How could a loving God allow so much evil?
All it takes is a glance at the top stories in the daily news to show us that there is an awful lot of death, destruction, pain, and suffering in our world. Perhaps God is not paying attention. Perhaps God is punishing us for our sins. Either way, it doesn’t make God look all that good.
However, much of the evil in human life is self-inflicted. Through greed, desire for power, or simply a focus on our own pleasure and well-being, we bring most of the evils in our world down upon ourselves. Unfortunately, many innocent people suffer in the process.
Why does God allow it? And is God doing anything about it?
God’s tolerance of evil has to do with preserving human freedom, and not interfering with the results of our freely made choices. God wants human beings who can choose for themselves how to live, and whether to return God’s love.
As for whether God is doing anything about it, a better question might be whether we are doing anything about it. God is continually urging us to express active love and compassion for our fellow human beings. Are we listening?
Is God paying attention?
The Apostle John says “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16).
Okay, I’ve got a question: Has God followed the news lately?
It ain’t pretty. Day after day, week after week, year after year the stories of war, disease, famine, and natural disaster roll in. One hundred thousand killed here. Fifty thousand homeless there. Hospitals overflowing with the wounded. And every day, a billion or more people are living in poverty. When we add individual crimes, accidents, injuries, disease, and loss . . . well, you get the picture.
So if God is love, why is there so much pain and suffering all around the world? How could a loving God allow so much evil to exist? Doesn’t God see what’s going on down here? Why doesn’t God do something about it?!?
Oh wait, is God mad at us?
One answer thrown about in some religious circles is that God certainly does know what’s going on down here. In fact, God is punishing us for our wickedness and sin. That’s why there’s so much pain and suffering in this world!
Perhaps some people need to believe this to keep themselves on the strait and narrow. For many people, if there were no fear that God would punish them for their wrongdoing, it would be open season. They’d run wild! So in the sacred literature of the world, including in the Bible, God is presented as angry and wrathful, vengeful and punishing against all who violate divine law.
Many parents have had the experience of seeing their child do something wrong, thinking it’s funny, but suppressing the laughter and putting on a stern face so as not to encourage the child to do it more. God is not laughing at the pain and suffering in our world, or at our wrongdoing. But God is a very good parent, and is quite capable of putting on a stern face if that’s what is necessary to get us to straighten up and fly right. As Psalm 18:25–27 describes God:
With the loyal you show yourself loyal;
With the blameless you show yourself blameless;
With the pure you show yourself pure;
And with the crooked you show yourself twisted.
For you deliver a humble people,
But the arrogant eyes you bring down.
“With the crooked you show yourself twisted.” It’s not that God is twisted. It’s that when we oppose God’s will, God appears to us to have a twisted, wrathful face.
Though our pain and punishment often seems to come from God, the Bible provides a more accurate picture when it tells us that “evil will slay the wicked” (Psalm 34:21). It is not God, but the influence of evil that brings about the human suffering in our world. Though natural disasters do sometimes cause death tolls in the hundreds of thousands or even in the millions, most of the really big death tolls in history, running into tens of millions, have been due to human greed and lust for power, which have caused war, oppression, poverty, squalor, and rampant disease.
Yes, but couldn’t God have designed things better?
Okay, okay, we still haven’t dealt with the basic question: Why does God allow evil in the first place? Couldn’t God have designed a universe in which evil does not exist, and everyone is happy?
Quite frankly, many people would be bored in a world with no evil. Like the shadows in a painting, the darkness of evil provides the contrast in which the light of love and truth can shine more brightly. Evil also provides something for us to struggle with and develop our psychological and spiritual strength.
But the more critical reason for evil is that without the possibility of evil in human life, we would not even be human.
Fundamental to our humanity is our freedom to choose how we will live and whom we will associate with and love. Also fundamental is our rationality to understand and evaluate various choices for ourselves. And from a spiritual perspective, our most basic choice is whether or not to love God and live according to God’s laws and God’s wisdom.
Here’s the problem: If everything good and true is from God, and good is the only possible choice, we would not be free in our relationship with God. God had to allow for evil so that we would be able to exercise freedom and rationality in making real choices about whether or not we will live in loving relationship with God and with our fellow human beings.
It’s like a marriage relationship: if we can’t choose who we will love and marry, how real and deep will that marriage be? God does not want programmed robots who automatically say “I love you.” God wants human companions who freely choose to return God’s love. And that means allowing us not to return God’s love if we so desire. Evil comes when we humans choose to reject God by living contrary to God’s laws, both natural and spiritual.
Still, life really isn’t fair, is it?
That may all be well and good, but couldn’t God have toned it down a bit? Why such widespread pain and suffering? And why do innocent men, women, and children have to suffer along with the guilty? It’s not fair!
From an earthly standpoint, that’s quite true. It is not fair. All too often greedy, power-hungry people live out their lives in luxury while millions of good-hearted ordinary people suffer hardship and poverty. How many people have truly received justice by the time they die? And how many people really deserved to die the way they did?
Though there may be some long-term justice as human wrongs are gradually overcome and corruption is gradually rooted out, for most individual human beings true justice can prevail only if life continues beyond the grave.
And if God does exist, then not only is it quite possible, but very likely that life continues beyond death. That is what most of the world’s religions teach. And if life continues beyond the unfairness and injustice of this earthly life, then there is an opportunity to even the scales and provide justice for those who did not receive it during their lives here on earth.
Why do innocent people have to die?
No caring person likes to see innocent people, especially children, dying from hunger, sickness, war, and poverty. But before taking up the issue of the suffering of innocent people, let’s look at death itself.
From an earthly standpoint, death is the ultimate disaster. It is the end of our life. And if there is no afterlife, there is nothing more for us. Our candle is snuffed out.
But from a spiritual standpoint, death is simply a transition from one life to the next.
Ever since humanity first came to exist on this earth, the death rate has remained a constant 100%. Every single person born on this earth eventually dies. Some die in infancy, some in childhood, some in their adult years, and some in their old age. But we all do die.
From a spiritual standpoint, however, not a single person has ever died. For those who believe in the human spirit, that is what a human being truly is: a spiritual being. And our spirit continues right on living after our body dies.
In fact, for those who die, life generally gets better! Yes, some sorry souls have chosen a dark and destructive life. But for many if not most, the suffering and struggle of this life will be at an end, and life will continue in a much brighter, more beautiful, and more joyous place. Death is a blessing for those who die.
Okay, what about the people who are still suffering?
So maybe there is pie in the sky when you die. But how does that help with all the pain and suffering that’s still happening right here on earth?
Knowing that a happier fate awaits the innocent who suffer here on earth can help us to have some sense that God is a just God. But it’s still awfully hard to see so many people hurting, and so many wrongs being done. We’re back to our original question, aren’t we? If God is so loving, why does there have to be so much evil in the world? Why do so many people have to get hurt?
These are questions we humans will be asking ourselves until the end of time. I don’t claim to have all the answers. That’s God’s department. But here are some thoughts that might help as we humans struggle with these questions together.
Where would we be without pain and suffering?
Let’s be honest. We humans prefer to take the easy way out. If life were handed to us on a silver platter, it would be awfully tempting just to kick back, take it easy, and coast through life. Without challenge, struggle, and resistance, not only our physical muscles, but our emotional and spiritual muscles get flabby and weak. We become mere consumers instead of being active, productive, loving, and growing human beings.
The real battle is against our own greed, self-centeredness, and desire to have others serve us while we live a life of ease and luxury. Many low-income people think that if they just won the lottery, everything would be great! But very often those who win big money in the lottery end out in even worse shape than before. Ease and easy money do not develop us into our best selves.
It is precisely in the struggle against our own evils and the evils of the world around us that we build strength, endurance, and character as human beings. It is precisely in putting out the effort required to make our own lives better, and the world a better place, that we can develop depth, compassion, and a truly spiritual outlook on life.
Whose job is it to fix the evil in our world?
All this time we’ve been assuming that the evil in this world is God’s problem. And of course it is. Everything is God’s problem.
But who causes most of the evil in our world? The worst disasters are caused by human greed and selfishness. Even the high death tolls in many natural disasters are caused by shoddy buildings and poor land management on the part of humans out for a quick buck.
God does want to alleviate the pain and suffering in our world. And God does have a plan for accomplishing that. But God will not artificially intervene in human affairs and destroy our human freedom in the process. God will not take away the results of our own wrong ways of thinking, feeling, and living.
Instead, God’s plan is to work from within. God is continually working in every human heart, attempting to soften and warm us from within. God is continually working to build compassion and understanding in each one of us so that as we see the pain and suffering in our world, we will roll up our sleeves and take on the job of cleaning up the mess that we’ve made of God’s creation.
And here’s the beautiful thing about it: in the very act of working to overcome war and poverty, disease and hunger, crime and injustice, we become the intelligent, practical, compassionate people that God needs in order to turn this world around.
Yes, God is paying attention. And no, God is not angry at us. Rather, God is continually prodding and pressing us to use all our God-given abilities of intelligence, love, practicality, and compassion to overcome the evil in our world, and bring joy and happiness to our fellow human beings.
This article is © 2013 by Lee Woofenden