How can we reconcile God's sweeping control over creation with the existence of such horrors as cancer, famine, genocide, sexual abuse, tsunamis, and terrorism? Voltaire sums up the issue nicely in his "Poem on the Lisbon Disaster," written after the devastating Lisbon earthquake of 1755:
Ill could not from a perfect being spring,
Nor from another, since God's sovereign king.
His point is that since God is good, he can't properly be the source of evil. Likewise, if God is all-powerful, no one else can thwart his intentions. So we're stuck, it seems. Who's to blame for the suffering we experience? Though we lack the space here for an extended discussion, let's consider seven biblical affirmations.
1. Evil is real.
That is to say, we distort the Bible and do ourselves a profound disservice by minimizing the existence of suffering. God invites us to acknowledge our pain. The Psalmist wrote, "I believed, even when I spoke, 'I am greatly afflicted'" (Psalm 116:10).
2. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
In some ways, talking about a "problem of evil" is a false start. A better quandary to start with would be the problem of sin. How quickly we rush to raise a self-righteous fist while our other hand digs in the cookie jar. "Yet you say, 'The way of the Lord is not just.' Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way not just? Is it not your ways that are not just?" (Ezekiel 18:25).
3. God is good.
Whatever we say about God's sovereignty over evil (and say we will; see below), we must never imply that God is corrupt, that he somehow nurses a dark side. "Let no one say when he is tempted, 'I am being tempted by God,' for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one" (James 1:13).
4. God ordains all things that come to pass, including evil.
God does whatever he pleases (Psalm 135:6). To be sure, this means he clothes lilies and feeds birds (Matthew 6:26, 28). But he also makes lightning (Psalm 135:7). He strikes down firstborn children and kills mighty kings (Psalm 135:8). Our God holds sway over the good, the bad, and the ugly. "I form light and create darkness," he says. "I make well-being and create calamity, I am the LORD, who does all these things" (Isaiah 45:7).
5. Man is responsible for his actions.
Lest we fall into fatalism, we should remember that God's sovereignty never excuses wrongdoing. When a man commits murder, the blood is on his hands. "For the Son of Man goes as it has been determined, but woe to that man by whom he is betrayed!" (Luke 22:22).
6. God did not spare his own Son.
The cross speaks to our theology of suffering in at least two ways. First, it shows us that God can will something to happen that he opposes. Proverbs 6:16-17 tells us that God hates "hands that shed innocent blood." And yet he sent his Son to suffer precisely that fate. Is this a mystery? Absolutely. But it is not nonsense. We can look at evil and with no contradiction say, "This is wrong, and God has willed that it take place." Listen to how Peter describes the crucifixion: "This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men" (Acts 2:23, emphasis mine).
Second, the cross demonstrates that God regards our affliction not as something strange to the palette, but as a cup he has drunk to the dregs. By giving up his own Son, God entered into our pain. He knows what it's like to suffer loss. But he also did more. By putting his Son to grief, God turned grief on its head. "But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed" (Isaiah 53:5). This brings us to the final point.
7. Heaven works backwards.
C. S. Lewis writes in The Great Divorce, "They say of some temporal suffering, 'No future bliss can make up for it,' not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory."
Lewis is not being novel here. He is simply restating what Christians have hoped in for centuries, the promise that gives all our suffering purpose: "For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal" (2 Corinthians 4:17-18).
Johnathon Bowers is Instructor of Theology and Christian Worldview at Bethlehem College and Seminary in Minneapolis, MN.