an omniscient, omnipotent, morally perfect being should do.
Since detailed past, present, and future knowledge is unavailable to us, we sometimes consider accidents random and pointless. We do not see that God has and will accomplish good purposes through them. Some good actions may result in great evils, while one tragic death may save the world from tyranny. Who but God is in a position to know such things?
Chapter Thirty-six: How the Health and Wealth Gospel Perverts Our View of Evil and Suffering
This false worldview breeds superficiality, seriously misrepresents the gospel, and sets people up to believe, when evil and suffering come to them, that God has been untrue to his promises.
In some cases, pleasing God results in suffering.
Suffering shouldn’t surprise us. God has promised it. One of the great tragedies about the health and wealth gospel is that it makes God seem like a liar. When people believe that God promises to keep them from suffering, God appears untrustworthy when suffering comes.
If you are a Christian, God will deliver you from eternal suffering. And even now he will give you joyful foretastes of living in his presence. That’s his promise.
Why Does God Allow Suffering?
Chapter Thirty-seven: How God Uses Suffering for His Glory
If you don’t understand that the universe is about God and his glory—and that whatever exalts God’s glory also works for your ultimate good—then …You might consider God egotistical or cruel to test us for his sake. But the testing he does for his sake accrues to our eternal benefit.
God uses suffering to purge sin from our lives, strengthen our commitment to him, force us to depend on his grace, bind us together with other believers, produce discernment, foster sensitivity, discipline our minds, impart wisdom, stretch our hope, cause us to know Christ better, make us long for truth, lead us to repentance of sin, teach us to give thanks in times of sorrow, increase our faith, and strengthen our character.
God doesn’t simply want us to feel good. He wants us to be good. And very often, the road to being good involves not feeling good.
Chapter Thirty-eight: How God Uses Suffering for Our Sanctification
People’s suffering from natural disasters, diseases, wars, and accidents demonstrates sin’s horrors. If life in a fallen world didn’t sometimes show us such dreadful consequences of sin and its curse, we might look at sin and wonder, “What’s the big deal?” Without a sense of the misery it produces, we’d have no motive to turn from it.
Sometimes we may resent God for imposing unwanted difficulties on us. If we see through the lens of eternity, however, that resentment changes to thanksgiving for making us better and ultimately happier people, even if it costs us temporary pain and extreme inconvenience.
The point is not the degree of evil intended against us, but our faithfulness in suffering. So regardless of why we suffer, God can use it to deepen our faith.
Chapter Thirty-nine: How God Uses Suffering to Build Our Character
You may think, I refuse to accept that suffering can prove worthwhile, but your rejection of God’s goodness will not make you better or happier; it will only bring resentment and greater pain. Accept health as God’s blessing and its absence as God’s severe mercy.
Suffering uncovers our trust in God-substitutes…God laments, “My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug …broken cisterns that cannot hold water’” (Jeremiah 2:13).
Let’s be honest: virtually everyone who has suffered little in life is shallow, unmotivated, self-absorbed, and lacking in character…And yet we do everything we can to avoid challenges, both to our children and to ourselves. If we succeed in our avoidance, we’ll develop in ourselves and our children the sort of character we least admire.
Chapter Forty: Suffering Can Give Birth to Joy, Compassion, and Hope
God permits rebellion while guaranteeing its failure. And what will rebellion buy in the meantime? A loss of joy—and for those who do not surrender to him, a permanent loss of joy in the world to come,
We harm no one through bitterness as much as we harm ourselves. Someone told me, “Bitterness is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” In the face of evil and suffering, responding to God or others with bitterness, distrust, and accusations bears no good fruit. Responding in honest brokenness and turning to God in submission, faith, and trust yields untold riches of peace and comfort.
We are no substitute for God. But we do serve as his ambassadors. I heard Christian Counselor David Powlison say that although God alone is the blazing sun, we can be three-watt night-lights. In darkness even a tiny light can bring hope.
Chapter Forty-one: God Uses Our Suffering for the Good of Others
We want to serve from the power position. We’d rather be healthy, wealthy, and wise as we minister to the sick, poor, and ignorant. When those preaching God’s Word have little personal familiarity with suffering, the credibility gap makes it difficult for them to speak into others’ lives. But our suffering levels the playing field.
God uses the suffering we try to avoid to spread the gospel and build his kingdom. Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds” (John 12:24).
Living Meaningfully in Suffering
Chapter Forty-two: Finding God in Suffering
A woman self-consciously told one of our pastors that before going to sleep each night she reads her Bible, then hugs it as she falls asleep. “Is that weird?” she asked. While it may be unusual, it’s not weird. This woman has known suffering, and as she clings to his promises, she clings to God. Any father would be moved to hear that his daughter falls asleep with his letter held close to her. Surely God treasures such an act of childlike love, for his Word represents his person.
The believers described in Faith’s Hall of Fame (see Hebrews 11) all endured severe tests. None of them had an easy life. Yet they all clung to their belief in God’s promises, trusting his goodness, and believing “that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him” (Hebrews 11:6, NASB).
Chapter Forty-three: Finding Help in Dark Times
Knowing that suffering will one day end gives us strength to endure this day.
Hope provides the light at the end of life’s tunnel. It not only makes the tunnel endurable, it fills the heart with anticipation—a world alive, fresh, beautiful, without pain, suffering, or war. A world without disease, without accident, without tragedy. A world without dictators or madmen. A world ruled by the only One worthy of ruling (see Revelation 5:12).
Though we don’t know exactly when, we do know for sure that either by our deaths or Christ’s return, our suffering will end. From before the beginning, God drew the line in eternity’s sand to say for his children, “This much and no more, then endless joy.”
Chapter Forty-four: Finding Grace to Ease Others’ Suffering and to Endure Our Own
To ignore someone’s pain is to add to that pain. Instead of fearing we’ll say the wrong thing, we should reach out to hurting people. Many times it’s better just to put our arms around someone and cry with them; people almost always appreciate it when you acknowledge their loss. Yet so long as your heart is right, saying something is nearly always better than ignoring them.
“No test or temptation that comes your way is beyond the course of what others have had to face. All you need to remember is that God will never let you down; he’ll never let you be pushed past your limit; he’ll always be there to help you come through it” (1 Corinthians 10:13, msg). This truth applies to every aspect of our lives, including the manner, timing, and duration of our dying.
Chapter Forty-five: Discovering Death’s Curse and Blessing
The last thing most people want to think about is the last thing they’ll do: die.
Death is life’s greatest certainty.
No exercise program, diet, or therapy prevents death. Corpses don’t get cosmetic surgery. Even the young die from overdoses, accidents, and diseases. Famous athletes and Hollywood stars alike wind up in nursing homes. Suffering and old age are the great equalizers.
Two things stand between where we live now and that marvelous world where we’ll live forever: death and resurrection. If we never died, we’d never be resurrected. We’d never enjoy a glorious eternity with Christ and our spiritual family.
So while death is an enemy and part of sin’s curse, because of Christ’s death and resurrection, it’s the dark passage through which we enter the brilliance of never-ending life.
CONCLUSION: Final Thoughts About God, Goodness, Evil and Suffering
In the end, Jesus Christ is the only satisfying answer to the problem of evil and suffering.
In fact, I’m convinced he is the only answer.
In this world of suffering and evil, I have a profound and abiding hope, and faith for the future. Not because I follow a set of religious rules to make me better. But because for forty years I’ve known a real person, and…because he willingly entered this world of evil and suffering and didn’t spare himself, but took on the worst of it for my sake and yours, he has earned my trust even for what I can’t understand. I and countless others… have found him to be trustworthy.
He is “the Alpha and the Omega…the Beginning and the End” (Revelation 22:13).
When it comes to goodness and evil, present suffering and eternal joy, the first Word, and the last, is Jesus.
Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries.