It seems the last week has overflowed with more bad news than the banks of the Brisbane River. Deadly flooding in the Eastern States and the first European war in over 75 years follow the worst pandemic in 100 years. It raises the question, ‘Why does a good God allow bad things to happen?’ Many people conclude that this is such a paradox that God can’t be real. Others that, if God exists at all, he is either not all-good or not all-powerful. But the goodness and power of God are a cornerstone of Christian faith.
How can we respond when we encounter evil? There are no simple answers, but there are enough that I am satisfied we can still have confidence in God.
Where we start with this question makes a big difference. If we start with a focus on suffering and evil, it can overwhelm our thinking — like Winnie-the-Pooh’s friend, Eeyore, who can only ever see the downside even when there’s only an upside! But what if we frame the issue differently?
What if we start with God’s goodness?
Could a loving God have a good reasons to allow evil and suffering? Philosopher William Lane Craig argues yes, he could. Being all-knowing, God can see how the consequences of even small events ripple across time in ways that we, as flawed, finite beings cannot begin to understand. (And it’s arrogant to think we can!) Being all-powerful means God is able to subtly manipulate those ripples according to his will. And being morally perfect and loving, he is uniquely qualified to move these events towards ultimate good.
Put another way, God is smarter than me, and his goodness is stronger than evil’s wickedness. As a person of faith, this is my starting place and my first response is one of simple trust.
On one level, pain is a necessary human experience. Without pain we don’t know when things are wrong. People suffering with leprosy are often maimed and disfigured not because of the disease itself, but because they can’t feel the injuries that afflict their body. Likewise, emotional pain spurs us to make changes.
But beyond this, it seems that humans actually need some level of suffering, or at least struggle, to flourish. We live in the most prosperous and technologically advanced civilisation in history and yet, according to Professor Peter O’Connor of QUT, there is evidence that young people today are less resilient than previous generations. Some might argue this goes for the whole of Western civilisation. Is it possible we’ve simply had it too easy?
My observation is that people who embrace suffering are often better people for the experience. I have seen this particularly with parents of children with disabilities. (I grew up with a disabled brother and have witnessed this first hand.) The paradox is that for every carer, there needs to be someone cared for. We wouldn’t wish disability on anyone, but it seems it can be a means of grace to others. I’ve also noticed this grace in many people living with a disability or chronic illness. The experience of overcoming adversity can make people more caring, empathetic and tough.
For Christians there is an important frame for this grace, without which it is only a mockery…
The person of Jesus is God’s ultimate response to evil and suffering and gives us a hint into God’s nature. Although he can (and sometimes does) act in raw power, that doesn’t seem to be his preference. In Jesus he enters into our world of suffering and transforms it. (Perhaps this is the only way Love can act.) On the cross he overcame evil not through violence but through the Son’s submission to the Father (the mystery of the Trinity, but that’s for another time). And in rising from the dead, Jesus gives us hope and promises our own resurrection.
God does not create evil but he does redeem it. Jesus gives context both to the transformational grace of suffering on the individual scale and God’s victory over evil on a cosmic scale.
This doesn’t eliminate all of the mystery of suffering and evil. We might easily attribute a war down to human sinfulness but a child dying of malaria is harder to figure out. But it does give us a framework in which we can put evil in its place, overcome it, and trust in a good and loving God.