A question as important and as integrated as the one dealing with pain, suffering, and death cannot be answered superficially. Too many people offer answers with little substance and even less supporting evidence. In order to sufficiently address these critical issues of our existence, we must go in depth, digging deep into our most essential foundations of belief. That foundation of personal belief is often called a “worldview.” It is made up of your most basic perceptions about reality and truth. From your worldview emerge your interpretations of everything that you see, and it is the core of every decision you make.
As we now address the question If God is a good and loving God, why is there pain and suffering in the world? it is absolutely essential that we first investigate the two main worldviews upon which people have built their answers. You’ll soon see that these two worldviews are diametrically opposed to each other—and as you face difficult circumstances, these two worldviews will go to war with each other on the battlefield of your heart.
The secular-humanist worldview (sometimes called “man’s view”) begins with the assumption that physical matter is the only thing that exists. According to this view, everything that exists was created at “the big bang,” where all the matter of the universe appeared in a violent explosion out of nothing. (No one claims to know what caused this explosion, but they do claim that it happened and that’s where time and space began.) Somehow, the matter that came from nowhere spontaneously arranged itself (with no outside influence or organization) into the first complex living cells over the course of billions of years and the random interaction of chemicals and molecules. Then, over the next hundreds of millions of years, these simple cells are believed to have “evolved” by natural processes into the forms we see today. That process of evolution supposedly took place through chance mutations and a process called “natural selection” in which only the fittest of organisms survive long enough to reproduce. [For a complete rebuttal of this concept, see Evolution Exposed online.]
The late Dr. Carl Sagan said, “The secrets of evolution are time and death.”1 He believed that the process of death and bloodshed, over millions of years, had the result of one kind of organism changing into another, with one kind of animal changing into another, and eventually humans evolving from primates.
In order to try to categorize life and explain how evolution has progressed, secular scientists have attempted to create a “phylogenetic tree” that traces the history of life. In reality this is a “tree of death” because it is based on natural selection (where the weaker organisms are killed), passing on to the next generation only the supposed benefits of genetic mutation. (In the vast majority of cases, however, genetic mutations weaken, rather than strengthen an organism . . . a fact that makes this theory mathematically impossible.)
Those who cling to the theory of evolution often appeal to circumstantial scientific “evidence” to prove their point—but I find time and time again that they are not motivated by the evidence at all. A proper interpretation of the same evidences (including an awareness of the most foundational laws of physics) leads one to conclude that matter and life must have been caused by an outside influence that both designed and created it. That “outside influence” implies that there is a God, and what I observe is that many evolutionists object to the idea of God on moral or philosophical grounds first, and then attempt to disprove “God” with science.
The moral/philosophical objection is often stated as the question “If God is all-powerful and loving, why do we see children dying, people suffering, and bad things happening to good people?” Surely such suffering and evil means that either He is not powerful or good, or that He doesn’t exist at all. If there’s a God of love and you say He is a merciful God and the Bible says God alone is infinite, why does He let all this death and suffering go on? Is He not powerful enough to overcome it? Surely an all-powerful God could stop all this death, destruction, and decay.”
Many people have asked these questions with sincerity. Many have not been able to answer them sufficiently, and they have rejected the “idea of god,” turning to the secular-humanist worldview based on evolutionary theory as their new foundation for life. In response to painful and difficult circumstance (often the untimely or painful death of a loved one, or an unjust personal abuse suffered) they begin to interpret everything in a way that attempts to disprove God’s existence. While our debates with the evolutionists tend to focus on science and evidence, this is not always the true objection they have against God. Their arguments are usually fueled with passion and pain. Many lash out in great agony over a great loss or “injustice” in their personal lives; many feel neglected or abandoned by people, the Church, or God himself . . . and I can relate. I have been there with the likes of Charles Darwin and Ted Turner. I, too, have had to face the questions.
I loved my brother Robert. As an earthly brother and also as my brother-in-Christ, we had much in common, sharing the most important things life has to offer, the things that bond you together on a soul level. Both of us were in Christian work, teaching the Word of God. Over the years, we spent countless hours on the phone and in person discussing personal issues. We had grown together both physically and spiritually as children. Now as adults and fathers we continued to sharpen each other in our faith and in our family.
My wife Mally was the first to begin to notice that something was changing over time—not changing in Robert, but in me. I was getting irritated. My regular telephone conversations with Rob were becoming a source of frustration and Mally picked up on this. “I don’t understand,” I would often say. “He is becoming so difficult to deal with.” Our theological conversations began to degenerate into disjointed arguments and it began to make me feel defensive and angry.
Others in the family began to notice something as well. Most concluded that Robert (like many pastors) was suffering from great stress resulting from his position and ministry. One day I received a very disturbing phone call from one of my best friends. He faithfully attended Rob’s church—even though he lived over an hour away—because he loved Rob’s verse-by-verse Bible teaching. On this particular day, he had taken some of his visiting relatives to the church, but was greatly disturbed because the sermon Rob gave seemed to lack logic and was very disjointed. He told me that the sermon basically didn’t make sense.
Many in his congregation shared these feelings and some were beginning to take offence at his changing demeanor. Our phone conversations began to focus on the people who were leaving the church. Time after time Rob would tell me that another family had left. I couldn’t understand what was happening. Those around him kept saying he was suffering from severe stress. That seemed to be a possible explanation, so eventually friends and family convinced Rob to take a break from the ministry and encouraged him to rest and recuperate.
But rest and recuperation never came. He wasn’t getting better. We all realized something serious was wrong, but none of us were prepared for what was revealed after a barrage of tests over many months. At age 43, Rob was diagnosed with a degenerative brain disease for which there was no earthly cure. He would never again preach the Word of God as he had so loved to do.
On one level, the diagnosis made complete sense, solving a physical riddle that had perplexed us for quite some time. We finally knew what the problem was. But on another level, the diagnosis hit us like a tornado, causing our thoughts and our faith to be thrown about in a swirling, confusing cloud. Sure, we now knew what the problem was . . . but now we had to face the question of why.
Why? Why would a loving and all-powerful God allow a dedicated man of God to be struck down in the prime of life? Why should he be subject to such a dreadful, dehumanizing disease—one that caused him to lose his mental faculties, his muscular function, his dignity? Why should his wife and young sons be forced to endure this, watching helplessly in agony of their own as their husband and father degenerated toward a certain and painful death?
“But he was such a great preacher; he stood firmly on the Word of God; he preached the gospel; he wouldn’t knowingly compromise God’s Word,” said my mother. “I still don’t understand why God would allow this to happen to him!”
My breaking point was reached one day when I took Rob to a local shopping center. I thought this would be a simple outing, but it turned out to be one of those heart-gripping, emotional events that I’ll never forget . . . one that has been indelibly impressed on my mind. By this time, the disease had taken quite a hold and he couldn’t speak much. He was difficult to control and wanted to wander off and grab things out of the stores. Just dealing with this, and watching a man who had been so upright in character do things we had to apologize for, was gut-wrenching. (That day I realized I was only experiencing an infinitesimally small amount of what his wife and children had to put up with. What were they feeling, having to deal with this day after day, concerning their husband and father? Only those who have lived through such a horrific ordeal could even begin to understand what they must have gone through.)
At the shopping center, Rob sat down with me to eat one of his favorite meals—Aussie meat pie and “mushy” peas. Suddenly, Rob saw some people in Muslim garb walking by. He jumped up and ran to them. “Wrong, wrong!” he shouted out. I gripped the table and held back my tears. Rob stared at the Muslims; they stopped and looked perplexed. “Wrong! Wrong!” he continued to say. Somewhere deep inside, Rob’s soul still carried that burden to tell Muslims the truth about God—in his heart still burned the passion to see them come to know the forgiveness of Christ and be set free from the slavery of their religion. The passion for others and for God’s Word that had directed his life was still intact, still driving him from within, but his brain could no longer communicate the message of the gospel that had been the focus of his preaching. “Wrong! Wrong!” was all he continued to shout. I ran to Rob, held him close, and apologetically led him away from the stunned Muslims and the gathering crowd.
That’s when “the question” became vividly real to me. Why, why, God? Why Robert? Why this way?
Back at the table, I did my best to regain some composure. Meat pie and mushy peas, a spoon at a time. . . . Across from me sat my brother, a hollow shell of his former self. Why?
As I began to search for answers, my mind went back to our childhood. I saw vivid memories of the good times when we played together, those special days when our parents took us camping, the laughter and normal jostling that takes place between siblings. One doesn’t usually think about death at that time of one’s life. Even growing up as a teenager I had to attend a funeral or two, but it still didn’t really hit me that this could happen to me or someone very close to me. The older I get, the more I have to deal with the death of people, of course. The issue of death and separation from a loved one or special friend really begins to hit home. The first time I had to face such a thing was when my father died . . . but my father died at what most would consider to be an “appropriate” age. Now I was facing the death of my brother, someone in the prime of life, someone younger in age than myself.
How was I to answer? Like Darwin and Turner, my faith in God stood at a crossroad. It felt precarious and uncertain. But thankfully, during that critical season, I had something that many, many people don’t: I had a heritage. I had been born and raised in a family that used God’s Word as its final authority in all things. I had been taught and discipled in churches that taught the Bible as truth, trusting in its timeless wisdom. Through the example of my father and my experiences in the ministry of Answers in Genesis, I had also learned to think critically, to dissect and defend attacks against God and the Word.
I need you to do a little thinking with me for a moment, for the problem of evil and suffering isn’t just a personal one, it’s also a philosophical one. The question is not only one of science, theology, and/or emotion. It’s also a question of logic, so we will first respond with logic. The basic argument against the existence of God based on evil and suffering sounds like this:
A good God would not allow or cause bad things to happen.
Bad things happen.
Therefore, God must not exist.
In order for this argument to have meaning, we must first consider the meaning of “good.” Matthew 19:16–17 addresses this very question:
And behold, one came to Him and said, “Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may obtain eternal life?” And He said to him, “Why are you asking Me about what is good? There is only One who is good. . . .”
In this passage, Jesus was challenging the man to realize the implications of what he had asked. Jesus pointed out that only an infinite being who is infinitely good should be called “good.” Jesus’ point is that God is good, and goodness is defined by Him.
I want you to think about this: Only the person who believes in God has a basis to make moral judgments to determine what is “good” and what is “bad.” Those who claim that God does not exist have absolutely no authority upon which to call something right or wrong. If God doesn’t exist, who can objectively define what is good and what is bad? What basis could there be to make such judgments? The atheist has no basis upon which to call anything good or bad. They can talk about good and bad, and right and wrong—but it’s all relative, it’s all arbitrary. What’s “good” in one person’s mind might be completely “bad” in another’s.
So here is the point: In order for “good” and “bad” to exist, God must exist. The unbeliever does not, of course, accept that there is such a being. That means that when he makes the claim that a “good” God and “bad” things in this world cannot be reconciled, he cannot make the claim without assuming that God, indeed, does exist. If he doesn’t, his argument falls apart!
In other words, the atheist has a big problem when he argues against God on the basis of “good” and “bad.” Because in order for “good” and “bad” to exist, God must exist. The assumption that “good” and “bad” exist assumes that there is a God. Anyone who speaks of “good” and “bad” has to presuppose a worldview that includes God, because without a godly worldview there can be no absolute authority to define those words.
Christian apologist Greg Bahnsen stated it this way:
Philosophically speaking, the problem of evil turns out to be, therefore, a problem for the unbeliever himself. In order to use the argument from evil against the Christian worldview, he must first be able to show that his judgments about the existence of evil are meaningful, which is precisely what his unbelieving worldview is unable to do.2
The bottom line is this: Using arguments involving “good,” “bad,” “right,” “wrong,” etc. cannot be used to disprove the existence of God. Philosophically, they actually show that God does exist. This doesn’t reconcile the problem of a good God co-existing with an evil world, but it does demolish the faulty logic that some use to dismiss God altogether.
Actually, there is no good answer to the question that asks “How could a good God exist when there is so much bad in the world?” There is no good answer because it’s a bad question to begin with! It’s called a “self-defeating” argument. There is a much better question that must be addressed—and we will do so shortly. But first, let’s consider the tragic consequences of dismissing God on these grounds.
The secular-humanist worldview has no answer to the questions concerning the problems from evil and suffering. In fact, it has no answer to much of anything. In a world without God, everything must have happened just by chance and random processes. There was no intent, no design, no purpose . . . it all “just happened.” In such a world, there is no true meaning to anything. Life is tough, and then you die. Period.
Dr. Richard Dawkins is an atheist and one of the world’s leading spokespersons for evolution. An interviewer once made this statement to him: “The idea of evolution and natural selection makes some people feel that everything is meaningless, people’s individual lives and life in general.” Dr. Dawkins responded that, “If it’s true that it causes people to feel despair. That’s tough. If it’s true, it’s true; and you had better live with it.”3 So if I believe in atheistic evolution and it causes me to despair, what can I do? Be tough. Get used to it. That’s what it’s all about. Live with it.
And then he was asked this question, “What do you see is the problem with a terminally ill cancer patient believing in an afterlife?” Dr. Dawkins responded, “No problem at all. If I could have a word with a would-be suicide bomber who thinks he is going to paradise, I would say ‘Don’t imagine for one second that you are going to paradise, you’re going to rot in the ground.’” At least Dr. Dawkins is consistent and honest. Without God, nothing matters. It doesn’t matter if you are terminally ill or if you are a terrorist. You are going to die, and that is the end of it. Life, then, is utterly meaningless. Nothing you can do will make a difference. When you die, you won’t even remember you were here, and in a short time, no one else will remember you either. Life has no meaning; it never did; it doesn’t now; and it never will. It’s just time and death. That’s all. That’s tough. Get used to it.
By the way, if what Dr. Dawkins is saying is true, why does he bother arguing about anything? What’s the point? Think about it! I have often wondered why an atheistic evolutionist would bother trying to convince someone of something. They believe that when you die that’s the end of you. Isaac Asimov believed that, Carl Sagan believed that, and that’s what Richard Dawkins is saying. When you die, you rot, that’s it. From that perspective, you won’t even know you were ever here; you won’t even know you ever existed. You won’t remember any of it . . . and neither will anyone else; so therefore, what is the point of arguing with the creationists? I don’t understand the point.
I remember a guy who came up to me after one of my talks at the University in Dublin in Ireland. He was fairly upset by the things I had taught and said, “When you are dead, you’re dead! You prove to me there’s life after death! When you’re dead, you’re dead!”
I thought, Well, I can’t prove scientifically that there’s life after death; true science just can’t prove such things. So I started to talk to him about some of the things I said in the lecture and what the Bible said. But he just kept saying, “When you’re dead, you’re dead. When you’re dead, you’re dead. When you’re dead, you’re dead!”
So finally, I got so frustrated I said, “Well, if that’s it, when you’re dead, you’re dead, you won’t even know you existed, won’t even know you’re alive, won’t even remember this conversation . . . you won’t even know you were here. You won’t know anything, so it’s as if you never existed!” And then I told him “You may as well go and jump off a cliff right now!” And he said, “You know what, I may as well, just to show you!” And I thought, “Uh oh. Now I’ve done it. This bloke is going to do himself in because of my lecture!” Well, we both settled down a little and talked a little more. And you know what? He actually came back to the seminar the next night and asked me for a book about God.
It’s an odd situation, when you think about it. The Bible says that everyone knows in their heart that God exists and yet so many try in futility to “disprove” Him. Romans 1:20 says:
For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.
So the atheist claims that because of “bad” things, a “good” God cannot exist . . . but in the process, he actually has to assume that God does exist. The evolutionist claims that life has no meaning and that there is no “truth,” and yet many of them have devoted their lives to convincing others that their point of view is true. The man in Dublin claimed that “when you’re dead, you’re dead,” yet he came back again with the hope that maybe there would be life after all.
So again, let me assure you that the secular-humanist worldview has no answer for the problems of suffering and death . . . and in times of trouble, they not only face complete meaninglessness in the circumstances, but they also have nowhere to look (other than themselves) for strength. I must say, I often wonder how a non-Christian can even begin to cope in situations like the one our family had found itself in. For such a person, this life, as far as they believe, is all there is. When a loved one dies, they believe that is the end of them—they exist no more. How they must despair. But surely, it must even be more despairing to think that if this life is all there is, then even the few years we have are utterly meaningless. No wonder Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 4:13, “Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope” (NIV).
I hope that you are beginning to realize that a deep question cannot be resolved with a superficial answer. It should be clear by now that the worldview that lies at the foundation of our thinking will ultimately determine the course of our thoughts.
I hope that you are beginning to realize that a deep question cannot be resolved with a superficial answer. It should be clear by now that the worldview that lies at the foundation of our thinking will ultimately determine the course of our thoughts. As we look at the secular-humanist worldview, we see that not only is it based on a faulty interpretation of scientific fact, but its atheistic conclusions are based on faulty logic . . . logic that leads to a meaningless, futile existence. Because non-Christians have been indoctrinated to believe that our existence is the result of nothing more than time and death (millions of years of suffering, disease, bloodshed, and death), they are not going to understand about a God of love until they begin to see life through a true, uncompromised Christian worldview that includes the correct time-line of history.
So at this point, we can see what the wrong question is . . . but we have yet to find an answer as well, for the secular worldview has none to offer. As Bible-believing Christians, however, we begin with a totally different set of assumptions. We begin with the fact that a good God does exist. Through the witness of the inerrant Scriptures, a right interpretation of scientific fact, and the understandings that God has placed in our hearts, we can presuppose a Christian worldview that says God is there.
From there we can now ask the right question: How do you explain death and suffering in a world where an all-powerful, loving, and just God exists? That’s the question believers wrestle with, isn’t it? We know that God is, and we know that He is good. Desperately, we seek reconciliation between the pain and evil we see and this loving God we believe in.
Thankfully, when we turn to the Bible for answers and let His Word speak for itself, that reconciliation takes place both in the mind and in the heart.