Graybrook Institute




"We believe that this good God, after he created all things, did not abandon them to chance or fortune but leads and governs them according to his holy will, in such a way that nothing happens in this world without his *orderly arrangement.

"Yet God is not the author of, nor can he be charged with, the sin that occurs. For his power and goodness are so great and incomprehensible that he arranges and does his work very well and justly even when the devils and wicked men act unjustly.

"We do not wish to inquire with undue curiosity into what he does that surpasses human understanding and is beyond our ability to comprehend. But in all humility and reverence we adore the just judgments of God, which are hidden from us, being content to be Christ's disciples, so as to learn only what he shows us in his Word, without going beyond those limits.

"This doctrine gives us unspeakable comfort since it teaches us that nothing can happen to us by chance but only by the arrangement of our gracious heavenly Father. He watches over us with fatherly care, keeping all creatures under his control, so that not one of the hairs on our heads (for they are all numbered) nor even a little bird can fall to the ground (20) without the will of our Father.

"In this thought we rest, knowing that he holds in check the devils and all our enemies, who cannot hurt us without his permission and will." — Belgic Confession of Faith, Article 13

The Problem of Evil

By Garry J. Moes

Of faith's many problems, one of the most commonly voiced is the problem of evil. The problem is usually stated in some form of the question: how can a good and loving God, if He exists, permit evil and suffering? Or, why do bad things happen to good people?

The question has been raised by millions of critics and doubters. Most who ask it do so with fist raised to heaven in plain and simple defiance of God and in displeasure with the harsh realities of their own lives or the world in general. It is not so much a question as an attack against God.

Others raise it out of genuine anguish or out of a sincere quest for the truth. People in this category who call themselves Christians would do well to consider the true nature of faith and the consequences of doubt. Doubt, if entertained long-term, is fatal to faith (Hebrews 6:4-8; 10:23-29). It is interesting that the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews, after warning against doubt, commends the faithful, and it is doubly interesting that those who are commended for faithfulness are those who have undergone tremendous suffering (Hebrews 10:32-34).

One of the earliest of the faithful to raise the question of God's role in evil was the righteous ancient believer, Job, whom God Himself described as a blameless man.

Despite his enduring faith and sanctified life, Job was plunged into the depths of suffering as part of what, on one level, was a contest between God and Satan and, on another level, was God's own test of Job's faithfulness. Even Job came to the point of asking the big "Why?"

Whether Job ever realized that Satan was the direct cause of the catastrophes that had befallen him, we do not know. But we do know Job understood that the ever-present God who had earlier blessed him was still in charge of his life.

If we, in our anguish, do what Job restrained himself from doing—cursing God for His permission of evil and concluding that He is unjust with His creatures, we must understand the implications of our conclusion; namely, there is no other place to turn to for real salvation and comfort.

Ultimately, the question of why God does what He does cannot be answered, and sometimes should not be asked (Deuteronomy 29:29). To attempt answering that comprehensively would be to match wits with God, and it is clear that no man can attain to the measure of God's sovereign wisdom. But the hopeful fact of the matter is that God has, in His mercy, given us some reply to the question—as much of an answer as He apparently feels is necessary according to His purposes.

The answer He gave to Job was astounding, even if limited. God's first response was to challenge Job to explain why he, the creature, thought he had a right to know why God, the Almighty Source of all things, does what He does. The answer was that men have no such right. Nevertheless, God did respond to Job's anguish. He reminded Job of the vastly superior wisdom, power, and justice He has displayed in creating and sustaining the world (Job 38-41). That was enough for Job. He humbled himself and surrendered.

But the rest of the Bible provides many more answers. "All the facts and problems of evil and sin take their meaning from and find their solution in terms of the story of Scripture," Cornelius Van Til wrote. Among them is the fact that God Himself is not the author of evil, but that this Great Judge of the universe must do right. The story of Scripture reveals that sin had its origins in the cosmic rebellion of Satan and came into our own world by means of mankind's own desires—the serpent-inspired, willfully disobedient attempt by the first humans to replace God as the determiner of right and wrong. God cannot, therefore, be blamed for the evil and suffering which is the just consequence of man's rebellion against Laws which He established to provide for peace and order in the human situation. God is not the origin of evil and suffering. Sin and its manifestations, which we term evils, are what occurred when our first human parents freely chose to follow their own path rather than God's.

This still leaves the troubling question, though, of why God, if He is truly and ultimately sovereign, allowed such a situation to develop. He may not be the author of sin and evil, but why does He still permit it. How can He be good and still permit evil to exist?

The first answer is that He does not permit it. He forbids it and punishes the sin which produces evil and suffering. In other words, He is the Judge of sin and evil, not the originator. When His wrath and judgment fall from time to time (and when they fall in final form at the end of time), the misery and destruction attending that judgment can indeed be fierce. He may, for example, unleash a devil like Hitler or Stalin or bin Laden or any of their kind—or all manner of plagues—onto the human scene; and the devastation of judgment then becomes unbearably painful.

The second and more gloriously hopeful answer is that God Himself was willing to suffer the point of death—to personally accept the consequences of the sinfulness which His creatures, rather than Himself, authored. He did this in order to bring an end to suffering and evil. For this grace and mercy, God deserves the fullest praise and worship, rather than the bitter accusations which suffering men often hurl against Him. Job recognized this grace and mercy, and in the midst of his suffering he could therefore call God his living Redeemer, rather than his tormentor. St. Paul recognized God's love and mercy, and when God refused to remove a "thorn" of suffering from his flesh, he could therefore be joyful and content when God's only response was to supply "sufficient grace" to endure suffering (II Corinthians 12:9).

Furthermore, God's decision to allow suffering is plainly explained in Scripture as one of His sovereignly chosen methods of doing good to the recipients of His grace. Suffering may be used by Him to drive the rebellious back to His fold. C.S. Lewis alluded to this when he wrote that pain may give "the only opportunity the bad man can have for amendment. It removes the veil; it plants the flag of truth within the fortress of a rebel soul."

Beyond this, God may use suffering and pain to generate a sense of utmost dependence upon Him even among those who we would not classify as rebellious sinners. This too is a great mercy, since God knows our ultimate well-being can be found only in Him and in no other source.

"If the first and lowest operation of pain shatters the illusion that all is well," Lewis wrote, "the second shatters the illusion that what we have, whether good or bad in itself, is our own and enough for us. Everyone has noticed how hard it is to turn our thought to God when everything is going well with us. We 'have all we want' is a terrible saying when 'all' does not include God."

Now God, who has made us, knows what we are and that our happiness lies in Him. Yet we will not seek it in Him as long as he leaves us any other result where it can even plausibly be looked for. While what we call "our own life" remains agreeable, we will not surrender it to Him. What then can God do in our interests but make "our own life" less agreeable to us, and take away the plausible sources of false happiness? It is just here, where God's providence seems at first to be most cruel, that the Divine humility, the stooping down of the Highest, most deserves praise. We are perplexed to see misfortune falling upon decent, inoffensive, worthy people—on capable, hardworking mothers or families or diligent, thrifty little tradespeople, on those who have worked so hard, and so honestly, for their modest stock of happiness and now seem to be entering on the enjoyment of it with the fullest right. How can I say with sufficient tenderness what here needs to be said? ... Let me implore the reader to try to believe, if only for the moment, that God, who made these deserving people, may really be right when He thinks that their modest prosperity and the happiness of their children are not enough to make them blessed: that all this must fall from them in the end, and that if they have not learned to know Him, they will be wretched. And therefore he troubles them, warning them in advance of an insufficiency that one day they will have to discover." (The Problem of Pain, pp. 95-97).

Scripture itself says it simply: we are made "perfect through suffering" (Hebrews 2:10). Or again, "Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything" (James 1:2-4, NIV). And there follows at this point in the Epistle of James the admonition that doubt is unacceptable. It is so unacceptable to God that He will give nothing to anyone who insists on entertaining it, but he will freely give wisdom (the ability to understand, among other things, why things are as they are) to anyone who asks for it in sincere reliance upon Him. Furthermore, says James, "Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him."

James warns next against saying that God tempts with evil. The fact is, according to this warning, that evil is born in our own desires, which when given sway, entice us away into rebellion and death. There are, of course, myriad voices in our world which would tempt, deceive, entice, and drag away any soul not fully anchored in God's truth. Some who hear these voices are inclined to give in to the temptation and declare, by some standard of justice they themselves have invented, that God is unjust, evil, and therefore possibly non-existent. Following this tempting belief (and it is tempting to those who wish there were no God to judge evil, especially their own) will surely lead to death. On the other hand, rejecting the temptation will bring "every good and perfect gift from above"—including, ironically, pain and suffering from a Divine Hand moved by a Mind which purposes to drive you to Him thereby, where real blessing lies.

In this most curious conception we may have a clue as to the fundamental question of what evil is. From our vantage point, it is rather easy to see and understand that evil is, as the dictionary has it, “the totality of undesirable, harmful, wicked acts, experiences, and things.” A study of the origins of the English word “evil” clearly reveal that it refers to that which is not morally good; that is, it must be understood in the negative and with reference to the proclivities of fallen creatures. Its origin is with man and the fallen angels. It is the natural state of that which is not holy; therefore it is not a created commodity but a manifestation of character or the nature of what has fallen. From God’s vantage point, however, it might be said that there is no such thing as evil. Recall what has already been noted herein: that God does only good. When beneficiaries of God’s grace experience what they perceive as evil, they are, in fact, experiencing a goodness from God’s hand. When those who are the just victims of God’s wrath experience what they perceive as evil, they are also experiencing a good—not working to their benefit, but a good in God’s economy nonetheless. They are a demonstration of God’s perfect justice; and, ironically, when they are the perpetrators of evil, they are merely the instruments of God in the outworking of some good design which only He may understand.

Meanwhile, we return to the former question: Why does God permit evil? In summary, two reasons:

First, as a method of judgment against His creatures' willful sin. Why did He allow sin in the first place? Ultimately, only He knows. But He has made it apparent through His own revelation that sin's existence shows His own perfection to be that much more glorious. That might have been a cynical and selfish reason if it were not for the fact that He has mercifully taken the judgment for sin upon Himself in Christ. The destruction of sin and its consequences in the human condition and environment is certainly a benevolent aim of God.

Second, as a means of driving men to Him—the source of every good and perfection. This also is a benevolent purpose. As Charles Swindoll has put it: "Life is literally filled with God-appointed storms...we all need them. God has no other method more effective. The massive blows and shattering blasts (not to mention the little, constant irritations) smooth us, humble us, and compel us to submit to His script and His chosen role for our lives" (The Seasons of Life).

As to the ultimate mystery of God's sometimes stormy plan, the words of the great hymnwriter William Cowper say it well:

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never-failing skill,
He treasures up His bright designs
And works His sovereign will.

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.

His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.

Blind unbelief is sure to err
And scan His work in vain;
God is His own Interpreter
And He will make it plain.

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