Why Does God Allow Evil and Suffering in the World?/Program 1

By: Dr. Norman Geisler; ©2003
If God is all good, all powerful, and all knowing, why is there evil in the world? In answering this, we must answer three other questions, namely: 1.) What is the nature of evil? 2.) What is the origin of evil? 3.) Why the persistence of evil?



Today on the John Ankerberg Show, why does God allow evil and suffering in the world? If you’ve ever sat by the bedside of a loved one and watched them die from some terrible disease, or you’ve lived through an earthquake, hurricane, or tornado, then you’ve probably asked, “How could God let this happen? Isn’t He supposed to be all loving and all powerful? How can there be any good purpose behind all of this? And if there is, what is it?

To help us understand the biblical and philosophical answers regarding evil, my guest today is Dr. Norman Geisler, philosopher, theologian and president of Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina. Dr. Geisler is the author of more than 50 books, and is considered by many to be the greatest living Christian apologist. As Americans think back on the events of 9/11, many still ask, “Why did God allow such horrible suffering and death to happen to thousands of innocent people?” We invite you to hear this important topic that touches every one of us.

Dr. John Ankerberg: Welcome. We’re talking about the problem of evil. This is a problem that faces all of us. As we come up on the anniversary of September 11, I can’t help but think of people that went to work in the Twin Towers and the Pentagon and they never realized that at the end of the day, they’d be jumping out of skyscrapers; they would be crushed; they’d be burned; planes would fall on them. And you say, “How in the world could God – if He’s all loving, all-powerful – how could He let something that terrible happen?” Well, it did happen. And to help us put a handle on it, to try to come up with answers from a biblical perspective about a God who is all loving, who is all powerful and does know everything, what’s going on? We call this “the problem of evil.” And our guest is Dr. Norman Geisler, president of Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina. Norm, I’m glad that you’re here. Frame the problem of evil. What is it that we as Christians are facing? What do we have to contemplate when we look at evil in the world?
Dr. Norman Geisler: Well, the first thing is, we have to decide whether or not it is real. And there are three basic views. The pantheist says God exists but evil is not real; the atheist says evil is real but God doesn’t exist. Our problem is, we believe God exists and evil is real. So that’s the problem.
Ankerberg: Yes, and if it is real, people say, “Why doesn’t God do something about it?”
Geisler: That’s exactly right. Because if He is all powerful, it seems like He could do something about it. And if He is all good, [it] seems like He would do something about it. But it doesn’t look like He is doing anything about it, so how can we have that kind of God?
Ankerberg: Yeah. And this discussion that we’re having is not just an intellectual one. I mean, it’s an emotional thing because everybody that’s watching has been faced or touched with this problem. You’ve been touched with it as well. You were close to 9/11 yourself. You were up in New York, weren’t you?
Geisler: Yes, I was. I was speaking to a Chinese group the week before, and I asked them a week or so after it happened, “Were any of your people in the Tower” – because I knew some of them worked there – and they said, “Well, our whole church was out to a restaurant the night before and we all got food poisoning and no one went to work that day. So, that tells me that there is a God and He is watching over His own.
Ankerberg: Alright, let’s try to get a handle on this thing. If God is all good and He is all powerful and He is all loving, when He created, He would only create something good, okay? And we’re saying that evil is real. Did God create evil?
Geisler:That’s a good question. If God created everything and evil is something, it would look like God created evil. So we’re in a painful dilemma. If we deny the first premise – that God created everything – then we’re not really Christians, we’re dualists that believe good and evil are eternal or something. If we deny the second premise, it would look like we’re pantheists – that we don’t believe that evil is real. So, the dilemma is real for a Christian. If God created everything and evil is something, then God created evil. But the Bible says God cannot even look on evil (Hab. 1:13), He is so pure. “Holy, holy, holy,” the angel sings. [Rev. 4:8] So what do we do?
Ankerberg: Alright. Well, that is the question. How do you handle it?
Geisler: Well, St. Augustine struggled with this way back in the 400s. He was a part of a Manichean cult where they believed that evil and good were both eternal. And he struggled with it until he came to the conclusion that evil is a privation, it’s a lack in something. Evil doesn’t exist in itself. It’s like a parasite – it exists in something else. For example, evil is like rust to a car. You have to have iron to have rust. So you have to have something good for evil to exist in it. It’s like a wound in an arm. You can’t have a wound unless you have an arm or a leg or something to have a wound in. Evil is like rot to a tree. You have to have a tree before it can have rot in it.
So, evil doesn’t exist in itself. It only exists in something else. So the answer is God created everything and everything He created was good. And so God created every good thing, but evil came and corrupted those good things. He didn’t create the corruption. He created the uncorrupted thing that the corruption later came to.
Ankerberg: Yeah. Let’s slow that down for people, because let’s say that in one sense we’re saying that evil is real, but it’s not a thing. So that’s hard for them to get a handle on. And let’s slow that down. The fact is, when God made a perfect man, okay, He also gave him choice. And this is where the possibility comes in for evil taking place. Take it from there.
Geisler: Yeah. I think the first thing we need to say, John, is that a privation is the lack in something. It’s an absence of something that ought to be there. It’s not “nothing” – it’s real. For example, it’s real to be blind, but blindness is a privation of sight; it’s a lack of sight. It’s real to be maimed. Tie your arm behind your back and walk around for a day and you’ll say, “That’s a real handicap.” Or close your eyes and walk around for a day and you’ll say blindness is real. So, evil is real, but it’s a real lack in something that ought to be there. Then the question is, “Well, how did that lack get there?” And that answer is, I think, free choice. God made us free creatures. Freedom makes evil possible. God made us perfectly good. He made us with the capacity to choose. We are the ones who brought evil in.
Ankerberg: Yeah. I like going back to the privation, the lack. You used the word parasite. And I think that helps us. You also have an illustration where you talk about, you know, a blind man and a rock. Both can’t see, but the blindness in the man, he’s lacking something that should be there, okay? The rock doesn’t have it but it shouldn’t be there. So the fact is that this thing that should be there, which is lacking, that’s the privation. And that’s what you’re saying this evil is: that you had a perfectly good creature. All the stuff that should be there was there, okay? But then, this deal called free choice, man made a choice and it affected him metaphysically, his being, by that choice. Now, let’s talk about that choice, because people mess up here. Talk about that choice a moment.
Geisler: Well, freedom means that you could have done otherwise. You have the ability to love God or not love God. You have the ability to choose to go God’s way or go your way. If you’re not free, you’re a robot. You know, God wasn’t pulling puppet strings; we’re not puppets that He made, we’re persons. And persons are subjects – they’re “I’s,” they’re individuals. They can make choices of their own for which they are responsible. So, God made us like Himself in that He is a moral being, we’re moral beings. He is a free being, we’re free beings. And we made our free choice. Now, you can’t be free to love God if you’re not free to hate God. You can’t be free to worship God if you’re not free to blaspheme God. So, inherent in the very nature of making a free creature, which God did, is this possibility of evil. But the possibility of evil is not an evil; the possibility of evil is freedom and freedom is a good thing.
Ankerberg: Yeah. I mean, you’re so good at just spouting these syllogisms but I had a non-Christian professor spring this same kind of syllogism on me, and I want to roll through it and I want you to unscramble it. okay? Same thing you said, just in other words. “God is absolutely perfect.” We all agree about that. “God cannot create anything imperfect.” We all agree with that one. “And a perfect creature,” he said, “cannot do evil.” We don’t agree with that and you’ve got to tell us why in a moment. “And therefore evil,” he said, “cannot arise in such a world. But evil did arise.” I mean, look around. It’s here, okay? “Evil did arise in the world, hence, either a.) God is not absolutely perfect; or b.) God did not create a perfect creature, okay? And those are false because, premise c.) a perfect creature cannot do evil, that’s not right. Why?
Geisler: It’s not right because one of the perfections that God gave His creatures was free choice. Free choice is good. I’ve never seen anyone marching against freedom, you know, carrying a sign saying, “Down with freedom. Back to bondage. I want to do everything my mother ever told me.” Nobody ever marches against freedom. In fact, if you did march against freedom, you would be marching for it because you would be using your freedom to march against freedom. So, even an act against freedom is an act of freedom. So you can’t deny that freedom is good. Even the people who say, “I don’t think it’s good to be free,” ask them, “Do you think it was good that you could say that?” They believe it’s good to be free. So, freedom is a good, but freedom makes evil possible. A perfect being who has a perfect thing called free will can bring evil into the universe, and in fact, did. His name was Lucifer. And the next one was named Adam.
Ankerberg: Alright, there’s a couple of questions right there. But let’s start with the statement you made in your book: “God made evil possible via free will,” which is good, okay? “But free creatures made evil actual.” Alright, the question is, if a free creature is perfect, what’s even motivating him to choose evil, because there’s nothing in him to start with that is evil because he was made perfect?
Geisler: That’s a good question. It’s like asking who made God. No one made God. He was always there. What caused Lucifer to sin? No one caused him to sin. He was the cause of it. So you can’t ask, “What’s the cause of God,” since He’s the first cause; and you can’t ask, “What caused Lucifer to sin” because he was the first cause. So it’s what we call a category mistake. It’s like asking, “Where was the man when he jumped off the bridge?” You say, “He was in the air.” No. That was after he jumped. You say, “He was on the bridge.” No, that was before he jumped. Where was he when he jumped off the bridge? See, it’s a category mistake because jumping is a process. You see, you can’t ask a pinpoint location of a process activity, and you can’t ask, “Who made the one who made it,” because the one who made it is the one who caused it. And Lucifer caused the first sin; Adam caused the first sin among human beings, and so their free will was the first cause of sin, and there is no cause of the first cause.
Ankerberg: Yeah. I think that the hairy aspect of this, the important aspect, if I could put it that way, is that freedom all of a sudden comes with a ton of responsibility. Because what we’re saying is that God gave us freedom, which is a good thing. But boy, I’ll tell you, if you misuse that freedom – which we have done – the consequences are off the charts. Talk about some of the consequences that came, and maybe run through the choices. In other words, in Adam, the first man – how did this free creature who was perfect,… You know, Augustine had a kind of neat way of talking about it. Run through that for the people. Keep it slow so we can understand here.
Geisler: Well, basically, they had two choices: they could either go their way or God’s way. God freely created them and He gave them freedom. Now, if they really have freedom, they can love Him or hate Him. They can worship Him or blaspheme Him. So, what was the first sin? The first sin was the choice to choose the lesser good of my will over the greater good of God’s will. So, it wasn’t a choice of evil, it was an evil choice. There was no evil to choose because there was God and all His perfect creatures. There was no evil in the environment. There was no evil around them. There was no evil within them. So what their choice was was the choice to go their way rather than God’s way, to will the lesser good of the creature over the greater good of the Creator. That’s how evil entered the world: when a good creature, using a good thing called free will, willed a lesser good over the greater good. It’s called pride.
Ankerberg: I’m impressed with the fact that when God gave man free choice – whether or not he wanted to serve that God, to love that God, to be in fellowship with that God – he chose to go the other way. And I’m impressed, I guess, with the consequences, the bigness of that decision. Talk about those consequences of violating free choice.
Geisler: Well, the consequences are very simple: you can either go the right way or the wrong way. You can will the good of the creature over that of the Creator and end up in misery and ultimately in hell. Or you can will the good of the Creator over that of the creature and end up in Heaven. Remember C. S. Lewis’ famous line: “There are only two kinds of people in the end – those that say, ‘Thy will be done, Oh God,’ and they end up in heaven, and those God says to them, ‘Thy will be done,’ and they end up in hell.” So those are pretty serious consequences. And we can talk about physical and social consequences, but the eternal consequences are far greater. Are you going to live in harmony with the Creator? Or are you going to live in eternal rebellion against the Creator?
Ankerberg: We’re actually trying to defend God’s reputation in this program in examining the problem of evil, right?
Geisler: That’s right. It’s called theodicy, which means how can we justify God in the light of the problem of evil?
Ankerberg: Yeah. I mean, every time something bad happens in the world, it’s very interesting that people say, “That shouldn’t happen.” And that would imply there ought to be somebody there taking care of it. There ought to be an ultimate standard. There ought to be God, okay? Talk a little bit about that.
Geisler: Well, first of all, I think the thing to point out in this whole issue, John, is that the problem of evil boomerangs for the unbeliever. It boomerangs because they like to say there’s evil, therefore there can’t be a God. Just the opposite is true. If there’s evil, there must be a God because you can’t know something is wrong unless you know what’s right. You can’t know something is unjust unless you know what just is. And you can’t certainly know that something is ultimately unjust unless there’s an ultimate standard of justice, that God is the ultimate standard of justice. So you have to posit God to attack God, arguing in a circle.
Ankerberg: Yeah. Define the God that we’re talking about, that we’re defending.
Geisler: We’re talking about a God who is all powerful; who is all good; who is free; who is all knowing. That’s called a theistic God, the God of the Bible. That kind of God is not only a problem in the face of evil, but it turns out He’s the only solution to the problem of evil.
Ankerberg: Why is He the solution and also the guarantee that evil is going to be taken care of?
Geisler: Because if He is not all powerful, you can’t be sure that He’ll overpower it; if He’s not all good, you can’t be sure that He has the desire to do it; and if He doesn’t know the end from the beginning, then you’re dealing with somebody who is fumbling along in history and doesn’t know how it’s going to come out.
Ankerberg: Okay. But even in talking about the attributes of God, that’s one of the things we ought to talk about because here’s the question: God freely decided, He chose, to create this world. And He, because He does have all knowledge, He knew in advance it would turn against Him and would bring upon itself and others untold human misery and woe, the stuff that we don’t like. He knew that in advance before He created. People say, “Then why did He create?” There’s got to be a really good reason here, Norman.
Geisler: No pain, no gain. God knew in advance that evil would come. He also knew in advance that He could bring a greater good out of it. You remember what Joseph said to his brothers in Genesis 50:20: “You meant it for evil; God meant it for good.” And they were saved as a result of that tragedy. God permits evil in order to produce a greater good.
Ankerberg: For the guy that’s on his hospital bed, that has had an accident, or has just found out he’s got cancer, to say “no pain, no gain,” doesn’t take him very far. What else can you say to him?
Geisler: Well, you say to him, “No suffering seems good for the present.” [Heb. 12:11] You could say to him 2 Corinthians 4:17: “Our light affliction, which is but for a moment, works for us a far more exceeding and greater weight of glory.” Of course it isn’t good. It doesn’t seem good and it feels painful. That’s the whole point. There’s no other way to accomplish it. You can’t get to the Promised Land without going through the wilderness. Christians are like tea: their real strength comes out when they get in hot water. God has to let us get in the hot water in order to produce. Because Romans 5:3 says no tribulation, no patience.
Ankerberg: Alright, frame it. What does the content that we’ve even discussed today, first of all, tell us about the God that we’re talking about?
Geisler: It tells us that He’s all good. It tells us that He’s all powerful. If He is all good, He has a good purpose for everything that happens. So if He is all powerful, He can bring a good out of evil. And He’s all knowing, so He knows where this thing is going. He’s not a Divine Architect of the Universe that builds staircases that lead to nowhere. Every staircase that looks like it is going nowhere to us is going somewhere to Him, and you can be sure of it.
Ankerberg: How is it encouraging? How is it good for us to know the nature of evil?
Geisler: All is good that ends good. All is well that ends well, we say. So if we know that it’s just temporary, if we know it has a good purpose in mind, then we can endure it a whole lot more easily than if we don’t know where it’s going and we don’t know there’s anyone who knows where it’s going.
Ankerberg: Why is it good to know that evil originated with free choice and God didn’t create it?
Geisler: Because then you know that God is absolutely good. You know that God is not evil in any sense: because if He originated evil, then He is evil.
Ankerberg: And how can a person who says, “You know, I’d like to come into a relationship with that God. I don’t even know that I could. How do you get to know Him personally? What has He made possible for us?”
Geisler: He has made possible for us the solution to evil. See, the encouraging thing is, this God is not only all powerful but He is all loving, and He is permitting this evil for a purpose. In fact, He permitted the greatest evil that has ever occurred on earth to His own Son. He permitted Him to go to the cross to die for our sins, to rise from the dead, that we can be delivered from evil. So God permitted evil to defeat evil. He permitted His Son’s suffering so that we wouldn’t have to suffer forever. He permitted evil in our lives to remind us, as Lewis said in his great book, The Problem of Pain, “Evil is God’s megaphone to arouse a morally deaf world.” And so, all these evil circumstances are to turn us to God. I was lying in the hospital in 1954 with hepatitis, looking up. That’s the only way you can look when you’re lying on your back. And believe me, God had my attention, because God shouts to us in our pain. “Pain is God’s megaphone to arouse a morally deaf world.”
Ankerberg: I sure appreciate all of this. Now, we’re just getting started. And one of the things we will get to, if God is all powerful, and we agree that He could stop evil, why doesn’t He do it right now? Why doesn’t He do it immediately? And we’re going to pick up that question next week. I hope that you’ll join us.

Read Part 2

Leave a Comment