In one of the world’s most famous novels, The Brothers Karamazov, by Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky, one of the main characters, Ivan, rails against the idea of a good God on a planet that’s filled with evil. To buttress his point, Ivan tells story after story (based on true accounts) of atrocities perpetrated against children—torture, murder, abuse by parents. Evil is bad enough, Ivan laments, but when it happens to innocent children? “It’s beyond all comprehension why they should suffer.”
Though Ivan is a fictional character, his complaint is all too real. One must have a heart made of steel, with lighter fluid, not blood, gushing through one’s veins, to endure the evil that wreaks havoc on our planet. And though the question of human suffering is difficult for anyone, the problem can be excruciating for Christians, because they not only believe in God, but they believe in the God of the Bible—a good God who has boundless compassion, eternal love and infinite power. Hence, the dilemma: how does one reconcile a loving God’s infinite power and goodness with the reality of evil and the terrible things that we face in everyday life?
The attempt to answer this question is what theologians call “theodicy”. If that word means nothing to you, then don’t worry—this article will serve as an introduction to this matter, attempting to answer the question of why a good God may allow bad things to happen to good people.
The limits of power
Let’s begin with a story. Some Christian missionaries had approached a young man on the street and began talking to him about God.
“Your God is all-powerful?” the sceptical young man asked.
“Yes, sir, He is,” they responded.
“Oh, yeah?” he continued. “So can God create a rock so big that He cannot lift it?”
However silly on the face of it, that question does raise an interesting issue. Yes, God is all-powerful, but that does not mean He can do the logically impossible. Can God create a married bachelor? Of course not, because the moment the bachelor is married, he’s no longer a bachelor. Can God create a square circle? Of course not, because the moment the circle becomes square, it’s no longer a circle. And, finally, can God create a love that’s forced? No, because the moment love is forced, it’s no longer love.
In other words, God could force you to obey Him. God could force you to fear Him. But God cannot force you to love Him, because the moment He did that, it would no longer be love.
Modern technology is creating better and more efficient robots that obey commands because they have no choice. But the kind of relationship one could have with a robot is not the kind of relationship that God wants with the intelligent creatures who He has made. Instead, He wants them to obey Him because they love Him.
But love must be freely given, or it cannot truly be love. In other words, love requires freedom. And this freedom, if real, entails risk—the risk that the free beings God created might choose not to love or obey Him.
And here, within the freedom inherent in love itself, we find (sadly enough) where pain, suffering and all evil began.
Though humans have speculated since time immemorial about extraterrestrial life (after all, the universe is a very big place!), the Bible not only talks about this life but gives us some deep insights into it. In fact, the Bible reveals a bigger picture of the universe than one may expect.
The Old Testament book of Ezekiel, for instance, describes an extraterrestrial, an angel named Lucifer, who existed in another part of the universe that we call “heaven.” After describing what this angel looked like, the Bible says this about him: “You were perfect in your ways from the day you were created, till iniquity was found in you” (Ezekiel 28:12–19). The implications of this one text are astounding.
First, we see here a perfect being, created by a perfect God. And yet—what does this same verse say about this being created perfectly by God? It says that “iniquity was found” in him. How could that be? How could iniquity (ie, sin or evil) arise in a perfect being?
The answer hinges on the fact that a perfect being is also a free being. If Lucifer, this awe-inspiring angel, was to love God, he had to have the freedom, the potential, not to love Him as well. He had to have the freedom to make his own moral decisions, whether they were good or not.
And that, in fact, is what happened: Lucifer made poor choices. Two verses later the book says, “Your heart was lifted up because of your beauty” (verse 17). How could Lucifer lift his own heart up unless, even though created perfect, he had freedom? And in this case that freedom—or we should say the abuse of that freedom—led to arrogance and rebellion.
The book of Isaiah reveals more about what Lucifer did with the freedom inherent in love: “For you have said in your heart: ‘I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God; . . . I will ascend above the heights of the clouds, I will be like the Most High’ ” (Isaiah 14:13, 14).
Though perfect and beautiful already, Lucifer wanted more. God’s love was not enough for Lucifer—he wanted to be like God Himself. His attitude became so bad that, according to the book of Revelation, it bloomed into outright rebellion: “War broke out in heaven. . . . So the great dragon was cast out, that serpent of old, called the Devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world; he was cast to the earth, and his angels were cast out with him”
(Revelation 12:7, 9).
How could Lucifer and these angels, all created perfect by God, rebel against Him and become Satan and his demonic hordes? The answer, again, is that God created these intelligent creatures with moral freedom, and, as we have seen, that freedom included risk. And, unfortunately, that risk impacted God’s new creation of Earth as well.
Rebellion on earth
The reality of the freedom God has given His intelligent creatures is revealed even more starkly in the story of the Garden of Eden. Genesis describes God’s finished work of creation as “very good” (Genesis 1:31). This creation included the first humans, Adam and Eve, no doubt created as perfectly as God had created Lucifer in heaven. In the beginning, God had created a perfect world—free from physical death, natural disasters and conflict or strife.
However, what follows is a powerful representation of the reality of human freedom, the freedom inherent in love.
After creating Adam, God said to him, “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:16, 17).
Now, why would God have warned Adam and Eve about the danger in doing something unless they had the moral capacity to choose what He told them specifically not to do?
If God didn’t want them to eat from the tree, He could have programmed their brains in a way that would have kept the two of them from eating it. He could have put the tree on the moon where they couldn’t get to it. He could have made the tree undesirable, something that would have repulsed them. Finally, He could have not created the tree at all, removing any possibility of them eating from it.
But God did none of these things, a fact that implies two crucial points: first, Adam and Eve were free moral beings, capable of choosing right and wrong. Second, the tree was a test to see whether these two free beings would obey God. And, as the Bible shows in Genesis 3, Adam and Eve chose in Eden, as did Lucifer in heaven, to violate the freedom inherent in love. Hence God’s perfect creation was turned into an imperfect world filled with sin, death and pain. Though kicked out of heaven, Satan established his domain on earth, becoming, as the Bible calls him, “the god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4, KJV). And the evil, suffering and havoc we’ve seen ever since are the fruits of his reign on this fallen world. No longer do we have the gift of eternal life—instead we must face the suffering and eventual death that awaits us as a result of sin, even in the present time—millennia after the original sin.
Yes, God is all-powerful and all-loving. But nothing in the idea of an all-loving, all-powerful God means that the free creatures whom He created to love Him would always love and obey Him. Freedom, true freedom, includes the potential of turning away even from God. Thankfully, God has a plan to restore our relationship and free the world of suffering and evil. This plan, which has become the centrepiece of the Christian faith pivots on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
Had God created us like the robots that humans are making now, we never would have sinned, which means that Jesus would not have needed to go to the cross to save us from the results of our sins. But so sacred, so fundamental is love to the kind of moral universe God created that, rather than create beings who could not love, Jesus, despite the risks, made us as morally free creatures who could love. And He did so even though He knew, before He created us, that we would sin and that our sin would lead Him to the cross (see Revelation 13:8). Jesus was aware of the extent of God’s plan. He knew he would be betrayed by his closest friends, experience great physical pain and eventually die—and he still chose to go ahead with this plan. This sacrifice highlights God’s character—being willing to sacrifice Himself to give us the freedom to choose to follow Him rather than force us to worship Him with a poor facsimile of love.
The cross also shows that, rather than abandoning us to the eternal destruction that sin and rebellion bring, Jesus took upon Himself the punishment—the ultimate consequences of our abuse of the freedom inherent in love. And He did this in order to give us a chance to live in a whole new existence—one that will not include the things that make life in this world as miserable as we all know it can be. “Nevertheless we, according to His promise, look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13). As the New Testament shows us, because Christ was crucified and raised from the dead, sin, evil, rebellion and suffering will forever be eradicated.
Until then we struggle with the hard questions that, even with our understanding of the freedom inherent in love, are still so painful to deal with and so hard to answer. Like Ivan in Dostoyevsky’s book, we are pained and befuddled by evil, which seems to only get worse as time progresses. But by looking to the cross and at what it teaches us about God’s love, we can find our only hope in a world that otherwise offers none.
Curious about some of the key beliefs of Christianity? Check out the other articles in our Fundamentals series to see if you can find the answers you need.
Clifford Goldstein is a contributor for Signs of the Times. Their work has been featured on the website and in the magazine.
* Unless otherwise indicated, Bible texts in this article are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used with permission.