Finding God in Natural Evil and Suffering

Sep 26, 2017 | Apologetics, Article, Bible Q & A, Current Events, Theology

Note: This post makes mention of Ravi Zacharias. It is with a heavy heart that I must acknowledge a tragic independent report concerning evidence of sexual abuse and predatory behavior on the part of Ravi Zacharias. This man was a huge inspiration to me, as is evident from reading my blog, and the news was more than heart shattering. Some ministries leaders have come to the conclusion that removing articles about and references to Ravi is the right move; I have come to a different conclusion, and here is why:

  1. Though I cannot begin go to imagine the grief or pain of those Ravi hurt and the emotional toll of his behavior, it is also the case that to discredit a piece of information due to the character of the source of such behavior is to commit the genetic fallacy. If I quote or mention Ravi, it is because I believe those items to contain truth value on their own merit.
  2. To go back and change previously written information without a careful disclaimer is, I believe, a form of revisionist history. If a disclaimer must be offered anyway, I believe there is value in keeping the material accessible. So while I know it is a difficult ask to say, “Just trust the ideas and disregard his personal character,” I must ask that of you as a careful thinker.
  3. I have seen a lot of comparisons by Christians to not removing Ravi’s work because biblical characters like King David and others had fallen into terrible sin, and they have obviously been given to us as a gift to learn from (Romans 15:4). Why “cancel” Ravi if we’re not “cancelling” the Bible? It does seem to me, though, that there are two problems with this line of thinking: (1) These books are inspired by God and thus we can trust his revelation to us. They were examples given for a purpose. (2) These characters also seemed to show true biblical repentance of their wicked actions. Ravi remained unrepentant until his dying day. Therefore, I do not think these are 1-and-1 comparisons. This behavior reflects SERIOUS error and dangerous behavior on the part of Ravi and, to an unknown degree, RZIM as a whole, and that must not be taken lightly or swept under the rug.

I do not expect you to agree completely with this decision. I do ask that you respect the thought, prayer, and seeking of counsel in which I engaged regarding it.

We are only a few weeks removed from two of the strongest hurricanes to ever make landfall in the U.S.–Harvey (which affected Texas) and Irma (which primarily affected Florida). It’s always interesting to see the response in the wake of events such as these. As someone steeped in the culture of Christian Apologetics, I often see two sides of the story: one side which asks, “How could a loving God allow such things to happen?” and another side which attempts to explain and give an answer. The problem is that these responses (on both sides) are often given in a very reactionary context–everyone trying to get their perspective heard as quickly as possible–and therefore, proper treatment is not given to the subject. I think it would be helpful, then, to take a less emotional and reactionary look at this subject matter, and instead approach it from a spirit of openness to God’s Word. Devoid of any personal harm these storms have caused our loved ones, can we find objective rationality in such catastrophic natural disaster? What if it were possible to demonstrate that instead of natural evil causing a problem for the existence of God, it was actually proof for the existence of God?

Natural Evil–Problem or Proof?

  If you are a new Christian, or just new to Christian thought and philosophy, it may be hard for you to even make sense of this question. The idea here is grounded in something Christian philosophers call, The Problem of Evil. Essentially, it can be summed up in a formal argument like this:

  1. [Premise 1] If an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent god exists, then evil does not.
  2. [Premise 2] There is evil in the world.
  3. [Conclusion] Therefore, an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent god does not exist.

This is often cited as the most powerful argument against the God of the Bible. It makes sense. It is not illogical nor does the argument itself commit a logical fallacy. IF the premises of this argument were true, this would be a completely valid and logical argument. What’s interesting about this particular argument, though, is that it has driven professing evangelicals far away from the faith, and yet, it has drawn others to the Christian faith! Why is it that the argument has caused such polarity in the hearts of different individuals? I think the answer relies heavily on two major problems:

  1. The premises of the argument are a straw man; that is, they are not accurately representative of what the Christian God has revealed about Himself.
  2. This argument can be made to conform to your presuppositions; that is, if you want it to prove the existence of God, you can use it that way. But similarly, if you wanted it to disprove the existence of God, you could use it in that way itself. Although, if the above point is true, it would be intellectually dishonest to use it in that way.

The question one must then ask in order to understand this argument is, “What does the Bible teach about God?” The Bible does, in fact, teach that God is omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all-knowing), and omnibenevolent (all-good). There is hardly a question about this. But premise one of the argument assumes that God is the direct cause of such things. But this completely discounts the human side of the equation-free will. Humanity has decided, against God, that evil is welcome in our world. We call this problem “Original Sin,” and it is reflected upon in verses such as Romans 5:12—”Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned.” The word “death” in the verse above means much more than just the death of human life. The Bible teaches that everything in the beginning of God’s creation was “very good” (Genesis 1:31). All of the animals were vegetarians, and Adam and Eve had dominion over the earth; every beast of the field was subject to their rule. We find that even the appearance of thorns and thistles in the fossil record are a result of Adam’s sin (Genesis 3:18)—which, along with Romans 8:22, is a clear indication that natural evil is also a result of Adam’s sin. The result here is that indeed, humanity should be thankful to God for His protection, and pray for His mercy during these times—not shake his fist at his Creator. God desires for us to love Him, but He loves us too much to MAKE US love Him! Ravi Zacharias says it like this, “God gives you the most sacred gift of the prerogative of CHOICE, but God will not give you the privilege of determining a different outcome to what the choice will entail. The consequences are bound to the choice.” Furthermore, I find the existence of any evil at all to be, possibly, one of the best pieces of evidence verbatim for God’s existence. Consider this statement from Greg Koukl’s work, The Story of Reality, “The Story not only explains the evil people do; it predicts it. Our world is exactly the kind of world we’d expect it to be if the Story were true and not just religious wishful thinking. Second—and more important—our Story is not over yet. Evil did not catch God by surprise.” Here’s what’s interesting: the naturalist must still deal with the problem of evil. The pantheist must still deal with the problem of evil. The Muslim must still deal with the problem of evil. Removing God does not remove the problem of evil—it simply removes from view the ONE worldview that has a valid explanation and solution for it—Christianity. Evil is the absence of good, much like cold is the absence of heat. Once again, Ravi Zacharias gives a painfully obvious discourse which sums up this issue—”When you say there’s too much evil in this world you assume there’s good. When you assume there’s good, you assume there’s such a thing as a moral law on the basis of which to differentiate between good and evil. But if you assume a moral law, you must posit a moral Law Giver, but that’s Who you’re trying to disprove and not prove. Because if there’s no moral Law Giver, there’s no moral law. If there’s no moral law, there’s no good. If there’s no good, there’s no evil.” Evil can only exist in a world where objective good—where God—exists.

Suffering and the Glory of God

  Logically, it appears that the only case one can make for the existence of what we call “evil” is that there is good, which means there is God. This also means that when an atheist calls God “immoral” for ordering the slaughter of the Canaanites in the Bible, they must borrow the very idea of goodness from God Himself—completely invalidating the basis of the argument. This leads to another question—can or will God receive the glory in suffering and evil? It would be helpful in answering this question to look at a moment from the life of Jesus. John 11:1-4 — “Now a certain man was sick, named Lazarus, of Bethany, the town of Mary and her sister Martha. (It was that Mary which anointed the Lord with ointment, and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick.) Therefore his sisters sent unto him, saying, Lord, behold, he whom thou lovest is sick. When Jesus heard that, he said, This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby.” In these four verses, there is a quite a bit going on. Here is a brief layout of the characters and their unique perspectives:

  1. Lazarus is very sick. No doubt, all hope is lost on him, and he feels the end is near (forever).
  2. His sisters are distraught. Likely, their disposition was much like Lazarus’—hopeless.
  3. The messengers were to urgently deliver this message of despair to Jesus.
  4. Jesus received the message, and immediately responded with not only knowledge of the sickness, but the outcome, and the purpose.

It’s interesting that the purpose of this sickness is so clearly articulated by Jesus. It was foreordained to bring glory to God. That was the only reason for it! “That the Son of God might be glorified thereby.” God is a jealous God. He WILL get glory in your circumstances, one way or another. Either by your praising Him, or His demonstration of sovereignty over your life. Maybe both. So, it is reasonable to conclude that while God does not cause evil of His own will, He is able to use evil circumstances to bring a positive outcome—and the outcome that will, ultimately, bring Him glory. Much like Joseph when he said to his brothers, “But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive.”

The “Heart” of the Matter

  Earlier, we made a connection between the idea of “Original Sin” and the natural evil in this world. I think everyone, Christian or not, realizes that the world is broken. The world is really not as it should be (more on that in a bit)—and this idea causes us to pause and ask, “why?” There is a danger here that the Christian position could be misconstrued, so it is important to realize that “Sin” is responsible for natural evil—not the “sins” of the people. The fact that you probably looked at a woman lustfully today IS sin, and it IS wrong, but it did NOT cause Hurricane Irma. The reality is that the same “Sin” (note the capital “S”) that causes you to look lustfully on a woman is the same “Sin” that causes hurricanes and other natural disasters. The world is naturally fallen in virtue of Adam’s sin. Here’s what the Prophet Jeremiah says on the matter: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). You see, it is not what you have done that condemns you and separates you from God, it’s what you will do from before the time you are born. You have no choice but to be born with a stony heart (Ezekiel 11:19). The question is, will you let God take that stony heart out and give you a heart of flesh (also Ezekiel 11:19)? This brings up another most important distinction—God is most definitely able to use the storms and the hurricanes for His glory, for His purposes, and at His will. Matthew 8:27 — “But the men marvelled, saying, What manner of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him!” It is very possible that the recent hurricanes (I use this example because it is so relevant) were a judgment from God. He is God, and He can do as He pleases. However, it is impossible for us to know that. We must avoid the “sin in the camp” argument. Folks often use this when tragedy befalls a person or family and the assumption is made that their recent sin(s) must be the reason for this apparent “judgment.” The reality is that God can and has judged in this manner before, but it is also important to understand that natural evil is a result of the fall of man and can, therefore, be easily explained and consistent with the framework of Christianity.

Made for Another World

  C.S. Lewis, in his iconic work, Mere Christianity, makes a profound statement: “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.” The very fact that a meaningful discussion is had over the so-called “Problem of Evil” is because we all realize—like it or not—that evil is in the world. The only mystery is which worldview, if any, provides reasonable justification for the existence of (1) the evil itself and (2) our ability to know and characterize it as such. Remember—the very act involved in the original sin of humanity had to do with gaining the knowledge of good and evil. In context, the promise of Satan in the temptation of Eve (and Adam, ultimately) was that they shall be as gods—knowing good and evil. In other words, they would have the ability to dictate good vs. evil. The reason the human race longs for goodness and demands a perfect world is because long ago—that’s exactly what we had. While yes, we are born into sinful bodies of flesh, we are still made in the image of God—the same image that the first made was made in. The same image that at one time, experienced what a world of nothing but never-ending bliss was like. God promises to return us to that place one day. But sin messed us up—it ruined our chances with God. Since God is a God of righteousness, justness, and love, there was only one way to redeem mankind—by becoming a man Himself, in the Person of Jesus Christ, dying a substitutionary death for us on the cross, and rising again unto new life. Because of that sacrifice He made for you and me, we have the opportunity to one day return to that bliss. God promises that “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.” Furthermore, He has promised to restore the future to the way the world was in the beginning—perfect, where “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them” (Isaiah 11:6). While Lewis’ theology and mine are markedly different, one thing is clear: He understood how the drama of human history was much like the drama we produce in the arts. Even the movie theaters and theatrical performances cannot escape their characterizations of the Christian story. Mankind longs for a redeemer—and it is no accident that this is the case. We want someone to save us because we need someone to save us. And, by the grace of God, we have someone to save us. All we must do is realize that “he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him” (Hebrews 11:6). Romans 10:13 makes it clear—”For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” — Recommended Further Reading:

Questions? Feel free to comment below and start the discussion, or click the blue button on the right (desktop only) to ask a question with a voicemail. We will do our best to answer in an upcoming post. Thanks!

Meet Steve

Meet Steve

Hi, I’m Steve, an author, speaker, and Bible teacher with a heart for exploring God’s Word and God’s world.

I’m interested in the surprising connection between creation, theology, business, and storytelling. We explore those themes and more on this blog.

Be sure to browse the site for faith-affirming articles, book reviews, and podcasts!

The Podcast

The Podcast