The ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus once said that pleasure and pain are the measures of good and evil: That because there is suffering there must also be evil, and because there is evil, there is no God.
Many people reject the concept of a God because of the existence of evil and suffering. For many, the pain we witness every day goes against the concept of an all-loving and all-powerful being who promises good and eternal joy. If God truly loves us why did He create evil? If God truly cares for us why doesn’t He put an end to death and suffering?
What is evil and where did it come from?
Although the origins of evil are unclear, the Bible tells us that when God created the world His enemy the devil was already at work behind the scenes to destroy the perfect work of His hands. Genesis says that God attempted to protect humanity from evil by instructing Adam not to eat the fruit that would open his eyes to the distinction between goodness and evil (Gen 2:17). God informed Adam that if he ate the fruit he would “surely die.”
We all know how that story ends – with Adam and Eve choosing to eat the fruit and from then on becoming aware not only of the difference between goodness and evil, but also of the actions that may lead to one result or the other.
The story suggests that evil in our world does not exist because it was created or devised by God, rather it exists because Adam and Eve – and we as their descendants – made and continue to make choices that allow evil to exist.
How do we choose to allow evil to exist?
Moral philosophers have argued that because of our ability to make choices we are able to make morally significant choices (such as the expression of love and affection), and equally able to make choices that are tantamount to ethical abuse when we fail to act morally.
Evil can exist when, for example, rather than living in harmony we choose to focus on our differences and create conflict as a result. We see the consequences of this seemingly trivial choice manifested in different ways: when we choose to bully a schoolmate because they’re just not cool; when we choose not to be friends with someone because of their looks; when we are disdainful of those who make different food choices; when people are killed because of their religion, race, or political beliefs.
In our recent journey through the book of Esther we’ve met one such character, Haman, the evil foe of Israel who set a trajectory for the destruction of God’s people.
Evil can also occur when, rather than placing others’ value, dignity, and needs in equal standing to ours, we make the choice to assert ourselves over them. We see the consequences of this choice in particular crimes; human trafficking, prostitution, and the assertion of political control from one country over another.
Is God responsible for evil and our suffering?
If the possibility of evil arises from our choices, then surely the God who gave us the ability to choose is responsible for evil. This is as true as saying that the parents who conceived their child are entirely and completely responsible for the misdeeds of their child. Our actions are not caused by God, in the same way that a child’s ultimate decisions are not caused by their parents. God gave us the gift of choice and what we do with that gift is, ironically, our choice.
Why do we suffer?
(a) God allows suffering to show us that something is wrong;
Although evil existed at the time God created the world, death, pain, and suffering did not. By allowing suffering in this world, God shows us every day that something is wrong and that we have been separated from Him because of humanity’s sin.
(b) God allows suffering to teach us virtues;
Strength. In the same way an army captain deliberately puts his soldiers through intense training to make them tougher and see how much they can endure, sometimes God allows us to go through pain so we become tougher and stronger and so we can discover how much we can endure with Him. Romans 5 says that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character” and as Christians, the Bible tells us that we will suffer through trials and tribulations but that we would soldier on as good soldiers of our Christ. (2 Timothy 2:3)
Comfort. God allows us to suffer so we are better able to comfort others in their suffering. Paul writes that we suffer to receive our Father’s comfort, which in turn enables us to comfort others (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). Knowing people who have gone through what we are going through is both consoling and uplifting as they understand us and usually have the words to speak directly to the troubles we are facing.
Humility. God allows us to suffer to realise our limitations. The human race is developed and intelligent, made in God’s image, and able to achieve almost anything it sets its minds to. In such circumstances it is easy to forget not only the Giver of life and talents, but also our own limitations. Our ability to live is dependent on a number of factors. For us to dismiss our need for health, love, people, and most importantly God to truly live is misconceived. Sometimes we suffer so we may learn our limitations and our need for something bigger. Ecclesiastes 3:11 states that God set eternity in our hearts, and with this imprint we rebel against the inevitability of death and the limitations imposed by our mortality.
(c) God allows suffering to save lost souls;
Finally, God allows suffering to enable people to look to Him for salvation particularly those who do not know Him. I once knew a young man who stood strongly for Jesus and later died from a tragic accident. At his funeral many of his friends came to pay their respects and, incidentally, heard the Gospel message preached in his unwavering stand for Jesus. At that funeral people came to know God and subsequently gave their lives to Him.
The Bible is full of stories of people who would not have turned to God and experienced His glory in all its fullness had they not experienced tragedy: The leper in Matthew 8 may not have come to Jesus if he had been in perfect health; the cripple in John 5 would not have experienced the full majesty of God had he been able to walk all along; Lazarus died so that many of the Jews who saw Jesus raise him to back to life believed. (John 11:45)
Tragedy occurs so that the people experiencing the tragedy, or the individuals surrounding those people, may be brought to Christ. Jesus died so that we may be reconciled with God. God’s glory can be displayed, sometimes more prominently and painfully, when tragedy occurs.
“He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore…” Revelations 21:4
God works for the good of those who love Him. He is not the source of evil, and neither does He enjoy seeing us suffer. However He allows us to suffer for reasons that speak to us and, more importantly, highlight our undeniable need for him.
God’s plans are not to harm us but to prosper us. He has promised that though we will face tribulation in this world, He has overcome the world, and we can bring our cries for peace and our longing for eternity to Him.