Evil and Suffering


When we come to the issue of evil and suffering, we come to one of the most troublesome issues in all of philosophy. Whether or not evil and suffering challenge what I believe, the fact is that evil and suffering play such an integral role in life. Buddha himself realized the significance of evil and suffering to such an extent that his system for all practical purposes is nothing less than a serious treatment of this one issue.

Do evil and suffering really exist? When I ask my classes if they believe that evil and suffering really exist, their hands shoot up immediately...almost before I can even finish asking the question. They are that convinced that there is truly evil and suffering in the world.

Before I share with you several examples of evil and suffering which the students list, I would to point out something very few people point out when discussing this issue. We point to tornadoes as an example of nature gone bad. In 1994 a tornado ripped through the quaint little town of Lancaster, TX. This town had been in existence for 127 years. One night, in a matter of minutes, one third of the historic part of that town was ripped to pieces. The town for all practical purposes collapsed. Another example of evil. Something to focus on.

But why focus on that one night? The town had been in existence for 46,355 days (127 years) and this was the first time that something physically destructive had happened to it. 46,354 good days and 1 bad day. Why is it we turn on God whenever we have one bad day out of 46,355 days? It is as if that one bad day had wiped out those 46,354 good days. God is bad. That doesn't seem fair, does it? I don't ever want to minimize the harshness and reality of suffering; however, shouldn't we take a little more realistic view on suffering? Bad things happen, but everything, all existence (contrary to Buddha) is not evil and suffering.

Now back to the students. When I ask them to give me examples of evil and suffering, they invariably list rape, murder, child molestation, spousal abuse, wars, famines, genocides, etc. The list can go on and on. Few doubt the existence of evil and suffering, first because they see examples of it every day shown on TV and second because many of them have experienced evil and suffering themselves.

What is interesting is that most younger adults, while acknowledging the existence and suffering, don't really appreciate it fully. One of the most beautiful sculptures ever sculpted is by Michelangelo, the Pieta which sits in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome (both this and the other sculpture discussed in a moment can be seen at the bottom of this page). The sculpture depicts the moment after Jesus has been taken down from the cross when He is lying peacefully in Mary's lap. Jesus' body is at rest. He does display the nail prints in His hands and feet and the scar on His side. No other marks are visible. If you didn't know the story, you might think He was merely asleep, at peace, not necessarily dead. Mary too shows no signs of distress. She wears gracefully flowing robes. There is no sorrow on her face. She has no wrinkles. She looks like a young woman in her late 20's or early 30's.

This is not the only Deposition from the Cross Michelangelo sculpted. The second sculpture shows Jesus' body being all twisted. Mary and the people helping take Jesus down from the cross look all haggard and weary.

What accounts for the difference between the 2 sculptures? The first one, the beautiful one which is displayed in St. Peter's was sculptured by Michelangelo when he was 25 years old; the second, when he was approaching 80. Youth have a much different perspective on suffering than older people do. Younger adults think that they will achieve a great and decisive victory over suffering, that suffering is just for a short season. Little do they realize that suffering mainly is like water torture...a steady slow drip which beats down the one being tortured. Evil and suffering are far more worrisome than the youth can imagine.

Although evil and suffering truly exist, they do not present a philosophical challenge to either the first or second models of ultimate reality (materialism or Hinduism). They do, though, present a problem to the third model which teaches that a righteous God exists. Moreover, they present a special problem to Christianity which teaches that God is not only righteous but that He is also loving. How can a God who supposedly loves us so much that He would sacrifice even His own Son for us allow such terrible evil and suffering to exist in the world? According to C.S. Lewis, this is the main challenge to the claims of Christianity.


Free Will Accounts for Evil and Suffering

The basis for evil and suffering is really quite easy to account for: free will. God, in creating us in His image, gave us free will, the freedom to choose either for Him or against Him. When we say "No" to God we are bringing evil and suffering into the world.

There are basically 2 circles in life. In the first circle is God from whom flows life, health, goodness, beauty, etc. Outside of that circle exists another circle—a circle without God. Since God does not live in that circle, life, health, goodness, and beauty, etc. do not exist in that circle. When we say "No" to God we move from the first circle into the second one, the one where God does not exist. As a result, when we move into the second circle, the love, joy, health, etc. we experienced in that first circle soon cease to exist. They don't stop existing immediately because it is like plugging up the source of a spring. If you plug up that source, the riverbeds don't dry up immediately. It takes time. However, they will dry up eventually and inevitably. The same applies to God. We say "No" to God and think we have gotten away with it because we still enjoy life, health, etc. However, just like the riverbeds will eventually and inevitably dry up whenever the source has been plugged up, so the spiritual life and health we received from God will eventually and inevitably dry up. It is all just a matter of time. We want all the good things from God WITHOUT having to have God in our lives; that may just be an impossibility.

The Purpose of Free Will

Why did God give us free will though? The answer is easy. He wants to have a relationship with us. Relationships involve choice. For example, think for a moment about some of the most meaningful relationships in your life. They are based on choice. If a certain person by nature just likes everybody, you don't think highly of the fact that they like you. On the other hand, if someone who is pickier in their relationships likes you, you feel more special. You know that a real relationship is operating there.

The same thing is operating here. God could have made us all robots. And it would have been cool. Right now Japan is trying to cut down on its population by designing robots...especially robotic children. Just think how cool that is. No more hard labor and deliveries. No more being uncomfortably pregnant for 9 months. When you bring the baby home "from the hospital," you get to feed it on YOUR time schedule. At night before going to bed, you can turn the baby off so that it won't cry for a 3 o'clock feeding. Turn it in later for a 2-year baby robot. No longer terrible two's! A two-year old baby is going to give the parents a wonderful time in their lives. No more disobedient teenagers. All this sounds great. But it wouldn't be a relationship. In the same way, if we didn't have free will or free choice, we wouldn't be able to have a real relationship with God.

What kind of relationship does God want to have with us? If Christianity is true, then He wants to have a Father/son-daughter relationship with us, the same kind of relationship He has with His Son, Jesus. This kind of relationship may actually explain the purpose of suffering more importantly at the end of this study.


OK, we suffer because we have free will and can choose evil. No big deal. That makes sense. But a bigger question looms out there. It is one thing for somebody who is evil to suffer; that we can understand. How about innocent children though? That seems so unfair. During the 1980's, unbeknownst to most people, a deadly virus was spreading in the gay community, the AIDS virus. When it blossomed over night and claimed the lives of so many in the gay community, many Christians rose up to pronounce that this was God's judgment upon the gays. The only problem was that all of a sudden we found innocent children dying of AIDS, children who had never been promiscuous, must less involved in gay sex. Why about them?

This is an important issue. C.S. Lewis (Reflections on the Psalms) claims that one of the greatest books of the ancient world focused primarily on this topic, the book of Job, a book written approximately 3,000 years ago. Job, a righteous man, had understandably been enjoying a life full of blessings: many healthy children, great wealth, and possessions. With God's permission, Satan unleashes tragedy after tragedy upon Job. He loses his family (except for his nagging wife), his wealth, and even his health. He is smitten with boils which cover his body. To relieve himself of the pain, he takes shells and tries to scrape them off his body. When 3 of his friends see him, they are so overcome by the sight that they sit down and weep for 7 days before speaking to him. For the next 36 chapters in the book Job complains that he a righteous man has been treated wrongly. Bad things do happen to good people. But why?

We will consider the first reason now and take up the second reason towards the end of the study. A few years ago a little 6-year old girl after being raped by her step father's friend was founded hung by the neck in the garage next to her home. Her stepfather's friend had done this with the knowledge and approval of the stepfather (See: Murder of Hanna Mack). Why did that happen to her? Because unfortunately she didn't live in isolation. She is part of a community in which not only good people live but also bad people. The evil choices bad people make can affect even good people, even a 6-year-old innocent girl.

Most of us as individuals think of ourselves almost like islands, islands which don't bump into each other; therefore, we are horrified whenever something bad happens to us who are completely innocent in the matter. One of the big lies of the 1960's was this: if I and another person do something and it doesn't affect anybody else, what business is it of anyone else's? This statement assumes something which may not be true: what I do may not affect anybody else. The truth is that what I do MAY always affect others. If fact, each and every one of us affects approximately 1,000 people each week: our parents, our siblings, our children, spouses, friends, people we go to school with and work with, PLUS all the people those we've affected affect!

John Donne rightly wrote though: "No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promoniory were, as well as a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

A better way to look at life is by thinking of it as being a pond of water, and you and the rest of mankind are drops of water in that pond. We are all individual molecules and yet we affect each other. Now suppose somebody takes a large rock and throws it into the middle of the pool. Where the rock hits, the water splashes, but that is not all that happens. Ripples are sent out from the point of the splash. If the pond is small enough or the rock big enough, the ripples will pass over the entire pond. As a result, whenever we toss a stone into our pool of life, we are going to send out ripples.

But is this still unfair? It is neither fair nor unfair. In fact, this set-up is neutral. If I throw a negative stone into the pond, I create negative ripples; however, if I throw a positive stone into the pond, I create positive ripples. For example, Adam tossed a negative stone into the pond and we've been experiencing those ripple effects ever since—we are all fallen, that is, sinners. HOWEVER, according to Christianity, Christ threw a positive stone into the pond and has created positive ripples: everybody will rise from the dead one day because of His resurrection (we will not all end up in heaven; we may end up in a quite nasty place; however, because of His resurrection we shall all be resurrected one day.) For this reason, Jesus who has affected ALL mankind like the first Adam is actually called " Adam" (1 Cor. 15:45).


OK, so we understand the reason that people do evil, and we understand the reason innocent people may get harmed. But why is the evil in this world this bad? It's one thing for the world to do a few little bad things, but we are talking genocide here. We are talking rape, molestation, unspeakable violence. That doesn't make sense.

Whether or not at this point you believe in the Bible is irrelevant to this discussion. But think for a moment about the progression of evil in the book of Genesis. Adam and Eve are created really, really good...perfect? All they did was eat just a little fruit from a tree. That's all! By the next generation, though, you see murder (Cain killing Abel because of jealous). Within a few generations things are so bad that God wipes out the world with a flood.

"I thought," you might say, "that God did a great job and created a great world." Yes, that's right. That's the reason things have gotten as bad as they are. You see, God not only made things good; He also made them great. Great people do great things. Now think about some great speakers in the past. Was Hitler a great speaker? I think so! With pure rhetoric, he mobilized an entire major European Power to hurl herself and the rest of Europe into the abyss.

Think, though, also about Winston Churchill. Incredible speaker. Few of us today can appreciate the situation England found herself in after the fall of France in June, 1940. Evil and darkness surrounded that poor little island. Night after night Hitler sent his Luftwaffe to pound the cities of England into utter oblivion. Fires raged throughout the night. One night the bombing around St. Paul's Cathedral was especially horrific. Every building was leveled. The next morning the people of London emerged from the subway shelters to see the city bathed in smoke. Finally, as the sun was rising, there was a break in the clouds. The only thing left standing was St. Paul's Cathedral.

What got the English people through this nightmare? The great courage of one of England's greatest statesmen, Sir Winston Churchill. When France fell, Churchill delivered this inspiring speech to the House of Commons: "The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be freed and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, This was their finest hour." You see, although we were created good, we were also created great. As a result, this world was either going to be greatly good or greatly evil. Mediocrity was never an option.

Again, most of us think of good and evil as being on a straight line. On the far right hand side you have perfection and on the left-hand side you have really bad evil. We started out at the point of perfection (or at least Adam and Eve did). When they sinned, they moved away from perfection and closer to evil; however, they didn't move THAT far from perfection and not THAT close to evil. They just moved a little bit away from perfection. By the next generation, though, you've got one of their sons murdering their other son. Within a few generations things are so bad that God wipes them all out with a flood.

Well, maybe life is not really like a straight line which goes from perfection on the right to evil on the left. Maybe it is more like a pendulum. If the ball of a pendulum is on the right and if that ball is dropped, it doesn't just drop down a little way. It swings all the way over to the other side. In the same token, if we are part of a pendulum and start off on the right side, that of perfection, then when Adam and Eve sinned, the ball dropped...and swung almost completely to the left side. That more than anything else could help explain the reason things are as bad as they are in life. Our great evil may point to our originally being created not only great but also good.


Does God have any purpose for our sufferings? Or rather, does He use our sufferings for a greater good? He does, if Christianity is true.

Birth Pangs

First, sufferings may actually have the form of birth pangs. What do birth pangs indicate is about to happen? The birth of a baby. You don't have birth pangs unless you are about to produce a baby. Is the baby worth all that suffering? Apparently, yes, because most mothers I know have more than one child. If they had only had one child, then I would have said, “No,” but the fact that many women do have more than one child provides us with evidence babies apparently are worth all the suffering women go through in order to them.

According to Christianity, our sufferings are just like birth pangs. God is using these birth pangs to produce something wonderful in and through us. I think that one of the most powerful scenes in Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ is also one of its most misunderstood scenes. After Jesus has been mercilessly scourged, He carries His cross from the governor's judgment seat to Golgotha. Several times along the way, Jesus stumbles beneath the weight of the cross. The whole ordeal is proving too much for His mother; as a result, she begins to withdraw from all the proceedings. At one point, though, Jesus falls to the ground beneath the weight of the cross. Mary flashes back to a scene when Jesus was little, when He fell down. All her maternal instincts rose up within her; she rushed to her little boy, saying, "Son, I am here!" When she sees now her adult Son falling down, those same instincts flood her heart. She rushes to Jesus and says, "Son, I am here!" (At this point, all the women in the theater are balling their eyes out.)

What happens next, though, is the whole point of the scene. When Mary rushes up to Jesus and says, "Son, I am here," Jesus almost rebukes her. As the music swells (an indication that something important is about to happen), He looks at her and says slowly, "Mother, I am making all things . . . new." In other words, "Mother, this is not a tragedy. These suffering are actually birth pangs. I am in the process of giving birth to an entirely new universe . . . the present universe but one which has been radically transformed. Just like My body will be resurrected into a glorious existence because of My sufferings, so My sufferings will resurrect the entire universe, transform it into being a glorious universe suitable not only as a dwelling for the transformed sons and daughters of God but also for God Himself (Rev. 22:4).

Another way to view suffering which is similar to birth pangs is that of disciplining our bodies for sports. How many young men really do enjoy 2-a-days in the hot Texas summer sun? Probably none of them. Aching, throwing up, collapsing from exhaustion—I don't know anybody who enjoys going through that ordeal. So why do young men punish themselves this way? Because they know that their football opponents are working out hard this time of the year so that they can win a championship. If they are going to beat those opponents and win the championship, then they are going to have to go through the same ordeal themselves. Do they really know how great it will be to win a national championship trophy? No. It will be better than they imagined. They just trust that it will be worth it all eventually. The same applies to Christianity. No one really wants to suffer pain; however, we do trust the Lord that the results will be worth it all. Paul claims: "For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us" (Rom. 8:17) and "For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison" (2 Cor. 4:17).

Breaking Our Grip on the World

Another reason God allows pain into our lives is to break our grip on this world. Pain in this world loosens our grip on this world so that we will be willing to go to and live for another world.

Most people are like a friend of mine from Corsicana who once scolded me for taking my children to other parts of the country and to other parts of the world. That friend thought I was crazy for taking them to England when everything I needed was right here in Corsicana. That friend had never left Corsicana and saw no need ever to leave Corsicana.

Well, people have that same attitude towards the world. Why worry about another life when this one is just fine? Why worry about heaven and God when this world gives you all you need and want? Let a little bit of serious pain be injected into that person's life though and their attitude about how wonderful this world is will change. We tend to view the world as a nursery in which we own and control every toy in the nursery. When God injects pain into the nursery, when we begin to associate pain with that nursery, then we are willing to leave the nursery and grow up into adults capable of real loving relationships. C.S. Lewis puts it best: "God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: It is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world” (from The Problem of Pain).

Evil and suffering may also tell us something about where our true home is. In his usual insightfulness, Lewis asks: "Do fish complain of the sea for being wet? Or if they did, would that fact itself not strongly suggest that they had not always been, or would not always be, purely aquatic creatures? If you are really a product of a materialistic universe, how is it that you don’t feel at home there?” (from Encounter with Light). The truth may be that this is not our home, that our ultimate destination is actually another world. Only when we go there will we feel that we have fully arrived.

Not that we don't try to feel at home in this world. In fact, politicians from certain parties try to persuade us that this world is our only home. For this reason they promise us Utopia if only we will elect them into power. The oceans will recede, all illnesses will cease, all poor will become rich, a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage. Yet they have never delivered...BUT just one day if we keep putting them into power, that day will arrive! It won't if this world is truly not our home. That day will only come once we have arrived at our final destination, heaven. Evil, suffering, and pain point us to that final destination.

Oh, by the way, as for the rest of the story: that friend who told me that it was ridiculous to leave Corsicana started leaving Corsicana once their child moved away. All of a sudden, traveling out of Corsicana was OK! The pain of their child leaving loosened their grip onto Corsicana and got them out to see other parts of the world. Maybe the pain we experience will one day loosen our grip on this world and prepare us, make us even yearn to journey to another place.

Fully Realizing our Sonship

Hebrews 5:8, referring to Jesus, states: "Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered." If Christianity is true, then God's goal for each and every one of us is that we become either His son or daughter based on a relationship with His Son, Jesus. Apart from Jesus the Son, according to Christianity, we can never become sons or daughters of God.

But just exactly what does it mean to be a son of someone? Whatever else it means, it means "obedience." A good son obeys his dad; a bad son disobeys his dad.

Consider obedience for a moment. Suppose a dad approaches his 19-year-old son and commands him to go to any car dealership in town and buy whatever car he wants. No limits! Buy it off the internet if you want to! Now what son would disobey his dad with that command? He would be such a good son because he obeyed his dad! Or the dad who approaches his 19-year-old daughter and commands her to take his credit card with no limits, and travel to any place in the world to buy however many clothes she wanted to buy. Don't you think she would be a good daughter and obey her dad? Yes. What a good daughter! Yet anybody could be a good son or daughter in those circumstances.

But now suppose that same dad ordered you to become a slug, to go into the depths of the earth, and be hated by all the other slugs, even hated to such an extent that the other slugs beat you, spat on you, and even crucified you. Would you obey? If not, then you are truly not a son...because sons don't disobey their dads. Yet this is exactly what Jesus did, if Christianity is true. Christ became that slug who actually experienced great hardship and was crucified for all the other ungrateful slugs so that they might be transformed into sons and daughters of God. Although Christ was and is eternally God's Son, His Sonship took on even greater meaning and depth when He obeyed His Father to that extent. His Sonship took on a totally deeper dimension because He was obedient, obedient even to death on a cross.

In the same way, although we are called sons of God (1 John 3:1) because of our saving relationship with the Son, we won't ever fully realize that sonship until we have obeyed God during the darkest and most painful times in life. Obedience even during times of pain finishes the process which began at the point of salvation...transformation into fully realized sons and daughters of God. All this is true, that is, if Christianity itself is true.