If God is good, why is there so much pain in the world?
Pain leading to philosophical questioning is not new. Epicurus, the Greek Philosopher from around 341 B.C., is credited with saying:
“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”
This question of “How can evil exist if God is good?” has been one of the number one reasons individuals lose faith in God or fail to embrace it to begin with. It is not an easy question, and it is one I struggled with in my own life by the time I was a junior in high school.
My Uncle Nate was a pastor in his 40s. He was married with 2 biological children, 5 adopted kids, and one foster child who they were in the process of adopting. He was in good health. He was like all humans, flawed, but clearly someone we would identify as a good man who was trying to follow God’s will in his life. This is why his sudden and unexplainable death came as a shock and began to rattle my faith. My uncle was playing basketball, and a collision with another player led him to fall and hit his head. Senseless and illogical loss.
Of course I began to wonder…..Where was God? Isn’t God supposed to be good? Isn’t he supposed to be loving and powerful? Why God? Who are you? And with each new loss and each new heartache as I lost person after person in my life, the questions grew and my belief in God floundered for years.
And do you know, I still don’t have an answer to the why for the great majority of the losses? I can’t for the life of me see a greater good at work in the deaths of my uncle, my cousins, my infant nephew, or most the other losses. However, that does not mean there isn’t one. And this is where we come to the issue of faith concerning the existence of evil.
Because if God is good, why is there so much pain in this world? This is the question we ask not because we care deeply about philosophy, but because we are wounded people. The loss and the pain WE feel is overwhelming and we cannot make sense of it. What recourse do we have other than to look to God and ask him why he didn’t stop it. Why didn’t he or why won’t he intervene?
We are all willing to accept the existence of evil and pain from an omniscient (all knowing), Omnipotent (all powerful), and omnibenevolent (all-loving) God if we believe that in his infinite knowledge, power, and love he allows or initiates actions that are painful as long as they lead to a greater good. The struggle comes when we just can’t see that greater good. We assume that if we cannot see it, it does not exist. And thus we have a crisis of faith.
Either Way, It Takes Faith
Just as it takes as much faith to believe we have a purposeful creator as it does to believe the earth and everything in it is a result of a chance collision of just the right particles at the right time in the right environment, the problem of evil hangs on where we decide to put our faith.
In The Reason For God, Timothy Keller says, “Just because you can’t see or imagine a Good reason why God might allow something doesn’t mean there can’t be one. Again we see lurking within supposedly hard-nosed skepticism an enormous faith in one’s own cognitive faculties.”
We can put our faith in own abilities to conceptualize the universe and all its workings or in God, the creator of the universe.
Lessons from Joseph
I want to take a moment to look at the story of Joseph as we address this because Joseph’s story reminds us of two things about pain. The first is that pain is often a result of free will and the other is that pain does have a purpose, even when we can’t see it.
In God’s loving nature, he gave us the ability to choose, but this ability is one of the greatest causes of pain in the world. Humans infinitely damage and wound one another. So, why would God give us this choice? If you think we would have been better off without free choice, read every dystopian novel ever written and you will see that humans, in our heart of hearts, desire freedom and choice over perfection. God loves us enough to allow us to live life fully, not as robots programmed to perfection. The all-loving God has to be all powerful and all knowing in order to create us with choice yet still have the ability to work everything out for the greatest good of humanity.
Let’s get to Joseph to see this play out and address the question of faith in our reasoning vs. faith in God’s omniscience.
Joseph’s jealous brothers threw him in a pit and sold him into slavery. Potiphar’s wife’s wounded ego and deceit led to Joseph being thrown into prison. You guys, if I am Joseph right now, I am 100% questioning where God is. Joseph is working his butt off and faithfully serving God, and the actions of others are leading him to situations where he could only feel hurt and betrayed. If you think Joseph knew how it would all play out, you are wrong. He did not know. There is no way he could see how God would use the pit and the prison to take him to the palace, and there is nothing in scripture to indicate he had any idea how it would all play out. He only had a dream from years before that his family would bow to him. Who knows if he still thought of that dream as something that would happen, but I guarantee he didn’t know his time in the prison would be the thing that needed to happen in order for that initial dream to come true. I would imagine the prison felt like… well, prison. If Joseph had put his faith in his own cognitive faculties, he wouldn’t have foreseen the good God was orchestrating and he might have concluded that either God did not exist, was not good, or was not powerful.
It is only our knowledge of the full story after it has played out that rationalizes Joseph’s belief in a God that has it all under control and is working everything together for good. In God’s love, power, and knowledge the free will of those harming Joseph actually brought Joseph to a place where he had the ability to preserve an entire nation. He had to be in the prison to interpret the dreams of the other prisoners, and he had to be used then forgotten by those same prisoners until the right time. I’m sorry but by the time he was sitting in that cell for years, I’m sure he was not saying, “Well, any day now, God is going to make me the second most powerful man in Egypt that is why I am here.” No, he didn’t know that. He just knew to trust God no matter the outcome. He had to put his faith in a God that knows more than we can know. He had to put his faith in God’s ability to see the good instead of his own ability to see the good.
Just because we can’t see the good doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Believing our inability to see the good means there is no good puts more faith in our ability to conceptualize the universe and all its workings than in God, the creator of the universe.
Job and Immanuel
Although we don’t see Joseph questioning God, we do have a great example of questioning in the book of Job. When Job was suffering, not due to the effects of free will, but for reasons we are humanly incapable of explaining, he questioned God. He wanted to to know a reason so that maybe he could understand the purpose and accept it. He had lost everything. His family, his wealth, and his physical well being. He had nothing left, and this is how God answers him:
38 Then the Lord answered Job from the whirlwind:
2 “Who is this that questions my wisdom
with such ignorant words?
3 Brace yourself like a man,
because I have some questions for you,
and you must answer them.
4 “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?
Tell me, if you know so much.
5 Who determined its dimensions
and stretched out the surveying line?
6 What supports its foundations,
and who laid its cornerstone
7 as the morning stars sang together
and all the angels[a] shouted for joy?
8 “Who kept the sea inside its boundaries
as it burst from the womb,
9 and as I clothed it with clouds
and wrapped it in thick darkness?
10 For I locked it behind barred gates,
limiting its shores.
11 I said, ‘This far and no farther will you come.
Here your proud waves must stop!’
And God continues in this way for a couple chapters, listing a fraction of the things he has created and controls, and he questions Job’s frequently with the “did you?” question. God is pointing out to Job that maybe, just possibly, He, God the creator and master of everything knows something Job does not and could not possibly understand.
Finally, Job answers with this:
42 Then Job replied to the Lord:
2 “I know that you can do anything,
and no one can stop you.
3 You asked, ‘Who is this that questions my wisdom with such ignorance?’
It is I—and I was talking about things I knew nothing about,
things far too wonderful for me.
4 You said, ‘Listen and I will speak!
I have some questions for you,
and you must answer them.’
5 I had only heard about you before,
but now I have seen you with my own eyes.
6 I take back everything I said,
and I sit in dust and ashes to show my repentance.”
God doesn’t try to explain to Job the manner in which everything in Job’s life will work out or the purpose behind Job’s suffering. Instead he shows up and he reminds him that he is working in ways that man can never understand. Why does this console Job? Because God showed up. Which leads me to the second and most important point in our problem of pain. God is not cold, disconnected, and unloving. He is Immanuel, God with us. His power and his knowledge do not make him malevolent as Epicurus proposes. If he were malevolent, he would not have given up everything just to walk with us.
Jesus, who was one with God and the Holy Spirit, left his place in heaven with a twofold purpose- to walk among us and to make a way to undo all the pain and evil our free will creates and deserves. Jesus’ life exemplifies God’s deep compassion for us and his presence with us in the hurt, and his death and resurrection provides us the hope of the coming day when all things will be made new.
The shortest verse in scripture is one of the most beautiful and theologically profound. John 11:45 says, “Jesus Wept.”
In Chapter 11, where we find this verse, Jesus is informed that his friend Lazarus is ill, and it says that he does not go to him because Lazarus’ sickness happened for the glory of God. What comes next in the text is a line that defines our suffering, in vs. 5 it says, “ So although Jesus loved Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, 6 he stayed where he was for the next two days.”
He knew what would happen if he waited. He knew Lazarus would die, he knew he would raise him again, and that this action would cause more people to believe him and spur the pharisees to decide to kill him. After Jesus has raised Lazarus from the dead, the text says “so from that time on the Jewish leaders began to plot Jesus’ death.” He knew everything that needed to and that would unfold. He knew the bigger picture and how the plan had to unfold, but he also knew how his friends would hurt. This is why it says, Although he loved them, he waited.
He waited because Lazarus had to die to be resurrected. He had to be resurrected to give people something to reference back to when their faith and hope in the resurrection might begin to fade. They could say, yes, but do you remember Lazarus. Do you remember how God took what was dead and gave it life? Do you remember the joy of regaining what was lost?
That is what God is going to do for us because he is in the resurrection business. He resurrected Lazarus, then he took our sin and our shame to the cross in order to pay the price for all the damage that is done in our free will, and he went to the grave to show that although death has its season, his victory is eternal and nothing will be wasted- not a moment of pain and sorrow. He will restore it all, and our rejoicing will be greater after having experienced the loss first.
But even with all this knowledge in mind, we need to stop and look back to that one tiny verse. It is a verse that can easily get lost in it all, yet it signifies so much. Jesus wept. He knew the victory was coming. He knew his friends’ grief was about to end, yet he wept. He wept when he saw the tears and the sorrow of Mary and the other mourners. He wept for the hurt and the heartache. He wept with them. God is gracious and compassionate. He is present beside you as you walk through the seasons where you cannot see the good. He does not look on from a distance and expect you to just soldier on just because he knows the victory that is coming. No. He weeps.
Hope in the Resurrection
The pain of living is massive and widespread. There are tsunamis, tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, and volcanoes that kill thousands. There are genocides, mass shootings, and drive-bys. However, the pain is also intimate and personal as cancer fills the lungs, the breast, the liver, and the body. We are cheated, abused, discriminated against, or abandoned. There are unfulfilled dreams, lost children, and bouts with depression. The list of intimate and personal pain faced by individuals sitting right here could go on and on. This pain, not the distant observance of the grief of others, but the pain we face with such acute intensity is the pain that leads us to cry, “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?”
And suddenly the echo of the cross cries across the centuries. And our answer to the pain of the world is found in the ancient texts as God answers Job’s question of “Why?” but not in the way we would expect or hope. He answers with his presence, and we see the answer lived out as Jesus weeps while he approaches Lazarus’s tomb, and it is here that we really begin to understand the work of the resurrection- the voice of God speaking into the tomb and demanding life to come forth.
It is the mystery that we can’t begin to fully understand or fathom. It is beyond our understanding, yet we have been given the almighty to walk with us and his spirit to comfort us even though he knows he is about to make it all new. Even though he knows that the brokenness is only temporary yet necessary, he weeps with us and for us, and as Jesus cries out the words we utter in anguish, “Why God?” he shows us on the cross that his brokenness and his resurrection are just the beginning of making everything right, and we will understand someday. For now we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face we will know that it was all worth it in a way we could not have understood without the pain and loss and grief. The joy of the victory is all the sweeter after tasting the despair of loss.
We may not be able to see how what we are experiencing is part of the bigger plan and being used for good, but we do know how the story will end. Revelation 21:5 from The Message Translation says,
3-5 I heard a voice thunder from the Throne: “Look! Look! God has moved into the neighborhood, making his home with men and women! They’re his people, he’s their God. He’ll wipe every tear from their eyes. Death is gone for good—tears gone, crying gone, pain gone—all the first order of things gone.” The Enthroned continued, “Look! I’m making everything new. Write it all down—each word dependable and accurate.”
Pain does not disprove the existence of God. Our connection to an an all knowing, all powerful, and loving God is made deeper and richer through it as he shows us that even though we may not understand it, he has a plan, and he is walking with us until we get to see the restoration of all things.