July 17, 2014 Malaysian Airlines flight 17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lampur carrying 283 passengers and 15 crew members was shot down by a surface to air missile fired from Ukrainian separatists. Just moments after the plane was downed, Igor Girkin, leader of the Dunbass separatists posted on their social media site that they had downed the aircraft. After the plane was revealed to be a passenger flight, they denied all involvement. All 298 people on board died.
Such tragedy. Scientists, children, mothers, fathers, sons and daughters perished. It was senseless and outrageous.
In Luke 13, Jesus of Nazareth was approached and asked to respond to a similar current event: “There were present at that season some who told Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And Jesus answered and said to them, “Do you suppose that these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse sinners than all other men who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:1-5).
According to Josephus, Pilate would have fits of tyrannical rage from time to time. During one of those fits, he was after some Galilean Jews who were offering sacrifices at the Temple. These Galileans went to the Temple and were offering their sacrifices when Pilate’s men attacked them and slaughtered them. The result of the attack was blood from these worshipers mingling with the blood of their sacrifices.
Jesus then brings up another recent event involving Jews. Eighteen people had been killed when a tower in Jerusalem, near the pool of Siloam, collapsed. The southern and eastern walls of Jerusalem came together at this place. The tower would have been there for defense. The tower was a lookout place.
The crowd concluded wrongly that these people committed some great sin to have such a violent end. God had judged them. Jesus attacks this misconception. And exposes their sin and calls for them to repent or they will perish.
Disasters, accidents, and calamities befall people all over the planet during all generations. Insurance companies even call them “acts of God;” but are they?
According to the Bible, there are times when God permits suffering and tragedy such as Job’s family and the effect of the fall of Adam. We know events are not just random.
There are times when God prevents suffering and tragedy. Jesus healed sicknesses and diseases among the people. Paul raised from the dead. Locust ate everything in Egypt except those things grown in Goshen. God even sent a storm to pursue Jonah and a great sea creature to deliver him.
There are times when God perpetrates suffering and tragedy as He did during the drought of Elijah’s day, the flood during Noah’s day, the plagues during Moses’ day, and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Lot’s day.
The reality of suffering, evil, and tragedy in the world at times may confound the strongest believer and at others times embitter the unbeliever.
Charles Darwin himself said in his autobiography:
“A being so powerful and so full of knowledge as a God who could create the universe, is to our finite minds omnipotent and omniscient, and it revolts our understanding to suppose that his benevolence is not unbounded, for what advantage can there be in the sufferings of millions of lower animals throughout almost endless time?”
Ted Turner was embittered by the death of his sister, Mary Jane, according to his words from an interview with the New York Times: “I was taught that God was love and god was powerful,” Turner said, “I couldn’t understand how someone so innocent should be made or allowed to suffer so.”
My intention today is to answer our question from the Bible.
We begin by a clarification that we are discussing the role of suffering and the evil that brings about suffering.
Many skeptics and scholars have argued over the nature and existence of evil. From the halls of Harvard to the bar stools of the local pub, people struggle with the reality of evil in a world with a supposed good God. Varying views about evil distinguish the Christian worldview from others. Here are the basic views concerning the definition of evil and the existence of evil.
*Atheist: Evil that results in suffering is “irrational thinking or superstition” (Halverson, 15). Evil is not a personal thing. All people are inherently good but culture and social structures produce occasions for evil. Examples of this view are secular humanists, Marxists and Confusionists.
Richard Dawkins said, “The universe we observe has … no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. … DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music [emphasis added].”
*Polytheist: Evil that results in suffering is angering the gods. Natural evil originates because of the actions of man in angering the gods. Examples are animists, tribal religions, and folk religions.
*Pantheist: Evil that results in suffering is ignorance of one’s own innate divinity. Enlightenment (realizing that our essence is the same as the divine oneness) is the cure for evil. Examples of this view are New Age, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sufism.
*Christianity: Evil that results in suffering exists in two realms: natural evil (disease, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, etc. . .) and moral evil.
Natural evil, the improper relationship between ordinarily good things, occurs because of the sin of Adam and the resulting condemnation of the world. The world is cursed because of sin (rebellion toward God) and suffering the consequences of sin.
Moral evil is the wrong exercise of moral freedom and rebellion toward God. Sin is preferring oneself over God as Satan did in heaven. The law of God begins with the commandment: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” The law is summed up in this one, Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.” All evil originated in the original preferring of oneself over God in heaven by Satan. Moral evil in this world originated in the Garden of Eden with Adam’s sin and has past upon all men (Romans 5:12). All people are sinful and act according to their nature.
Why Does God Allow Suffering?
Remember the acronym E-V-I-L
Effect of Sin: His justice will not allow sin to be unpunished. God told Adam that if he ate of the tree then he would die. God has to punish sin and rebellion. All suffering, evil, and sin has entered into the world through that one act. Now all mankind and creation dwells under condemnation (John 3:17-19; Romans 8:19-21). Therefore, when you walk out of a children’s hospital, do not blame God for what you have seen. One should blame sin for the suffering of human kind.
Volition: Destroying evil would result in eliminating freedom. In order for man to have a free moral choice, then the possibility for evil has to be present. God created beings who were free. Now, those beings are suffering the consequences of their choices. Love is the greatest of all virtues (1 Corinthians 13:13). Forced love is a contradiction. Love exists in a freedom. God allowed man to choose to love.
Insecurity: God allows evil because He is not threatened by it. God is not insecure of His position or power. He governs the world from His sovereign throne of heaven. Our questions about evil nor the explosion of evil in our world neither threaten or impugn the holiness of God in any way. It is an insecure being that has to eliminate choice and reduce creatures to robotics and forced love. God is also not impugned by evil’s existence. It grieves Him that He has made man upon the Earth.
Love: God allows evil to exist out of love. Adam sinned and God told him that he would die. The Bible describes death in at least two realms: spiritual and physical. Adam died in his spirit the moment he sinned. He was separated from God, experienced the separation, and hid because of it (Genesis 3). Adam did not die physically the moment he sinned. In God’s great mercy and love, God allowed Adam to live physically for a time before he died. The life he would live would be one of suffering and pain because of his own sin (Gen. 3:17-19). The creation was cursed because of that sin and Adam would have to relate to a thorny world with natural evil. God’s abundant mercy provided a way of escape. He allowed Adam and Eve to have children while under the condemnation of death and sin. The children of Adam and Eve (that is us) suffer death and evil just as the parents. God, however, made a provision for them to be delivered from evil and suffering. God allowed humans to suffer but gave a way of escape. John wrote it this way, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believeth upon Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world but that the world through him might be saved. He that believeth on Him is not condemned, but He that believeth not is condemned already because He hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (John 3:16-18).
God will end all evil and suffering in the world upon the return of His Son and the establishment of His physical kingdom upon the new heavens and the new earth. In order for God to do this, He must also end all opportunity to be saved. God is not willing that any should perish and so He waits for His timing to be fulfilled. I am personally grateful that Jesus did not return in 1967, two years before I was born. I would have never been born. I would have not had an opportunity to be saved. God allows the suffering and evil to continue so that He can love the world and save the souls who turn to Him by faith.
Where was God?
Jesus opens the door into understanding in Luke 13:1-5.
God was watching. God was not distant and unaware. Jesus tells us that not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without His concern. Jesus wept over Jerusalem even though they had rejected Him and all of the prophet that He had sent to them. God sent Jonah to Ninevah because He was watching and not simply passive.
When people who are grieving ask God, “Why?” then they are met with open arms. Grief is often the context. Martha asked, “Why?” in John 11 in the context of grief. Suffering and tragedy in this life was a betrayal from Jesus to her. Jesus met her questions with love and answers.
Tomorrow is not owed to anyone. Every day that a human lives is an undeserved gift from Almighty God. We also live in a dangerous, sin cursed world where Satan is called the god of this age. Evil agents are at work. God sees it all.
God takes no pleasure in the death of people:
Ezekiel 33:11: “Say to them: ‘As I live,’ says the Lord God, ‘I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn, turn from your evil ways! For why should you die, O house of Israel?’”
God even grieved that He made man upon the earth. God is not distant and unconcerned. He is moved by the suffering of the human experience.
God was also working. Lamentations 3:22-24 says: “Through the Lord’s mercies we are not consumed, because His compassions fail not. They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness.”
Most questions about the purpose of evil in the world are really directed at the purpose of suffering in the world. God uses evil (suffering) to warn us of greater evils. Pain teaches children to avoid the hot stove or it reveals to doctors the problem on the inside of a human body.
Evil may bring occasion for greater good. The Bible story of Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers is a perfect example. He went to Egypt as a slave and rose to be second in command of the nation. When the famine struck the land of his family, God used Joseph to provide for the people of God and preserve the seed of the coming Messiah. Joseph said, “You meant evil for me, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20). Allowing some evil also helps prevent some evil. Immunizations are small doses of the substance that contain a residue of the sickness so that our bodies become resistant. He sent His only Son that we would not perish but have eternal life. God is seeking such to worship to Him. He will not passively sit while humans suffer and are condemned (John 3:16-19).
God was waiting. He is waiting for people to turn to Him. He is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). He is also waiting to end the suffering when the fullness of the Gentiles comes into His Kingdom. God has a time in mind that the purpose of God in election may stand. Today may be the last day. May we be ready!