TEXTS: Romans 8:18-39 and Matthew 26:36-47
And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:27-28)
Why does God let bad things happen? How can a good God allow evil to take place?
Why do good people suffer? Why does anyone suffer?
Some people ask those questions out of purely philosophical interest. But most of us, I think … when we ask questions like that about evil and suffering … it’s almost always because misfortune has touched our own lives.
In his introduction to a book called Christian Faith and the Problem of Evil, Peter van Inwagen writes this:
Angels may weep because the world is filled with suffering. A human being weeps because his daughter, she and not another, has died of leukemia this very night, or because her village, the only world she knows, is burning and the mutilated bodies of her husband and her son lie at her feet.1
It’s one thing to consider evil and suffering as a philosophical problem; living with it is something else again. Contemplating that, I recall the familiar Palm Sunday passage from John’s gospel.
“Hosanna!” shouted the crowd. “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” (John 12:13)
They wanted a Messiah who would take up the sword and drive the Romans out of their homeland. Instead, they got a Suffering Servant who took up a cross.
Rather than deal death to those who deserved it, this Messiah died to bring eternal life to those who did not deserve it. And in the process, he broke the hearts of all who loved him.
Sorrow and pain are very personal things. They have faces—and they have names.
Looking at my online news feed, I see that at least one person has died in a high-rise fire in Ottawa overnight.2
That was a tragic accident.
But other tragedies in the recent past have been deliberately wrought. Like the murder—by arson—of 33 people in an animation studio in Kyoto, Japan on July 18.3
Over the past month, our news headlines have been dominated by the Canada-wide manhunt for two young men—Bryer Schmegelsky, 18, and Kam McLeod, 19—suspected in the murder of up to three individuals in British Columbia.4
Just this past weekend, a 23-year-old man was arrested in Markham, Ontario for the murders of four members of his own family.5
Also on that weekend, three were killed and at least 15 injured in a mass shooting in Gilroy, California.6
As I write this post, news arrives that police across the Greater Toronto Area are investigating three separate homicide cases—a stabbing in Brampton, a shooting in Oshawa and another shooting in Markham.7
And the examples just keep on coming.
Yeah. I know.
Those are difficult things to hear about. They illustrate the reasons why some of us cannot bear to watch the evening news.
We don’t want to acknowledge the problem of evil, or the reality of suffering. Yet evil and suffering, injustice and sorrow and atrocity go on, all around us, all the time.
Even those of us who do pay attention to the news are seldom affected deeply by the tragedies therein reported. But sometimes they hit very close to home.
Four years ago this past June, my wife and I heard a sad report on the TV news. A “31-year-old Calgary woman” had died in a hiking accident on Grotto Mountain near Exshaw. As it turned out, that initially unidentified young woman was a friend of ours.8
Her name was Suzanna. By the age of 31, Sue had beaten cancer twice. She also survived an horrendous car crash on Deerfoot Trail. She had resumed her active lifestyle, had a new man in her life, and had just graduated as a paramedic. Finally, Sue’s future looked bright.
On June 8, 2015, she had been cancer-free for almost two years. That same day, she fell off a mountain.
We still grieve for her.
I’m sure every person reading this has experienced tragic loss. Or has a story to tell about apparently pointless human suffering. Or grave injustice.
Which is why we need to talk about this, I think.
Some years ago, the California-based Barna Group took a poll of the general public: “If you could ask God one question and know that you would receive an answer, what would you ask?”
The most common response was, “Why is there pain and suffering in the world?”9
As someone has said, “The problem of evil is the cornerstone of atheism.” Invariably, atheists offer up the problem of evil as proof that the God of the Bible does not exist. And you will not get very far in a conversation with a non-believer before the subject comes up.
It is a legitimate question. “Why is there pain and suffering in the world?”
Why doesn’t God intervene to prevent bad things from happening?
I asked that question in a sermon not long ago. And predictably, at coffee time after church, someone gave me the answer: “It’s because of free will!”
It’s because God gave people free will, and they choose poorly: evil instead of good, risk instead of security, foolishness instead of wisdom. Case closed. Problem solved.
It’s one of the oldest explanations in the history of Christian thought.
More recently, what’s called the “free will defense” has been stated by the theologian Alvin Plantinga. He says:
A world containing creatures who are significantly free (and freely perform more good than evil actions) is more valuable, all else being equal, than a world containing no free creatures at all. Now God can create free creatures, but He can’t cause or determine them to do only what is right. For if He does so, then they aren’t significantly free after all; they do not do what is right freely. To create creatures capable of moral good, therefore, He must create creatures capable of moral evil; and He can’t give these creatures the freedom to perform evil and at the same time prevent them from doing so.10
This appears to be a reasonable enough argument. However, I think it offers only a partial and limited solution to the problem of evil.
Certainly, it explains the evil that is caused by the acts of human beings—like a sniper targeting policemen at what was supposed to be a peaceful demonstration. Or a suicide bomber blowing up innocent people in the name of God. Or lung cancer caused by smoking tobacco.
Or, I suppose, the choice to take the risk of hiking in the mountains.
But it does not account for natural evil, such as the suffering caused by earthquakes, tornados, and the Zika virus—tragedies which have nothing to do with human choice.
It’s puzzling. It’s mysterious. It’s frustrating. And in the midst of trying to figure it all out, we hear these words from Romans, chapter eight, where Paul says: “… we know that for those who love God all things work together for good …”
“We know that all things work together for good for those who love God” (Romans 8:28).
In the face of grave misfortune, that can be very hard to believe.
Yet, somehow, sometimes, some people can do it. In his excellent book on this subject—entitled If God is Good—Randy Alcorn tells the story of Philadelphia pastor James Montgomery Boice. After explaining to his congregation that he had been diagnosed with terminal liver cancer, he stood before them and said this:
Should you pray for a miracle? Well, you’re free to do that, of course. My general impression is that the God who is able to do miracles—and He certainly can—is also able to keep you from getting the problem in the first place. So although miracles do happen, they’re rare by definition … Above all, I would say pray for the glory of God. If you think of God glorifying Himself in history and you say, where in all of history has God most glorified Himself? He did it at the cross of Jesus Christ, and it wasn’t by delivering Jesus from the cross, though He could have …11
That’s a brave and remarkable statement by Pastor Boice, isn’t it? It draws our attention not only to the cross of Christ, but also to that scene in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus told his disciples, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death” (Matthew 26:38).
And then he fell to his knees and prayed, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”
James Montgomery Boice—who would pass from this earth a mere eight weeks after delivering his message—went on to tell his people this:
God is in charge. When things like this come into our lives, they are not accidental. It’s not as if God somehow forgot what was going on, and something bad slipped by … God is not only the one who is in charge; God is also good. Everything He does is good … If God does something in your life, would you change it? If you’d change it, you’d make it worse. It wouldn’t be as good.11
“It wouldn’t be as good.” I have to confess, I find that statement hard to swallow. I’m not sure that—if I were in Pastor Boice’s place—I would be as able to say what he said.
My difficulty is … while I might be able to accept the diagnosis … and I can even believe that God might use it to accomplish some kind of good … and I hope I would trust God to see me through whatever followed …
I don’t think I could ever believe that God gave me cancer on purpose. Alas, I know that does not help make sense of the issue at hand. And who knows how I would actually feel, if I had to face a thing like that.
So maybe Pastor Boice was on to something. Certainly, he expressed the classical Christian viewpoint.
In any case, I think the parallel to Gethsemane is instructive. On that terrible night, Jesus bowed to his Father’s will because he trusted God. Because he believed that, somehow, even this horrible suffering would “work together for good.”
And it did.
The passion of Christ bought our salvation, even as his resurrection sealed the promise of eternal life.
Perhaps our own suffering is like that, too. In some way, it “works together for good.” Perhaps it has some divine purpose, whether we understand it, or not. We can trust that—eventually—we will understand everything that we need to understand. With that in mind, I’m going to let Randy Alcorn have the last word:
On the other side of death, the Bible promises that all who know him will fall into the open arms of a holy, loving, and gracious God—the greatest miracle, the answer to the problem of evil and suffering. He promises us an eternal kingdom on the New Earth, where he says of those who come to trust him in this present world of evil and suffering, “They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (Revelation 21:3-4).12
May it be so. Amen.
1 Peter van Inwagen, ed., Christian Faith and the Problem of Evil (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), xii.
9 Quoted by Greg Laurie at: https://www.wnd.com/2012/05/questions-for-god/
10 Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), p. 30.
11 Randy Alcorn, If God is Good … Faith in the Midst of Suffering and Evil (Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah, 2009), p. 15.