God, Evil, Suffering and Justice
The recent Syrian gas attack has again raised numerous questions. One question I will simply mention here but not deal with is whether in fact Assad was behind it. But that is not my focus here, so we will leave that debate for another time thanks!
But questions both believers and non-believers have at times like this have to do with the longstanding issue of the problem of evil, and how or why God might allow such evil. The theological and philosophical term used here is “theodicy.”
The Greek word can be broken down into two parts: “God” and “justice”. God’s justice is questioned every time some great evil takes place. How can God be all-loving and all-powerful yet still allow great evil and suffering to take place?
Such questions have of course been asked millions, if not billions, of times before, so there is nothing new here in all this. And they are in many ways fully legitimate questions, and of course plenty of attempts have been made over the centuries to answer such questions.
Over the past few days I have heard both non-Christians and Christians lamenting evil in general, and the gas attack in Syria with children killed in particular. Both things certainly are lamentable. And many of these folks have been asking yet again why God would allow all this to happen, and wondering why he does not or did not stop it.
Again, these are sensible questions to be asking. We should be pitied if we did not ask such questions. How can such matters not disturb all of us greatly? The fact that people – both Christians and non-Christians – are bothered by all this shows that we do have a strong moral sense and we do live in a moral universe.
So just how might we seek to reply to such heartfelt questions? What is the biblical understanding that can be brought to bear here? We can begin by noting that it is rather odd of atheists to keep dragging these issues up. They spend their lives insisting that God does not exist, but every time some tragedy happens, somehow it is all of a sudden God’s fault!
When good things happen they simply claim this is due to good people, or chance, or our genes at work, etc. But when bad things happen they do not seem to want to blame bad people, but they drag God into the mix. Hmm, a bit of consistency here would be nice for a change.
And what many of these questions amount to is a plea for justice. Whether offered up by Christians or non-Christians, basically what these folks are doing is letting us know that they do not like this evil – and rightly so. And they also want God to do something about it.
But it is worth looking at just what these demands are really all about, and how justice alone is not what we need here, but mercy and grace as well. Consider this: if God were to put an end to all evil at midnight, guess what? Everyone on this planet would be a goner at midnight.
We are all unjust, we are all evil, we are all – to use the biblical parlance – sinners. If your main concern is for God to act, and to act NOW, and deal with all sin and evil immediately, then you are not really very cluey about what you are calling for.
We should not be demanding strict justice just now. We should be pleading for mercy. I am so thankful God has extended grace to me – continuously. If it is mere justice I wanted – and received – I would have been wiped out years ago.
You and I really do not want God’s justice, we want his mercy. Sure, God is a just God, and he deals both now and in the next life with matters of justice. Every wrong will one day be righted and/or punished, and every right will be acknowledged and/or rewarded. But much of that takes place in the next life.
But so many folks seem happy to live with rather blatant double standards here. When they see real evil in the world they want – and they demand – that God acts and does something about it instantly. But, strangely enough, they seldom demand that God deals in the same way with all the evil that is in their own hearts.
And if we somehow think we could never do great evil like those with the chemical weapons, then we are just kidding ourselves. Then we are just foolishly thinking we are really pretty good chaps: ‘Christ need not have died for me. I am not all that bad.’
Sorry, but it is that pride that is just as evil, and that just as much sent Christ to the cross, as any other form of evil. Until we fully grasp that basic truth, we are not really grasping the gospel. It is only when we grasp the reality that I am evil – not just the Nazis, or the Syrians, or IS, or the Communists, or the pornographers, or the abortionists – that we are ready for the truth of the gospel.
Christ came to die for sinners – that is me, that is you, that is Hitler, that is everyone. I need his salvation just as much as anyone else does. And so do you. The truth of the sinfulness of all of humanity is one of the basic givens of the biblical storyline.
And of course to ask, “Why doesn’t God do something?” means that you need to be prepared for the answer. And the answer is this: He already has done something. This is really the heart of what biblical Christianity is all about. The Incarnation is God’s answer to evil.
His life, death and resurrection are all part of God’s way of dealing with evil. By dealing with the sin question and offering a way through it and out of it (via faith and repentance in his work on our behalf), we not only can become progressively less evil ourselves, but the issue of ultimate justice is firmly dealt with.
And yes, all evil and sin should be dealt with. Justice demands this. So God sent his innocent Son to take the penalty that we deserved. Justice was done. Those who accept this tremendous act of forgiveness and restoration find new life in Christ, while those who reject it will find a pay day coming.
Some may still complain about ongoing evil in this life. Well, God’s timing of things may not be to our liking, but we are not really in a position to tell God how he should be doing things, or what his timetable should be like. Only an all-wise, all-knowing, and all-loving God has the best timing on this. Christ’s First Coming dealt with sin and evil, and his Second Coming will offer final and full justice.
In between those two comings we are being offered mercy and grace. We need to avail ourselves of that now, since it will not last forever. If we are only interested in getting strict justice, that we will most certainly get. But none of us should want that. Thankfully grace and pardon are now freely on offer. What we do with that offer is up to us.
Now of course a very short piece like this will hardly satisfy everyone. It is not intended to. Indeed, with entire libraries filled with weighty tomes dealing with the issue of theodicy, I have very little further to contribute here, if anything at all. But there most certainly is a place for honest questions on this issue.
And many have sought to offer some honest answers. None of our questions will be fully answered in this life, but we can get some reasonable and helpful pointers along the way. The problem of evil is a serious one indeed, and the biblical answer seems to me to be the most satisfying answer there is.
Moreover, it is not just head knowledge on the vexing issue of theodicy that Christianity offers us. God offers us himself. He suffers with us. He knows all about innocent suffering. Indeed, he is the only truly innocent sufferer. So God offers us real comfort and hope when we are suffering.
Better yet, he offers his very self. Calvary is God’s ultimate answer to the problem of evil and suffering. That may not please many, but that is what biblical Christianity has to offer. If you think something better can be found, then you can run with that.
In sum, John Stott once put it this way: “We have to learn to climb the hill called Calvary, and from that vantage-ground survey all life’s tragedies. The cross does not solve the problem of suffering, but it supplies the essential perspective from which to look at it”.
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