Theodicy is the study of how evil and suffering are reconciled with the omni-benevolent and omnipotent God of Scripture. Suffering and evil are often referred to as the Achilles’ heal of Christianity.
Expressed often as Euthyphro’s dilemma (created by Plato). It can be stated as a basic, logical argument:
If God is all powerful, He could stop evil and suffering.
If God is all good, He would want to stop evil and suffering.
Evil and suffering exists
Therefore, God cannot be both all-powerful and all-loving.
I deny the first two premises, as well as the conclusion.
However, a response to that aside, I am working on (potentially) publishing in the future a more sophisticated piece on the biblical approach to evil and suffering. The aim is to be less apologetically bent, and be suited more for the suffering Christian to cope with pain and evil.
In the process, I have worked out (which may change) a helpful acronym for responding to suffering and evil.
The purpose is not to answer every possible question (I will argue God doesn’t want that). I will not make every hard situation feel good. I can’t do that. These answers will not be new, and they will not make suffering go away. Many great Christian thinkers have wrestled with and responded to this issue over thousands of years. Most of them being much more intelligent men and women than myself.
I do believe though that the acronym will assist the Christian in remembering God’s truths in those difficult times.
The weakness of the acronym is that it does not place each principle in the order I would like, but nevertheless, when enduring suffering and evil, remember the biblical C.H.E.M.I.S.T.R.Y. of suffering and evil.
The comments below will be brief. I would like to elaborate more in a different format like an essay or a book, but perhaps this will create intrigue.
The CHEMISTRY of responding to suffering and evil:
“And he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed, saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.”
The cross of Christ is an important foundation for the Christian. This is very closely related to the “I” (incarnation) of the acronym, however, the cross does deserve its own category. That moment for Christ was unlike any other human experience during His earthly ministry.
As a matter of fact, that is the reason I chose the passage from Luke I did for this section. Although Jesus has not yet endured the cross in that passage, He describes what the cross will be; He describes what it was. The cross of Christ was Jesus drinking the Father’s “cup.”
Jesus is here playing on a common Old Testament (OT) metaphor, the cup of wrath. Throughout the Old Testament, God used this metaphor to describe punishing people and nations for their wickedness. Thus, Calvary was Jesus experiencing the wrath due for the wickedness of all His people; Jesus was experiencing the wrath of God in a cosmic way.
This makes the cross far worse than anything we can possibly imagine going through. The perfect Son, being forsaken by the Father, and experiencing the wrath due sinners, feeling the weight of their sin and shame, is a horror we will never comprehend. No amount of human suffering on earth can be compared.
It was not simply the nails and the Romans that forced Jesus to beg the Father to change direction in the garden; it was the cup.
The cross by itself is still something far more horrific than most people reading this blog will ever experience, but coupled with the Divine aspect of the Son being punished for the sins of His people, Jesus truly experienced the most dreadful suffering one can.
It ought to be a great comfort to us to know that when God calls us to horrible places, He does so as a leader who was willing to call His own Son, our Advocate, to far worse places.
It is a common expression, “I will never ask you to do something I am not willing to do.” God went above and beyond that. He offered His Son. His Son experienced a wrath we will never know.
In our confusion, pain, and trials, we would do well to remember our God was willing to go through so much more. He is not sadistic.
Heaven / Hell
“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”
It is important that we as Christians never attempt to trivialize other’s suffering. Hebrews tells us to weep with those who weep, it doesn’t tell us to remind the weepers that it could be worse.
Especially as one who, relative to the rest of the world, lives an incredibly comfortable, privileged, easy life, I never want to attempt to trivialize suffering. However, God is free to do what He wants to do, and through Paul, He does seem to do this in Romans 8.
In the passage above, Paul reveals that our present sufferings cannot even be compared to heaven. When we get to heaven, we will no longer be bitter about anything God did before getting us there. We will no longer question or be angry; we won’t care. The Glory of God in heaven will outshine and outweigh everything, and it will make even our most horrendous sufferings minuscule. Heaven is the trump card to our sufferings.
Not all experience heaven, but hell, in different way, is a justification as well. Hell serves as the justice the human heart longs for when they see, experience, or hear about the evil in the world. Hell is the cosmic justice, the wrath of God, that no fallible human court can achieve. Hell means that one day all evil will be rightfully dealt with. Justice will actually be accomplished.
“Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind and said: ‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the world? Tell me if you have understanding.’”
One of the most important places to turn to for the purposes of seeing God’s hand in and response to suffering and evil is none other than the book of Job. Job lost, with God’s
permission, everything. Few people (if any at all outside of Jesus) can empathize with Job. He lost his family, his health, his job, and his home…in one day.
His friends would later rebuke him, and his wife would soon after hate him. Literally the only thing he had was life, and he was so miserable he didn’t even want that (3: 1-26).
It is important to constantly check our attitudes toward God while suffering. God was not afraid to rebuke Job when Job was suffering. No amount of suffering is an excuse to not be faithful. God does not feel sorry for us enough to let us sin while grieving.
One way in which we can sin in suffering is to challenge God’s goodness and demand a defense from Him.
Many people have left the Christian faith because of a tragedy. After something horrible, they convince themselves God is not good because God did what He did, or, did not provide a justification for what He did.
However, pride precedes fall. That attitude is only reasonable if one first assumes from the beginning that God has certain boundaries He is not allowed to cross when governing my life, and that, if they are crossed, a sufficient reason must be given from Him to me.
We make ourselves god, and put expectations on Him that the Bible never reveals He has.
The primary lesson learned from the book of Job is that God is sovereign, good, and owes us no explanation for the things He does.
After many chapters of Job and his fellow theologians bickering about why God would do this to Job, Job finally challenges God. He finally asserts his own righteousness, and implies that he deserves none of what’s going on. By that He implies that God is unjust to do what He has done to job.
Finally, God steps in, and He rebukes Job. Multiple chapters of rhetorical questions are asked, and all serve the same purpose. The first one is a good summary:
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the world?”
God does not give Job an explanation. He does not pander, and condescend to Job. He does not explain all His purposes for the events that have unfolded and all the good they will serve. No, God simply reminds Job who he is… and who He is.
The Lord reminds Job that fallible, finite creatures have no business questioning the God who fashioned the universe. He firmly demonstrates to Job that He knows what He is doing, and that Job (and by extension us) is not in a place to question God’s purposes and methods. We are on trial; God is not.
In His grace, God does, at times, give us answers. In His grace He does, often, bless us with joys, comforts, prosperity, and many other good things. But when He takes these away, He is not unjust because these were things He never owed us in the first place. They are mercies.
“As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.”
Alongside Job, Joseph too is no stranger to the endurance of great evil and the great suffering caused by that evil. This is a good example of a time God did in fact give, in His grace, a brief explanation for why He did to Joseph what He did.
After Joseph’s brothers nearly kill him, sell him into slavery, and lie to their father about it, they now stand, unbeknownst to them, before their exalted brother, the prince of Egypt.
They were brought to Egypt, because of a famine, to ask for food (food Joseph knew to save 7 years earlier because of God’s miraculous abilities He gave to Joseph to interpret dreams rightly).
As his brothers stand before him helpless, this is Joseph’s moment for sweet vengeance. This is Joseph’s chance to repay them for their evil, but he chooses not to, and his reasoning for not doing so is of epic theological proportions:
“As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good…”
What’s important here is the word meant. God did not simply clean up the mess that Joseph’s brothers made. God meant for this to happen just as Joseph’s brothers did. God caused this; He didn’t react to it. He meant for this to happen.
This is a verse that deserves much attention in regards to explaining Compatibilism as a whole, that God uses the evil intentions of man to accomplish His purposes, and that God can mean for something to happen while be good, and others can mean for the same thing to happen while remaining evil.
However, for our purposes, we will be brief and simply focus on the point that God intended this to happen for a future good. Thus, it is a blessed hope that all of our suffering has meaning.
God is in control, and He orchestrates all things for His glory and the good of His people. Thus, we can rejoice in all of our suffering knowing it has meaning and purpose. Not that God will one day fix the mess, but that the mess, right now, has purpose, and is part of a good God’s gracious plan.
“Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.”
Closely related to the cross of Calvary is the purpose of Jesus’ incarnation.
Jesus’ life purpose was not only to die for sins and accomplish atonement. He also had to become our perfect high Priest. He had to fulfill the types and shadows of the Old Testament laws.
That is exactly what the verse above communicates. Because Jesus became man, He is now able to sympathize with us. He knows, experientially, the struggle that it is to be human. He understands, intimately, how hard and painful life is. Because of this fact, He can represent us before the Father.
Hebrews 4: 14- 5: 2,
“Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness.”
Charles Spurgeon once said,
“A Jesus who never cried could never wipe away my tears.”
This is exactly what we have in our suffering and pain. We have a God who understands. We have a God who never calls us to a place He hasn’t gone. We have a God who was willing to be with His children in this cold, hard world. We have a good who can heal us, comfort us, use our suffering for good, and, all the while, stand on our behalf as one of us. Your God, O Christian, knows your pain. Run to Him.
“In Him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will…”
Closely related to Meaning is God’s sovereignty. God’s sovereignty is the foundation to the meaning of our suffering.
God is in complete control. Nothing happens to us that He could not have prevented, and nothing does not happen that He wanted to. He is in control. And control is comforting.
All things He works after the council of His will. He works all things, including your suffering and evil, after the council of His own will.
It is a very comforting thing to be able to confidently know you will go no place and experience no thing God doesn’t want you to go and experience. Where you are and what you’re enduring is part of God’s plan. No matter where we are, we can honestly say “God wants me here.” And that is very encouraging.
Rest assured knowing things are not out of control; God is not panicking or scrambling.
You are right where you ought to be, and He is there too.
“Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…’”
The image of God in man is foundational to this entire discussion, and in apologetic settings, is so often missed.
We simply assume the image of God in man for non-Christians when giving an accounting of it is a necessary precondition for the entire debate.
In other words, if someone complained to you about children suffering and dying, what would they say if you responding with, “So what? Who cares?”
Before asking why God allows evil or causes suffering we first need to ask why we are asking this in the first place. In other words, who says evil exists at all? Who says men deserve certain treatment from me?
Darwin cannot answer this. The predominant worldview of the day cuts its legs out from under it. If we want to complain about people suffering and people committing evil, we first need to be able to defend that objective evil exists and that we have a reason to grieve over human suffering more so than ant suffering.
Without transcendent meaning and objective moral values, the very question at hand dissipates into nothing. Thus, the Bible must be true for this conversation can even be had.
“Then God said to him in the dream, ‘Yes, I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart, and it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her.’”
According to this text, why did Abimelech not sin? He did not touch Sarah. Had he done so, it would have caused much grief and suffering. What does the text say was the reason for his purity? It says God prevented him from doing this. “[I]t was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her.’”
It is so easy for us to get angry at God because of suffering, sin, and effects of sin from others. Yet, we simply have no idea how much suffering and evil He is constantly preventing.
This world, left alone, would be far worse than anything we could even imagine, but by God’s grace it isn’t. He deserves much more praise for all the suffering He prevents and the evil He restrains.
Romans 1 teaches that some of the worlds greatest evils are due to God “giving men over“. If He did that more often, things would be far, far worse. He is worthy of praise for His constant restraint of the evil of men.
“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—”
Mark Spence, during an open-air sermon, once asked an unbeliever a brilliant question on this particular topic. While discussing suffering and evil, Spence asked the man this (paraphrased):
“Suppose I could convince God to come down here and obliterate all evil and suffering at midnight tonight. Suppose, at midnight tonight, He is coming down to eradicate all evil and all suffering from the world. Where will you be at 12:01?”
During times of suffering, especially that caused by direct acts of evil, remember your role in this story. The world is messed up because of you.
You once walked in sin and followed the ways of the world. You have hurt others.
You have caused pain.
You have been negligent.
You have wronged God.
You, as am I, are much to blame.
Remember that before questioning God and asking Him what He is doing. Perhaps He is extending the same grace and mercy and love to others that you are utilizing to question Him in the first place.
I have often thought that if God was as patient with my wickedness as I expect Him to be with other people’s wickedness, I would have gone to hell a long time ago.
Genesis 1 teaches that sin corrupted the physical world. Even natural suffering like disasters and sickness are the results of human rebellion; something you and I are guilty of.
We all are guilty for the suffering caused to our fellow human beings; sometimes more directly than other times.
Yet, God is very gracious and good to you and to me, so allow Him to be that to others too.