The words of Genesis chapters 1 and 2 present to us the incredible chronicle of the first six days of existence. From nothing, God created the heavens and an earth. He spoke forth the first rays of light, separating them from the darkness; then He made distinction between the heavens and the waters below. Gathering the waters into seas and drying the land, God then spoke into reality plants and trees of every kind. With His voice He scattered the stars and hung the sun and moon. Filling the waters with living creatures and the skies with birds, He then filled the land with living creatures . . . and then He declared that it was “good.”
But God was far from done. The entirety of Day 6 was given to the creation of humanity. From the dust of the ground God shaped the first man, breathing life into his nostrils, and giving him dominion over everything else that had been created. Not satisfied with Adam’s aloneness, He then formed a mate from the man’s side, and together they began their rule over all that had been made . . . and then He declared it was very good.
I believe that we are incapable of imagining the perfection that existed in Eden at that time. The harmony, the beauty, the unity, the way everything worked together in peace . . . it was very good, but a glance at the morning newspaper or listening to the evening news makes it graphically evident that we no longer live in the beautiful world He made. Murder, divorce, abortion, starvation, and war are the norm now; devastation is common, punctuated by disasters that appear to be both natural and man-made. To get away from it all, many retreat toward undisturbed nature, but even there—no, particularly there—we find the world to be extremely disturbing.
Whenever I mention my homeland of Australia, people often say, “Australia is such a wonderful country.” It is. It’s a tremendous country. It’s a wonderful country . . . compared to most others. But let’s be honest; it’s a rough place. We have some of the most dangerous sea creatures on the planet. Some of our sea stingers will happily kill you in minutes, and our sharks will eat you so fast that no one will know what happened to you. The bite of many of our spiders is the beginning of a slow and excruciating death. We have some of the most dangerous snakes in the world, too. Australia is also home to the most dangerous octopus in the world. If you are walking along a rocky shoreline and accidentally step on one, you’ll be dead within the hour. We have the most dangerous crocodiles in the world as well (their favorite food being American tourists). We even have a deadly stinging tree! If you were to just brush up against the leaves of this tree, you would receive a painful sting that can last for years.
So imagine you’ve come to Australia for a vacation in order to get away from “the real world” for a while. While walking on one of our “wonderful” nature trails, let’s just say you brush up against the stinging tree. The pain is so great that you rush down the hillside to the nearby ocean to wash your arm. Immediately you get stung by one of the deadly tropical sea stingers, which almost immediately makes you dizzy and delirious (not to mention the pain), so you crawl out of the ocean and fall into a nearby freshwater creek, and “chomp!” just like that you become lunch for one of our man-eating crocodiles. Yeah, it’s a wonderful country, all right. Isn’t Australia a beautiful country?
I think we are sometimes very guilty of giving the wrong idea to the non-Christian when we look at nature and say, “Can’t you see there’s a God? Look how beautiful this world is? Can’t you see there’s a God?” And they’re looking out there and you know what they are seeing? They’re seeing people dying; they’re seeing tragedies; they’re seeing suffering; they’re seeing death; they’re seeing disease—and they don’t see a beautiful world.
I even think we are sometimes giving the wrong message to our kids through most of our Sunday school literature. When we want to talk to kids about God being “the great Designer” or “the great Creator,” we often turn to nature as an example of His creative “beauty.” Look at the pictures you see in the Sunday school books and in Christian school textbooks, aren’t they “beautiful”? Sure, look how God beautifully designed this little fox to rip the insides out of the bunny! See the dinosaur bones? Yeah, his body was crushed under the weight of tons of sediment. Look how that mosquito sucks the blood out of that little fawn!
We point at nature and life and teach our kids to sing “All things bright and beautiful! The Lord God made them all!” In reality, maybe we should be teaching them to sing “All things maimed and mangled! The Lord God cursed them all!”
A friend of mine lived in the mountains near the coast south of Brisbane. He said, “I take my non-Christian friends up on the mountain here, and we look over this beautiful countryside and the beach and I say,‘Can’t you see there’s a God? Look at the beautiful world He made!’” I differ with him. What we see in Australia is not the world that He made—and it’s only beautiful compared to other countries! At those beaches around Brisbane, you’re liable to have the blue ringed octopus and sea stingers bring an abrupt end to your beautiful afternoon outing.
No, it’s not a beautiful world; it’s a dangerous and deadly one. In Australia, even the Sprint phone company understands this. They had advertisements around Australia to remind you to call home . . . so people know you’re still alive. (Actually, I thought it was a pretty great ad really; playing off the fact that it’s not a wonderful world anymore.)
In nature, we do see a remnant of beauty, a shattered reflection of the original perfection of Eden. But it’s all in the context of death and destruction . . . all of it. Take the Grand Canyon, for example. If you took a non-Christian to this magnificent place—and it is magnificent, by the way; the views are indescribable, particularly at sunrise and sunset—and the two of you were sitting on the edge of the mile-deep canyon, and you say to your friend, “Can’t you see there is a God of love in the beauty of what He has created?” Would that be an accurate lead in to a spiritual conversation? Is nature really an illustration of His love?
Certainly there is a beauty there, but it’s not an expression of love. The Grand Canyon is residue from a cataclysmic act of God’s judgment, a violent worldwide Flood that tore into the earth and entombed billions of living organisms. That’s the real bigger picture, and to communicate something else to a non-believer isn’t communicating biblical Christianity.
I remember being in the British Museum in London. It’s an impressive place. The Museum of Natural History is filled with excellent dinosaur specimens as well as the Darwin exhibit. Then they have the British Museum of Art. It too is filled with an impressive collection of statues and artifacts that the British have ripped off from around the world over the years. I was watching a group looking at one of the statues from ancient Greece. It was missing part of the head, both arms, and part of the torso. Still it stood tall, the white marble shining in the light. People were looking at it, saying, “Wonderful!” “Inspiring!” “Beautiful!” But a little boy nearby said, “What are you talking about? It looks all broken to me!”
Both observations were correct, of course. The adults could imagine the beauty in the fact that a tremendously talented sculptor had, at one time, captured the wonder of the human physique in stone . . . but the boy saw it for what it was today: a chunk of worn, shattered, and incomplete rock. And you know, it is really the same with this earth. How many times do we as people look at this earth and say, “Look at this beautiful world and the trees and the birds and look at the other animals and isn’t that a beautiful world that God made?” Well I’ve got news for you: It all looks broken to me. It’s a broken world. And when we use nature as an example of God’s beauty and love, we are giving the wrong idea.
The movie Madagascar does a great job of playing off of this. (That’s a great movie, by the way; very funny.) At one point all these animals are skipping through the forest. They’ve recently escaped from the zoo to find a better life in the wild. As they meander through the woods, the song “What a Wonderful World” by Louie Armstrong is playing in the background . . . but every time they turn around, an animal jumps out of the bushes and grabs some cute little furry creature and rips its head off, or swallows it, or puts the squeeze on it.
The irony is hysterical. Sure, it’s very funny in an animated movie like Madagascar, but it’s not so funny when it’s in your own neighborhood, or in your own family. This world is filled with disease, destruction, decay, and death . . . and when it comes to our home, the ramifications can spread like shock waves through every aspect of our being.
On the telephone 10,000 miles away, my sister was trying to describe my brother’s physical appearance. “Do you remember the TV programs that showed those horrible pictures of prisoners from the concentration camps?” she asked. “Remember how thin they looked from starvation? Ken, in a way, Robert reminds me of them.” I tried to imagine it; then, as the image appeared in my mind, I tried to not imagine it. All I knew was that I wanted to see my younger brother at least one more time. He was so young—early forties—how could this be happening to him? I boarded a plane for 20 hours of flying, giving me lots of time to reflect on the past and contemplate the future.
A few hours after arriving in Australia, I walked into the nursing home with my mother. My visit was a surprise for her, but our joyful reunion quickly dissolved into tears as Mother conveyed what had taken place the last several weeks. I hadn’t seen Robert for a few months and I knew that no matter how hard I tried, I would not be prepared for what I was about to experience.
My heart began to race as we walked the corridors of the nursing home. It was a pathetic sight. In one large area, a dozen or so mostly elderly people sat in silence, gazing into nowhere. One lady whistled continually while another kept saying certain words over and over again. Periodic groans were heard from a man in the corner, and beside him another lady kept moving her legs and body in a peculiar continual motion. Some sat motionless, their contorted faces and glassy eyes glued on the television. Only one person seemed aware of my presence, but when he spoke, the words were fragmented and unintelligible.
Inside, my heart was breaking. I was looking at someone’s wife and mother, a husband and father, a son or daughter. On the walls hung pictures of some of these people—images of life before the horrible sicknesses overtook them. The contrast was so stark it was hard to believe I was looking at the same people.
This was a Christian nursing home. Most of these patients were dedicated Believers—Sunday school teachers, deacons, and devoted parents. One 78-year-old man in a room nearby had been an active evangelist. His family was gathered around him as he was breathing his last after a seven-year battle with Alzheimer’s disease.
Then I saw Robert. He was lying there, hardly moving. He showed very little (if any) signs of recognition of his mother and eldest brother. Mum tenderly stroked his forehead and then began the arduous task of trying to get him to swallow a special drink she had prepared for him. Increasingly, his swallowing ability was disappearing. His food had to be put through a blender and fed to him teaspoon by teaspoon or through a drinking cup.
He would swallow and then choke; swallow and then choke. Mum would wipe his face and wait to give him another sip. At times, tears would run down her face. She was so patient and so loving, talking to him and caring for him just as one would for a baby. At times, we both held his hands. He would look at us, and once or twice I wondered whether I saw a flash of recognition in his facial expressions—and then it was gone.
Yes, when disease, destruction, decay, or death come “home,” it’s time for a difficult reality check. In those hours we stare life—real life—in the eyes, and face issues that can often be avoided in the course of normal life. Perhaps you’ve been there too. Maybe you’re there now, facing the bitter realities of life. Even if you haven’t, make no mistake, you will face these realities soon enough—and with the reality comes questions.
The issues of suffering and death beg one of the most perplexing and pressing questions that’s being asked in our culture: “How can there be a God of love if there is always death and suffering in the world?” The question is far from hypothetical or philosophical; it’s both theological and highly practical . . . and it’s usually asked when we face what appears to be a tragic inconsistency in the world.
After the tidal wave hit Indonesia, many asked how could there be a God of love. Look at the masses of poor and struggling who were pulled back into the sea. A man ignites a truck bomb outside of a federal building in Oklahoma. The collapsing building crushes a day care center filled with children. Where was God when that happened? What about the wars? What about the Holocaust? I mean, how could there be a God of love?
The Christian believes that God is love, that God cares, that He is present everywhere, and that He is all powerful. We believe that He knows everything and is merciful and forgiving. We believe that God created the universe and everything in it, declaring that it was “very good.” And yet even superficial observations indicate we’ve got some “problems.” How do we reconcile what we see and what we believe as Christians?
We see what happened on 9/11 in New York. We look at massive famine in Africa. We hear of girls suffering at the hands of their own fathers in our own neighborhoods. Just think about death in general (let alone the death of those who are young and “innocent”). It doesn’t seem right at all, and people get angry at God over these things. “How can there be a God of love if He allows this? How can you Christians believe in your God of love? Why would a God of love let my mother die or my wife die? If You are a God of love, why would You do this?” How do we understand it? How do we put all that together?
I don’t think I can overstate the importance of answering the questions correctly. All we have to do is look at how some non-Christians in the world have responded to this sort of thing. You’ve probably heard of Ted Turner. A man of great wealth and a bitter heart, he is leaving a powerful legacy in the atheistic media. It’s easy to view him as an enemy of sorts, but let me give you something to think about. Consider this quote from an interview he had with the New York Times:
Turner is a strident nonbeliever having lost his faith after his sister Mary Jane died of a painful disease. “I was taught that God was love and God was powerful,” Turner said, “I couldn’t understand how someone so innocent should be made or allowed to suffer so.”1
Turner is not an isolated case. Some of the most atheistic, humanistic, ardent opponents of our creation ministry claim they were brought up in Bible-believing churches—and yet heart-wrenching circumstances caused them to walk away from their faith. You know what I believe has happened? Many were brought up in churches where Christianity was imposed upon them, but they weren’t taught how to defend the Christian faith. They never learned to interpret circumstances with the truth of the Word. Instead, they grew up interpreting the Bible according to circumstance. When they faced the tension regarding the difficult questions about evil and suffering, the circumstances led them to believe that God either didn’t exist or that He was uncaring or passive.
Significantly, we see this again in the life of Charles Darwin. Darwin grew up going to church and his family continued to do so after he married. But Darwin had a daughter named Annie, and when she became ill, Charles’s life was deeply impacted. It is said in his biography that:
Any vestige of belief in God left him when his daughter Annie died. Annie’s cruel death destroyed Charles’ tatters and belief in a moral and just universe. Later he would say that this period claimed the final death nail for his Christianity. Charles now took his stand as an unbeliever.2
A few of years ago, PBS did a series on evolution. In one of the programs they portrayed the progression of Darwin’s life after his daughter Annie died. At one point they show him going to church with his family. But once they get there, Charles waits outside as his family goes in to worship . . . he’s unwilling to play a hypocrite and go through the motions of religion as his faith continues to flounder. While the family is in church and Darwin ponders the fate of his daughter, the singing of a hymn filters out of the church. Do you know the hymn they had them singing? “All Thing Bright and Beautiful, the Lord God Made Them All.” You know what PBS was trying to say here, don’t you. Here is Charles suffering over the death of his daughter Annie and everyone in the church is singing “All Things Bright and Beautiful, The Lord God Made Them All.” It’s the same irony we found in the movie Madagascar, except in Darwin’s case, the loss of his daughter was real, the tears he shed were real . . . and the questions he wrestled with deep in his soul were real. Finding no suitable answers to the issues that tormented his soul, he turned his back on the church, abandoned his childhood beliefs, and set out to explain the origin of life without “god.”
I think one of the reasons that many people—and many young people—in our churches struggle with their faith is because the teaching and music give the message that the Christian life is supposed to be carefree and problem free.
It’s easy to point the finger at non-Christians who have struggled with “the question.” But the Christian response hasn’t been much better. Many tend to ignore the issue altogether; some just hide the doubt under the surface of their faith while others cloak the problem under a covering of spiritual-sounding clichés.
I think one of the reasons that many people—and many young people—in our churches struggle with their faith is because the teaching and music give the message that the Christian life is supposed to be carefree and problem free. We teach children songs that say “I’m happy all the time. Since Jesus Christ came in, and saved my soul from sin . . . I’m happy all the time.” Meanwhile, they are getting beat up on the playground, watching the latest flooding on the 5:00 news, and listening to their parents fight in the evening. Nowhere does Scripture promise a “happy” life, and we should not insinuate otherwise. Again, we point at nature and try to tell them it’s all good and beautiful, but in reality, it is literally a “dog-eat-dog world,” full of anger and death . . . and the Christian is not exempt.
While some struggle, some just deny reality. Even though we all see people dying around us every day, many of us have, at some level of our consciousness, convinced ourselves that this will not happen to us. In a way, we try to avoid reality in order to somehow think that we can get out of dealing with death. But when someone close to us dies, or there is a major tragedy like the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York in 2001, we don’t know how to deal with it. We sorrow for a while, but soon we shelve the issue again and get on with life.
In the long run, it doesn’t help to deny. The issues will re-surface in some way, at some time. Those who are most honest, yet have the fewest answers, seem to be at risk the most . . . and sometimes they lash out in the process. Consider issues of school violence. Every day, anger and frustration boils over in our youth, sometimes with deadly force. One of the two young men who carried out the Columbine High School massacre had written these words:
It is easier to hate than love because there is so much more hate and misery in the world than there is love and peace. Look at our history—it’s full of death, depression, rape, wars, and diseases.3
Are you beginning to see that “the question” is a big issue out there? How can there be a God of love? Look at all the hate. Look at all the awful things in the world. A loving, caring God must not exist. As Christians, if we are going to be consistent, we have to be able to explain a world where we have joy and we have sorrow, a world where we have both life and death, both love and hate . . . all at the same time. How do we do that? Reality seems so incompatible with the concept of a God of love. How do we explain it?
Questions for Group Discussion:
- If someone came to your church and asked the question “If God is love, why is there suffering and death?” what might the average member say? How would your pastor respond?
- Do you agree that it is not accurate to use “the beauty in nature” as an example of God’s love and creativity? Why or why not? How do you think nature should be used for evangelism?
- Do you know of other people who, like Ted Turner and Charles Darwin, abandoned their faith in God after the devastating death of a loved one? What other tragic circumstances might cause someone to question God?
Questions for Personal Reflection:
- If someone asked you why bad things happen to good people, what would you say?
- In what ways has the Christian life not lived up to your expectations? What specific circumstances cause you to doubt God’s goodness or power?
- Do you have a good answer to “the question”? If you don’t, how might that affect your faith in the future? How might your life be different if you had a clear and concise answer to this important question?
Bible Verses for Contemplation and Memorization: