We take up this difficult question in week 11 of our 12-part series because such a complex issue should not be considered in a vacuum; it must be considered in the light of established rational reasons for belief in God, that a God-given objective morality exists, and we can know God through the trustworthiness of the Bible. With this in mind, we can begin to approach the problem of evil and suffering.
First, consider that we humans, believers in God or not, recognize “shoulds” and “oughts.” We should be good. We ought to be kind. Humans should be better than we are. We ought not do evil. The fact that we all speak this way, and we all recognize that humans fail to meet such a standard, begs the questions: if there is no God, what are these shoulds and oughts that we are striving for? Who says we should be “better”? And how are “good” and “better” even defined apart from a God standard? What mysterious universal “good” are non-believers trying to attain? The truth is, without a God standard, good, better, should, and ought are mere opinions of an individual or group. To speak of good and evil is to speak of the nature and standards of God.
Genesis 1 makes it clear that God created all things “good.” Evil, therefore, is a parasite upon goodness, a twisting of the good. Badness is only spoiled goodness, and there must be something good before it can spoil. We can explain the perverted from the normal, but we cannot explain the normal from the perverted. Evil is rust on iron or a hole in the roof. As such, God is not the author of evil in the same way He is the author of good. God created all things good, but gave us an ability to do otherwise, which we have exercised. The story of Adam and Eve in Genesis illustrates this basic truth. We are not as we should be, and we all know it.
God knows and allows evil and suffering to occur but only within the boundaries of a greater good that only God knows; we do not because we are not God. Again, God exists and God is good, and so we can trust that although we avoid and abhor evil, we know God always intends a greater good. This understanding makes evil and suffering no less horrendous, but it does place our understanding (and our coping) within God’s wider perspective. Personal responsibility remains even as God knows and allows evil and suffering in order to bring about a greater good. “What you meant for evil against me, God meant for good,” said Joseph, sold into slavery, yet rose to prominence and saved many lives from famine (Genesis 50:20).
In addition, some moral goods are impossible apart from their response to evil. The church father Origen (c. A.D. 185-253) said, “Virtue is not virtue if it is untested and unexamined.” While the prototypical first humans lacked sin, they also lacked suffering and struggle that helps produce virtue. Courage, heroism, self-sacrifice, as well as triumph and patience remain unexpressed without struggle, danger, and even the reality of death. As Marshall Shelley of Denver Seminary observed, the greatest evangelist he ever knew never said a word or took a step. His severely disabled daughter, who lived only a few weeks, drew people together in deeper and more remarkable ways than could have ever been otherwise possible.
Ultimately, there remains a certain synergy among good and evil. Although evil is a twisting of good, our joy and happiness in life is made all the more sweeter because we know and experience evil. Evil gives joy and happiness greater value because of the alternative. If only joy existed, would we appreciate it as much without knowing the opposite?
Finally, a quick word about suffering caused by nature, sometimes incorrectly referred to as “natural evil.” Earthquakes, hurricanes, and other natural phenomena can certainly cause great suffering and devastation. Yet, we must also recognize that such acts of nature are an important part of sustaining life on earth. As physicist Hugh Ross notes:
“[Hurricanes] counterbalance the ocean’s tendency to leach carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This leaching, if unchecked, would result in our planet’s catastrophic cooling.”
Earthquakes return essential nutrients to the land, tornados remove dense vegetation allowing new and diverse growth, and most of the viruses in our bodies are highly beneficial. Just as water, necessary for life, can also cause floods, and fire that warms can also burn, nature’s necessary attributes can sometimes cause harm. Within such harm, however, we yet find opportunities for kindness, sacrifice, and other virtues.
Evil is, well, a necessary evil. However, what is despairing is not evil itself. What is despairing is that with no God, there is no meaning in suffering. Such hardship becomes just bad luck - no purpose, no certainty of greater good. With God, no suffering is ever meaningless. It matters deeply to God who loves goodness, hates evil, weeps with us, and offers comfort.
“Every good and perfect gift comes from God” (James 1). We pervert our God-given goodness. Still, “In all things God works together for the good with those who love Him” (Romans 8:28). Many questions about evil and suffering essentially become boomerang questions coming right back at us. Why does God allow evil and suffering? Perhaps God responds, why do you allow evil and suffering? Why does God allow violence? Why do you allow violence? God is all good, all loving, all powerful, yet also infinite in His righteousness and wisdom. In ways we cannot truly comprehend, God allows evil for the purpose of a redemptive greater good, a good exemplified on an evil cross that leads to eternal salvation – the greatest good of all!