What about evil and suffering? Itchen Valley Churches
My faith: How do I reply when people ask me why?
One of the main objections that people have to becoming a Christian is the question of evil and suffering. People can say, ‘How can I believe in a good and loving God when there is so much evil and pain in the world?’ We only have to think of what is going on in
- Syria with the terrible things happening. Beheadings, people being forced from their homes, women sold into slavery
- The outbreak of zikka virus in South America and it’s effects on babies
We also know pain closer at hand. People we know with cancer. Family breakdowns. Depression. Poverty.
If God is so great, how can he allow all this suffering? How can Christians claim he is a God of love?
A few years ago, when we were living in London, our next-door neighbours had two children who were approximately the same age as our children. Their daughter, who was in her mid twenties, went to Amsterdam to work in a café. One day, totally out of the blue, we heard from another neighbour that this beautiful young woman had died in the bath. It was unimaginably awful.
We are looking in this course on how we answer some of the difficult questions of faith. I would say that when someone is in the midst of suffering, it is almost never the right time to discuss these questions. It is a time to be there for someone, to comfort them, to look after them and do whatever it looks like to be kind and loving in that particular situation. In the Old Testament, the book of Job tells us of a man who went though incredible suffering as all his children died and his possessions were stripped from him. He had three friends who gathered around. The best thing that they did was just sit with him for seven days in silence. The trouble began when they started talking and trying to explain why Job was suffering so much.
All this doesn’t mean that it’s wrong to discuss these questions and wrestle with them. It’s just a question of love and timing. That will be so when we get into small groups later. Some of us may be going through some really tough times. Let’s be gentle with one another.
If God is so great, how can he allow all this suffering? How can Christians claim he is a God of love?
As we begin to look at this, it’s important that we don’t lump all pain and suffering together. There are different causes at work.
- We share some of the blame
Much of the pain that we experience in life is caused by human selfishness and greed. We can be hurt because of someone else’s anger, someone else’s unfaithfulness, their unkind words, their self-centredness. We can hurt other people with our anger, our unfaithfulness, our hurtful words, our self-centreness.
The bible tells us that all people are self-centred (Romans 3.23) Jesus is the only person who has not sinned. Much of the pain in the world has its roots in human sin. Wars. Ecological disasters. Economic inequality and upheaval. One of the major factors many of these things will be people who are motivated by greed and selfishness.
- We live in a spoiled world
Christians believe that the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (right at the beginning of the bible in Genesis 3) shows us how the whole creation was disrupted when men and women chose to live independently from God. God created man and woman-Adam and Eve-to have a close relationship of love and friendship with him and with each other. Adam and Eve chose to disobey God and go ahead and eat the fruit. It was a choice to reject God’s love and a close relationship with him. It was a choice to live independently from relationship with God and that choice had far reaching consequences that have affected us all.
The choice to live independently from God not only broke our friendship with God. It also affected our relationships with each other. Our relationships are now characterised by selfishness and wanting to get our own way. To do things ‘my way’.
The bible teaches too that this choice affected the whole of creation. The creation has been put out of joint and doesn’t function as God originally intended it. Paul speaks in his letter to the Romans (8.19-23) of the creation being subject to frustration. The good thing is Paul speaks too of how the creation will again be restored when God’s plans of salvation through Jesus are fully completed.
- There is a very real force of evil in our world
The bible teaches us that not only is there good and evil in the world, but Good and Evil have their roots in personal beings. All good is ultimately rooted in God and the bible teaches that evil is rooted in a personal being that it calls the devil or Satan.
Old Testament The Devil is not a main character in the Old Testament. We see glimpses of him in passages like Isaiah 14 and Job 1. The devil is pictured as a fallen angel. An angel who is in rebellion against God.
New Testament But in the New Testament when Jesus arrives the devil comes into sharp focus. The whole of Jesus’ earthly ministry was marked by confrontation with the forces of evil and demons. Jesus has more to say about the devil than anyone else in the bible. The devil is shown to be a personal spiritual being who is in active rebellion against God and has the leadership of many demons like himself.
It may be that you find it difficult to believe in the devil. After all you can’t see him.
There is a spiritual realm beyond what we can see with our naked eyes.
- There is God who we can’t see and there are his angels
- But there is also the Devil and his demons and the power of evil.
We can’t see these beings or these forces with our eyes, but we can see the effects of the spiritual realm when people’s lives are touched for good or sometimes for evil. It’s a bit like putting a ready meal in a microwave oven to heat up. We can’t see the microwave rays, but when we take the meal out of the oven, we can see their effects because the meal gets hot. Something has happened that we can’t see with our naked eye. But we can go away and read the manual or do some research to find our how the microwaves work. In a similar way, we can’t see God, or the Devil, or angels or demons, but we can see their effects on people’s lives and our communities. We can see good and we can see evil and suffering. We can go and look at the bible, which is a bit like a manual to help us understand the spiritual realm. We can see what Jesus says about the spiritual realm and it’s effect on our lives.
Jesus’ plans for us One of the most helpful passages for understanding the difference between Jesus plans for us and the Devil’s intentions is John 10.10.
Jesus’ plans Jesus is speaking of himself as a good and loving shepherd who cares for us his sheep. That’s us. Jesus says about us, ‘I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.’ Jesus’ plan for each one of us is for us to have a wonderful and fulfilling life.
- To have a close and personal relationship with God
- To have healthy relationships with one another
- To be free of sin and condemnation
- To be healed from disease and addiction
- God has a unique plan and calling for each one of our lives
The Devil’s plans When Jesus describes what the Devil does, he describes the devil as a thief who wants to steal the good life Jesus came to give us. Jesus says in John 10.10 ‘The thief (that’s the devil) comes only to kill and steal and destroy.’
As we see all the evil in the world, suffering, abuse, cruelty, injustice. It’s not just about human sin and selfishness. Jesus tells us there is a personal power of evil at work.
Some people experiment with things like Ouija boards, tarot cards, go to mediums and get involved in occult practices. If we do these things we can get very hurt and very damaged. People can end up being entrapped in addictions and bondage. But these things are only the tip of the iceberg.
The devil is at work in far more unseen ways.
- The devil sows doubt in our minds about the truth of God’s words in the bible. Matthew 4.3,6
- The devil tempts us to disobey God. Just think of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden being tempted to eat the fruit. Genesis 3.6.
- The devil is also a liar. Jesus called him ‘the father of lies’. John 8.44 The devil sows lies in our minds about God’s goodness and love for us. He sows lies about who we are. He sows lies about God’s plans for us.
It’s important not to get to focussed on the devil. C. S. Lewis who wrote the brilliant book ‘The Screwtape Letters’ wrote this, ‘There are 2 equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about devils. One is disbelief in their existence. The other is to believe and fall into an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. The devil is equally pleased with both errors’.
If these are some of the causes of evil and suffering, then what has God done about it?
- Suffering and pain caused by human selfishness.
All of the things we’ve looked at so far really don’t let God off the hook. Some people can argue that if God is all-powerful, he could intervene to stop people doing things that hurt other people and cause suffering. If a child is playing with matches-we take them away. Why doesn’t God intervene despite our own choices?
But God has chosen to give all human beings freedom of choice. We can choose to do good things and choose to bad things. If God chose to eradicate all people who sin and who are selfish, he would soon come knocking on my door.
The heart of God is love. God has created us to love him and to love each other. But he hasn’t made us to be robots. Love is not love if it is forced upon us. Love is something we must freely choose to give. Freedom of choice gives us the possibility to choose love and the possibility to receive love. It also gives us the possibility to turn away. If I locked Oliver in the house every time I went out, I could guarantee he’d be there when I got back. But I’d never know if he really loved me. I don’t lock him in. He is free to leave any time. It’s a risk that love must take every day
God has taken the risk of allowing us freedom of choice.
- What has God done about evil and Satan. It is important that we don’t get overwhelmed by all this teaching on evil. We don’t need to become the world’s expert on evil and Satan. We are not caught between two equal and opposing forces of good and evil.
The Devil has been defeated. The bible says in 1 John 3.8 ‘The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s works.’ Jesus came to destroy the devil and his works. We are not in the midst of a titanic struggle. The battle with Satan was fought and won in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
When Jesus came, he exposed the work of the devil. As we read the gospels, demons manifest all around Jesus and ultimately they try to destroy him through the conspiracy to put Jesus to death. We see Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, just before his execution on the cross. The temptation for Jesus is not to go ahead and die. But Jesus remained faithful and went to his death. Death itself was defeated. Sin was paid for. But also on the cross Jesus won the battle to defeat Satan. The bible says in Colossians 2.15 ‘And having disarmed the (evil) powers and authorities, Jesus made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.’ On the cross Jesus disarmed and defeated the power and authority of evil. Satan’s death is guaranteed by the cross. Ultimately evil will not exist at all.
D Day Although Jesus won the battle on the cross with a decisive victory against Satan, the war is not quite over. Satan is still active in our world in a limited way. A helpful way of understanding the defeat of Satan is to think of the victory of the allies at the end of the Second World War. On D Day there was a great battle. The allies landed on the Normandy beaches and the Nazis were decisively defeated. It was clear from then on that the Allies would win the war. But is took another six months until VE day-the end of the war. There were still battles to fight and there were casualties as the Allies moved through France. In a similar way, we are in a mopping up period. Satan is still active and trying to take casualties.
How do we defeat Satan? The main way Satan operates against us is through lies and deceptions. John 8.44 We saw that Jesus says he is a liar and the Father of lies. Satan hates us and wants to destroy us.
Satan lies about God’s love for us and his good plans for us. He lies about God’s character and his word.
- Do you think God can really love you?
- Does God really want the best for you? Is he holding out on you? God is a spoil sport.
- God will never know.
- Lies about who we are. We find ourselves thinking things like:
- My life doesn’t amount to much.
- I’m a failure.
- I’m unloveable.
Satan is the accuser of the saints-the believers. When we muck up and sin, Satan can sow lies that bring shame that cause us to hide from God. In the same way that Adam and Eve hid from God in the Garden of Eden.
One of our most valuable weapons that we fight with against the lies of the Devil is the truth. Paul describes a soldier’s armour in Ephesians 6 and he tells us to put on the belt of truth. We need to know what the truth is. We need to decide if this book is the truth. No good defeating lies with our own opinions. Just another opinion. We need to get to know God’s promises. We need to resist the lies. Paul describes the word of God in the bible as the sword of the Spirit.
An example might be that you find yourself thinking that God can’t love you or won’t forgive you because of something you’ve done wrong. You might be thinking those thoughts but they contain two lies that have their root in the Devil. It’s a lie that God can’t love you or won’t forgive you. A verse you can rely on is John 3.16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish have eternal life.
- God understands our pain and suffering
God is not a remote deity who can’t understand our suffering. God loves us so much that he entered our world in the person of Jesus. Jesus took on human flesh and experienced not only the rough and tumble of family life, but the persecution and hatred of his enemies. He was even misunderstood and deserted by his family and friends.
The greatest way that God shows his love for us is in Jesus suffering on the cross for us. He suffered not only physical pain, but the pain of bearing our sin. The pain of separation of God the Father.
Jesus understands our pain and suffering. He is there to walk with us through it.
In the same way that good came from the suffering of the cross, we see time and time again that some people grow deeper relationships and deeper in their characters through suffering. This doesn’t mean to say that suffering is good. It’s not. But we should not be blind from the good that can come from it.
Oliver got cancer towards the end of my curacy. It was a total shock and seemed to come out of the blue. We thought he could die. He had a major operation and was off work for months. God did bring good things for us out of that time. It was good for our faith. Both of us grew stronger in our faith. It was good for our marriage. It gave Oliver a chance to reassess his priorities especially the amount of work he was doing.
- The best is yet to come
Christians believe that this life is just a beginning. If this life is all there is then it might be better for some of us never to have been born given the pain we go through. But we are looking forward to heaven and eternity which make this brief life of 70 years or 7 months a twinkling of an eye in comparison.