The Problem of Evil
Philosophically, one of the most difficult questions to address in theology is the problem of evil and suffering. Why do evil, pain and suffering exist? And if God is truly all-powerful and all-good, why doesn’t He put an end to all of it?
These are good questions. And they are the kinds of questions that inspire the most doubt about God and His goodness.
But they are also the kinds of questions that are best answered by the scriptural view of universal restoration.
An Infinitely Better Solution
The belief that God will ultimately restore everything is not only deeply scriptural, but is also an infinitely better, more satisfying solution to the problem of evil than belief in eternal hell. And I’m not using the term “infinitely” hyperbolically. Here’s why:
In the “traditional” eternal hell view, the problem of evil and suffering never, ever resolves. It quite literally continues infinitely into eternity. People continue to suffer and be evil forever. It just goes on and on and on, an infinite chasm of pain and wickedness that God does nothing about. I think it is an understatement to say that this is a wholly unsatisfying “solution” to the problem of evil. This is especially true because it applies to the vast majority of people, to any and all unbelievers, no matter what they suffered in life. So, we have the case that untold multitudes and generations of the poor and oppressed, many of whom never even heard the gospel, continue in suffering forever. We have every Jewish person tortured and murdered in the holocaust continuing to receive far worse in the next life. We have the exploited and abused who were born into darkness with scarcely a glimpse of the light being plunged back into a neverending darkness after a brief encounter with a God whose only apparent purpose to them was to condemn.
Does that explanation really satisfy anyone? That anyone dares to call this “good news” is disturbing.
The scriptural view that I am proposing is truly good news worthy of being called the gospel (which literally means “good news” in Greek) because all pain, suffering and evil come to a definitive end.
Revelation 21:3-5 (NKJV)
And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.”
Then He who sat on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” And He said to me, “Write, for these words are true and faithful.”
The true and faithful words John was commanded to write were that God was making all new. Everything is to be refreshed and made qualitatively different in a good way. God Himself will wipe away all tears, and all death, sorrow, crying and pain will be done away with completely. This vision of complete restoration is totally incompatible with an eternal hell in which weeping, gnashing of teeth, and unimaginable suffering in an endless state of living death go on perpetually for most of the people God created and loves. This incompatibility is, of course, a strong clue that the eternal hell paradigm is incorrect. Whatever weeping and gnashing of teeth the unrighteous may experience must be temporary and result in their renewal.
This renewal is undoubtedly for all people since Revelation simply specifies that God will dwell with humanity and renew everything. The fact that this passage in Revelation alludes to Isaiah 25 further confirms this truth.
Isaiah 25:3, 6-8:
Therefore strong peoples will honor you;
cities of ruthless nations will revere you…
On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare
a feast of rich food for all peoples,
a banquet of aged wine—
the best of meats and the finest of wines.
On this mountain he will destroy
the shroud that enfolds all peoples,
the sheet that covers all nations;
he will swallow up death forever.
The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears
from all faces;
he will remove his people’s disgrace
from all the earth.
The Lord has spoken.
Notice that the wiping of tears from all faces includes everyone, and that even ruthless people will revere and honor God. The language used here is undeniably comprehensive. All people are made new and thereby become His people not just by right of creation but also in terms of heartfelt devotion. The shroud of ignorance, death, sorrow and destruction that all people experience will be completely destroyed for everyone. That we have not yet experienced this completely should not be surprising. As 1 Corinthians 15:26-28 tells us, death is the last enemy that will be destroyed and only then, when all of creation is willingly subject to Christ, will God be all in all.
The fixing of all that has gone wrong is not a concept that is isolated to a few verses; it is arguably the central theme of the whole Bible. It is the good news of God’s grace and love for all people and all of creation that is woven through from the beginning to the end. Beginning in Genesis we see this overarching theme taking shape when Abraham is promised that through him all the families and nations of the earth will be blessed (Genesis 12:3, 18:18, 22:18). In Galatians 3:8, this blessing of all is equated to the gospel itself, announced in advance to Abraham. Peter calls it the restoration of all things (Acts 3:21), Paul refers to it as the unity of all things in heaven and earth under Christ as God’s plan for the fullness of time (Ephesians 1:10), and the Psalmist sings of it when he says that “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him.” (Psalm 22:27) and “all the earth will worship You, and will sing praises to You; They will sing praises to Your name” (Psalm 66:4). It is intertwined with judgments on evil nations, the purpose of which is to bring those people to know that God is the LORD (see Section 4: Biblical Judgment: a Consistent Theme of Redemption). And it is the end of John’s Revelation, where after the final judgment, we see God continuing to work “making everything new” and wiping every tear from every eye, as the leaves of the tree of life continue to heal the nations, and as those outside are perpetually beckoned to come and drink the water of life that flows from the heavenly city whose gates never shut (Revelation 21:4-5, 21:25, 22:2, 22:17).
The ultimate restoration of all things is a deeply Biblical theme that fills us with the hope that all evil and suffering will cease and be replaced by the total healing and reconciliation of everyone.
Purposes for Pain?
While the ultimate end of pain and evil may be a comforting thought, it does not answer the question of why they exist presently. To this we will now turn. Before beginning, however, I feel that it is necessary to clarify a few points:
- In attempting to explain some possible reasons why God allows evils to exist, I am not minimizing the pain and suffering that people go through as if it does not matter. It does matter and it is very significant. Understandably, some evils will seem completely unjustifiable, especially to those going through them. If you have experienced horrible tragedy or terrible pain, it may be the case that no explanation of greater cosmic purpose for allowing evil in the world will ring true, and that is OK. I do hope, however, that you will find some measure of comfort in Jesus’ promise that those who mourn will be comforted by God (Matthew 5:4). Though pain is heartbreaking, it will not be the end of your story.
- I am not claiming that God causes evil, pain, or suffering. Some people seem to think that everything that occurs is directly caused by God. If someone is raped or murdered, it is because God planned it. If a tsunami or earthquake destroys a city and kills its inhabitants, it is God’s judgment. Epidemics that plague mankind, wreaking death, suffering, and destruction, are God’s work. This line of thinking, in my view, is nonsense. God is not micromanaging every event on earth. People independently make evil choices and commit evil deeds. Tsunamis and earthquakes are due to plate tectonics. Diseases are due to pathogenic microorganisms and random genetic mutations. God does not directly cause these things to occur. If He did, He would be directly responsible for every evil. Nevertheless, the world He created contains the possibility of all of these things. It is not perfect. As Romans 8:19-22 tells us, creation itself is bound to frustration and decay, groaning in eager expectation of its release from its current state “into the freedom and glory of the children of God.” So, the current state of the universe as flawed is temporary.
With these caveats in place, let’s now consider some possible reasons why God does not stop every evil and all suffering yet.
I think that it is reasonable, from a biblical point of view, to attribute much of the suffering on earth to sinful human choices as first exemplified in the story of the Fall in Genesis. Indeed, it seems quite obvious that every moral evil is caused by human beings, by our greed, lust, self-centeredness, pride, and violence. War, corruption and abuse all originate with us and result in terrible suffering.
Natural evils, like natural disasters and diseases, are more difficult (if not impossible in many cases) to connect directly to human sin. Nevertheless, the fall of mankind into sin seems to denote a change in the fabric of creation that left it groaning in eager expectation of its release from its bondage to decay (Romans 8:21-22). The extent, however, to which human sin is responsible for the “groaning” and decay of creation is somewhat vague and unclear biblically. What is clear is that this imperfect state is not permanent. Instead, this groaning is likened to the pains of childbirth that result in new life. Renewal, restoration, and freedom for creation will occur.
Although this complete renewal of creation is coming, natural evils do still exist and cause horrible anguish, so it is necessary to explore possible reasons for them and correct misconceptions. In the time of Jesus, it was widely assumed that those who experienced natural evils were receiving retributive punishment for their sins or the sins of their ancestors. Jesus corrected this common misunderstanding in John 9:1-3 when He was asked whose sin caused a certain man to be born blind. His reply: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned…but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” We should learn from Jesus that we have no right to assume that those who suffer somehow deserve it. It is not payback for their sins.
Instead, we see Jesus saying that “this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” I do not think that Jesus means that God made this man blind on purpose so that He could show His power. No, instead this seems to indicate a broader theme about all of creation: God is not micromanaging everything but instead allows natural processes to occur unhindered so that He can show what He is about--restoration and healing. The works of God are to make the blind see, to heal every disease, to bring light and life to every place where darkness and death once reigned. Jesus displays this theme in His interaction with the blind man so that we can see what He is really like—a God who loves, heals and restores. By healing the blind man, He heals our blindness about who He is.
In order for us to really understand God’s restorative and redeeming nature, it is necessary to have something that needs restoring and redemption. And this brings up the story of the Fall of Man once again. Perhaps God allowed humans freedom and placed us in a world that is broken so that we could come to understand His restorative nature better, so that we could see that His love is not just for the perfect, but also for the sinners. He consigned everyone to disobedience in order to show His mercy to everyone (Romans 11:32), and for this reason everyone will come to comprehend the vastness of His love and goodness.
Remember, the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden was from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and as such is connected to understanding. St. Gregory Nazianzen, in Oration 45, interprets this tree to symbolize “Contemplation, which it is only safe for those who have reached maturity of habit to enter upon; but which is not good for those who are still somewhat simple and greedy; just as neither is solid food good for those who are yet tender and have need of milk.” (Oration 45: The Second Oration on Easter). The tree itself is not evil, but rather the ability to distinguish good from evil, which is necessary to developing moral maturity. Perhaps without eating of the tree, people would be unable to attain this maturity and would instead remain hopelessly naïve. Was that ever God’s intent? According to Gregory, no.
So why did God put the tree there?
Is it possible that God’s purpose in creation was not simply to make us instantly and ineffably happy? Perhaps there is a bigger, long-term goal—to start us on an epic journey to make us more like Him.
As a parent, I do not only have short-term goals in mind for my children. My primary concern is not to make them happy all the time in the present, but rather to help them in a journey of development in which they mature. To be sure, part of this includes some present happiness, but if instant gratification were my primary goal, my kids would only eat candy and ice cream while playing video games to the point of brain atrophy. I know this is not good in the long run regardless of my child’s perception. In fact, I know that such a mode of parenting would lead to spoiled children who would ultimately experience less happiness and fulfillment in the future.
As parents, we are more concerned with the long-term development of our children than with fulfilling their every desire or preventing every pain. In fact, at times we inflict pain for a greater purpose. As an example, imagine that a debilitating and often fatal disease is spreading and that an injectable vaccine is the only way to ensure that your child does not catch it. Smallpox, which is estimated to have killed around 300 million people in the 20th century alone prior to its eradication (and many more before that), comes to mind (Smallpox: Eradicating the Scourge).
Does the shot cause pain? Certainly. And if you are giving the shot to infants, they definitely will not understand that this pain is for their good, that it is saving them. Nevertheless, it is, and you know that even if they do not.
In like manner, it seems plausible that God allows for a world of temporary suffering that ultimately results in good that will outweigh the bad to such an extent that our sufferings will, by comparison, seem negligible. Paul, who suffered beatings, imprisonment, shipwrecks, and finally martyrdom suggests this very idea:
2 Corinthians 4:17
For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.
I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.
I think it is fair to say that his troubles seem to be anything but light and momentary from our perspective. Nevertheless, even such extreme sufferings appear light and momentary when compared to what God is achieving in us as we go through our trial-filled lives. As our Heavenly Father, He is looking out for our long-term character development and final restoration more than for our immediate temporary bliss.
The fact that trials and suffering build character is a very well-developed biblical theme. Consider the following:
Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.
1 Peter 4:12-13
Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.
I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.
The Christian faith does not promise a life devoid of suffering. On the contrary, sufferings, fiery ordeals, and trouble seem guaranteed. But Christ has overcome, and our fiery ordeals act like a refiner’s fire that purifies gold, resulting in the development of perseverance, character and hope. This process of refinement through suffering is so crucial to human development that even Christ himself, as the perfect representation of humanity, partakes of it as well.
Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.
For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering.
Even Jesus was made “perfect through suffering” when he tasted death for everyone by the grace of God. Although we do not yet see the subjection of everyone to Him, it is apparent that everyone will be made subject to Him, since he died for everyone, redeeming and ransoming all of humanity through His perfect obedience to the Father. Part of this perfect obedience required suffering. This is why Jesus “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). To demonstrate the perfect human life and fully redeem the human condition, Jesus took on our suffering and experienced the full weight of human evil via his crucifixion at the hands of evil men. And in the midst of such unbearable suffering, He showed us God’s character, forgiving these very men at the very moment that they were afflicting Him with excruciating pain. And so, the Perfect One was “made perfect” by redeeming all humanity in Him, a reality that we have not yet fully experienced, but a reality nonetheless “because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died” (2 Corinthians 5:14). His death is our death, His suffering our suffering “for the solidarity of mankind is such that, by virtue of the Word's indwelling in a single human body, the corruption which goes with death has lost its power over all” (St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word Chapter 2/ Section 9).
By experiencing our suffering, Christ was able to demonstrate this perfect solidarity with us and thereby become our perfect representative, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Despite the agony of the cross, He did not vengefully retaliate as we would all be tempted to do, but instead exhibited God’s perfect forgiveness. And this brings up what I consider to be one of the most significant reasons why evil is allowed: without evil, it would be impossible to become like Christ.
This may seem like a bold statement, but it seems apparent that we would be unable to learn and practice the kind of agape love of God without some measure of evil and suffering. I think the reason for this can be clearly seen via a few examples.
Example #1: How can we learn forgiveness without being wronged?
One crucial characteristic of Christ is His forgiving nature, which we see displayed in His prayer of forgiveness for His enemies while on the cross. This forgiveness, of course, could not be shown if no wrong had occurred. In like manner, how could we ever learn to forgive if nobody ever did us wrong?
Imagine such a world in which no one ever offended you and you never offended anyone. Could you truly experience forgiveness? It would be a purely abstract concept. To experientially understand forgiveness, whether giving or receiving it, requires something to forgive, and this in turn requires allowing the potential for wrongdoing.
In fact, the greater the wrong is, the more divine the forgiveness needed and experienced. This brings to mind Corrie ten Boom’s great autobiography The Hiding Place, in which she recounts how her family hid Jewish people from the Nazis during World War II and how they were caught and shipped off to concentration camps. One of the most poignant vignettes of her story is her forgiveness of one of the guards of Ravensbrück concentration camp, the very prison where she watched helplessly as her beloved sister Betsie died of maltreatment. After sharing her story in a German church, she was approached by this guard, who, with extended hand, asked for her forgiveness. Her words:
“I tried to smile, I struggled to raise my hand. I could not. I felt nothing, not the slightest spark of warmth or charity. And so again I breathed a silent prayer. Jesus, I cannot forgive him. Give me Your Forgiveness. As I took his hand the most incredible thing happened. From my shoulder along my arm and through my hand a current seemed to pass from me to him, while into my heart sprang a love for this stranger that almost overwhelmed me. And so I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the world’s healing hinges, but on His. When He tells us to love our enemies, He gives, along with the command, the love itself.” (From The Hiding Place and quoted here)
She writes elsewhere “ I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then” (Guideposts Classics: Corrie ten Boom on Forgiveness).
This is truly a remarkable story that exhibits Christlike forgiveness, and that results in the healing of both parties, the oppressed and the oppressor. That such a restoration could even occur seems impossible to many people, but nothing is impossible with God. Imagine the beauty of such a restoration on a global scale, in which every wrong is made right, every trespass forgiven, every hatred transformed into pure love, every sinner penitent. This is the restoration of all things spoken of by the prophets (Acts 3:21). This is God becoming all in all (1 Corinthians 15:28).
But keep in mind that this beautiful story of redemption as well as our ability to develop into beings that truly understand God’s forgiving love hinge upon the fact that we are free to make evil choices that require forgiveness in the first place. And so, becoming like God in character requires learning forgiveness by experience. This love for our enemies is how we become perfect as God is perfect:
Matthew 5:43-48 (The words of Jesus)
You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
It is impossible to love our enemies if we have no enemies, impossible to pray for those who persecute us without persecution, impossible to become perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect without being wronged and forgiving as He forgave when He was wronged, tortured, mocked and cruelly executed. And so, although God does not directly cause evil, He can use the evils we experience to develop Christlike character in us.
On another note, it is self-evident but frequently missed that Jesus could not ask us to be perfect like our Father in heaven by loving our enemies if He did not love His and forgive them. It is obvious, therefore, that an eternal hell in which God hates His enemies and never forgives is incongruous with His revealed character.
Example #2: How could we learn compassion and empathy with no suffering?
Another aspect of Christlike love is compassion. Jesus demonstrated such compassion for the hurting and broken constantly, and we are called to do the same. In fact, it is this compassion for those who are hungry, thirsty, alone, naked, sick, and imprisoned that separates the sheep from the goats in Matthew 25, not professed belief, so it is vital to learn. But again, it must be asked how we could possibly put compassion into practice without a world such as the one we live in currently, in which there are those who are hungry, thirsty, alone, naked, sick, and imprisoned. We simply cannot experience compassion, such a crucial aspect of God’s love, without suffering. Instead, just as with forgiveness, it would merely be an abstract concept.
So, because there is suffering, we have the opportunity to learn selfless love that is not self-seeking but rather other-centered. This is certainly valuable for Christlike character development.
I think, however, that some people will rightly object to this didactic purpose of suffering because it might have the appearance that those who suffer are pawns used to teach others how to be better human beings. But this objection forgets that those who suffer also learn maturity through their own suffering, and ultimately are completely restored. For whatever reason, it seems that trials often produce a perspective and maturity in human beings that is difficult to replicate by any other means. As James 2:5 suggests, perhaps God has "chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom." While those of us who are wealthy may feel sorry for those who suffer in poverty, they are not forgotten by God. Rather, they are frequently blessed with a richness of faith that is difficult to attain for those of us who are more "self-sufficient." I have noticed this richness of faith as well as startling generosity in many of the materially poor people that I have met. Spiritual blessings often arise through hardships.
Secondly, it also forgets that everyone suffers, though not all in the same way, and so all will be comforted. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” (Matthew 5:4). It is apparent that not all who mourn are Christians, but this statement of Christ hints at the complete restoration of all that has gone wrong in the world (that is explicitly stated elsewhere in Scripture). Whatever was lost is found, whatever pain was endured will be made completely right, whatever brokenness occurred will be made whole.
Our own sufferings also allow us to develop empathy and become more effective at ministering to those who are going through similar trials. A cancer survivor is better able to support a friend undergoing the same chemotherapy he endured. A person who has grieved the loss of a loved one is able to show more empathy to the mourner. A victim of abuse is able to authentically come alongside another victim and say, “I know what you’re going through” because she does. When one has experienced hunger, thirst, loneliness, nakedness, sickness, and imprisonment, he or she can show authentic empathy for those who are undergoing these same experiences.
By contrast, it is often the case that those who have suffered little are unable to empathize or even sympathize with those who do. They, like Job’s friends assume that those people deserve the suffering they experience for some reason. Those people must be lazy, or incompetent, or unclean, or cursed by God. Those people aren’t like us. This thinking is wrong but very common (I dare say, however, less common in those who have suffered similarly).
So, deeply learning empathetic compassion is, to some extent, dependent on the existence of suffering. And such compassion is so central to God’s character that it seems justifiable to allow natural law and human freedom to do their thing without constant divine interference, so that we can become more like Him in our love for others. Of course, the final restoration of all things such that all current suffering will strike us as “light and momentary” is crucial to this line of reasoning. If God is not compassionate to all who suffer but instead makes them suffer more terrible agony forever in a permanent hell, it cannot be reasonably argued that He is compassionate and teaching us to be like Him by allowing temporary suffering to occur.
Freedom and Authentic Choices
I think that some will still object to this learning process. Why didn’t God just make us innately forgiving and compassionate? Why do we need to learn to love like God does? Couldn’t He have just made us perfect, like Himself, right from the beginning? In answer, I suppose He could have, but at great cost to human freedom and significance. Why do I say this?
Well, imagine a world in which every single person can only choose to love God and love one another. On the surface, this may seem appealing. However, it must be asked whether such a world allows for authentic, meaningful existence. If we are all forced to love and be good, is it meaningful? Is forced love really love at all, or would we all be no different than pre-programmed robots?
Pretend for a moment that you were able to create a “perfect” robot spouse (a la The Stepford Wives). You could program this spouse to speak your love language all the time, to dote on you constantly, to say and do all the right things and never make any mistakes. Does the robot love you? Are its “loving” actions in any way significant?
It seems to me that love must be freely given to truly be love, and in order to be freely given, the option must exist to choose otherwise. This is true of any virtue or moral choice as well. So, in order for people to have real personhood, some measure of freedom has to be present.
But freedom comes with a cost.
A world in which people are able to make authentic moral choices requires the possibility for choosing between good and evil.
And this is the world we live in.
People can choose to love, to do right, to show kindness, or they can choose the opposite. And we do. We choose righteousness and we choose wickedness and everybody, it seems, chooses both at one time or another. So, we are able to sin and witness its destructive results as well as do good and witness its redeeming results. Perhaps there is a purpose to this visible contrast between good and evil that is woven into human history, society, and our very beings. Perhaps is it how we will eventually come to realize that the love of God is so far superior to the self-destructive evils we have chosen so often that we will all willingly bow and confess before Him and allow Him to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
Titus 2:11-14 (ESV)
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.
The salvation of all people by Christ requires this training in godliness. Maybe that is why the tree was found in the garden in the first place. To truly become like God in His character we need more than naïve passive goodness; we need the knowledge of good and evil and a world in which we can see both, and learn to renounce ungodliness because we understand it by experience. Because of this experiential, deep understanding, willing subjection to God by all will be the natural choice for everyone.
The redemptive story arc of the Bible and of humanity itself is so powerful and meaningful not only because of its happy ending but also because of the depths of despair that this ending rises from. There is nothing quite like a good story to inspire learning and every good story must have a good plot to be memorable. And no good plot goes like this: “there was a rich guy who stayed rich. The end.” Because that story is terrible.
Instead we are most inspired by the story of the poor boy who overcame a multitude of cruel obstacles to become rich-- and then who shares his wealth with those less fortunate because he has become not only a rich man, but also a good one. The greater the challenges, the more inspiring the final victory. And this is the kind of story we are living together as humanity. It is dark at times, but the light is breaking through and will eventually flood all of creation. The beautiful end of the story will be all the more beautiful because it was not easy to get there, because even the most hopelessly broken relationships will be reconciled, because even the most awful evils will not have the final say but will be conquered by God’s love. And it is this love that will permeate every person so thoroughly that evil will have no place in anyone for God will be all in all (1 Corinthians 15:28).
A song that has been frequently playing on my local Christian radio station lately seems to understand the value of this story that redeems our pain and suffering to teach us about God. Here is an excerpt:
Darkest water and deepest pain
I wouldn't trade it for anything
'Cause my brokenness brought me to you
And these wounds are a story you'll use
So I'm thankful for the scars
'Cause without them I wouldn't know your heart
And I know they'll always tell of who you are
So forever I am thankful for the scars
-Scars by I Am They
There is a maturity in this song that acknowledges that it is often through our brokenness, darkness, and pain that we come to know God and understand who He is. I believe this perspective will one day be shared by all of us, that we will all eventually see the big picture and be thankful for our redemptive stories no matter what scars we have.
Elisabeth Elliot, who famously served as a successful missionary to the very tribe that murdered her husband, Jim Elliot (and four of his missionary companions), was no stranger to pain and evil. She said, “I am not a theologian or a scholar, but I am very aware of the fact that pain is necessary to all of us. In my own life, I think I can honestly say that out of the deepest pain has come the strongest conviction of the presence of God and the love of God. (Elisabeth Elliot: Her Life, Books, and Best Quotes)
Life is difficult, but even through the worst pain, and sometimes especially through it, we can come to know God's love more deeply, as paradoxical as that sounds. And in the case of Elliot, we see not only her amazing, Christlike forgiveness but also the resultant transformation of the tribe that killed her husband. A powerful story indeed.
There are only a few choices that we can believe when it comes to the problem of evil. Either there is a good God who allows evil temporarily for a good reason or there isn't. I have attempted to explain my own perspective above, which is dependent on the restoration of all things spoken of by the prophets (Acts 3:21). I believe this perspective offers a plausible explanation for why a good and loving God might allow temporary pain and suffering. The alternatives, I think, are quite bleak. Here they are:
- Eternal conscious torment: there is pain and evil currently. It will continue forever. Those who suffered in this life, if they are not Christians, will suffer worse eternally. Relatively few will escape an eternal destiny of unimaginable endless agony.
- Annihilation: there is pain and evil currently. It will not continue forever because all non-Christians will be destroyed and no longer exist. Those who suffered in this life, if they are not Christians, will not receive justice for the wrongs they suffered but instead simply cease to be.
- Atheism: there is pain and evil currently and there is no good answer to the problem of evil. Therefore, God does not exist. All suffering, evil, and pain are pointless. There is no redemption, hope, or justice for those who have suffered. After the inevitable pains of life, we die. The End.
All of these alternatives limit God’s goodness and power and none of them provide the peace and hope of the restoration of all things. They simply do not resolve the problem of evil. Of course, atheism never pretends to, but such a philosophy is miserable in its own right. While perhaps better than belief in a hateful god, it does not even come close to comparing to the glorious truth that a loving God will redeem everyone from the darkest pits we could ever fall into and work out all things for good as we all come to love Him. So, I choose to believe that this entire broken world will be fixed and every wrong made right because it is what the Bible teaches, because it is sane, and because it is the best possible worldview imaginable (which is fitting for the biblical God who is love).
The terrible suffering and evil that we see in the world is temporary. God is in the business of restoring all that has gone wrong and is teaching us to reject evil and choose good through our experiences of both. Although this may not be the way that we would like things to be, it is critical that we share in Christ’s sufferings in order to develop into children of God led by His Spirit (Romans 8:14-17). This is not to say that every trial is designed by God to teach us lessons, but rather that He will bring us beauty out of ashes, redeeming even the worst of our sin and the most awful of circumstances, and overcome all evil with good as we learn to love as He does. We cannot experientially understand God’s forgiveness, grace, compassion, or self-sacrificial love in a perfect world where these godly characteristics cannot be practiced. So, according to the apostle Paul, we live in a groaning creation in which “God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all… for from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen" (Romans 11:32, 36).
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