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Cover with textIn recent months it seems that atheists have moved away from attacking belief in God on the basis of scientific evidence to attacking God on an emotional and moral level. Atheists seem to have backed off from talking about naturalism and evolutionary explanations for the complexities seen in the natural world — perhaps because they perceive the weaknesses in their arguments. Instead they have been pouring out articles and books on the question, “Why, if there is a God, would he allow mankind to suffer old age, wars, ethnic cleansing, pedophile behavior, mass murders, horrific diseases, and natural disasters?” Religious people seem to evade the question by simply saying that it is God’s prerogative. Such an answer does not address the fundamental issue of why a God who is described as loving, compassionate, all-powerful, and of perfect judgment and justice would allow all of destructionthese things to exist. Atheists argue that either there is no God to stop all of this, or if there is a God, he does not have the power to stop it or does not want to stop it; thus he is not worthy of worship. This is a very old argument which has been debated by philosophers and theologians for centuries. The bottom line is that there are some practical, basic understandings that we all need to resolve this issue to our own satisfaction.

POINT 1 — THERE IS EVIL AND IT IS BY NATURE HORRIFIC. Atheists have tried to distance themselves from the reality of evil by denying it exists. In his book, River Out of Eden, Richard Dawkins says, “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good.” Jesus Christ on the other hand says, “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places” (Matthew 24:6, 7).

floodJesus does not indicate that God causes these disasters to come to human beings, but he observes that they will happen. Jesus demonstrated that he could control the elements in Matthew 8:23 – 27, so the question remains why he does not stop the disasters we have identified. Why should God allow an earthquake or a tsunami to kill thousands of people, many of them helpless and innocent children and babies?

It is also important to notice that the painful nature of man's existence due to these things does not escape God’s notice. Most of us know that the shortest verse in the Bible is “Jesus wept” in John 11:35. What tends to escape us is WHY Jesus wept. The event in these verses is the death and resurrection of Lazarus. When Jesus is told that Lazarus was critically ill, his comment is, “This sickness will not end in death” (John 11:4). Notice that Jesus does not say that Lazarus will not die. He just says that is not the way this event will end. The verse goes on to say that through this incident “God's Son may be glorified.” Over and over Jesus tells those around him that he is going to bring Lazarus back from the dead (see verses 11, 14, 23). When Jesus finally gets to the tomb of Lazarus in verse 33 we are told that Jesus “was deeply moved in spirit and troubled” and he finally breaks down in tears in verse 35.

There is no way to read through all of this and not realize that when Jesus (God in the flesh, John 1:1 – 14) came to earth and saw how much it hurts to lose those whom you love “Jesus wept.” We do not have a God that cannot be touched with our infirmities, but “who has been tempted in every way, just as we are — yet was without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Evil is real, and the disasters that afflict us are horrific, but we have a God who knows and has endured what we face.

POINT 2 — EVIL IS NOT AN OBJECT, BUT A CHOICE WITH HUGE IMPLICATIONS. We tend to anthropomorphize evil: in other words, to treat it as a created object. When someone asks, “Why did God create evil?” it is likely he has not really thought about what evil is. Evil is not like a rock or some other physical object. Evil is the choice of a sentient being. The Bible maintains that God created man “in his own image.” In Genesis 3:22 God indicates that man has become like the Godhead (the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) saying, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil.” Acts 17:29 states it well as Paul tries to explain to the philosophers of his day saying, “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone … .” It is difficult to get people to get rid of this “ignorance” as Paul refers to it.

The implications of this choice are both beautiful and tragic. Love beyond the instinctive love of a parent can exist only if there is choice. It is only possible for someone to love you enough to have the oneness that Genesis 2:24 describes because he has the choice not to love you. There is a massive difference between sexual love that is the product of choice and expressed in a life-long commitment, and rape which is not love at all, but the exploitation of another human being for selfish, evil purposes.

God created man with the capacity to choose between good and evil. This choice gives us many good things that distinguish us from all other life forms on the planet, and brings beauty to us in our relationships and in our creativity. While we have all these wonderful things in our lives because of this unique nature that we possess, there is also a negative aspect of being able to choose. We can reject love because of ignorant selfishness. We can numb our capacity to feel guilt and sympathy and behave like animals with a survival-of-the-fittest mentality. The kind of world we live in and how we treat one another is rooted in what we choose to do.

Spousal abusePOINT 3 — MOST OF THE HORRIBLE THINGS MANKIND EXPERIENCES ARE DUE TO HUMANS CHOOSING EVIL INSTEAD OF GOOD. Man's inhumanity to his fellow man never ceases to amaze me. How can an adult sexually abuse a child? How can a man murder tens of thousands of human beings simply to satisfy his desire for political power? How can someone contaminate a whole ocean or river or the atmosphere just to gain wealth? How can someone build buildings with inferior materials knowing that when earthquakes or hurricanes come that the buildings will fall and kill their inhabitants?

There have been a few things mankind has done that have been simply a product of ignorance. No one knew what asbestos would do to people when pipes were insulated with it in the early twentieth century. The long-term effects of drugs ranging from thalidomide which caused birth defects to the psychologically crippling effects of crack only became known to man after the use of the drugs were widespread. We now know that a vast percentage of cancer has been caused by man-made carcinogens in the environment.

volcanoWar, slavery, sexual exploitation, greed, corporate dishonesty, genocide, infanticide, and abuse of all kinds are not done in ignorance. Nor are they the acts of God done with malicious intent towards mankind. One other group of afflictions that mankind endures are natural disasters that are not man-caused. Tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes, lightning strikes, and asteroid strikes are not caused by mankind. The reader may notice that some natural disasters are not in this list, and that is deliberate. Floods are natural disasters, but mankind’s misuse of the land is a major contributor to floods. Landslides are frequently related to human activity. The fact is however that sometimes massive suffering happens because of a natural cause that is totally unrelated to man as a causal agent.

Your author does not pretend to have an answer for every scenario, and I certainly would not give a glib response to someone who is suffering because of a natural disaster that he had no control over. In reality however, even in these natural disasters human ignorance and bad judgment are almost always a factor. Building a city along a known fault line is a recipe for disaster, and yet cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco, California, are still being built along active fault lines. Placing humans in areas that are volcanically active is sure to cause human suffering. Even when disasters do not involve foolish failures to heed obvious hazards there are usually warnings of dangers. In recent tsunami disasters it was not local people who were victimized. When the waters went out exposing the ocean floor the locals headed for the mountains knowing what was coming. It was tourists gathering sea shells who paid a high price for not heeding an obvious warning of a disaster in the making. The earth is an active, growing, changing structure, and some common sense is needed to survive its growth pangs.

POINT 4 — THE QUESTION “WHY DOESN'T GOD STOP IT” IS ROOTED IN THE ASSUMPTION THAT THERE IS NO ULTIMATE PURPOSE IN MAN’S EXISTENCE. Why do you exist? Why is there something instead of nothing? What can possibly be the purpose of a creature like me? The psalmist says it beautifully in Psalm 8:4 – 8, “What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You made him rule over the works of your hands; you put everything under his feet: all flocks and herds, and the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, all that swim through the paths of the seas.”

To the atheist who relies on naturalism and evolutionary explanations the answer is that we have no purpose. Man’s position on the earth is totally because he is more fit due to his opposable thumb and larger and better organized brain. Anthony Smith quotes atheist Julian Huxley on the purpose in life, “ ‘We are, … just as much a product of blind forces as is the falling of a stone to earth or the ebb and flow of the tides.’ We have just happened, and flesh was made man by a long series of singularly beneficial accidents” (The Human Pedigree). To the atheist man is just another animal, no better or no worse than any other animal and able to survive only because he is more fit. For most people atheism ultimately leads to nihilism.

house on fireThe Bible on the other hand, portrays man as having a God-given purpose. Ephesians 3:10 – 11 tells us that God's “intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.” The Bible makes it clear from Genesis to Revelation that evil is personified in a heavenly being who is at war with God. Ephesians 6:12 tells us that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” We are given glimpses of this struggle in Genesis 3 in the struggle between God and the serpent. The entire book of Job discusses the question of the nature of God and the role of man in the struggle between good and evil. Jesus was tempted by the evil one in Luke 4 and the apostles had running battles with the evil one in Matthew 16:23; Luke 22:31; John 13:27; Acts 5:3; 2 Corinthians 12:7; etc.

AuschwitzChristians recognize that mankind is in a war, and the enemy uses physical and spiritual terrorism in an attempt to defeat God. Horrible things happen to us because evil has a massive capacity for bringing pain and suffering to mankind. There are spiritual beings involved in this war, and humans are foot soldiers in the battle that is raging.

As long as creatures of free-will exist, love can exist. As long as there are creatures that can choose, good will be in the world. The Bible identifies these goods as “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control” (Galatians 5:22 – 23). Atheists will do these things only if they are seen to promote their existence as the most fit. Christians will do these things in all situations and may render themselves less fit physically knowing that their spiritual destiny is more important.

CONCLUSION. Could God stop the awful things that happen? Certainly! If he did so, however, evil would be muted in its fruit. The awful consequences of what the Bible clearly identifies as evil or sin — sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery, idolatry and witchcraft, hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy, drunkenness, orgies, (Galatians 5:19 – 21) — would never be apparent. Every time the battle has been waged the consequences of rejecting good and God’s way of living have been horrendous. How much of the tragedy of human experience has been caused by selfish ambition? How much has been caused by drugs, promoting drunkenness, impurity and debauchery? Sometimes these evil things have been promoted by a religion. Polygamy, polyandry, discord, envy, and even fits of rage have dominated some religions and have been a temptation to others. God did not create man to be a robot or a puppet. Human beings have been given the freedom to choose between good and evil — and religion as well as atheism can be evil. Satan chalks up gains when there is division, hatred, and/or abuse in a church population.

Ultimately dealing with why horrible things happen has to be answered in the context of man’s purpose in existing. God warned ancient Israel about the consequences of not living as God has called us to live in Deuteronomy 28:15 – 68. Israel did not heed God's warning even though great blessings were promised as well as the warnings of the consequences of living in opposition to God’s ways (see Deuteronomy 28:1 – 15). In Jesus a way to overcome evil has been provided for all people. That way has worked when it has been tried. The blessings many of us take for granted are rooted in at least a partial following of God’s way. Now in the twenty-first century we seem to be turning away again and embracing the things of evil that have brought war and pain to mankind in the past. The horrible consequences of rejecting God can be seen in the prison camps, the mass graves, the gas chambers, and the killing fields of the world. How anyone can deny the presence of evil in view of all this clear evidence is hard to comprehend.

The message of Christian faith is that ultimately God WILL stop it! If you do not believe in God and do not believe in life after this life is over, then what we see happening around us makes no sense at all. If you do believe in God and in heaven and hell then you believe that God will put an end to all evil — even an end to death. “The old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4) and there will be a new heaven and a new earth (Revelation 21:1 – 2). Man’s purpose in existing will have been realized. The perishable (physical) will have “been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality” and death will be “swallowed up in victory. … through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:54 – 56).

Works Cited.
Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life, (New York: BasicBooks, 1995), 133.
Anthony Smith, The Human Pedigree, (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippencott Co., 1975), 103.

— John N. Clayton

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