What Exactly Is Evil?
Everyone knows that some believe god doesn’t exist. You might be surprised to know that some don’t believe evil “exists”! how can that be?
Augustine, the early Christian leader, believed that evil does not exist as a created entity, but as a corruption of the good that god created. Satan, he argued, cannot create at all—only god can do that. So the devil is limited to twisting good things into bad ones. For example, lust is a warped version of proper desire.
Through this argument, Augustine was one of the first thinkers to explain why god allows suffering. God is infinitely good, and nothing evil can come from him. what we call evil is the result of the free will of people, whose disobedience warps god’s wonderful creation. The entire world is impacted by the rebellion of Adam and eve (and the rest of us, each day) as a consequence of the free will god gave us to choose—and the way we dishonor that gift. Thus we have evil, human and “natural.”
Evil is never an act of god, but the result of the acts of men and women (even if indirectly so).
Sooner or later, you’ll come to it, just like the rest of us. Sooner or later, you’re going to face that moment. It’s on its way, no matter who you are or how you think. The Question is in your future. You’ll run right into it, head-on, in some moment of emotional turmoil.
Why, God? Why did you let that happen?
It’s as much of a cry as a question, really; a wound; a shout of betrayal of all the rules of life and fairness as you knew them.
So it may be a cry, but it expresses itself, every single time, as a question: Why? And it expresses itself, invariably, to one person. Why, God?
It comes when you’re facing something that doesn’t fit into the picture—something terribly, frightfully wrong in every way. And it’s the most basic reflex of human nature to want to know the reason.
Perhaps the worst of the moment is knowing, with some awful inner assurance, that no answer is forthcoming—at least not the kind of answer you crave. Not the full and satisfying answer your heart cries out for. In this of all moments, the heavens fall silent. Count on it.
“Like everyone else, I wish God would phone me and clue me in. “
When will you face that question? Or could it be that this is old news, that you’ve faced the question before. Once. Twice. Maybe more times than you can count. Maybe your mind is full of this question during this season of your life, and it’s the very reason you picked up this book.
Perhaps it came when you confronted the death of a child. Perhaps it was the news of a natural disaster; perhaps some cruel, very personal heartbreak that brought the Question to the forefront of your mind.
You held it there, turned it around, and examined it from every angle, really grasping its implications for the first time—but not the last. For, like some monster from a B-movie, the Question never dies. No matter how many times you knock it down, it always rises from the dust. There’s always a sequel.
It can’t be fought off, rationalized away, or overcome by the quantity and kindness of friends. There’s no stake to hammer through its heart. The Question is no respecter of persons. You could be the richest person in the world, and still it is relentless, threatening that place in your soul where life makes sense, where all endings are happy ones.
Why, God? Why did this happen?
Why didn’t you stop it?
Why won’t you explain yourself?
Actually, the Question would never occur to us if the world weren’t, overall, such a lovely place. Have you ever thought about that? Weeds aren’t ugly unless they’re seen in a garden or a beautiful lawn.
Our world is a garden. It’s filled with majestic vistas that speak of a divine artist. We see the power of God in a sunset, feel his affection in the warmth of a little child, sense his wisdom and guidance in the cycles of life and nature. This earth is a museum of his magnificence, and we walk through it day by day, letting it fill our hearts to overflowing—until, once again, some horrendous event crashes into our midst, taunting our faith and defying our easy answers.
It’s the number one question that people bring to me. Why? Why death, disaster, injustice on micro and macro scales? How can these things coexist with the loving, perfect God I’ve told them about so many times?
I tell them he is love. I tell them we are his precious, beloved children, and that he has proven it; that he paid the highest of prices to bring us home to him. I tell them he’s sovereign, which means that he’s got the whole world in his hands.
Their response: “Pardon us, but—this world? This world of tsunamis and falling towers and poisoned skies, of death and war and disease? This world in which some of us are losing our homes because we can’t find work? He may have the whole world in his hands, but is there not blood on those hands?”
I tell them God identifies with their grief. They tell me, “We don’t want identification; we want intervention.”
They can and do believe in the God I serve. But they want to know why. Why won’t he step in when life turns inside out?
Or won’t he?
I’ve had a lot of years to think about these things.
I’ll never forget my first truly devastating experience with the Question.
It was the afternoon of homecoming at my home church, the happiest of happy days in congregational life. Homecoming is a great reunion, a joining of church present with church past. The prodigals return, and the pews are full. The aromas of home cooking drift through the building.
I was in my mid-twenties then, back for a visit; I was preaching at another church on most Sundays. It felt good to be home. We’d had a joyful worship service that morning, and people sang the hymns with gusto, though their voices were mingled with the rumblings of their stomachs. Incredible feats of cooking awaited, and everyone knew it.
“This is no easy question, the relationship of God to human suffering.”
It was a lovely day outdoors. We ate, we laughed, we played, and we swapped old church memories. The sounds of children’s shouts rang through the air. Then those shouts—well, their tone changed. They became screams.
We came running and discovered the ghastly news. Our preacher, Gerald Comp, had dived deep into the frigid swimming hole while playing tag with some of the kids. One of the kids wanted to know why he didn’t come up.
Life simply stopped. It felt that way to everyone. One moment, there had been laughter and play, the next it was as if death had stolen in, easily overcoming the sum of our joy.
Even now, I can close my eyes and recall the image of Gerald’s wife, Barbara, and their two teenage daughters, standing with pale faces as his lifeless body was pulled from the waters. Some wept, some prayed, but most of us did both. We fell to our knees and pled with God, passionately, desperately, to glorify his name through the healing of Gerald Comp.
A group of men went about the business of resuscitation. It all came to nothing. There was our pastor, our man of God, a lifeless shell. He was having his own homecoming, death’s mockery of our church’s day.
Never before that moment had I ever seen my father cry.
Why, God? Why Gerald? Why our church? Were our prayers not sincere enough? Were our tears not wet enough?
Gerald Comp was a thirty-eight-year-old man, a revered pastor, a model husband and father, and a spiritual leader abounding in fruitfulness. If God wanted to remove one of his most effective servants from the earth, well, he’d certainly done that. How could there even be a reason?
From Gerald’s very mouth we had heard sermons on Romans 8:28, telling us that all things work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose. Many of us could rattle the words off our tongues without thinking. But now those words had real weight; now they had implications. The apostle Paul’s math seemed like an imbalanced equation—theology that didn’t add up.
As the ambulance came, and the rest of us stood huddled in one another’s arms, we whispered about what came next. The name Greg was among those whispers. Who will tell Greg?
Greg Comp, the pastor’s fourteen-year-old son, was home with the flu; he could have no idea that his life had changed forever, that in some mundane moment, he had lost something that could never be replaced.
Someone had to go and bring the news to Greg.
Thirty minutes later, a friend and I were heading for the Comp home. I couldn’t imagine what I was going to say or do, how I was going to be the harshest messenger of his life.
I was no more than a decade older than Greg. I thought about my own father, and tried to imagine myself in this position. Where would I be now if I had been deprived of my dad at fourteen years old? What might my life be like?
As I realized the struggles in store for Greg Comp, I felt so many things: speechless, confused, spiritually disarmed, upset. What words could I possibly say that would not come across as unfeeling platitudes?
In the end, I think I realized that any words I chose, other than the information I bore, were next to irrelevant. Most of the point was simply to be there, to share an unthinkable moment. There were no magic expressions or potions to dull his pain.
And yes, I asked it, within myself: Where were you, God? Why did you let this happen? How is this family supposed to bear up?
And from heaven came a profound silence—or so it seemed to me.
Let’s be honest: This is no easy question, the relationship of God to human suffering. The wise and the devout have grappled with it throughout history, and not always to a victorious conclusion. St. Teresa of Avila said, “Lord, if this is the way you treat your friends, it’s no wonder you don’t have many!” At least hers was less an expression of doubt than of frustration.
Others have taken hold of the Question as a kind of checkmate in the game of rationalizing God out of existence—or at least diminishing our view of him. Their line goes like this:
It’s a striking line of reasoning. But it’s also a little too cut and dried, right? God, the world, and suffering: These are not simple issues. We all sense that there could be other reasons God would hold back from stopping anything and everything unpleasant in this world.
So we look for other reasons that evil and suffering may exist; we round up the usual suspects.
Maybe it’s simple cause and effect. This is the “you had it coming” argument. Once Jesus came across a blind man, and his disciples immediately asked, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2).
They are hoping, of course, for a lively philosophical debate with Jesus the teacher. They have been taught that disease or disability is mark of someone’s sin. So whose?
Jesus tells his disciples they’re asking the wrong question. It’s not about who sinned, but how the goodness of God can shine through the situation. And he proceeds to make that happen. As always, Jesus gets to the root of the subject in a startling way. He shows us an old question from a brand-new angle. As we’ll see, he has hit upon a key element of the problem of suffering.
We’d like to scoff at the disciples’ thinking and say that our God doesn’t work that way, punishing sin with suffering. The problem is, the Bible says that he does—sometimes. Moses wasn’t allowed to enter the Promised Land because of a certain incident in which he lost his temper and usurped God’s glory, a serious offense. Miriam, his sister, was temporarily struck with leprosy for undermining Moses’ leadership.
And those are not isolated incidents. There’s an important passage in Hebrews 12. It tells us that God disciplines us as a father disciplines his children—for our good. Discipline is simply a part of loving training. We do need to distinguish punishment from discipline. The former is simply a penalty dealt out for a misdeed; the latter is a loving form of training. We impose discipline on ourselves not as punishment but to be better people.
So God disciplines. But there are other angles, too.
Sometimes we suffer due to our own willful error. Maybe the warning was on the label all along, and we simply ignored it. The sign said the road was slippery, and we pushed the accelerator down.
Let’s say Uncle Bob’s bad report from the doctor concerned lung cancer. He smoked for years, everyone nagged him about it, and he really did mean to stop. But the fact is, he didn’t. He foolishly ignored the warning signs. So it’s not as if God is suddenly, arbitrarily inflicting this bad medical report like a lightning bolt of sheer wrath. Uncle Bob quite sadly brought this upon himself.
Sometimes we choose the wrong friends, eat the wrong foods, make the wrong decisions in business or in family. The old TV detective Baretta used to say, “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.”
But the Bible puts it better: “Be sure that your sin will find you out” (Numbers 32:23). Life comes with any number of hazard labels. We can’t rail against God when we’re given fair warning. Actions have consequences.
Could it be the devil?
It’s the simplest and most logical of arguments, in a way: All good things come from heaven, all bad things are the work of Satan. The Bible describes how he attacked a good man named Job, who suffered deeply and thoroughly.
“How can God be both wonderfully good and ultimately powerful, while allowing all the evil that we see and experience?”
Paul spoke of a “thorn in the flesh,” some unpleasant infirmity that God allowed Satan to use as a weapon against the apostle. From the devil’s perspective, it was an attack; from God’s, it was a tool to protect Paul’s humility.
Again, here’s a compelling clue to how God relates to our pain. An attack could originate from hell, while shaping us for heaven. The devil himself—as much as he hates it—finds his own place in the vast plan of God, who is all-powerful, capable of using any element as part of the great tapestry he is knitting together.
The disciples suggested that the blind man may have been blind because of his parents’ sins. This was logical, from their perspective, because the man had been born with his infirmity; it couldn’t be his fault if he was born that way.
Sometimes relatively innocent people suffer out of all proportion to any argument of sin being the cause. A little child dies. A drunk driver steals the life of a promising young lady. An emotionally disturbed man opens fire in a theater or a school. A child is born with a drug addiction stemming from the mother’s use of cocaine.
Surely God is not dispensing “discipline” through such horrendous events; it would be mere punishment, serving no purpose for the victim. No, in these cases, people are clearly suffering for the sin of others. It’s an unavoidable conclusion, but not a very pleasing one: We may suffer as the consequence of others’ sins.
It brings us right back to the question of God’s place in this: Why would he allow the innocent to be victimized for someone else’s wrongs?
And yet we read in the Old Testament the idea that the sins of the fathers are visited on the third and fourth generations. It may not seem fair, but it’s the way the world turns. We must take into account that our sins put out ripples, in the world around us and the future ahead of us.
Here is another striking idea from the Bible: “Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). So maybe, bad things happen to good people because they’re good people.
Again, this checks out logically. We know that if we take a stand for biblical values in an anti-biblical world, we will face certain consequences: ridicule, rejection, possibly loss of work or even freedom, in some circumstances. People are still punished or even executed for their faith in some parts of the world. We’ve seen businesses lose income when their prominently Christian leaders stood firm for biblical values. Jesus said this would happen, and there’s never been a time when he wasn’t proven correct.
There’s also the distinctly Christian idea that we live not just among fallen people, but in an entire fallen world. In other words, the rebellious sin of Adam and Eve caused all of creation to be corrupted. Paul teaches, in Romans 8, that all of this world “groans” as in childbirth pains, awaiting the birth of a new creation.
This helps us to account for natural calamities: tsunamis, earthquakes, diseases, floods, and even the attacks of vicious animals. We can suffer through non-human agency, and the Bible teaches us that even in these cases, we are feeling the consequences of a world that has rebelled.
As a matter of fact, we find this subject arising much more frequently in recent days. Monster storms have devastated New Orleans and New York; and even near my home, an F4 tornado twisted its way through the community at 170 miles per hour, killing eleven people and doing untold damage. These are the times when people come to me with haunted eyes and ask, “Why?”
The answer is that our planet and our people suffer from the fall of humanity. For this life, we will see the result of rebellion against God again and again, and we call the natural disasters “Acts of God.”
Even so, I suspect Jesus would point out that we’re still asking the wrong questions. We’re quick to brand horrendous things as acts of God, but what about all things bright and beautiful? What about a gentle spring rain, a day of glorious weather, a field of ripe corn? Are these not also acts of God?
In the same way, we look to the heavens in the midst of a bad day and say, “Why me, Lord?” Bad moments are quickly dubbed “God moments.” But when something good happens, we tend not to see it in that way. Fathers don’t tend to hold a first newborn child, look to heaven, and cry out, “Why me, Lord? Why do I deserve such a beautiful blessing?”
When was the last time you rose in the morning and asked God why he gave you another precious day of life? Three square meals? Family, church, health?
Maybe that’s one of the right questions.
We can name all these sources of suffering and more, but none of them get to the root of the why question. Wherever the bad things came from—why didn’t God do something about them?
After all, we’re told that God has loved us with an everlasting love. The Bible goes into incredible detail to show us the depth of that love; the fact that he has loved us as his very children, that we are God’s handiwork, created by him to do good works.
Meanwhile, we’re also told that God is infinitely powerful, that nothing is impossible with him. He is sovereign, which means that the buck stops here; he created everything, he knows when the smallest bird falls from a tree, and his hand utterly controls human destiny.
So how do we put these two realities together? How can God be both wonderfully good and ultimately powerful, while allowing all the evil that we see and experience?
Like everyone else, I wish God would phone me and clue me in. I know all the big theological issues, but I get frustrated; I long for him to just give me the short answer. I almost wish he wouldn’t trust me so much to handle the hard questions of faith—but that’s exactly what he does.
When I was in school, my mathematics text sometimes had the answers in the back of the book. I knew that no matter how difficult any problem seemed, no matter how inside out it twisted my mind, there was a wonderfully logical, perfectly neat answer on the final pages of that book.
I do believe the Bible has the answers. The “back” of the book, known as the New Testament, has the solution to every problem. But these are not encapsulated in simple numbers or a few words. They must be worked out within the human heart, and held together by the glue of faith.
I think I realized this even as my friend and I took that nightmare ride to the Comp home to tell a fourteen-year-old boy about the death of his father. I knew I’d be grappling with that why as long as I drew breath, and no matter how deep my faith grew. I knew that as I grew ever closer to God, my questions would only add up. Far greater minds than mine had done battle with these things. Why should I even jump into the ring?
Except that I knew I must. Just as you must. Each one of us, if we intend to be serious about pursuing God, must wrestle through the night with the mysteries of good and evil. Jacob did that in Genesis 32. At a crossroad moment of his life, a dark night of his soul, he was visited by a messenger of God. The two of them literally wrestled until sunset.
“God must be God, and can’t be reduced to the easy and rational and comfortable.”
Jacob fought for all he was worth, and wouldn’t let go until he had his blessing. Neither should we. I believe we are blessed by the courage we show when we squarely face our doubts. Conversely, we are diminished by looking the other way, closing our minds, and “protecting” our faith as if it were some weak and fragile thing.
The way to strengthen faith is to walk forward in it, facing all the hard questions and trusting in the goodness of God for resolution. I’ve tried to do that as long as I’ve known Christ, and here is what I’ve found: The mysteries, to some extent, endure. God must be God, and can’t be reduced to the easy and rational and comfortable.
We can’t make him smaller and easier to carry around in our minds; instead, our own minds and spirits must expand. They must grow stronger and wider, so that they can allow for the things that must be taken on faith. As we walk forward in that way, we do find out just how good, and how powerful, God really is.
As a matter of fact, I find that this is even true of people. They too are mysterious in many ways. Every ordinary person you know is a unique creation, filled with surprises and impossible to pigeonhole— the living sum total of a life no one else has lived, a uniqueness no one but God could have designed. Should we expect to understand every little thing about the Creator himself, when his people are so wonderfully unpredictable?
by Colin S. Smith
If you’re just beginning to explore the rewards of Bible study, here is the perfect introduction! Colin S. Smith has drawn from all four...
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