Why Does God Allow Evil and Suffering in the World?/Program 2

By: Dr. Norman Geisler; ©2003
Why doesn’t God intervene and stop all evil now?



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.

Ankerberg: Welcome. We’re talking about the problem of evil. I can remember sitting at the bedside of my mother who was dying with Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and I was thinking, “If God is all loving and all powerful, why is it that He doesn’t help my mother?” And maybe you’re gone through an experience like that. Maybe you’ve had a tragedy that has taken place in your family, the death of a loved one. Maybe you, right now, are suffering with cancer, or a heart attack or something that was a surprise to you. If God is all loving, how do you continue to believe in Him if the problems of our world do not straighten out? Why doesn’t God intervene and stop it all?
My guest that’s going to help us to discover and explain the biblical and philosophical answers is philosopher and theologian, my good friend, Dr. Norman Geisler. And Norman, I had you as guest when we had a debate with Rabbi Harold Kushner, the man who wrote the best-selling book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. And at that time he was telling us about his 12-year-old son that died of a terrible disease, and it caused him to re-think what he believed about God. And he had to give up, he felt, one of the attributes of God. He held onto “God is all loving,” but he gave up the fact that God is all powerful. God is so loving He’d like to get involved, but He just can’t help defeat evil in certain cases, so we’ve got to help Him. So he’s taking that view and you were telling him why he didn’t have to hold that view. But since that time, you have also experienced the death of one of your children, one of your daughters. And when you go through a tragedy like that, you really start to re-think all of your views. You test them.
And people that are listening right now, they probably want to ask you and say, “When you went through that and you went back on the very things that you’re explaining to us, did it work for you? Does it still make sense? Was it helpful for you?” Is this something that really is what people need to latch onto?
Geisler: I remember that very well, John. I remember saying to Rabbi Kushner, “I empathize with you. I sympathize with you. But you know, your God is not the kind of God that can give you any ultimate comfort in this because you are not even sure you’ll see your son again because you didn’t even believe that he would live on after death for sure.” And I said, “Your God is not all powerful and He can’t bring good out of evil. So the kind of God you need is the kind of God who is in the Bible, who is all powerful and all good and all knowing and can do something for your situation.” Never knowing, at the time, that I would go through things that probably are as equally difficult or worse than Rabbi Kushner did. Since that time, in 18 months we lost a father, a mother, a sister, a brother-in-law, and our two closest friends. And I had been a pastor for years and I had comforted people in their sorrow and in their suffering, but I wasn’t ready for the biggest evil that ever hit me; when our daughter died a tragic death just two years ago. And it’s just something, John, that you have to experience to understand. It’s like a hundred-foot tall tidal wave coming at you and you know you can’t swim.
And I had to cast myself on the grace of God and trust that what I believed was really true: “My grace is sufficient for you,” the apostle Paul said in 2 Corinthians 12:9. And I would wake up at night singing songs on the attributes of God – “God is light; God is good; God is eternal; God is gracious. It is well with my soul. Peace like a river.” All these great hymns of the faith that talk about the attributes of God were the only comfort I had, because everything human had evaporated. The best things around me – father, mother, brother, sisters and now, daughter .
That tragedy was so great in our lives that we tested the grace of God. We tested the character of God. And we found Him to be faithful, absolutely unimaginably faithful to us. And the grace of God brought us through that difficult circumstance, only because I knew that God was all loving and He had a good purpose for it. He was all powerful and He was going to bring something greater out of it. And I was going to see my mother, my father, my sister, brother, daughter, again someday in Heaven because He could resurrect the dead and is going to resurrect them. And that was the strength that kept us going and we made it through that very difficult circumstance.
Ankerberg: Yeah. I was so moved when I heard that and when I talked with you. One thing among the many things that stood out in my mind is when you said, “You know, John, I kind of re-thought, went over all the stuff that I’ve been teaching all of these years. And I found out it’s true.” And boy, that really stuck in my mind. But now, let me come back with that in mind, that on the table. Why did God allow it to happen, and why doesn’t God stop that kind of stuff from happening because He is all powerful and He does care? Let’s start with: Where did this evil originate? Why do we have the kind of world that we have? What was in God’s mind?
Geisler: Before I answer that, I want to say one other thing, John. I had a friend who lost her daughter. A farm machine sucked her into the instrument and she was killed and left four children behind. And she sent us an encouraging card when we lost our daughter. She said, “In the end, there are only three things that help: God, prayer and friends.” And that’s so important in these times of suffering. And I had friends like you and Josh McDowell and Hank Hanegraff and some of the top Christian leaders in the world who had left little phone messages, because I wasn’t home, I was out doing funeral arrangement. And the most encouraging things that I heard can be summed up in these four words: “I love you.” “I’m praying for you.” “I’m grieving with you.” And “it’s not your fault.” And I want to thank you because you’re the only one, out of all the people, who said all four of those things to me on that phone message and that’s really encouraging.
Ankerberg: I appreciate your saying that. But let’s go back, because I’m thinking of all the people that are listening to us that are now empathizing. They’ve got the same kind of problem, but they don’t have the knowledge that you have about our wonderful God. And for people that are just joining us this week and they missed last week, where did this problem originate? Why Do We Have Evil in the World?
Geisler: Well, God created good creatures. He gave them a good thing called free will, and free will brought bad things into this world, namely, rebellion against God. Freedom is good in itself, but it has the possibility of evil. God created us with the possibility for evil, which is called free will; we made the actuality of evil. God is responsible for the fact of freedom; we’re responsible for the acts of freedom – and we blew it. Lucifer blew it; Adam blew it, and we’ve blown it ever since then. That’s how it got here.
Ankerberg: When people get mad at God, should they be?
Geisler: No. They should be mad at themselves. They should be mad at themselves because they made the choice. They made their bed and they’re going to have to lie in it. They chose, and they’re living with the consequences of their freedom. If somebody jumps off a cliff to commit suicide, he shouldn’t be mad at God when he hits the bottom. He made the choice.
Ankerberg: Okay. But God was the One with all power and He’s the Creator, and He made it, plus He had the knowledge that this thing was going to get screwed up in the end, okay? Now, the fact is, knowing the sin and the problems, knowing the death of your daughter, 9/11, all kinds of events like that; there was something in God’s thinking that said, “I will allow that to happen.” What was the purpose in His mind at that point?
Geisler: I can be summarized in three verses from the Bible: In Genesis 26, He said, “Do not go down into Egypt.” Egypt was the place of unbelief and sin. In Genesis 46, He said, “Go now down to Egypt.” In Hosea 11, He said, “Out of Egypt I have brought my son.”
God’s perfect will is “Don’t sin.” His permissive will is, “Okay. I’ll let you sin.” His providential will is, “Out of sin I’m going to bring a greater good.” “You meant it for evil, God meant it for good,” Joseph said. [Gen. 50:20] So, God allowed evil because He knew He could bring a greater good. No pain, no gain’ no tribulation, no patience; don’t allow sin, can’t achieve forgiveness.
Ankerberg: Yeah. People have taken different options when they’ve faced evil, okay? Let me give you a couple of syllogisms and you explain what’s behind these things. Some critics will say, you know, either “God is not all loving, God is not powerful enough to defeat evil,” or “evil shows that God doesn’t exist at all.” It’s not a syllogism, those are just statements that people make and there’s something behind each one of those. The first one, “God is not all loving.”
Geisler: Yeah, the syllogism is just a little logical way to put together the dilemma. The dilemma is this: If God is all powerful, He could destroy evil. If He’s all good, He would destroy. But evil hasn’t been destroyed. It’s still here. Look in the newspaper. Look at the TV. Look in the mirror. Then, how can we have an all-powerful and all-good God? And the problem with that way of putting it is that they forget that the middle, the second premise as it’s called in the syllogism, is that evil is still here, but what they should say is: “Evil has not yet been destroyed or defeated,” because God may yet defeat it tomorrow. So they have to re-phrase it and say, “If He’s all powerful, He could; if He is all good, He would; evil has not yet been defeated, therefore, it will never be.” But, how do you know that? Unless you’re God, you can’t know everything. So, they have to pretend they’re God, know everything, in order to know it won’t work. And if they back off and say, “Well, evil is not yet defeated and I can’t tell you whether it ever will be,” then we say to them, “Hang on. It’s coming. If He’s all knowing, He knows the end from the beginning. If He’s all powerful, He can bring a greater good. If He’s all good, He wants to do it. So, if He wants to do it, and He can do it, and He knows the end and He knows it’s going to be done, then just hang on. It’s coming.”
Ankerberg: All of us who believe in God have to come to grips with, “Why is there so much evil, suffering and pain in the world?” When my mom was dying of Lou Gehrig’s, one Christmas she gave all the kids, and to me, as her son, she gave us a diary of what was going on in her mind, and what she was thinking, and how God was helping her. It wiped us out! But boy, to see her suffer during that year and a half, just really cruel; really cruel; dehumanizing. Alright? And it centers right on where we’re at – if God is all loving, He loves us. He doesn’t want that kind of thing for us. But He has permitted it, okay? But He also has the power to stop it anytime He wants to. People want to know, “Why is it that He hasn’t stopped it? Why doesn’t He stop it right now if He’s got the power to do so?”
Geisler: Well, we could stop an operation right in the middle, too, and say, “This is too painful,” but it would be the wrong time to stop it, wouldn’t it? We could stop the dentist right in the middle of the procedure but it would be the wrong time. He’s got to get the abscessed tooth out. And God knows the right time, and He knows how much tribulation is going to work patience and how much pain is necessary to produce the greater good in our life. If He is all knowing, He knows the right amount and the right time. If He’s all good, He’ll give His goodness in producing that greater good in our life. So, while we think that it’s too long, and we cry out, “How long, how long, O Lord?,” as Isaiah said, [Isa. 6:11] He knows exactly how much is needed in our life to achieve what He is trying to get.
Ankerberg: Atheists hook on to your syllogism and they use it this way. Okay? “If God is all good” – and we say that He is – “He would defeat evil.” “If God is all powerful, He could defeat evil.” But then they say, “But evil never will be defeated.” In other words, it’s going to go on just the way it is here, “therefore, no such God exists.” You’re all pipe-dreaming here.
Geisler: Yeah, well, that’s exactly what they’re doing because they don’t know the end from the beginning as the God of Isaiah does. They don’t know how things are going to turn out, and God does. So God who knows everything, and God who is all good, permits this, knowing exactly how much it will take to achieve His greater good in the end. And He knows the end from the beginning, and He knows it’s going to turn out well because He has planned it that way; that He would permit evil to achieve the greater good. He would permit pain to produce the ultimate pleasure. He would let us go through the wilderness in order that we can get to the Promised Land. And, of course, when we get to the Promised Land and we look back on it, we’re going to say what Paul did in 2 Corinthians 4:17: “This light affliction, which is but for a moment, worked for us a far more exceedingly greater weight of glory.”
Ankerberg: Yeah. I think that for the atheist who says that, you have a great note in your book: “There’s no way for the atheist to know evil never will be defeated unless he is God Himself.”
Geisler: Yeah. He’d have to be omniscient. He’d have to know everything in order to know that it’s never going to turn out well.
Ankerberg: But let’s come back to the guy who is in his bed and he’s sick, and he is suffering, like my mom. Okay? He’s in it right now. Okay? What is the basis, what are the hooks that he can grab onto that say, “I can hope that it will be defeated someday up ahead”?
Geisler: I think it was about 1958. I was listening to Paul Harvey one day. He said he went into a hospital to visit a young man dying of cancer. He went in to comfort him and he came out comforted because the young man looked at him and said, “Paul, I don’t believe that the Divine Architect of the universe ever builds a staircase that leads to nowhere.” If you know you have a Divine Architect, and He knows everything and He’s all good, you can be absolutely sure that it’s leading somewhere.
I’ve been in that kind of bed. I’ve been there, lying on my back, dying of hepatitis – couldn’t raise my hand. My wife and church were praying for me. Somebody gave me a poem I’ll never forget. It was called Overheard in an Orchard.
It said,
Said the robin to the sparrow,
“I would really like to know
Why these anxious human beings
rush about and worry so.”
Said the sparrow to the robin,
“Friend, I think that it must be
That they have no Heavenly Father
such as cares for you and me.”
[Elizabeth Cheney]
That’s the answer.
Ankerberg: That’s powerful. There’s an important definition, couple of definitions that you give in your books. It has to do with the words destroying evil and defeating evil. What’s the difference? What’s the importance here?
Geisler: Well, let’s take the little logical statement: If God is all powerful, He can destroy evil. If He is all good, He would destroy evil. Evil is not destroyed, therefore there is no such God. But the truth of the matter is, God cannot destroy evil without destroying the greater good, because freedom is what makes the good possible and the only way He can totally destroy evil is to destroy freedom. For example, God could every time somebody picked up a gun to shoot someone else, He could destroy the gun right in his hand. Every time somebody took a knife to stab someone else, He could turn the knife into butter. You know? Or every time somebody put a noose around somebody’s neck, He could turn it into a noodle. But, if He did that, He would also be destroying their freedom.
Remember Madelyn Murray O’Hair? I know we don’t have anyone like her anymore but, anyway, God could have stopped a lot of evil when she was running around the country mouthing off about God. All He had to do was stuff her mouth full of cotton. But if He had done that, then she wouldn’t be free, would she? Or every time she lifted her fountain pen to write an atheist book, He could have exploded the fountain pen in her hand. Then she wouldn’t be free to express. Or God could have given her an Excedrin Headache #2 every time she thought an atheistic thought. Then she wouldn’t have been free to think. God made us free to think, free to choose, free to express ourselves, and the only way to destroy all evil is to destroy all freedom. But then you’ve destroyed the possibility of the greater good.
So, destroy is not the word. Defeat is the right word. Can God defeat evil without destroying freedom? The answer is, “Yes.” And here’s how He does it: He gives everybody their free choice. “Do you want to follow Me forever, or do you want to go your own way forever?” As C. S. Lewis said in The Great Divorce, there are only two kinds of people in the end. One says, “Thy will be done, Oh God.” The other one, God says to them, “Thy will be done.” That’s an awesome choice, right? He gives everybody their choice, and then He allows everyone to have their choice forever. Jean Paul Sartre wrote a play called No Exit, and the irony of the twentieth century, the last century, is that the greatest insights into hell came from atheists. Nietzsche said that “I would rather will nothingness than not to will at all” in On the Genealogy of Morals. Jean Paul Sartre said in his play No Exit, “The door of hell opened and they were all given a chance to leave, and nobody left.” Why? They’re all condemned to their own freedom. They chose to be there. The door of hell is locked on the inside.
So, the way God defeats evil without destroying freedom is He allows everybody to make their choice and then He says to them, “You’ve got it!” Do you remember Milton’s Paradise Lost? Satan said, “I would rather reign in hell than serve in heaven!” to which I respond, “God says ‘You’ve got it! You’ve got it!’”
Ankerberg: Yeah. I think that separating good from evil forever, according to what man chooses, of not bullying men and saying, “Because I’m God, I’m going to force you to think my way,” but of actually going way beyond that and saying, “I’m going to give you dignity and a real choice.” And also, He has made it possible for us to be forgiven. It’s already been done and it’s sitting there waiting for us, that we can have this relationship with God forever, but He won’t force us into it. I think it’s absolutely astonishing when you realize that’s the case!
Geisler: It is. And Jesus is the perfect example. Matthew 23. He’s weeping, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem…! How oft I would have gathered you together, as a mother hen gathers her chicks, but you were not willing.” [Matt. 23:37] God will not force us into the fold. There’s no Divine arm-twisting. God is a loving Father. He works persuasively but not coercively. The young man said to a young lady, “I love you. I want you to marry me.” And she said, “No.” And he said, “I love you so much, I’m going to force you to love me.” You say, “Wait a minute. Forced love is not love. Forced love is rape.” And God is not a divine rapist. He will not force anyone to love Him. That’s why there has to be a hell. Not just because He is just and must punish sin, but because He is loving and can’t force free creatures against their freedom because forced freedom is a contradiction in terms.
Ankerberg: Give a word of encouragement to the person that is without hope right now. Maybe because of circumstances, maybe just because they’ve never thought about God this way. Talk about the loving God and the possibility of knowing Him in a personal relationship and what they have to do to have it right now.
Geisler: “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son.” [John 3:16] He just doesn’t love some people, He loves all people. God loves you. He sent His Son to die for you. He has paid the penalty for your sin. He doesn’t want you to suffer, and He’s got a place where there will be no suffering, no sin, no death, no sorrow – forever. If that’s not hope, what is hope!
Ankerberg: So much more, and I’m sure there are so many more questions that are coming up in your mind. Join us next week. We’re just getting started, again, in a series of programs that are dealing with the topics surrounding the problem of evil. And next week, a humdinger: why does God allow suffering? And how come physical evils, such as earthquakes and tornadoes and cancer, how can they be explained in the scenario that we’re talking about? Okay? So important. I hope that you’ll join us.


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