Written By Adriel Yeo, Singapore
This must be one of the most perplexing questions Christians face. The problem of evil and suffering is a thorny issue that has caused some to fall away from their faith, prevented others from coming to God, or discouraged some from growing deeper in their walk with Him.
When I started exploring Christianity, I had so many questions, including the problem of evil and suffering. I read quite a few books on Christian apologetics that attempted to address this question and grappled with the issue for a long time—and I still have questions.
For some of us, steering clear of the issue might seem like the solution, but I think it can be unwise to completely ignore this problem, because many of us struggle with it constantly. If God is all good (omnibenevolent) and all-powerful (omnipotent), He cannot possibly allow evil, can He? If He does, then surely He is either not all good or not all-powerful.
Philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga, Peter Van Inwagen, and William Lane Craig have presented a strong case that allows for evil to exist while maintaining that God is still omnibenevolent and omnipotent. Plantinga, in his “free will defense”, argues that so long as God grants free will to human beings, there will always be the possibility of man committing moral evil—in which God cannot intervene, for to do so would go against man’s freedom of will.
As to why God then allows free will, he argues in his book God, Freedom and Evil that it is possible for a world in which human beings have free will to be better than one in which humans do not. There can be no love in a world devoid of free will, for example, because love requires agents to make decisions voluntarily, without being coerced to. He explains it further:
“To create creatures capable of moral good, therefore, He (God) must create creatures capable of moral evil; and He can’t give these creatures the freedom to perform evil and at the same time prevent them from doing so. As it turned out, sadly enough, some of the free creatures God created went wrong in the exercise of their freedom; this is the source of moral evil. The fact that free creatures sometimes go wrong, however, counts neither against God’s omnipotence nor against His goodness; for He could have forestalled the occurrence of moral evil only by removing the possibility of moral good.”
Such a relationship between God’s omnibenevolence and free will could provide a helpful perspective as we try to understand why there is so much evil in the world. But it is still limited. Here’s the reality: while almost all of my friends whom I have spoken to about this are willing to buy into Plantinga’s argument, they still have issues. Intuitively, they just feel uncomfortable thinking about all the seemingly unnecessary deaths that are happening around the world. The amount of injustice doesn’t seem to make any sense, no matter what the explanation.
This has led me to believe that the issue is perhaps less of an intellectual problem, and more of an emotional one. The question about evil and suffering has no easy answer because it is not about logical possibilities or impossibilities. Rather, it is an issue of the heart—we want to understand why people go through various difficulties. In fact, to hear the cries of help and feel burdened is a good thing, because it reveals a side of our humanity. As such, I am not sure that any answer provided may be satisfying. A sweeping statement like, “It’s because of sin” may not help a person who is going through a difficult time.
Instead, as we ponder on why God is good and yet there is suffering, perhaps we can consider this: why is there a historical Jesus, and a crucifixion that is followed by an empty tomb?
When we look at the crucifixion of Jesus and His resurrection, we will see not a God who doesn’t care, but rather one who does and is determined to restore all of creation. That’s why He sent His son Jesus to earth to die for us on the cross, so that we would be forgiven of our sins, and raised Him from death, so that we have hope of eternal life.
Sometimes, I wonder, how many Christians turned to God because they were persuaded by how the Christian faith addressed the problem of evil and suffering through Jesus’ death and resurrection? For me, I became a Christian because I felt convinced by historical evidence for the resurrection, and at the same time, felt deeply convicted that I had disowned the God who had created all things. And while I continue to ask questions about evil and suffering, I’ve come to realize that I cannot make any sense of what is going on from my limited understanding and perspective. I keep going simply because of the truth of who Jesus is.
Personally, I think that if we focus solely on questions such as “Why me?”, “Why now?”, or “Why must this happen?”, we’re never going to make any sense of suffering, much less take any comfort in any solution provided. Rather, I believe that being a Christian means turning our eyes away from the “Why me?” question to the “Why Jesus?” question. He is the object of our hope.
We may never be able to fully comprehend this issue, but what we do know—and can take comfort in—is that God does care, and that the whole person and being of Jesus attests to this truth.
The question of evil and suffering will always tug at our hearts, and we will always struggle with questions regarding suffering. But we know that it isn’t because God doesn’t care. He does and He has taken action in setting the world right.
As N.T Wright says: “When we learn to read the story of Jesus and see it as the story of the love of God, doing for us what we could not do for ourselves—that insight produces, again and again, a sense of astonished gratitude which is very near the heart of authentic Christian experience.”
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