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Is it just me, or does it seem like every other day there is a tragedy or natural disaster or shooting or massacre or other crazy stuff? I don’t remember so many terrible things happening when I was younger. I remember 9/11 and Katrina, but that’s about it. Now, we have Sandy Hook, Benghazi, earthquakes, Hurricane Sandy, the Boston Marathon bombings, Gosnell, the Oklahoma tornado, the OTHER Oklahoma tornado…and those are just the ones I thought of off the top of my head. In the wake of so much pain and suffering, one question always arises: how could a loving God allow so much evil into the world? This question has driven many to atheism and despair. Because of this, I believe it is one of the single most important questions to discuss.
Christians get nailed with this question all the time, however, Christianity isn’t the only religion who has to answer it. Before I get to the Biblical answer, let me illustrate how other religions would answer the question of evil.
Atheism, being a naturalistic worldview, preaches that the world is exclusively physical and life is an accident. That means that everything that happens in life is an accident as well. So, all the good things that happen to you (promotion, love, healing, happiness, random acts of kindness) were merely a product of blind chance. You didn’t do anything to deserve them. The same is true for bad things that happen (murder, rape, losing a family member, theft, natural disasters). They’re just bad luck. There is no comfort or peace to find in these situations; it basically just sucks to be you. If you don’t believe in God, you’re left to believe that life, and subsequent evil, has no meaning. This also leaves you without hope because, without God, there is no plan for your life. As you can see, atheism’s answer to the vital question of evil is pretty shallow.
Religions that believe that the world is only spiritual (like Hinduism, Buddhism, and New Age) would tell you that evil is an illusion. In Hinduism, your experiences in this life are results of your actions in past lives. This philosophy is what led to the caste system. In other words, if you get raped, you deserved it because of something you did in a former life. That’s comforting. Buddhism teaches that suffering is a result of desire. To a Buddhist, if you extinguish desire, then you eliminate evil. However, in order to stop desiring, you have to desire to stop desiring. Obviously, that doesn’t work, so that doesn’t really help either. The New Age claims that evil doesn’t exist, just as the physical world doesn’t exist. It’s all just an illusion. Thanks Oprah. Seriously though, what does that leave you with? It basically leaves you wondering, “If bad things are an illusion, why do they hurt so much?” New Age can’t answer this.
Islam teaches that Allah causes all things to happen. Every good thing, and every bad thing, is a result of Allah’s will. In Islam, humans have to follow standards of right and wrong, but Allah doesn’t. So when your child gets kidnapped, a Muslim would tell you that God made that happen. Try telling that to one of the Sandy Hook parents.
But, what about Christianity? If these other worldviews don’t do a good job of dealing with evil, how does Christianity fare?
The Bible begins with a perfect world; a world without suffering and sin. However, Adam and Eve were tricked, by Satan, into eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (which God told them not to do). As a result, sin entered the world, and evil with it. Now, when God created humans, He created them in his own image. Thus, we are relational beings. We have the ability to love and to hate. We have the ability to do good and to do evil. That begs the question: why would God create beings with the ability to sin?
God didn’t create puppets; He created people. He made us with the capacity to sin because He wanted us to have the free choice to turn from sin and love Him. If we were involuntarily made to love Him, we wouldn’t be truly human (and thus wouldn’t be truly image-bearers). Also, because of the Trinity, God Himself is a relational being. In fact, God is a relationship. When God created man, He didn’t say “let there be,” He said “let us make man in Our image.” This shows us that God is relational, and therefore desired children who were relational with free will. It is this free will that gives us the ability to sin, which causes the evil we see around us.
Okay, that’s the big picture Biblical explanation for evil, and it makes sense. But, if you had a friend struggling with losing a child or spouse, do you think they would be comforted by that interpretation? Probably not. Another bad thing Christians do a lot to try to “console” someone who is suffering is quote Romans 8:28. This verse tells us that all things work together for good to them that love God. While this is certainly true, it may not be a particularly helpful statement to someone who just lost everything they owned to one of the OK tornadoes. While you’re in the moment, it’s hard to take that verse to heart.
So, what’s the answer to personal suffering?
The Bible gives us a God who acts when faced with evil. The first thing God did when Adam and Eve sinned was act on their behalf. Genesis 3:24 says, “After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.” When man sinned, God put a guard to keep him out of the Garden. Not as a punishment, but as a protection. If man was allowed in the Garden after sinning, he might eat of the tree of life. If he did that, he would be forced to live forever in his fallen state. Then there would be no hope of redemption or peace. So, God immediately did something about evil in Genesis. Our God is a God who acts.
God was acting when He sent His son to die for us. Isaiah 53:5 says, “But He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on Him, and by His wounds we are healed.” We hear this verse a lot. What we don’t hear as often is the verse that comes right before it. Isaiah 53:4 says, “Surely He took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered Him punished by God, stricken by Him, and afflicted.” Jesus didn’t just die for our sins, He died for our pain and suffering. Every hurt we have ever experienced was on the shoulders of Jesus that day. The Bible gives us a God who suffers the consequences of sin with us.
My all time favorite Bible story illustrates this so well. It’s the story of Lazarus. We’ve all probably heard it. Jesus gets word that his good friend Lazarus is dangerously ill and Lazarus’s sisters want Jesus to come heal him. Jesus says, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” A few days later, Jesus tells His followers that Lazarus has in fact died, and they all head back to his house. When Jesus arrives, Lazarus’s sister Mary falls at His feet and says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” What does Jesus do next? He has known the whole time that He is going to raise Lazarus from the dead. Does He tell Mary that? No, He doesn’t. What happens next is the defining moment for Christianity’s answer to personal suffering. The Bible says that, instead of revealing His big plan:
Jesus wept. The King of the world, the Creator of all things, wept with Mary. Christianity gives us a God who not only acts, He suffers with us. He feels our pain. He weeps with us. Our God got His hands bloody and dirty in order to save us. No other religion in the world offers you that. Christianity can truly offer hope to us when bad things happen, because Jesus died and rose again. He died to redeem His world and to take it back from Satan. Yes, God created a world He knew would fall, but He also created a world He was going to save and make even better.
So, in the midst of the disasters and tragedies happening in our world right now, we need to remind people that Jesus died for all of that. Jesus is the God who looked evil in the eye and beat it. And one day, evil will be completely destroyed and gone from the Earth. Until that day, He is weeping with us, sharing in our pain, and offering us redemption from all the evil things we have done ourselves. That’s hope.
Evil is still going to hurt, but we can at least find some peace in the fact that God is truly always with us. After all, His name is Emmanuel, which means “God with us.” I pray that, whatever your circumstance, you will always remember that God is with you.