The Problem of Evil, Suffering and Death—Making sense of the ‘why’?

As I followed the live Covid-19 country-by-country update chart on a daily basis, and continued to see the rise in the number of cases and the deaths that followed, it was a stark reminder that each death was that of a family member or friend whose loved ones were now mourning. Although over 165,000 persons die each day, which comes to 60 million deaths a year, I had not experienced a live global cases/death chart before. The chart made the experiences of those who are suffering and the reality of ultimate destiny real and tangible in a way I hadn’t known before. I couldn’t help thinking of the ripple effect that was taking place in the lives of the loved ones who were still here. My prayer was for both those who passed and those who remained, that through the suffering, pain and loss they would be drawn to the saving knowledge of Jesus’ redemptive and comforting power, so they would not “grieve like people who have no hope,” but would rest in the “full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ.” (1 Thess. 4:13; Col. 2:2)

In praying and thinking more about this time in world history, I felt led to immerse myself in a study of what has been referred to as “the problem of evil and suffering.” Even though I was familiar with the Christian theodicy in answering the ‘problem’, I felt I needed a deeper understanding of the answers that the Christian worldview provides. The need was two fold: to be personally strengthened in trusting in God’s plan for the world; and being knowledgeable, confident and ready to “give an answer” with clarity and compassion to people who were either hurting or simply trying to process the why’s and wherefore’s of the situation. As I still correspond with and meet people during this time, I have found that people are asking ‘why’? and are searching for the answer. I’ve also found that even if the person doesn’t voice it, with a little prodding via a question or two, the ‘why’ question will surface quickly. (See my previous article, “God’s Megaphone to Rouse a Deaf World-C. S. Lewis”.)

Although my study led me to a number of excellent resources, my primary resource was the book by Dr. Clay Jones, Why Does God Allow Evil?—Compelling Answers for Life’s Toughest Questions. Professor and author Sean McDowell states, “If you are looking for one book to make sense of the problem of evil, this book is for you.” I wholeheartedly agree and highly recommend this book as a vital equipping resource. (See Dr. Clay Jones bio here.)

In his book, Jones makes a persuasive case of the need for Christians to be equipped, both personally and evangelistically to “answer the hard questions” of evil, suffering and death:

We need to know God’s plan so that we can make sense of tsunamis, fires, cancers, strokes, rapes, tortures, and the fact that, except for the Lord’s return, the only thing that will prevent us from watching everyone we know die will be our own death. If we don’t understand that our good God can have a good purpose in allowing evil, we’ll live confused Christian lives. We cannot, after all, love the Lord with all our minds and secretly suspect that Christianity can’t answer the hard questions. We may repress doubts, but in time, they will wedge us from real confidence in Christ. Joy, peace, and boldness to witness, on the other hand, spring from a sense that God loves us through evil, suffering, and death, and that He will exalt us to inherit His kingdom and to reign over it with Jesus forever and ever…There is no bigger problem for Christians living in Western society than a shortsighted, this-world- focused Christianity. But those with a robust view of eternal life don’t find the questions of life—even questions regarding why God allows evil—that difficult to consider. (end of excerpt)

I found the following excerpts from Dr. Jones book to be helpful and instructive, both personally and preparatory in “giving an answer during these times of pandemic to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect. (1 Pet. 3:15) These quotations are focused on “natural evil” such as what we are now experiencing with COVID-19 and are only a glimpse into this rich and robust resource that is available in Kindle format on Amazon.com here.

Excerpts from the book, Why Does God Allow Evil?—Compelling Answers for Life’s Most Compelling Questions, by Dr. Clay Jones

What I seek to do, then, is much more than lay out tenets in a cerebral manner to create intellectual assent. Hopefully I do that! But I also seek to illustrate, as much as my limited skills allow, the horrors of evil, the glories of heaven, and the glory of Him who reigns over all things.

I’m not alone in seeing human sinfulness and the glory that awaits us in heaven as central to understanding God’s grand plan. The renowned Bible expositor D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote, “Most of our troubles are due to the fact that we are guilty of a double failure; we fail on the one hand to realize the depth of sin, and on the other hand we fail to realize the greatness and the height and the glory of our salvation.” I couldn’t agree more. [W]hen it comes to eternity, C.S. Lewis wrote, “Scripture and tradition habitually put the joys of heaven into the scale against the sufferings of earth, and no solution of the problem of pain that does not do so can be called a Christian one.” The evil we now experience can only be understood from the perspective of where we, as Christians, have come and where we are going for all eternity.

Comprehending human evil is hard, and comprehending the other end of the spectrum—the glory that awaits us in heaven forever—is much harder. My perspective on why God allows evil isn’t unique. It’s within the great tradition from Augustine to Thomas Aquinas that was well articulated by C.S. Lewis. Mostly what I’m doing differently is trying to illustrate and emphasize some teachings that are often not given the attention they deserve.

When Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they plunged us, their descendants, into a lifelong education of good and evil. This isn’t a Bible sidebar topic…

The various forms of the words good and evil appear in the Bible almost 1100 times. Then when we add in the synonyms like sin, wicked, holy, right, wrong, righteous, unrighteous, love, hate, obey, and disobey, that brings the number to more than 5000 times. And this does not include other variations of words for evil like bad, iniquity, corrupt, immoral, depraved, or profane. Nor does this include words for particular evils like covet, adultery, idolatry, pride, lying, lust, and so on. Nor words of particular types of goodness like honor, truthfulness, faithfulness, and humility. Nor words describing the inclination to do evil like temptation or seduction. Nor words about one’s getting in good standing again with God after one has done evil, such as atonement, sacrifice (and the entire sacrificial system), repentance, and forgiveness. Nor words about the effects of evil, such as sorrow, sadness, sickness, pain, and death. Nor lengthy accounts of people sinning, like David and Bathsheba; of people suffering for their sin, like Judas; or of Jesus’ atonement for sin like the crucifixion accounts. Nor does it include words describing the final destinations of the evil and the good, such as judgment, hell, and heaven. Nor words describing the goodness of God. In other words, the Bible is largely about the knowledge of good and evil. We learn from it that God is good, that evil is horrific, and how to overcome evil with good. There is a problem of evil, all right. But it’s not God’s problem: It’s ours.

God cannot give beings free will and not allow them to use it wrongly (that’s as logical as it gets). Further, it was a greater good for God to create beings with free will than to not create them.

Definition of Terms

If we are to understand the relevant literature on the problem of evil and suffering we need clarity on some core terms of the discussion.

Evil. As I wrote in The Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization, “Just as dark is defined in regards to the absence of light, so Christian thought has often defined evil as the absence of good; or to use Augustine’s (AD 354–430) words, the privation of good (privatio boni).” In short, “Evil then is what ought not to be, for evil is at the least unpleasant (as in a rotten peach) if not harmful or deadly (as in cancer or murder).”

I’m often asked where evil came from, or why God created evil, but evil is not a thing. There is no blob somewhere in the universe named evil. If there were such a blob, it would be difficult to explain why God would create such a blob. But evil is a corruption of the good, and evil arises from the misuse of the will. The will is misused for evil whenever we will things that are in contradiction to God’s will…there’s nothing mysterious here.

As C.S. Lewis explains: “The moment you have a self at all, there is the possibility of putting yourself first—wanting to be the centre—wanting to be God, in fact. That was the sin of Satan and that was the sin he taught to the human race.”

The Origin of Natural Evil

In Genesis 3:17-19 the Lord told Adam, “Cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” So in response to Adam’s sin, the Lord cursed the ground. Old Testament professor Robert R. Gonzalez points out that “just as ‘childbearing’ is a synecdoche for the woman’s larger role of mother and wife, so ‘the soil’ does not limit God’s curse merely to the sphere of agriculture…

God is withdrawing his unqualified blessing and imposing a curse upon the filling and the subduing of the earth…”

Thus later in Genesis 5:29 we read about “the ground that the LORD has cursed.” Natural evil entered the world because God cursed the earth in response to Adam’s sin. In fact, what pestilence—mold, decay, cancer, and so on—can’t have ensued from God looking at planet Earth and saying, “I curse you”?

That creation is under a curse is further explained in Romans 8:19-23:

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves…

Notice several things…creation’s subjection to futility and corruption clearly occurred because of the Fall. Otherwise one would have to argue that although in Genesis 1 the Lord called each day of His creation “good” (Genesis 1:4,10,12,18,25), and then summed up His overall creative work as “very good” (verse 31), what He meant by “very good” was that it was subject to “futility” and “corruption,” and it was “groaning” and that animals were dying of cancer, etc. Nothing in the creation narrative suggests that.

In addition, the apostle Paul related creation’s futility and corruption to man. As New Testament professor James D.G. Dunn explains:

The point Paul is presumably making, through somewhat obscure language, is that God followed the logic of his purposed subjecting of creation to man by subjecting it yet further in consequence of man’s fall, so that it might serve as an appropriate context for fallen man: a futile world to engage the futile mind of man…There is an out-of-sortedness, a disjointedness about the created order which makes it a suitable habitation for man at odds with his creator.

 
This indeed is our experience with planet Earth. There is something desperately wrong with creation, and the hope for its renewal is linked to the revelation of the sons of God. Creation is groaning, and man groans while interacting with creation.

The phenomenon of creation being freed from corruption, as stated in Romans 8, is elucidated in Colossians 1. There, Jesus is identified as “the image of the invisible God,” and we are told that “by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him” (verses 15-16). Verses 19-20 go on to say, “In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.”

Clearly, something must have happened to Jesus’ relationship to creation—otherwise, why would “all things…in heaven and on earth” need to be reconciled to Jesus unless they were previously not reconciled? “All things” must include everything in subhuman creation, but if God originally created everything futile and corrupted, but called it “very good,” then what is there for Jesus to reconcile to Himself? No one needs to be reconciled to anything unless previously they were at odds with each other. Thus, the separation of “all things,” of creation, from Jesus, could only have occurred because of the fall of Adam.

God subjected creation to corruption. As Murray points out, “Neither Satan nor man could have subjected it in hope; only God could have subjected it with such a design.” Likewise, Moo writes that “Paul must be referring to God, who alone had the right and the power to condemn all of creation to frustration because of human sin.”

But human woes don’t stop with the Lord cursing the ground. Then the Lord did one final thing that sealed humankind’s fate. In Genesis 3:22-23 we read, “The LORD God said, ‘The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.’ So the LORD God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken.” So the Lord cursed the ground, presumably enabling all kinds of pestilence, and then He kicked Adam and Eve out of the Garden, removing them from the rejuvenating power of the Tree of Life. And we’ve been attending funerals ever since.

When it comes to natural evil, many people wrongly assume that when God said, “On the day that you eat of it you will surely die,” He added, “in your sleep at a ripe old age of natural causes.” But He didn’t. He only said “you will surely die.” And whether one dies at eight months old, or eighteen years old, or eighty-eight years old, we are all going to die. Here’s some hard news: Only one thing is going to prevent you from watching absolutely every person you know die from murder, accident, or disease, and that will be your own death from murder, accident, or disease. Have a nice day! But, seriously, that’s a hard truth.

Epilogue: The Short Answer on Why God Allows Evil

In the classes that I teach, I ask my students to come up with a dinner-table summary of what they have learned. As Christians, we should all be able to summarize the important truths of the faith, such as the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, or reasons as to why God allows evil. Indeed, when I tell people that I teach on why God allows evil, I’m almost always asked, very intently, “So what’s the answer?” In what follows, I’m going to give my short answer to what I’ve written in this book.

Because free will is valuable (in fact, it’s hard to conceive of humans not having free will), God created beings that had free will and gave them paradise. God gave these beings—Adam and Eve—only one prohibition: “You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” It’s important to note that it is impossible to give beings free will and not allow them to use it wrongly—that’s as logical as it gets. So Adam and Eve had everything going for them, but they distrusted God and rebelled against Him. So God cursed the ground, thus enabling all kinds of disease and pestilence—this was the origin of natural evil—and then God kicked Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden, thus removing them from the rejuvenating power of the Tree of Life. And we’ve been attending funerals ever since.

Once removed from the Garden, Adam and Eve had children who were physical and spiritual reproductions of themselves. Adam and Eve couldn’t have chosen to reproduce children that were in some way better than themselves; they could only reproduce themselves. Therefore all humans are born like their first parents—desperately inclined to sin, alienated from relationship with God, and destined to always suffer and die. God could not simply excuse Adam and Eve’s sin because the lesson to free beings would then be “Sin is okay, God will overlook it.”

But to demonstrate His love for us and to atone for the grave seriousness of sin, God sent His only Son, Jesus, to die for rebellious humans. Now, we humans who trust God and accept Jesus’ death on the cross for our sins learn the horror of rebellion through experiencing rebellion’s devastating results. We are also learning to overcome evil with good. This knowledge prepares us to be fit inheritors of God’s kingdom, where—because we are learning the horror and stupidity of sin here on earth—we will be able to use our free will rightly as we reign with Jesus forever and ever.

There it is—a short explanation as to why God allows evil. Of course, there are many aspects of this topic that require further explanation, and that’s what this book provides. (end of excerpts)

As you peruse the table of contents from the book, the breadth and depth of this book will become evident. It’s a great time to “love the Lord our God with all our mind.” (Matt. 22:37)

Why Does God Allow Evil?—Compelling Answers for Life’s Toughest Questions—by Dr. Clay Jones
Table of Contents
Preface
Introduction: In Search of Answers About God and Evil
1. Why Do We Suffer for Adam’s Sin?
2. Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?
3. Are There No Good People?
4. What Is the Destiny of the Unevangelized?
5. How Can Eternal Punishment Be Fair?
6. Is Free Will Worth It?
7. Wasn’t There Another Way?
8. Will We Have Free Will in Heaven?
9. Will Eternity Be Boring?
10. How Does Eternity Relate to Our Suffering Now?
11. How Does Suffering Relate to Our Eternal Occupation?
Epilogue: The Short Answer on Why God Allows Evil
Appendix: Satan’s Rebellion and God’s Response
Notes

“I have read a number of books on the problem of evil, but this is one of the very best yet produced. Professor Clay Jones fearlessly and deftly addresses all the hard questions head-on with rational responses to them. There is no ducking of issues. Moreover, Jones skillfully weaves theology, biblical studies, and philosophy into a coherent, well-integrated book that is suited for both the scholar and the layperson. I highly recommend it.” J.P. Moreland, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy, Talbot School of Theology, Biola University; author of The Soul: How We Know It’s Real and Why It Matters

Why Does God Allow the Coronavirus? A Live Conversation with Dr. Clay Jones and Sean McDowell

Where is God in a Coronavirus World?-John Lennox and Michael Ramsden-rzim.org

Suffering and Evil: The Logical Problem-Pt. 1—Dr. William Lane Craig videos—here

Suffering and Evil: The Probability Version-Pt. 2—Dr. William Lane Craig videos—here

Equipping Resources

Why Would God Allow Diseases and Other Natural Evils-RZIM PODCAST-Vince & Jo Vitale, here
The Problemless Problem of Evil-PODCAST-Alan Shlemon-str.org, here
IF GOD, WHY SUFFERING? THOUGHTS ON THEODICY-by Jonathan McLatchie, here
We Can Find Peace During Pandemic-by Clay Jones, here
God’s Megaphone to Rouse a Deaf World-C. S. Lewis-by Lane, here

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