The following sermon was preached by Chris Anderson on February 11, 2018.
(Click the play button above or visit this link to download the MP3 file.)
The following sermon was preached by Chris Anderson on February 11, 2018.
(Click the play button above or visit this link to download the MP3 file.)
Last week, I started to answer the question of the problem of evil. I said that many people asked questions along the lines of, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” or, “Why is there so much suffering in the world?” I had already planned to spend two weeks on this issue. And then, on Monday morning, I woke to the news that there had been a massacre in Las Vegas. One man managed to murder 58 people and injure hundreds more.
As I had already planned to talk about evil, I don’t have much to say about that one event. I will say this: a lot of people think that if we would just do something about guns, we could stop these things from happening. I’m sure there are some things that could be done. People from across the political spectrum are saying we should ban bump stocks, the device that can be put on the end of semiautomatic rifles to make them shoot at rates that are close to automatic rifles. But even if we did that and had increased scrutiny over who bought how many guns and when, we won’t fully eliminate evil. We can restrain it, but we can’t kill it. Only God can do that. And evil is a supernatural force. It can’t be destroyed through better laws, better education, better security, or a better government. As long as evil lurks in the shadows of the supernatural realm and as long as evil resides in our hearts, bad things will occur. I’ll talk more about the supernatural side of evil next week.
But today, I want to address the issue of why bad things happen. Why does God allow bad things, even evil things, to occur?
I don’t know that we’ll ever know exactly why any one particular event occurred. Perhaps we will. But I think there’s a story about Jesus that gives us an indication of why at least certain evils—and perhaps, in the end, why all evils—are allowed by God. That story is the famous story about Jesus raising Lazarus back to life, found in John 11.
Today, we’re going to look at this story and then we’ll draw some conclusions as to why Jesus allowed a tragedy to occur, and perhaps also why God allows all evil to occur. Without further ado, let’s turn to John 11 and start reading. I’ll read the first four verses:
1 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. 3 So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4 But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”
I’ll give us a bit of context. John, the author of this biography of Jesus, has told us that Jesus is God (John 1:1) and the Son of God (John 1:14, 34, 49). In the previous chapter, Jesus had been in Jerusalem talking to the Jewish religious leaders. When he said, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30), they picked up stones to hurl at him. They thought he was committing blasphemy, claiming to be one with God (verse 33). Of course, Jesus was saying that, but he wasn’t blaspheming. He was correct. Still, in order to avoid being killed, he left Jerusalem and crossed the Jordan River and went north. He might have been close to one hundred miles away from Jerusalem.
Jesus had friends named Lazarus, Martha, and Mary, a brother and two sisters, and they lived in the village of Bethany, less than two miles from Jerusalem. Lazarus became seriously ill, and so Lazarus’s sisters sent a message to Jesus, probably so he could heal Lazarus. What’s important to see is that Jesus loved Lazarus (“he whom you love”) and he also says that his event will not end in death, but in God being glorified.
“Glory” is a very Christian word. It has a meaning of “brilliance,” or “fame,” or “weight.” When we say that God is glorified, we mean he appears to us as more brilliant, he becomes more famous among us, or he takes on more weight in our lives. God never changes. He is always brilliant. But when we see how great he is, he becomes more glorious to us. Somehow, this whole event will reveal how great God the Father is, and also how great God the Son is.
Now, let’s look at the next two verses, verses 5 and 6:
5 Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6 So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
We’re told that Jesus loved not only Lazarus, but also Martha and Mary, his sisters. And then we have a very odd statement. Because Jesus loved them, when he heard Lazarus was sick, he deliberately waited two days. Jesus didn’t run to Lazarus and heal him. Actually, Jesus didn’t even have to be in the same place as someone in order to heal them (see Matt. 8:5–13/Luke 7:1–10). We would think that if Jesus loved Lazarus and his sisters, he would heal Lazarus instantly. But he doesn’t. He waits.
Let’s find out what happens next. We’ll read verses 7–16:
7 Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” 8 The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?” 9 Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. 10 But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.” 11 After saying these things, he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” 12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” 13 Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, 15 and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16 So Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
After two days, Jesus tells his disciples that they must go back to Judea again. This is the region of Jerusalem, where people were just trying to kill Jesus. Jesus’ followers think he’s a bit crazy to think of going back there. But Jesus says that there are twelve hours in a day. On average, there are twelve hours of daylight in any given day. In a world before electricity, that is the time when work was done. So, Jesus means he still has work to do. He must do the work that God the Father gave him to do, and while he does God’s work, he is walking in the light. The safest place for him is in the will of God. So, even if it looks like a suicide mission, Jesus knows he must do the Father’s will.
Then he tells his disciples that Lazarus had “fallen asleep.” Of course, he means that Lazarus has died. Jesus must have known that supernaturally. Yet his disciples don’t get it. They take his words literally. (This happens a few times in John. See John 3:3–4; 4:10–11). So, Jesus had to be abundantly clear. Jesus tells them Lazarus has died. And, surprisingly, he says, “for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe.” If Jesus was there, he would have healed Lazarus. But he intentionally waited for Lazarus to die. Why? Earlier, he said this event would lead to God—the Father and the Son—being glorified. Here, he says Lazarus’s death, and what will happen soon, will lead to people’s faith.
Now, let’s continue with the story. We’ll read verses 17–27:
17 Now when Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18 Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother. 20 So when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, but Mary remained seated in the house. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”
When Jesus arrived in Bethany, where Lazarus and his sisters lived, Lazarus had been dead for four days. It seems that Jesus was probably a four days’ journey on foot away, so that if he left right when he knew Lazarus died, he would arrive at this time. We’re told that many Jews from Jerusalem had come to comfort Marth and Mary, and this reminds us that Jesus was in trouble with the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. As we’ll see, by returning to the Jerusalem area, Jesus was risking his safety.
The first to greet Jesus is Martha. If you’re familiar with the Gospels, you might remember another time when Jesus was with Martha and Mary. Martha was busy with all kinds of activity while Mary sat at Jesus’ feet and listened to his teaching (Luke 10:38–42). What we see here fits with that story. When Martha talks to Jesus, she says that if he had arrived sooner, her brother wouldn’t have died. But she still has faith that Jesus can do whatever he asks of God the Father. Jesus tells her that Lazarus will rise again. She says, “Oh, I know he will, because at the end of the age there will be a resurrection of everyone.” That’s true. Whenever Jesus returns, everyone will be raised back to life, some for eternal salvation and some for eternal condemnation (Dan. 12:2; John 5:25–29). But, as we’ll see, Jesus means more than that.
Yet first Jesus says that he is the resurrection and the life. The dead are able to be raised back to life because of Jesus. He is the way, and the truth, and the life (John 14:6). He is the only way to live forever. He says, “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.” In this world, everyone will die. Only those who are alive when Jesus returns won’t die. But everyone else will. Yet Jesus says that those who trust in him, though they experience that death, will live. The one who experiences a spiritual rebirth and believes in Jesus will live forever.
Then Jesus says to Martha, “Do you believe this?” Martha makes a great confession of faith. She says that she believes, and she knows that Jesus is the Christ. That’s a word based on a Greek word that means “anointed one.” Jesus is God’s anointed King. He’s also the Son of God, who comes into the world to rescue his people. As the most famous verse in the Bible says, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
Now, let’s see what happens when Jesus sees Mary. We’ll read verses 28–37:
28 When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary, saying in private, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29 And when she heard it, she rose quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet come into the village, but was still in the place where Martha had met him. 31 When the Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary rise quickly and go out, they followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32 Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. 34 And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus wept. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?”
Martha goes to Mary to tell her that Jesus is here and wants to speak to her. So, Mary comes to him, outside of the village. When Mary comes to Jesus, she falls at her feet and calls him “Lord.” This is clearly a sign of respect. Yet she says the same thing that her sister said: “if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” It seems John really wants to know that Jesus could have spared Lazarus from this death, but decided not to.
That might leave us thinking that Jesus is cold. But he’s not. We’re already told that he loves Lazarus, Martha, and Mary. And now we see something stunning. When Jesus sees Mary weeping, and then also sees others weeping, we’re told he “was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled.” This is really a deceptive translation. And it’s not just the English Standard Version. Almost every other English translation tones down the meaning of the original Greek. The King James Version says that Jesus “groaned in the spirit,” which is closer. The New Revised Standard Version says Jesus “was greatly disturbed in spirit.” I’m surprised that the New Living Translation comes much closer. It says, “a deep anger welled up within him.” The Holman Christian Standard Bible says that Jesus “was angry in His spirit.” The Greek word isn’t used much in the New Testament, but it generally refers to anger. Outside of the Bible, it was used to refer to the snorting of horses. You might think of Jesus having his nostrils flared, indignant and furious. Many translations tone down Jesus’ reaction, perhaps for fear of embarrassment, as if the Son of God couldn’t have such a passionate response.
Why was Jesus so angry, and so troubled? He knew Lazarus had already died. He had already seen Martha upset. He knows what he is about to do. But now he sees Mary and others weeping. It’s one thing to know all facts. As God, Jesus could access divine omniscience at any time he wanted. He knew Lazarus had died before anyone had told him. But it’s one thing to know a fact. It’s another thing to experience it. I believe that Jesus was angry that there was death and sorrow in the world. And it’s not because Jesus was like us, powerless and out of control. Remember, Jesus chose not to heal Lazarus. Still, he was so bothered and moved by what he saw that he also wept. And then he asked to see the tomb. (It seems he asked where Lazarus was laid because he “turned off” that divine omniscience. Jesus chose to live fundamentally as a human being.)
John wants us to see, again, that Jesus could have healed Lazarus before he died. That’s why he reports that some whispered, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?” They’re referring to something that happened in chapter 9, when Jesus healed a man who had been born blind.
Let’s move ahead to see how the story ends. We’ll read verses 38–44:
38 Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” 44 The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
Jesus became angry again, apparently when he saw the tomb. Perhaps he was angry at this visual symbol of death. Perhaps he was angry because it was necessary for Lazarus to die, because he couldn’t heal him the way he healed the blind man. At any rate, Jesus is once again disturbed, and he asks for the stone that closed the tomb to be moved. Martha warned him, quite grimly, that Lazarus’s body was starting to decompose. But Jesus says, “I told you would see the glory of God, didn’t I?”
When the stone was removed from the tomb, Jesus prayed. In a sense, he didn’t have to pray to the Father. He knew what the Father was going to do, and the Father did, too. The prayer was more for the sake of the crowd. He wanted them to know that he was sent by the Father. In this instance, the Father would respond to Jesus’ prayer and his alone. What was about to happen was a sign of divine favor. Once he prayed, he told Lazarus in a commanding voice, “Come out!” And Lazarus did. This is one of the more astonishing miracles that Jesus performs.
Now that we’ve worked our way through this story, I want to think more carefully about what it says about why bad things happen. The way that John reports this story, he makes it clear that it was necessary for Lazarus to die. Jesus could have healed him before he died, but he chose not to. Twice, we’re told that Lazarus’ death led to God being glorified (vv. 4, 40). It also led to people believing in God, specifically believing in Jesus (vv. 15, 42).
Now, when people think about evil in the world, they often think about why God would allow evil to occur. Sometimes, people act as if God is not in control, or they act as if God is not good. I reject both of those ideas because God has revealed himself to be in control and good. I reject any unbiblical picture of God as a nice grandfather who gets really sad when bad things happen, and who wishes he could just do something about all the evil in the world but just can’t. I also reject an unbiblical picture of God as an unloving, uncaring, distant, silent tyrant.
The Bible teaches that God is eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing, perfectly wise, and good, among other attributes. That means that God has always existed, he can do anything that he desires, and he never learns a new fact. So, before God created the universe, he knew that evil would enter into it. Yet he chose to create it, even though he didn’t have to. God isn’t required to create a universe, or to create human beings. But he chose to do so, and he chose to create this particular world and all that is in it.
Now, God had a choice. He could have created a world with no evil or he could have created a world in which evil emerged and led to some good things that are not possible without such evil. God could have created angels that never rebelled, so that there would be no Satan, the devil. He could have created human beings who were glorified, who were incapable of sinning and incapable of dying. The mystery is why God did not choose to do that. But think about what would be missing if there were no evil, no suffering, no pain, and nothing bad in the world.
It’s really hard to imagine that, if we stop and think. If there were never any bad, we wouldn’t know how good good things can be. There would never be any evil to defeat. That means there would never be a concept of victory. If there no evil in the world, there would be no Yankees, which means we would never know the joy of the Red Sox defeating them. Seriously, there would be no concept of bravery or courage, for there would be no dangers, no risky situations. There would be no concept of heroism.
If Adam and Eve, the first human beings, never sinned, they would have remained in Paradise with God. Imagine if they had children who never sinned, and they had children who never sinned, and so on. It’s very hard to imagine it fully. But if that happened, there would be no need for the Son of God to become a human being. Jesus, the Son of God, came to live the perfect life that we don’t live. Adam and Eve sinned, and so did all other human beings, except Jesus. We have all failed to live life the way that God made us to. Since we fail to live according to God’s design for humanity, Jesus came to fulfill humanity’s purpose. And he also came to die as a sacrifice for our sins. It’s not clear why Jesus would come if there were never any sin in the world.
If Jesus never came, we would never know to what great lengths God would go to rescue us. We would never see the full glory of God. Or, so it seems.
If Jesus healed Lazarus immediately, people wouldn’t have seen Lazarus raised from the grave. They wouldn’t see God’s power over death. They wouldn’t see that victory, and Jesus’ compassion and bravery, being willing to risk his safety to go back to Jerusalem in order to rescue his friend.
So, this story shows that though Jesus is in perfect control, he deliberately chose for his friends to suffer for a short time so that they would later rejoice, truly know God, and truly believe.
God could have made a world without sin, or he could have made a world in which evil would emerge. The world that God made, in which there is now evil, somehow gives him more glory and, if we know Jesus, it gives us more gratitude. It’s a world that has a richer, more complex story. After all, think of any truly great story you’ve read, heard, or seen, whether in the form of a book, a play, a television show, or a movie. All the greatest stories have evil that must be defeated. They have adventure, bravery, and sacrifice. We are in the midst of the greatest story ever told, and it would seem that evil is necessary to make this story richer.
We can also think of every great piece of art. Great pieces of music, like symphonies, often have dissonance that resolves into harmony. If you were to stop those pieces of music during a moment of dissonance, it would sound ugly, but when these bits of cacophony resolve into euphony, when what sounds ugly for a moment turns into harmony, there is a great sense of fulfillment.
If we were to look at life in light of eternity, we would see that our moments of suffering are short. If we know Jesus, if we trust in him, our suffering can only last throughout this life, and this life is but a blink of an eye compared to a never-ending life with God in the new creation. And so, whatever pain we may experience now is nothing but a small moment in time, like a bit of dissonance that resolves to a beautiful, lush chord.
To take another metaphor from the world of art, imagine that you saw the most beautiful painting imaginable. I happen to find Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings to be marvelous. Imagine we took an extremely high-quality picture of one of his paintings, and then looked at that picture on a computer screen. Then imagine we zoomed in on individual pixels. When looking at individual pixels, they probably look ugly. If we zoomed out just a bit, some groups of pixels might look nice, but I bet groups of them would still look ugly. Yet if we zoom all the way out so we can see the whole picture, everything is harmonious. Everything has its place. Our suffering is like those ugly, small pixelated bits of a larger, beautiful painting. They are the dark bits that make the light stand out.
In light of eternity, our moments of suffering are quite small. The apostle Paul said, “this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17). If we know Jesus, we’ll experience that “weight of glory.” We’ll live in a glorious world forever, and all the pain will be wiped away. There will be no famine, no fighting, no wars, no diseases, no sin, and no death. Every tear that has ever been shed will be wiped away (Rev. 21:4).
But we don’t live in that world now. The reality is that we live in a world corrupted by sin, by the sin of others, and by our own sin. And that is why bad things happen. That doesn’t mean that all bad things happen to us because of our own individual sin. That’s not how things always work. The book of Job is an example of how bad things can occur for other reasons. Even earlier in John, when Jesus healed a blind man, people wondered if the man had been born blind because of his parents’ sin or his own. Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:3). But bad things happen, generally, because of the presence of sin, because of our sin, someone else’s sin, or because something is happening in the unseen spiritual realm. The presence of sin in in the world separates all humanity from God and his partial punishment against sin is life in a world that has natural disasters, pain, suffering, and death.
That may sound harsh, but think about this: Imagine if tonight, at the stroke of midnight, God removed all evil from the world. Sounds good, right? But what if God removed all evil from the world, not just the big evils like mass shootings and devastating hurricanes, but also the smaller-sized, more mundane evils like hate, greed, envy, pride, covetousness, gossip, selfishness, and so forth? What if God removed all liars, all gossipers, all haters, all people who lust and who envy? The big question is, if God removed all evil at the stroke of midnight, where would you and I be? If we judge evil by God’s standards, we would be removed from the world. So, God is patient and gracious with us. He hasn’t stopped the world yet and made it perfect because he is allowing more time for people to turn to Jesus. If God had stopped the world a hundred years ago, none of us would have been born. We would never have existed. So, even though the world is evil, God is gracious to allow it to go on.
And God uses pain and suffering to get our attention. When we see bad things occur, whether they are natural evils like hurricanes, or moral evils like mass murders, we have another opportunity to think about how fragile life is. We have another opportunity to wonder where we can turn for safety and refuge. We have an opportunity to think about what really matters in this life.
We think that what matters is safety, convenience, comfort, ease, and entertainment. That’s why we might be shocked to hear that Jesus lets his friend suffer and die, and he lets that friend’s sisters experience the great pain of mourning. But God doesn’t want our happiness so much as our perfection. This reminds me of some of the words of C. S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain. First, he addresses our problem with God. Because of our evil nature, we don’t really want to know God as he truly is. He writes, “What would really satisfy us would be a God who said of anything we happened to like doing, ‘What does it matter so long as they are contented?’ We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven—a senile benevolence who, as they said, ‘liked to see young people enjoying themselves,’ and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, ‘a good time was had by all.’”
Then, Lewis says that God isn’t that way. God is love, and real love doesn’t coddle. Real love isn’t afraid to let someone suffer, if that is necessary. If your child needs a painful shot to be immunized, you don’t without hold that treatment because she doesn’t like needles. Lewis writes, “Love, in its own nature, demands the perfecting of the beloved; . . . the mere ‘kindness’ which tolerates anything except suffering in its object is, in that respect, at the opposite pole from Love.” God wants us to experience the very best in life, which is him. But, in our natural state, we don’t seek him. That is particularly true when things are going well, when we seem to be in control of our lives. To know that God is God and we are not, we must come to the end of our illusion that we are at the center of the universe. We must come to the end of thinking that we’re God, that we’re in control. God uses pain and suffering to bring us into that position. As Lewis famously writes, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
That might sound cruel if God were distant and aloof and uncaring. But he’s not. And the chief evidence of that is Jesus. As the Son of God, he lived in heaven for eternity with the Father. He had no pain. But he became a man and entered into an evil world. As we saw in this passage, he wept. And he risked his life. If you keep reading, you see that the news of Lazarus being raised back to life angered the Jewish leaders so much that they decided to kill Jesus and they wanted to kill Lazarus, too (John 11:45–53; 12:9–11).
Lazarus’ death and his coming out of the tomb foreshadow Jesus’ death. Jesus died to pay the penalty for our sins, not his, because he never sinned. He is the only person who has never done anything wrong, the only one in whom there is no trace of evil. And he rose from the grave. And one day, when he returns, he will call out with a loud cry and his people will leave their tombs. The brief pain of this life will be far, far outweighed and overshadowed by the unending brilliance of eternal life with Jesus.
Jesus told Martha that those who believe in him will live forever. He asked her, “Do you believe this?” That is my question for you. Do you trust that God has a purpose for every pain, even if it doesn’t make sense? Do you trust that he’s good, even when life doesn’t feel good? Do you understand that Jesus is the only God who would enter into evil and endure it to save you from this evil world? Do you realize that he is our only hope, and that no set of laws, no government leaders, no amount of money or power or anything will fix evil? If you trust Jesus, you will live in a Paradise with him forever.
Pastor Brian Watson answers the question, “Why do bad things happen?” by preaching a message on John 11:1-44, the famous story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Jesus deliberately lets Lazarus die in order to heal him. He does this so that God would be glorified and people would believe. Perhaps this is why God allows any evil to occur at all.
One of the biggest questions that people have about God, and one of the main reasons why people have a hard time trusting God or believing that he exists, is the presence of evil in the world. A few weeks ago, we collected questions that people would like to ask God, and many of them involved pain and suffering. Here were some of the questions:
“Why do bad things happen to good people?” [This was asked twice.]
“Why is there so much suffering in foreign countries?”
“Why are you letting so many people suffer in this world?”
“Why are young children diagnosed with cancer?”
“Why do the people we love die when they are not old?
“Why do bad things continue to happen to me in my life?”
These questions often cause people to doubt God. In fact, the so-called problem of evil has been called “the rock of atheism,” because the very existence of bad things in the world is supposed to challenge the existence of God.
There are various problems of evil. One is called the logical problem of evil. This states that the very existence of evil is incompatible with a God who is omnipotent and good. Those who believe God and evil can’t coexist assume that God would never allow evil to exist in the first place, or that he would remove as quickly as possible. David Hume (1711–1776) captured this problem of evil rather famously: “Why is there any misery at all in the world? Not by chance, surely. From some cause then. Is it from the intention of the Deity? But he is perfectly benevolent. Is it contrary to his intention? But he is almighty. Nothing can shake the solidity of this reasoning, so short, so clear, so decisive.” In other words, if God is good and loving, he would not allow misery, and if he is all-powerful, he would be able to end misery. So, either he is one or the other, but not both.
However, if a good and all-powerful God has good reasons for allowing evil to occur, there is no reason why this God and evil cannot coexist. Perhaps God allows evil in order to realize some greater good. Even if we don’t know what exactly this greater good is, this idea shows that there is no logical contradiction involved in God’s existence and evil’s existence.
A second problem of evil is called the evidential problem of evil. In this argument, people accept that God may very well have a good reason for allowing evil to occur, but they believe that a good, all-powerful God wouldn’t allow so much evil to occur in the world. In other words, some people say there simply is too much evil in the world for there to be a God, particularly the God of the Bible. But how could we possibly know how much evil there should be? What is the right amount of evil necessary to produce greater goods?
Then there is a third problem of evil, which we might call the existential problem of evil. This isn’t a philosophical argument regarding the existence of God. This is a problem that we all face, whether we’re Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, or atheists. This is the question of how we cope in a world full of pain, misery, suffering, heartbreak, and, yes, evil.
Today, I want to begin to explore this issue of evil. Because it’s such a big question, I’ll continue thinking about it next week. Here’s what I want to claim today: any system of belief or worldview that doesn’t acknowledge the reality of evil is false; but Christianity does acknowledge that evil is real; the existence of evil is evidence that God exists, because to acknowledge evil is to acknowledge that a standard of good and evil exists; and while the Bible doesn’t tell us everything about why evil exists, it tells us that God will fix the problem of evil forever.
Before we get into this discussion, I want to define evil. Today when I use the word “evil,” I don’t just mean evil people like Hitler, or evil acts like murder or rape. I’m using the word in a very broad sense. When I say “evil,” I mean everything that isn’t the way things out to be. We all sense the world isn’t the way it ought to be. We feel out of sorts. We witness natural evils, like hurricanes and earthquakes, and also diseases and death. We witness human evils, like theft, rape, and murder. And then there are all kinds of smaller-scale suffering that we endure, like loneliness and depression. So, what is evil? Evil is anything that keeps us from being truly happy. We all want to be happy. Augustine once wrote, “It is the decided opinion of all who use their brains that all men desire to be happy.” Anything that disrupts true happiness is evil. I would define “true happiness” as “the way God intended the world to be,” or “the way things ought to be.” I’ll come back to that idea.
Obviously, you don’t need me to tell you that there’s evil in the world. A lot of people aren’t happy. There are many times when we aren’t happy. What worldview, religion, or system of thought can make sense of this state of affairs?
There are some religions or beliefs that maintain that evil is just an illusion, or that suffering can be eliminated through eliminating our desires. These concepts are found in eastern religions and in New Age spirituality. My understanding of Buddhism is that Siddharta Gautama, the Buddha, taught that life is an illusion. Our problem is getting wrapped up in this illusion. Or, as one writer puts it, “The problem with existence, Gautama decided, lies in becoming attached to physical life, which is by nature impermanent. The key to salvation is to let go of everything. . . . It is sometimes said that self-extinction is the goal of Buddha’s philosophy; it would be better to put it as realizing one’s self-extinctedness. Nonexistence is the reality; one simply has to become aware of it.” All our suffering comes from thinking that we actually exist as persons, and through cravings that come with such thinking. The key to removing suffering is to realize that all is an illusion. If that is true, then evil itself is an illusion. It’s not real. Can we really say that life is an illusion? That death isn’t real?
Some forms of Hinduism are pantheistic. They hold that the individual soul (Atman) is equal to the soul of the world (Brahman). In other words, all things are one. Enlightenment consists of realizing this truth. New Age spirituality is very similar. Several years ago, a New Age teacher named Eckhard Tolle was very popular, in large part because he was endorsed by Oprah Winfrey. His two famous books are The Power of Now and A New Earth. In the first book, he writes, “[Y]ou are one with all that is.” Tolle believes we are all connected to the Source. For him, the only evil is not to realize this. So, you and death are one. You and a malignant tumor are one. Why fear anything then? All is one. You and Hitler and HIV are one. Does anyone really buy this? Does anyone really live that way?
Buddhists, pantheists, and New Age gurus aren’t the only ones to deny the reality of evil. Some atheists do, too. I’ve recently mentioned that Richard Dawkins, a famous atheist and neo-Darwinist, has said that in a world that is the product of chance, where there is no god, there is no such thing as good and evil. Michael Ruse, another atheist and Darwinist, says,
Unlike Christians, Darwinians do not see that natural evil is a problem. Obviously they do not like it and may feel one has a moral obligation to reduce it, but it is just something that happens. No one causes it, no one is to blame. Moral evil is something fairly readily explicable given Darwinism. We have a natural inclination to selfishness. That is to be expected given that selection works for the individual.
If the world isn’t guided by God, why should we expect it would be good? How can we say it’s good or bad? It just is. And what we call evil, such as death, is part of the way large-scale, Darwinian evolution works. A rather unorthodox Jesuit priest named Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881–1955), who advocated the theory of evolution, said, “Evil appears necessarily . . . not by accident (which would not much matter) but through the very structure of the system.” Without the winnowing fork of death and extinction, natural selection wouldn’t work. Species with new and superior traits wouldn’t emerge from old ones. So, given what these atheists believe, what we call evil really isn’t evil. It’s just the way things are. We may not like it, but that’s life.
These religions and worldviews want us to believe that evil is an illusion, or doesn’t exist, or isn’t so bad. But we know better. Evil is real and it’s really evil. Death is an outrage. So is murder and rape, and theft. Hurricanes and earthquakes and tsunamis that kill thousands of people aren’t the way things ought to be. So, if a religion or philosophy says evil isn’t evil, they’re asking you to deny reality. Really, they’re asking you not to take them seriously. So, don’t.
But Christianity is different. It affirms that evil is a reality. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we ask God to deliver us from evil (Matt. 6:13), not from an illusion or something that we simply don’t like. Evil is something that intruded into God’s good creation when the power of sin entered into the world. That is, when human beings started to ignore and reject God and disobey him, evil came into the world. In fact, we might say the presence of evil started with the existence of the devil, Satan. This is somewhat mysterious, but it’s very much a part of reality. It is not an illusion.
And the Bible not only describes the reality of evil, it even has many protests against evil. Throughout the Bible, God’s people cry out to God and say, “This isn’t right! This isn’t fair! How long before you remove evil from this world?” Consider some of these verses:
1 How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
2 How long must I take counsel in my soul
and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? (Ps. 13:1–2)
3 O Lord, how long shall the wicked,
how long shall the wicked exult? (Ps. 94:3)
They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Rev. 6:10)
These are but a few of the many passages in the Bible that show how evil is something to be mourned, something to be outraged by. In fact, there are whole books of the Bible that take up the theme of evil and injustice. And that is quite interesting because we believe that the Bible is the word of God. Yes, human beings wrote the Bible, but it was God working through these human authors to write what he wanted. So, God himself acknowledges the problem of evil and suffering, and he gives voice to our protests against evil.
This alone, I believe, is actually evidence that Christianity is true. These complaints against evil and injustice match our experience of life. They resonate in our soul in a way that the claims that evil is an illusion don’t.
And, strangely, though evil is a problem for Christians, it is also proof that God exists. To know that something is evil, we must have some kind of standard to indicate what is good and what is evil. According to Christian thought, God is the standard of goodness. He is completely and truly good. And everything contrary to God is evil. Atheists have to cope with evil, but they not only have the problem of evil; they also have the problem of good. Why should an atheist expect goodness in a world of chance and chaos? How can an atheist say something is evil? How can they say genocide is evil? Isn’t that just evolution at work, the fit competing against the unfit, the strong preying on the weak? I don’t think we can discover good and evil. I believe the reality of good and evil need to be revealed to us. The first human beings got into trouble by eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They wanted to determine what was good and evil on their own, instead of letting God interpret that reality for them. To know what is good and evil, we need a trustworthy, objective, transcendent standard to measure such realities. In other words, we need God.
With the rest of the time we have this morning, I want us to consider two stories from the Bible that shows how God’s people complain about evil, and how God responds. The first is in the Old Testament. It is the story of a prophet named Habakkuk. We don’t know much about this prophet other than he was in Judah shortly before the Babylonians came in and attack Jerusalem. If you don’t know much about the Bible, this is what is important to know: In the Old Testament, God called a people to himself, Israel. He rescued them out of slavery and Egypt and brought them into the Promised Land. He had given them his law and told them how to worship him and how to live. But they often rebelled against God and worshiped the false gods of the surrounding nations. Because of their sin, God judged them in various ways, eventually bringing in foreign armies to conquer them.
Habakkuk begins with this complaint. This is Habakkuk 1:1–4:
1 The oracle that Habakkuk the prophet saw.
2 O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not hear?
Or cry to you “Violence!”
and you will not save?
3 Why do you make me see iniquity,
and why do you idly look at wrong?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
4 So the law is paralyzed,
and justice never goes forth.
For the wicked surround the righteous;
so justice goes forth perverted.
Habakkuk, like the Psalmists and like Job, ask God, “How long?” He was complaining against the injustice of the Jews in his day. The law, God’s commands, had no power to restrain their evil. They were doing wicked things, and Habakkuk thought that justice would never come. He was wondering why God didn’t respond to his cries.
Then God spoke. Look at verses 5–11:
5 “Look among the nations, and see;
wonder and be astounded.
For I am doing a work in your days
that you would not believe if told.
6 For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans,
that bitter and hasty nation,
who march through the breadth of the earth,
to seize dwellings not their own.
7 They are dreaded and fearsome;
their justice and dignity go forth from themselves.
8 Their horses are swifter than leopards,
more fierce than the evening wolves;
their horsemen press proudly on.
Their horsemen come from afar;
they fly like an eagle swift to devour.
9 They all come for violence,
all their faces forward.
They gather captives like sand.
10 At kings they scoff,
and at rulers they laugh.
They laugh at every fortress,
for they pile up earth and take it.
11 Then they sweep by like the wind and go on,
guilty men, whose own might is their god!”
God tells Habakkuk that he was going to do something that would astound him. In fact, he was already at work doing thing. God was raising up the Chaldeans, better known as the Babylonians, to punish the idolatrous and rebellious Jews, the very people God had called to himself. Babylon was becoming the superpower of the world and their warriors were fierce. God was telling Habakkuk that justice was coming soon.
But this news caused Habakkuk to complain about something else. We see that in the next section, Habakkuk 1:12–2:1:
12 Are you not from everlasting,
O Lord my God, my Holy One?
We shall not die.
O Lord, you have ordained them as a judgment,
and you, O Rock, have established them for reproof.
13 You who are of purer eyes than to see evil
and cannot look at wrong,
why do you idly look at traitors
and remain silent when the wicked swallows up
the man more righteous than he?
14 You make mankind like the fish of the sea,
like crawling things that have no ruler.
15 He brings all of them up with a hook;
he drags them out with his net;
he gathers them in his dragnet;
so he rejoices and is glad.
16 Therefore he sacrifices to his net
and makes offerings to his dragnet;
for by them he lives in luxury,
and his food is rich.
17 Is he then to keep on emptying his net
and mercilessly killing nations forever?
1 I will take my stand at my watchpost
and station myself on the tower,
and look out to see what he will say to me,|
and what I will answer concerning my complaint.
Habbakuk’s complaint is found in verse 13. He basically says to God, “You are too pure to even look upon evil. How can you then use the wicked Babylonians to judge those who are less wicked? This isn’t fair! These Babylonians capture people like a fisherman captures fish. They continue to kill and kill your people! Where’s the justice in that?”
God answers again. We’ll just look at the first three verses of his response, verses 2–4 of chapter 2:
2 And the Lord answered me:
“Write the vision;
make it plain on tablets,so he may run who reads it.
3 For still the vision awaits its appointed time;
it hastens to the end—it will not lie.
If it seems slow, wait for it;
it will surely come; it will not delay.
4 “Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him,
but the righteous shall live by his faith.
Then God delivers a series of “woes” to the Babylonians, saying that they will be put to shame, made to drink the cup of God’s wrath, and put to destruction (verses 15–17). He also says,
For the earth will be filled
with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea (verse 14).
The point is that though God was using wicked people to judge Israel, he would judge those wicked people, too. Justice would be done. And, in the end, the whole earth will be filled with God’s glory. Everyone will one day know the true God and one day all things will be made right.
In the meantime, God’s people must trust that God will make things right. That is why God says, “the righteous will live by his faith.” The one who is in a right relationship with God must trust that God will make all things right, even when everything now seems wrong. For Habakkuk, things seemed very wrong. Most of the world didn’t acknowledge the true God. Even the people who were supposed to be God’s people, the Israelites, weren’t acknowledging God. They were doing what was wrong. And Habakkuk complained to God. But God told him, “Son, just wait. I have this under control. I know what I’m doing. Trust me. I will judge everyone and all things will be well. Just trust me and you will live.”
In the third chapter of Habakkuk, the prophet responds with a psalm, a song or prayer. He says that he will wait for that day. He trusts God. He ends with these words, in verses 17–19:
17 Though the fig tree should not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
19 God, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the deer’s;
he makes me tread on my high places.
Habakkuk says, “Even though things look bleak now, even if there’s famine now, I will rejoice in God. I look forward to the day of salvation. I will take joy in God, for he is my strength, and he will take care of me.” That is faith.
You see, Christianity is not really an explanation of every single thing that happens in the world. The Bible isn’t an encyclopedia that gives us all the answers. What it is a story about God and his world, and about his people. While it doesn’t give us all the answers, it tells us a very important story. God made a good world, and sin corrupted it. Somehow, all the evil in the world is related to the power of sin at work in the world. When the first human beings disobeyed God, the relationship between God and people was fractured. Sin separates us from God. Sin separates us from one another. Sin separates us from the creation, in the sense that there are now natural disasters and life is difficult. And sin even separates us from the people we ought to be. All the bad things in this life are a result of sin. That doesn’t mean all the bad things that happen to us are a result of our sins. Christianity is not karma. Sometimes, we suffer for reasons we don’t understand. Sometimes, other things are happening, things that we couldn’t possibly understand. I think the book of Job illustrates that quite well.
But God doesn’t leave us with the story of a broken world. If that were the end of the story—things are bad because people sinned instead of trusting God, and then you die—it would be a bad, bad story. But that’s not the end of the story.
No, God had a plan to make things right, to remove the evil in the world. And that story centers on Jesus. As I said last week, God himself entered into the world. The author of life entered into his own creation in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The Son of God became a human being. He did this in order to live the perfect life that we don’t live. God’s design for humanity was for people to represent him, rule the world under his authority, reflect his character, worship him, and love him. But we don’t do those things. We tend to act as if we are the center of reality. We try to be our own little gods. This is rebellion. But Jesus always represented and reflected God the Father perfectly. He always came under the Father’s authority and worshiped and loved him. Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s purposes for humanity. But Jesus did something else. Jesus also took the punishment that we deserve for that rebellion. Jesus took the penalty for our crimes against God. To put it more precisely, Jesus took the sins of everyone who trusts him, so that they can have their evil removed and their sins forgiven.
During Jesus’ life, he experienced pain, suffering, loss, and evil. The very people who should have known who he was rejected him and mocked him. They called him names. Then they arrested him on false charges, they tortured him, and they killed him. Jesus, the Son of God, very God and very man, knows evil firsthand. And he suffered willingly, even though he was innocent, in order to rescue us from pain, suffering, and evil.
And when Jesus was approaching the time when he would voluntarily take on God’s wrath against sin—as he was approaching the time when he would experience hell on earth—he protested. The night before his death, he told his disciples that his soul was “very sorrowful, even to death” (Matt. 26:38). Then he cried out to God the Father, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me” (Matt. 26:39). In Luke’s Gospel, we’re told that Jesus’ “sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:44). Then, after being arrested and beaten, Jesus was crucified, which was an agonizing way to die. His suffering was beyond the physical pain of being nailed to a cross and left to suffer until he could no longer breathe. His true pain came from feeling as though he were separated and abandoned by God the Father. He cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46). Yet though Jesus protested his suffering, he trusted God. When he asked whether it were possible for the cup of God’s wrath to pass him, he said, “not as I will, but as you will” (Matt. 26:38). And when he died on the cross, he said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” (Luke 23:46). He trusted God, though his pain was great.
Jesus was able to trust God because he knew that all things would be well. He knew his story didn’t end in death. He knew he would rise from the grave victorious, to show that he paid the penalty for sin and to show that one day God will restore his creation. All who trust in Jesus, though they may die, will rise from the grave in bodies that can never die again, and they will live in a renewed world, one without sin and suffering, one without murder and war, one without death. And then, all will be well, and all manner of things will be well. There will no longer be evil, but only peace and love.
I’m going to say more about Jesus next week, because I think the story of Jesus lets us peer into the mystery of evil. If we can say why God would allow evil to emerge in this world, we are only able to do so because of Jesus. But for now, I want us to understand the following truths.
First, the Bible says that God is good. He is the very definition of goodness and love. And he made a good world.
Second, though the origin of evil is a bit of a mystery, evil in the world is connected to the presence of sin in the world. But evil is not eternal. If the world were always evil, then I think that would pose a significant and possibly insurmountable challenge to Christianity. But evil is not the perfect match to God’s goodness. In the end, evil has a limited lifespan. And evil has limited power.
Third, Christianity views evil as an outrage. Death is described as an enemy (1 Cor. 15:26), one that will be destroyed. Injustice of all kinds is an outrage. The cries against evil in the Bible resonate with the cries against evil that rise up in our own throats and that pour out in our own tears.
Fourth, though the Bible doesn’t answer every question about Evil, it says that God is not aloof. He’s not distant and uncaring. He does care about evil. He cares so much that he sent his own Son to experience evil. And the Son, the co-creator of the universe, entered into his own creation and subjected himself to human evil. The Bible also says that God is all-powerful and good. He is able to remove evil from the world and desires to do so. In fact, we’re promised that he will do that in the end. But the way that God removes evil from his people is by experiencing that evil himself. We may not understand everything about evil—in fact, that’s what makes evil so evil, because it’s irrational and confusing—but we can understand that Jesus experienced evil to save us. This is a God you can trust, even if we can’t understand everything about him.
Fifth, the Bible also says that one day God will finally and conclusively remove all evil from the world. For those who trust Jesus, who are united to him by faith, their evil has already been paid for. When Jesus returns, he will utterly transform us so that we won’t sin anymore. And we will live forever. Indeed, those who have faith in Jesus will live because they have been declared righteous and they will be righteous. But those who don’t trust Jesus will be removed from God’s good creation. Those who don’t trust God and his Son, who complain without faith, who claim that, if God exists, he’s evil, or who don’t claim that he exists at all, will be condemned. So, evil has an expiration date, but love, goodness, and justice don’t. God invites us to trust his promises and have eternal life. He asks us to trust his Son and his work on our behalf.
In the end, Jesus is the answer to the problem of evil. He is the only answer. And we must put our trust in him, even when things look bleak. We trust that things will not always be that way.
I can affirm that there simply is no other satisfying response to the problem of evil. If God doesn’t exist, there’s no evil—and there’s no good! If everything is an illusion, or if death is simply part of the engine of evolution, there’s no hope. This is how things are and this is how things will always be. But if goodness triumphs over evil, and Goodness himself took the worst evil, absorbed it, and then rose from the grave, and if he’ll come again to crush evil finally and ultimately, then there’s hope. If you’re not a Christian, I would love to tell you more about Jesus. He is the only key that will unlock the riddle of evil. Put your faith in him and live.
Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on the so-called problem of evil. He examines the issue of how there can be pain, suffering, and evil if God is good and is omnipotent. Some people think this is an argument against the existence of God. But perhaps evil is actually evidence for the existence of God and the truth of the Bible. After all, some religions and worldviews tell us that evil isn’t real or so evil. However, all experience tells us that evil is real and is an outrage. Christianity says evil is real, it’s a problem, and that Jesus is the solution.
Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on the book of Job, chapters 22-27. He focuses on the question, “Where is God?” Why does God seem hidden? Why does God seem absent when we’re hurting?
Pastor Brian Watson begins a sermon series through the book of Job. He shows what happens in the first two chapters, which give us some indication of why there is evil and suffering in the world and how we can respond to it.