A car crash claims the life of a Christian college student on her way home, a faithful pastor receives a cancer diagnosis, a family is away on vacation only to receive the call that their house was destroyed in a fire.
One of the most common questions believers and unbelievers alike ask is why a loving and all-powerful God would allow bad things to happen. When many believers are asked this question, they freeze, not knowing what to say. Or they weakly reply, “Well, we don’t know why bad things happen, but we need to trust God.” But those of us who start with the right foundation, God’s Word, have a solid answer that is based in the history of God’s Word. But those who don’t start with God’s Word have a difficult time providing a satisfactory answer to this important and often emotionally charged question.
Atheism and the Problem of Pain
One of the most common arguments atheists challenge Christians with is the so-called “problem of pain.” If there’s an all-powerful, loving God, why do bad things happen? Well, the believer can turn right around and challenge the atheist: “In your worldview, by what standard do you define good or bad things?”
Now, in the evolutionary tale death is the hero of the plot. In this view, humans are on this planet because of millions of years of death, extinction, disease, carnivory, and suffering. By evolutionary estimation, 99.9% of all the species that have walked, swam, or flown on Earth are now extinct. Many of these creatures died in the supposed five major extinction events, each of which is assumed to have killed at least three-quarters of the species on Earth at the time. These extinction events, and extinction in general, are thought to have allowed new species to dominate the globe for a time. So in an evolutionary view of life, death and extinction really are responsible for the arrival of mankind. So rather than shun death, we should thank death for getting us here.
Atheism and its inherent teaching of evolution cannot provide a satisfactory answer to the problem of good and bad
Evolution supposedly progresses by the death of the less fit and the reproduction of the most fit. So, if this the case, why should we help the old, sick, infirm, and disabled? Shouldn’t they be eliminated as less fit? After all, in the world of evolution the strong survive, and tough for you if you’re born weak or less fit. According to an evolutionist’s own worldview, how can death, disease, suffering, cancer, and disabilities really be “bad”? In nature, the weak and ill die off and the strong survive, passing on their good genes to the next generation—this is how evolution supposedly progresses. Death and weakness from disease and mutations is a must for “bad” genes to die out. So by what standard do evolutionists call these things bad? Certainly not by their own standard! To claim a standard for good and bad, they have to borrow from a different worldview—the biblical one—to define what good and bad even are.
Atheism and its inherent teaching of evolution cannot provide a satisfactory answer to the problem of good and bad because they have no ultimate standard upon which to make such a distinction. And if they have no standard for good and bad, how can they challenge the Christian with a question that, in their own worldview, is unreasonable? They can only do so by being inconsistent with their own worldview.
Theistic Evolution and the God of Death
Some Christians have a difficult time answering the “problem of pain” question because they start from the wrong foundation. Instead of reading Genesis as literal history, many Christians have added in man’s ideas about evolution and millions of years. Some Christians accept the millions of years but reject evolution, while some accept both the long time scale and the idea of evolution but say that it was guided or started by God.
Christians who hold to either of these views run into severe problems when it comes to the problem of pain. If Earth and life have existed for millions of years, then the fossil record is the history of millions of years of death, suffering, cancer, carnivory, and extinction. For the theistic evolutionist, death is still the hero of the plot; it’s still because of death (and maybe a little of God’s guidance) that we’re here today. Death has been around since the beginning in this version of history.
And yet God called His completed creation “very good” (Genesis 1:31). The Hebrew word used for “good” (טוֹב, ṭôb)1 here means “pleasant” or “excellent,” and the Hebrew word translated “very” (מְאֹד, me’ōd)2 means “exceedingly.” So God’s original creation was “very pleasant” or “very good”—perfect in God’s eyes—but it was full of death? This would mean that God approves of, condones, and even views death as something “very good.” It also means that death has existed from the very beginning and was part of God’s creative process.
In this view, how do you explain death and suffering? They are just tools our supposedly loving and gracious God used or allowed to bring about life on Earth. But this certainly doesn’t sound like a loving or gracious Creator—it makes God out to be a wasteful ogre who doesn’t have the skill or wisdom to create without using death and suffering. This is not the God of the Bible! Scripture speaks of God as loving (1 John 4:8), merciful (Ephesians 2:4–5), and caring for even the tiny sparrow (Matthew 10:29) or the livestock (Jonah 4:11). To say that death was part of God’s original creation is to impugn the very character of God.
Bad News Before Good News
But there’s more bad news for the theistic evolutionist trying to answer the problem of death and suffering. They cannot appeal to Christ’s work on the Cross as our hope. If death has existed since the dawn of life, then death came before sin. But death is supposed to be the penalty for sin (Genesis 2:17; Romans 5:12). So how could the punishment come before the crime? It can’t. So what did Jesus die to save us from? Actually, why did Jesus have to physically die at all if the penalty for sin is not physical death? When you allow death to be before sin, you destroy the very foundation of the gospel and are forced to reinterpret what Christ did. So we cannot really rejoice with Paul:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.” “O Death, where is your sting? O Hades where is your victory?” The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:54–57)
How can we rejoice over the defeat of death if it’s not really the punishment for sin and Jesus really didn’t come to take our penalty upon Himself? Paul links our victory in Christ directly with this sin and death issue! In order to have the good news of the gospel, you must have the bad news of Genesis.
The Bible and the God of Life
But if we start with God’s Word, we don’t have the problem of the punishment before the crime because God’s Word provides the answer to the problem of pain. Genesis records that God created everything within six literal, 24-hour days and that He called His whole creation “very good” (Genesis 1:31). The original creation wasn’t broken or marred by sin, but was upheld perfectly by God. Sadly, it didn’t stay this way. Adam and Eve chose to disobey God’s command, and the punishment for this disobedience and rebellion was death (Genesis 2:17, 3:1–24). Creation only became broken after sin.
In the biblical view, death isn’t a natural part of our world; it’s actually an intruder and an enemy (1 Corinthians 15:26). It is because of Adam’s sin that we suffer from death (Romans 5:12) and that the whole world groans in brokenness (Romans 8:22). God isn’t responsible for the death, suffering, pain, disease, and brokenness we see around us. We are responsible for it because of our sin in Adam. The “problem of pain” doesn’t rest on God, it rests squarely on the shoulders of sinful mankind in rebellion against their Creator.
The Solution to the Problem of Pain
But God, out of His love for the world He had made (John 3:16), provided a solution to our problem. He stepped in and fixed the mess we had made because of our sin. And He did that through the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus stepped into history as the God-man, lived a life in perfect obedience to God (something we have failed to do), and chose to die on the Cross for our sin. He took the penalty that we deserve because of our sin upon His own shoulders as He died. But He didn’t stay dead—He rose victorious, defeating sin and death, and now He offers eternal life to all who repent and put their trust in Him.
That is the good news of the gospel! That is the hope of every believer no matter what we are going through. Our biggest problem, the sin that separates us from God, has been dealt with on the Cross, and we have an eternity to look forward to. And this eternity will be free from death, suffering, pain, tears, and the Curse from the Fall (Revelation 21:4, 22:3).
But Can’t God Stop It?
Christians have the ultimate answer and hope for the problem of pain. But that doesn’t make going through pain and suffering easy. Ask any Bible-believing Christian and they will tell you that we still struggle with these things, but the difference is that we have hope. As Paul puts it, “But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus. . . . Therefore comfort one another with these words” (1 Thessalonians 4:12–14, 18).
Now when tragedy strikes a Christian, whether it be through circumstance, illness, natural disasters, or even a loved one’s death, it’s tempting to wonder “why me?” and to become angry with God for not stopping it. We know death and suffering aren’t God’s fault—they are the result of living in a sin-cursed world. But when suffering becomes personal, we wonder why God would allow us to suffer in this manner, and why He wouldn’t stop it.
Actually, we’re promised that we will have trouble and hardship in this world.
God’s Word never promises Christians an easy and pain-free life. Actually, we’re promised that we will have trouble and hardship in this world (John 16:33). The difference is the hope and help we have in Christ.
Job—a man who underwent immense suffering—reminds us that we may never know the reason why we suffer, but regardless the truth still remains that “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21), and “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and He shall stand at last on the earth” (Job 19:25).
In answer to a question about the significance of the death of some Galileans at the hand of Pilate, Jesus replied, “Do you suppose that these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse sinners than all other men who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:2–5). Natural calamities occur in a sin-cursed world, and God doesn’t always intervene to stop them. Sadly, this is just one of the consequences of living in a fallen world that is marred by sin. Our response to such calamities should be the same as Jesus’—to urge others to repent before their time comes and they perish too.
Jesus tells us we will face trouble in the world, “but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). And Paul, through the Holy Spirit, gives us a promise of God to all believers, “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28).
It isn’t promised that we will understand why God didn’t stop some tragedy from striking, “‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,’ says the Lord. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts’” (Isaiah 55:8–9). But what is promised is that God will ultimately work all things for good for believers.
We Have the Answer
As Christians, we have the answer that a hurting world needs. Next time you’re approached by a person who’s hurting due to illness, death, circumstances, or a natural disaster, point them to God’s Word. Show them how death and suffering are the punishment for sin but how Jesus Christ provided the solution to that problem when He died on the Cross and rose again. Because of Christ, we have hope for now and eternity.