The Problem of Evil and Suffering and the Goodness of God

Bart Ehrman is an atheist author who states he was a “devout and committed Christian.” He denied this faith because he couldn’t reconcile evil and suffering with God’s goodness. 

He states that for most of his life he was a Christian. While in High School, Bart attended a Youth for Christ club and had what he called a born again experience. Later, Ehrman went to what he called a fundamentalist Bible college (Moody Bible Institute) to study for the ministry. 

Bart claimed he could recite whole books of the New Testament from memory. He finished college at Wheaton then off to Princeton for an Master's in Divinity and a Phd in New Testament studies. After having served as a youth pastor, Bart stated that he began to lose his faith. Now, he no longer attends church, no longer believes or even considers himself a Christian. 

But what happened was that Bart first started questioning the Bible’s authority and inerrancy. To him, it was “a very human book with all the marks of having come from human hands: discrepancies, contradictions, errors and different perspectives” to use his words. 

Ehrman claims he remained a committed Christian even as he came to believe some parts of the Bible were untrue. He wishes for us to believe that his lack of faith in Scriprure had nothing to do with his loss of faith in God. 

What I just described was Randy Alcorn’s summary of Bart Ehrman’s life and words. Alcorn adds this warning. When we doubt God’s Word “we replace it with trust in our own feelings, opinions and preferences, or those of our friends and teachers – all of which can drift with popular culture, including academic culture.” 

He cautions that the problem of evil and suffering must be approached with a Christian worldview that’s rooted in the reliability of the Bible as God’s Word. 

“If we vacillate on that conviction, we will first reinterpret the Bible, then outright reject it.” (If God Is Good, 95-97)

C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain 

While he was an atheist , Lewis observed the pain and suffering that is afflicted through things like “crime, war, disease and terror, with just sufficient happiness interposed to give them, while it lasts, an agonized apprehension of losing it, and when it is lost, the poignant misery of remembering . . . If you ask me to believe that this is the work of a benevolent and omnipotent Spirit, I reply that all the evidence points in the opposite direction. Either there is no spirit behind the universe, or else a spirit indifferent to good and evil or else an evil spirit” (The Problem of Pain, 13, 15). 

Jerry Sittser lost his four year old daughter, Diana Jane, in a car accident. That accident also took the lives of his wife Lynda and his mother Grace. He described their deaths as “sudden and brutal” but also one that set him on a spiritual journey. Jerry wrote a book called When God Doesn’t Answer Your Prayer. In it, he states, “we often turn to God at our most vulnerable moments, when all seems lost unless God steps in. Why does God remain distant, silent and hard when we call on him? If God doesn’t respond when we need him most, then why pray at all?” (When God Doesn’t Answer Your Prayer, 11)

When that accident happened, the family was all together. 3 died and 4 survived. Jerry described the accident scene as apocalyptic, like out of a disaster film. It took nearly an hour for an emergency vehicle to arrive and another hour for it to get to the hospital. Jerry prayed for his 3 traumatized children as they headed to the hospital together but then it occurred to him, “Why are you praying, Jerry? You prayed for Diana Jane’s protection the morning of the accident and look what happened . . . can you take prayer seriously, ever again?” (When God Doesn’t Answer Your Prayer, 17-18). 

When his mom was stricken with cancer, C.S. Lewis was just nine years old. The doctor performed surgery right there in their home. Fifty years later, he could still vividly describe the scene, the smells, the sounds. He prayed desperately for her healing. It was all in vain, it would seem. The impact of her death on his young life, on his father’s character, on his home, his world, led Lewis to reject Christianity (many of you know that he regained it years later to become one of the great defenders and promoters of Christianity). (When God Doesn’t Answer Your Prayer, 23 – with exception of parenthesis). 

Gordon MacDonald ministered at Ground Zero in the days after the 9-11 terrorist attacks in 2001. He said the following: “In all my years of Christian ministry, I never felt more alive . . . as much as I love preaching the Bible . . . being on that street, giving cold water to workmen, praying and weeping with them, listening to their stories was the closest I ever felt to God. Even though it sounds melodramatic, I kept finding myself saying, ‘This is the place where Jesus most wants to be.’” (When God Doesn’t Answer Your Prayer, 45-46). 

Our nation was shocked and horrified at the Colombine High School shooting that left so many dead. Darrell Scott lost his daughter Rachel on that evil day. When asked what we should do to prepare for evil and suffering, without hesitation, Darrell Scott replied, “Become a student of God’s Word.” 

His view of God was already firmly established when his daughter was cruelly ripped from his life. By faith, he believed, that God had a purpose. This enabled Darrell to move ahead, despite the pain, trusting in God instead of resenting him (If God is Good, 38). 

Before preaching this sermon, I spent two weeks on the origin of evil, suffering and sin. In the heart of Lucifer (the Devil/Satan), is where it all began. 

This adversary of ours and God’s, his purpose is to get us to believe that: 1) God doesn’t exist; 2) if God exists, he doesn’t care about you; 3) your life is meaningless, hopeless; and 4) you would be better off dead

Those are his lies. – To get through suffering and evil, we must fight his lies with God’s truths

Let me give you a couple of examples of that: 

Gianna Jessen never should have been born, humanly speaking. Her mom sought to abort her but the abortion failed. She was born alive. It was a saline abortion. As a result, “the lack of oxygen to my brain is what caused my gift of cerebral palsy.” Did you hear that? She didn’t see God just permitting or using her suffering. She sees her cerebral palsy as a gift from God’s hand (If God is Good, 40). 

As Lt. Col Brian Birdwell recounts it, “an 80 ton 757 came through at 530 miles an hour with 3,000 pounds of jet fuel and I’m still here and the plane isn’t,” and he adds, “You don’t survive that because the Army made you tough. You survive it because the Lord’s got something else in mind for you.” 

Lt. Birdwell was working at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. The nose of the wrecked plan was mere yards away from where he lay burning and bleeding. Nearly 60% of his body was blistered and his lungs were seared. He prayed as he expected to see Jesus that day but he didn’t. Six days later, he said a final goodbye to his 12 year old son, but again, he defied the odds and lived. Almost 100 days followed of treatments, physical therapy, thirty-nine surgeries (including facial reconstruction). During those early days, a pastor told him, “God never wastes our pain.” 

Birdwell dismissed his words at the time but in 2002, he was asked to visit and encouraged a badly burned young man. That experience led to more of the same and his wife and he began a ministry to critical burn survivors, “helping them see beyond their pain to eternal spiritual realities” (If God is Good, 42-43). 

Randy Alcorn, in his book, If God is Good: Faith in the Midst of Suffering and Evil, gives some benefits of suffering. One of them is the following: 

Suffering helps us grow and mature

Mountain climbers could be dropped by helicopter on the summit. But their purpose is conquest not efficiency. Sure they wish to reach the top but to do so the hard way by testing their resolve and character.

Alcorn stated that God could have created scientists, mathematicians, athletes and musicians but he didn’t. He created lives that could grow and by a long process achieve those roles. “We learn to excel by handling failure.” Only in cultivating discipline, endurance and patience do we find satisfaction and reward (If God is Good, 392-3). 

1. God has a very good reason for not giving us that very good thing for which we asked

(sometimes we get what He is up to but often it is by faith we believe it is for the good) 

The Apostle Paul experienced all kinds of hardships and persecutions in his life that included beatings/whippings, shipwrecks, imprisonments and even a stoning that even his associates thought had killed him.  In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul shares a "thorn in the flesh" that he asked God over and over again to heal.  The Lord refused to do so and here Paul explains why.

2 Corinthians 12:7-10 (NIV)

. . . because of these surpassingly great revelations. Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.  Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.  But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 1 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

2. God never wastes our pain – we understand others’ pain much better, having gone through before what they are currently experiencing

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. 2 Cor. 1:3-4 (NIV) 

One paraphrase puts it this way:

All praise to the God and Father of our Master, Jesus the Messiah! Father of all mercy! God of all healing counsel! He comes alongside us when we go through hard times, and before you know it, he brings us alongside someone else who is going through hard times so that we can be there for that person just as God was there for us. The Message

3. As for persecution, Jesus never promised us peace with the world but just the opposite. However, the persecuted church has hope and joy because they don’t expect what Jesus never promised but they cling on to the hope of heaven and their mission: to see people come to Jesus

a. it helps to recognize that Jesus promised us opposition from the world

If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love his own: but because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you; if they have kept my saying, they will keep yours also. John 15:18-20

Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 1 Jn. 2:15

b. it helps us to see that Jesus’ example was to forgive and allow God the Father to judge the wrongdoer

Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” And they divided His garments and cast lots. Lk. 23:34 (NKJV)

Stephen grasped this example and followed it: 

And they stoned Stephen as he was calling on God and saying, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin.” And when he had said this, he died. Acts 7:59-60 (NKJV – with alt. ending for “he fell asleep”)

In Romans 12, Paul gives this advice from the Lord:
Vengeance is mine, says the Lord, I will repay

- Leave that judgment up to God

c. It helps us to remember that Jesus said we should take up our cross and follow Him. 

(The Apostles before the Sanhedrin/Jewish rulers)
 . . . when they had called for the apostles and beaten them, they commanded that they should not speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go.  So they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name. And daily in the temple, and in every house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ. Acts 5:40-42 NKJV

d. It helps us to remember that we are not of this world, that He is preparing a place for us and that our reward and rest wait for us there

If you were of the world, the world would love his own: but because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Jn. 15:19 

“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. Jn. 14:1-3 (ESV)

e. It helps us to remember that God is the Judge of all the Earth and He will have the final say (Reward for the faithful and punishment for the guilty)

It is a righteous thing with God to repay with tribulation those who trouble you, and to give you who are troubled rest with us when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power, when He comes, in that Day, to be glorified in His saints and to be admired among all those who believe, because our testimony among you was believed. Therefore we also pray always for you that our God would count you worthy of this calling, and fulfill all the good pleasure of His goodness and the work of faith with power, that the name of our Lord Jesus Christ may be glorified in you, and you in Him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.  2 Thess. 1:6-12 (NKJV)

2 Peter 3:9 – the Apostle Peter reminds us that “the Lord is not slack concerning His promise as some men count slackness but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.

What is the greater good, that God destroy your enemy or make him a child of God, forgiven, transformed and doing God’s work instead of the Devil’s?

Do you believe in the goodness of God despite what happens around you? 

Do tragedies and evil cause you to question God’s existence?

Question His goodness? 

Question His care of you? 

Or do they cause you to draw nearer to Him, though you don’t understand?

Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen -- Heb. 11:1

It was through faith in the promises of God that our predecessors made it through difficulties. 

Will you cling to God’s promises? 

The Bible’s declarations of God’s goodness? 

Or will you turn away because God didn’t do what you wanted, when you wanted – even if what you wanted seemed to be a real good thing? 

If you turn from Him, then you aren’t really trusting Him.

However, if, with tear-stained faces, we run to Him and hold onto Him, we may not find out the whys and wherefores but we will find peace. And someday it will all be clear. 

Works Cited:

Randy Alcorn, If God is Good: Faith in the Midst of Suffering and Evil (Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah Books, 2009). 

C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing, Twenty-first Printing, 1978). 

Jerry Sittser, When God Doesn’t Answer Your Prayer (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003). 

Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture taken from the New King James Version. Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.

The Message (MSG)
Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

New International Version (NIV)
Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

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