To Those Who Are Hurting and Confused
I came to know my friend Jim Harrell after he read my book Heaven. We talked on the phone, exchanged e-mails, and quickly connected at a heart level. Jim, a successful businessman, strong and athletic for most of his life, told me he really looked forward to reading If God Is Good. He asked me for the first draft, which I happily sent him.
Jim contracted ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease, in 2003. Yet Jim has called the last six years of his life the most significant. While his body deteriorated and he lost normal functions, one after another, Jim touched more people (and was touched more by God) than at any other time of his life.
While writing, I drew on Jim’s wisdom, as well as that of many other sufferers.
During the two years it has taken me to research and write this book, many people have asked about the project. I expected that my answer, containing the words evil and suffering, would prompt a quick change of subject. Most, however, expressed keen interest and asked penetrating questions. Several launched into their own stories, as if having received permission to uncork the bottle.
What, after all, is more universal to human experience than suffering? And what is more important than the perspective we bring to it?
How we answer the central question of If God Is Good will radically affect how we see God and the world around us.
We may want to turn away from world suffering and refuse to reflect on the significance of our own pain; we just want it to go away. But despite the superficiality of our culture, we remain God’s image-bearers—thinking and caring people, wired to ask questions and seek answers.
No question looms larger than the central question of this book: If God is good…why all this evil and suffering? If God loves us, how can he justify allowing (or sending) the sometimes overwhelming difficulties we face?
Does this great question interest you? If so, I invite you to join me on a journey of discovery.
While traveling this long road, I found something surprising: the journey was not only rewarding, but fascinating, enlightening, and at times downright enjoyable. I know it sounds counterintuitive—shouldn’t it depress someone to meditate on evil and suffering? In fact, I’d already seen enough evil and suffering to feel deeply troubled. What I needed was perspective. Instead of being disheartened, I’m encouraged.
In this process, I’ve taken the most pleasure in focusing on God, exploring his attributes of goodness, love, holiness, justice, patience, grace, and mercy. While my journey hasn’t unearthed easy answers, I’m astonished at how much insight Scripture offers.
Seeking answers to this question should turn us toward Jesus in a fresh way.
In looking for answers, I’ve beheld a God who says, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering” (Exodus 3:7). I’ve found great comfort in hearing God speak of a time when he could bear his people’s misery no longer (see Judges 10:16). I revel in God’s emphatic promise that he will make a New Earth where he will come down to live with us, and on which “he will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (Revelation 21:4). Above all, in this process, I’ve seen Jesus.
The first physician to die of the AIDS virus in the United Kingdom was a young Christian. He contracted the disease while conducting medical research in Zimbabwe. In the last days of his life he struggled to express himself to his wife. Near the end, he couldn’t talk, and had only enough strength to write the letter J. She ran through her mental dictionary, saying various words beginning with J. None was right. Finally she said, “Jesus?”
He nodded. Yes, Jesus.
Jesus filled his thoughts. That’s all he wanted to say. That’s all his wife needed to hear.
In my research and writing, my thoughts too kept coming back to Jesus. What better place?
Often God has wiped away my own tears as I’ve contemplated potentially faith-jarring situations. I’ve been left not in despair, but with great hope that defies description and a peace that transcends understanding (see Philippians 4:7).
This journey has stretched my trust in God and his purposes, and I have emerged better prepared to face suffering and help others because of it. I feel I have much more to offer believers in Christ who may be questioning their faith, as well as unbelievers who consider the problem of evil and suffering their single greatest obstacle to faith.
If you stay with this book until the end, I feel certain you’ll be better for it. I believe God will reward you, as he has me, not only with much-needed perspective, but with deep-rooted peace and joy, and renewed perseverance.
We each bring our own burdens on the journey.
If abuse, rape, desertion, paralysis, debilitating disease, or the loss of a loved one has devastated you, then this issue isn’t theoretical, philosophical, or theological. It’s deeply personal. Logical arguments won’t satisfy you; in fact, they might offend you. You need help with the emotional problem of evil, not merely the logical problem of evil.
Though I write personally, from the heart, and tell stories of great courage and perspective, I must also present a case from Scripture and appeal to logic. But remember this: you are a whole person, and the path to your heart travels through your mind. Truth matters. To touch us at the heart level—and to keep touching us over days, months, years, and decades—truth must work its way into our minds.
By all means, speak with a friend and perhaps a pastor or counselor. But in the process don’t seek comfort by ignoring truth. When you try to soothe your feelings without bothering to think deeply about ideas, you are asking to be manipulated. Quick-fix feelings won’t sustain you over the long haul. On the other hand, deeply rooted beliefs—specifically a worldview grounded in Scripture—will allow you to persevere and hold on to a faith built on the rock of God’s truth.
In writing his magnificent story of redemption, God has revealed truths about himself, us, the world, goodness, evil, suffering, Heaven, and Hell. Those truths God reveals to us teem with life. The blood of man and God flows through them. God speaks with passion, not indifference; he utters fascinating words, not dull ones. To come to grips with the problem of evil and suffering, you must do more than hear heart-wrenching stories about suffering people. You must hear God’s truth to help you interpret those stories.
Maybe you’re holding on to years of bitterness and depression. You blame someone for your suffering—and that someone may be God. You will not find relief unless you gain perspective.
Or perhaps you fear that any attempt to “gain perspective” will deny or minimize your suffering, or that of others. I promise you, the Bible doesn’t minimize suffering or gloss over it, and neither will I.
At times, each of us must snuggle into our Father’s arms, like children, and there receive the comfort we need. Joni Eareckson Tada and Steve Estes write,
God, like a father, doesn’t just give advice. He gives himself. He becomes the husband to the grieving widow (Isaiah 54:5). He becomes the comforter to the barren woman (Isaiah 54:1). He becomes the father of the orphaned (Psalm 10:14). He becomes the bridegroom to the single person (Isaiah 62:5). He is the healer to the sick (Exodus 15:26). He is the wonderful counselor to the confused and depressed (Isaiah 9:6).
The faith that can’t be shaken is the faith that has been shaken.
God tells us that trials in which evil and suffering come upon us “have come so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed” (1 Peter 1:7).
Alice Gray writes of sitting at a restaurant, talking with a friend about painful challenges in their lives. They frequently mentioned the Lord.
Alice noticed a young woman at the next table with a radiant, joyful face. The young woman smiled and said she’d overheard their conversation. Speaking softly, she encouraged Alice and Marlene that God understood and cared about their heartaches, and nothing could separate them from God’s love.
Alice continued talking with Marlene but realized something was different. The young woman’s words had refreshed them. When the smiling woman got up to leave, Alice noticed she wore bulky shoes, carried a walking stick, and moved with a severe limp.
The waitress told Alice this woman had been in a near-fatal automobile accident the year before. She’d been in and out of the hospital and rehabilitation. Her husband divorced her, their home had been sold, and she’d just moved into her own apartment. She used public transportation because she couldn’t drive. She’d been unable to find a job.
Alice sat stunned. She says, “This young woman’s conversation had been filled with delights of the Lord. There had been no weariness about her. She had encouraged us with words of praise and promise. Meeting her that day, we never would have suspected that storms were raging in her life. Even as she stepped outside into the cold winter wind, she seemed to carry God’s warm shelter of hope with her.”
God’s Word is central to gaining an eternal perspective.
In times of crisis we try to make sense of life. We crave perspective for our minds and relief for our hearts. We need our worldview realigned by God’s inspired Word: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).
I quote Scripture frequently because God promises that his Word “will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:11). God never makes such a promise about my words or your words. I want this book to accomplish God’s purpose—and that will happen only if it remains faithful to his words.
The book won’t work magic or make your problems disappear. But I hope God will use it to help you, regardless of the difficulties you face. He offers us profound, moving, and surprising insights that can feed our minds, warm our hearts, and give us the strength to face a world that is not what it once was, or what it one day will be. I pray that readers of If God Is Good will not only find help for themselves, but life-changing insights to share with others—believers and unbelievers, family and friends and neighbors and co-workers—in their time of greatest need.
Why Is the Problem of Evil and Suffering
* The problem of evil and suffering moves from the philosophical to the personal in a moment of time.
In preparing to write this book I read works of all types: Some philosophical, others theological, some excruciatingly personal. It’s one thing to talk about evil and suffering philosophically; it's quite another to face it personally. As philosopher Peter Van Inwagen puts it, “Angels may weep because the world is filled with suffering. A human being weeps because his daughter, she and not another, has died of leukemia this very night.”
Three weeks after his thirty-three-year-old son died in a car crash, pastor and evangelist Greg Laurie addressed a crowd of 29,000 at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, California. “I’ve talked about heaven my whole life,” Laurie said, “and I’ve given many messages on life after death. I’ve counseled many people who have lost a loved one and I thought I knew a little bit about it. But I have to say that when it happens to you, it’s a whole new world.” The day his son died, he told the crowd, was “the hardest day of my life.”
Pain is always local. It has faces and names. It touches us personally.
* If we open our eyes, we’ll see the problem of evil and suffering even when it doesn’t touch us directly.
A friend of ours spoke at a Christian gathering. After the event, she was raped. She became pregnant and gave birth to her first child. But because racial differences would have made it clear her husband hadn’t fathered the baby, the couple placed the infant in adoption. Since then they have been unable to have another child—and so her lifelong dreams of raising children remain unfulfilled.
I once had to knock on a door and tell a wife, son, and daughter that their husband and father had died on a hunting trip. I still remember the anguished face of the little girl and hearing her wail, “Not Daddy, no, not Daddy!”
I had to tell my mother that a man with a meat cleaver had murdered her only brother.
A friend’s loved one was on her riding lawn mower when both driver and machine tipped over and fell into a pond. The heavy mower pinned her to the bottom, drowning her. Such a statistically unlikely death prompted many to ask, “Why, God?” and “Why like this?”
Even if you do not now face great evil and suffering, look around you. I guarantee you’ll see plenty of it.
Gripped by great pain after his beloved wife Joy died, C. S. Lewis realized, “If I had really cared, as I thought I did, about the sorrows of the world, I should not have been so overwhelmed when my own sorrow came.”
Why Talk About the Problem of Evil and Suffering?
* 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.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote in The Gulag Archipelago,
It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually, it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts…I nourished my soul there, and I say without hesitation: Bless you, prison, for having been in my life.
A Barna poll inquired, “If you could ask God only one question and you knew he would give you an answer, what would you ask?” The most common response? “Why is there pain and suffering in the world?” John Stott says,
The fact of suffering undoubtedly constitutes the single greatest challenge to the Christian faith, and has been in every generation. Its distribution and degree appear to be entirely random and therefore unfair. Sensitive spirits ask if it can possibly be reconciled with God’s justice and love. You will not get far in a conversation with someone who rejects the Christian faith before he or she raises the problem of evil. It gets pulled out like the ultimate trump card, the final fallback intended to silence believers and prove that the all-good and all-powerful God of the Bible simply doesn’t exist.
* If there is no God, the world would be amoral, with no objective goodness or evil.
I heard atheist Christopher Hitchens say in a debate, “The world looks as it would if there is no God.”
But atheists should be willing to answer their own question: If there is no God, would you expect the world to look as it does? I think the answer is no. How could chance and time and natural forces explain where goodness comes from? How would we discern the difference between right and wrong? Why would the powerful sometimes sacrifice their lives to save those of the weak and handicapped and dying?
Evolution can explain greed, selfishness, insensitivity, survival-preoccupation and even a certain amount of ruthlessness, but is there anything in the blind evolutionary process of survival of the fittest that would cultivate kindness and putting other people first? How much good should we expect to see in an impersonal self-generated world of mere molecules and chemicals and natural forces?
A system that operates on brute strength, genetic superiority and the survival of the fittest can explain and justify racism, sexism and oppression. But it cannot explain goodness, humility, kindness, compassion and mercy especially when exercised to the weak and dying. What should surprise atheists is not that powerful people crush those weaker than themselves—that would be entirely natural. The surprise is that powerful people would sacrifice their welfare to come to the aid of those weaker than themselves. And yet, that very thing often happens in this world.
How does “survival of the fittest” explain the wealthy couple who leaves power and comfort behind to serve lepers and the poorest of the poor? Regardless of the couple’s stated beliefs, where does such goodness come from, if not from outside the natural realm? The ruthlessness exercised against children before they’re born, in abortion, should characterize our society at every level. The existence of children’s hospitals that spend vast resources to help the terminally ill rather than leaving them to die untreated, the provision of special parking for handicapped people, Special Olympics for disabled children, are all shocking aberrations from natural selection, in which the human race should welcome the death of the weak, diseased and disabled, for its genetic betterment and its own survival.
We read of parents prosecuted for abusing their children. But think of how many sleep deprived parents have restrained themselves from harming a crying child that they could easily kill or gravely injure in a mere moment of frustration or anger.
Think of sacks of money found and turned in to the authorities. And people stopping to help a stranded motorist, or rescued from drowning at risk of their rescuer’s life. Would we expect to see this in a world without a good Creator? Could we expect to see any true goodness at all?
In a world governed by natural selection and survival of the fittest, we should only see the will to survive at everyone else’s expense. Without God, we wouldn’t exist, but if we did we’d certainly have no reason to expect goodness.
So there is not only a problem of evil. There is a problem of good. It also cries out for explanation. Those who argue against God’s existence because of the world’s evil must realize that goodness, even in this fallen world, is a compelling argument that God does exist.
* Suffering will come; we owe it to God, ourselves, and those around us to prepare for it.
Live long enough and you will suffer. In this life, the only way to avoid suffering is to die. Yet most evangelical churches, whether traditional, liturgical, or emergent, have failed to teach people to think biblically about the realities of evil and suffering and their significant implications. This has left their people woefully unprepared.
A pastor’s daughter told me, “I was never taught the Christian life was supposed to be difficult. I’ve discovered it is, and I wasn’t ready.”
Our failure to teach a biblical theology of suffering leaves Christians ill-equipped for harsh realities and vulnerable to the false doctrines of the health and wealth gospel. It also leaves our children vulnerable to classes of history and philosophy and global studies that surface the problems of evil and suffering while denying the Christian worldview. Since the question will be raised, shouldn’t Christian parents and churches raise it first and take their loved ones to the Scriptures to see what God says about it?
Most people don’t give focused thought to evil and suffering until it comes to them, which forces them to formulate perspective on the fly—at a time when their thinking has grown jarred and muddled and they feel exhausted and consumed by pressing issues. Readers who have “been there” will attest that it is far better to start thinking about suffering in advance.
The most righteous person who ever lived, Jesus, suffered the most. Life in this world under the curse (more on that to come) simply is not “fair.”
In her moving book The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion writes about the sudden, unexpected death of her husband. The heartbreak for me as a reader came not only in what happened to her, but in the first six words of the book’s concluding sentence: “No eye was on the sparrow.”
Didion means that, so far as she can tell, there is no God; or at least, no God who cares and watches over us. Unlike the proselytizing atheists, she displays no strident, patronizing streak. She’s just a normal person who needs caring men and women around her who can see God in the midst of their suffering, so they might help her see him in hers.
* The cross is God’s answer to the question, “Why don’t You do something about evil?”
Bart Ehrman writes in God’s Problem, “It was precisely my view of suffering that led me away from this understanding of Christ, salvation, and God. I came to think that there is not a God who is actively involved with this world of pain and misery—if he is, why doesn’t he do something about it?”
But what if God did do something about it—something so great and unprecedented that it shook the angelic realm’s foundation, and split in half not only the temple curtain but the fabric of the universe itself?
There is a powerful moment in the movie The Passion of the Christ, when Jesus, overwhelmed with pain and exhaustion, is on the ground being kicked, mocked and spit upon. A horrified woman, her hand outstretched, pleads, “Someone, stop this!”
The irony is that she was beholding the worst expression of evil and suffering ever, yet also the ultimate solution to evil and suffering. Had Jesus been delivered from his suffering that day, he could never deliver us from ours.
If I had to believe God’s best for this world is what we see now, I would not be a Christian. I couldn’t overcome the obstacles of suffering children, or slaughters like the Holocaust and Killing Fields. That Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, would choose to endure the Holocaust of the cross to pay for our evils and take on the sufferings of the world in Golgotha’s Killing Field, forever changes the way I look at how suffering and evil reflect on God’s character. God doesn’t dish out anything worse than he has taken upon himself.
For me, Jesus changes everything.
In your most troubled moments, when you cry out to God, “Why have you let this happen?” picture the outstretched hands of Christ, forever scarred.
Do they look like the hands of a God who does not care?
The first physician to die of the AIDS virus in the United Kingdom was a young Christian. He had contracted the disease while conducting medical research in Zimbabwe. In the last days of his life he struggled to express his thoughts to his wife. On one occasion he wrote on a note pad the letter J. She ran through her mental dictionary, saying various words beginning with J. None was right. Finally she said, “Jesus?”
He nodded. Yes, that was the right word—Jesus.
He had strength to write no more than the first letter of his name. But Jesus filled his thoughts. That’s all he needed to say. Jesus was enough for them both.
And, in the end, Jesus is enough for me. And, whether or not you know it yet, he is enough for you.
* In facing the problem of evil, Christ’s sacrifice for us is the final word.
An unskilled truck driver, who paid a bribe for a license, was responsible for a large object falling on a Milwaukee freeway in front of the Willis’s van. The resulting crash caused their gas tank to explode. Six of the Willis’s children died.
In the press interview, Scott Willis said, “The depth of our pain is indescribable. However, the Bible expresses our feelings that we sorrow, but not as those without hope. What gives us our firm foundation for hope are the words of God found in Scripture… Ben, Joe, Sam, Hank, Elizabeth and Peter are all with Jesus Christ. We know where they are. Our strength rests in God’s Word.”
The Willis family’s story is exactly the kind that Bart Ehrman features in his book as evidence that there is no God. Yet, when I interviewed the Willises fourteen years after this tragic event, Janet said, “Today I have a far greater understanding of the goodness of God than I did before the accident.” It was the sort of statement that might have taken my breath away, had I not heard it from others who also have endured unspeakable suffering.
Janet Willis, reflecting on hers and Scott’s life since the death of six of their children, told me, “It is sufficient for us to know Jesus. It’s very settled in both of us. We always come back to Jesus.”
In this book, I’ll be careful not to put too much weight on any single argument. But about this I am certain: the best answer anyone will ever find to the problem of evil is a person—Jesus Christ. In fact, I’m convinced that in the end, 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 religion—I’m really not very religious. But because for forty years I’ve known a real person, and I know him better today than ever. He is someone who through inconceivable sacrifice for me, has touched me again and again on the deepest level. He has transformed my life. I and countless others, many who have suffered profoundly, have discovered him to be trustworthy.
He is the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end. When it comes to goodness and evil, temporary suffering and eternal joy, Jesus is the first Word. And the last.
1 Peter Van Inwagen, ed. Christian Faith and the Problem of Evil (Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2004), P. xii.
2 Paul Asay, “Continuing Harvest,” Christianity Today, October 2008, 17-18.
3 C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (Whitstable, Kent, Great Britain: Whitstable Litho Ltd., 1966), 31.
4 Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago (New York: Harper & Row, 1985), 312.
5 Lee Strobel, The Case for Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 29.
6 John R. W. Stott, The Cross of Christ: 20th Anniversary Edition, with Study Guide (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986), 311.
7 Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking (New York: Knopf, 2005), 190.
8 Bart D. Ehrman, God’s Problem (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2008), 128.
9 Sinclair B. Ferguson, Deserted by God? (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1993), 51.
10 Through the Flames, the Willis family story (out of print).
11 Sinclair B. Ferguson, Deserted by God? (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1993), 51.
12 Through the Flames, the Willis family story (out of print).
Note from EPM: Randy's new book If God Is Good is now available for purchase online, in local bookstores, and from the Eternal Perspective Ministries website. (Check out the If God Is Good Chapter Summaries for a preview of the book's content.)