Why Does God Allow Evil and Suffering in the World?/Program 3

By: Dr. Norman Geisler; ©2003
Why does God allow suffering? How can physical evils like tornadoes or even cancer be explained by free choice? In this program and in MP3EVL4 we explain ten reasons why God allows physical 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.

Ankerberg: Welcome to our program. Boy, do we have a program for you today! Why does God allow suffering? Is that a big enough topic for you? My guest was telling his students in a lecture on a tape that I heard – and I couldn’t believe this little story that you told. A man was out mowing his back yard. And you said a stoplight came out of the sky and killed him! So all of the kids said, “Well, where in the world did the stoplight come from?” In front of the house on the corner there was a stoplight, and a truck went through the corner, hit the stoplight and hit it so hard, it went right over the roof of the house and came down in the yard and killed him.
Now, we all have those kinds of stories. The problem is, when you believe in an all-loving, all-powerful God, who knows everything, you say, “Why does He allow stuff like that to happen?” Why do the rest of us suffer with maybe not as big as things like that, but sometimes, and we have friends that have suffered that way. I give you one other illustration.
Physical suffering takes people away from belief in God. It’s probably the biggest challenge to people who want to believe in God because it’s emotional. I mean, we can feel. We don’t have to think this one through – A, B, C, D, conclusion. This is something that we feel. I was at a social event where I met two older folks, and as kids they had both been in the Holocaust. And the man had grown up in Auschwitz and some of the other camps, and as a young child, he had watched other children cut up and killed right in front of him – so he left his belief in God. We got talking. Why such cruelty? Why such sin and suffering, pain, terrorism? Why does an all-loving God permit this? You need to help us out here in a big-time way. Why does God allow physical suffering?
Geisler: Well, there are two points I’d like to make there, John. One is made by Rabbi Kushner, strangely enough, in his book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. He interviewed a lady who had been through the Holocaust and she said, “It never occurred to me to blame God for the Holocaust. God was not the cause of this event. Wicked, sinful human beings were the cause of the event.”
Second thing is, isn’t it interesting that some people get bitter through suffering and some people get better through suffering. So there must be a key. Joni Eareckson Tada is a good example of somebody who got better through suffering. The atheist and the agnostic gets bitter. It depends on how you respond to it. If you respond to it positively, saying, “I don’t understand it completely but I believe that God is loving and He has a good purpose for this, and He’ll bring about His good purpose,” then you’ll grow through it. It will be a stepping stone. If you “charge God foolishly,” [Job 1:22] as Job’s phrase reminds us, then you’re going to get bitter because you’re charging the One in the universe who can do something about it, who loves you, who has allowed this to happen for a good purpose in your life, and you’re just going to get bitter as a result rather than better; it’s going to be a stumbling stone rather than a stepping stone.
Ankerberg: Yeah, but when you lost your daughter, as you were talking about last week, you probably were with a lot of people, that there are moments when you say, “Why?” You want to understand why, okay? And that’s what we need your help on. What went through your mind when that event happened? How did you put that in context, because it really, really hurt?
Geisler: It never occurred to me to blame God. See, if you have the proper biblical view of God going into an experience like that, it makes all the difference in the world. I knew God is loving; I knew God is all powerful; I knew God had a good purpose, even if I couldn’t figure out what the purpose was. There’s a big difference in not knowing why and knowing the One who does know why. At least I know why I don’t know why: I’m finite; I’m fallible; I don’t know everything. But I know the One who does know why. And you can get through a situation if you don’t know why, if you know the One who does know why – and you know He is the Divine Architect of the Universe, as Paul Harvey said, “who doesn’t build a staircase that leads to nowhere.” If it looks like it’s going nowhere, mark it down: it’s going somewhere and God knows where it’s going, and if you keep on the path, He’s going to show you where it leads.
Ankerberg: Alright, we’re going to talk about pain and suffering, but before we do, give us the big picture of what God intended here. What is evil? Where did it come from? Why did God permit it? Where are we going?
Geisler: The big picture is there’s an all-good God who made good creatures, gave those good creatures a good thing called free will. They abused that freedom and brought evil in the universe. God knew that was going to happen, and He had preplanned to bring a greater good out of evil. This is not the best of all possible worlds, as Leibniz said in his Theodicy. And Voltaire wrote the satire on it [Candide] saying that this is not the best of all possible worlds. But, it is the best of all possible ways to get to the best of all possible worlds.
And the big picture is this: the best of all possible beings (God) made the best of all possible worlds, which was one in which we’re free. We brought evil. He’s going to bring a greater good out of it in the end so that by permitting evil, He’s going to defeat evil. He’s going to separate the good from the evil – which has to be done, because evil is what frustrates good people; good is what frustrates evil people.
I used to work in the assembly line in Detroit when I was going through school, and what frustrated me? People telling their filthy stories; blowing their smoke in my face. You know what frustrated them? Me reading my Bible, testifying to them. Well, God has a solution: the wheat and the tares grow together until the harvest. Finally they’re separated and there is a place where there is no more evil that frustrates good people. It’s called Heaven. And there’s a place where there’s no more good that frustrates evil people. It’s called Hell.
Ankerberg: Let me throw in, people are really free, they get to make these big choices, okay? Sideline: predestination, foreknowledge, and free choice. Is it really free? People want to know. Define those for us.
Geisler: Well, predestination means that God simply determines the end from the beginning, as Isaiah said. [Isa. 46:10] He knows in advance exactly how things are going to go. He knows exactly who is going to be in Heaven; exactly who’s going to be in Hell and everything in between.
Free will means that they had the ability to do otherwise. They made a free choice. They could have done otherwise. They weren’t forced to do it. It was an uncoerced act. Can they be reconciled? Yes, because God knew for sure. That means it’s determined, because if He knows something for sure, it has to happen. If it didn’t happen, He would have been wrong and then He wouldn’t have been all knowing. But if He is all knowing and He knows it’s going to happen, it has to happen. So it’s determined. But He knew for sure that they were freely going to do it. So, it was determined from the standpoint of His foreknowledge; free from the standpoint of their choice.
For example, my wife tapes my favorite football team when I’m on the road. On Sunday I come home and the game is all taped. Now, everything in that game is determined. The score is determined. Every time I play the video it comes out the same – score is the same; every play is the same. See, everything is determined. But, every play was freely chosen. They chose to be on that team. They chose that play. They chose to go around, over, tackle. So it’s determined, but it’s free.
You say, “Well, that’s looking backwards.” But God can look forward with the same ability we look backward. So, He can see free choices in the future. They are determined from the standpoint of His knowledge, free from the standpoint of our choice. 1 Peter 1:2: “Elect according to the foreknowledge of God.” Romans 8:29: “Whom he foreknew, he did predestine.”
Ankerberg: Yeah. Use Judas. You use Judas as an illustration.
Geisler: Good illustration. God knew that Judas was going to betray Christ. So, if you take the logic this way: God knew Judas would betray Christ. True. If God knew Judas was going to betray Christ, then Judas must betray Christ. True. Otherwise, God would have been wrong. Therefore, Judas wasn’t free. False. Because He knew that Judas would freely betray Christ. Even the Westminster Confession – Calvinistic confession – says that there are secondary causes, and that all things do not follow from necessary order of causes, some are free. So, if God knew for sure that Judas would freely betray Christ, Judas was responsible for his free choice; God is responsible for His foreknowledge.
Ankerberg: Yeah. That necessary choices that you just flipped through so easy, you know, freezes the rest of us lay people that don’t know what you philosophers are talking about. You have this great illustration with dominoes about “necessary choices.” Talk about that.
Geisler: Well, if you push the first domino, it is necessary that the last one is going to fall.
Ankerberg: Necessary cause.
Geisler: Because one necessarily falls on the other and they fall. There’s no free will. But if you put a human being in the middle and put, say, a hundred dominoes up to him and you push the first one, and then there’s a hundred dominoes after that free being, then you don’t know for sure whether he’s going to nudge the next domino or not. You know for sure the first hundred are going to fall, but you don’t know for sure if this free being is going to choose to push the next domino. So, there’s the difference. God, however, knows not only necessary causes – that all hundred will fall – He knows whether that person is going to push the next one and the next hundred are going to fall.
Ankerberg: Why is it possible for God to be able to do that?
Geisler: It is possible for God to be able to do that because He is outside of time. He’s not in time; He’s eternal. Here’s a tunnel. There’s somebody in the cave. They’re looking up and train is going by. There are three cars in the train. He’s looking at one car. That’s all he can see. He’s got “tunnel vision” – time. He doesn’t see the one that’s gone past; he doesn’t see the one yet coming. If there is somebody standing on top of that mountain over that cave, he sees all three cars at the same time – past, present and future. So God, from the pinnacle of eternity, is looking down on the whole course of time. He see past, present, and future all in His present. We see only the present moment – not the past one, not the future one.
Ankerberg: Not only that, but even we as people, we could be on a mountain and we could see a collision that was going to happen between two cars, and we can know it even in advance. But that doesn’t mean that we’re making it happen.
Geisler: Sure. If you were standing on top of a skyscraper and there were roads on each side, and you could foresee a head-on collision coming – car coming this way and a car coming that way and foresee they’re going to collide – you didn’t cause the accident. You just foresaw it.
Ankerberg: Now, the reason I made you go through all of that, because that’s important to a whole lot of people, to say, “Am I really free in choosing what God is offering?” So let’s get down to, how big a freedom, how important a freedom, has God given to us people?
Geisler: Scary, radical freedom – such freedom that He will allow us to say “No” to Him forever. It’s a pretty scary freedom. Such freedom that He will allow us to have our own way eternally. Nietzsche is the classic example in his last line of Genealogy of Morals. He said, “I would rather will nothingness than not to will at all.” So if Nietzsche were to stand before God someday and God would say to him, “Fred (that was his first name), Fred, I’ll give you three choices: 1. I’m going to wipe you out of existence, snuff you out of existence; 2. You can repent of all those evil things you said [he said, “God is dead. Christ is an idiot and Christians are nincompoops,” for example] repent of all those evil things you said, or 3. I’ll let you go on thinking and willing what you want to think and will forever,” which one would he choose? He told us. The third one. Because to snuff him out of existence would be like me saying to my son, “I want you to grow up and be a doctor” and he grew up and became a plumber so I shoot him. No. God is not that kind of Father. I mean, He is a loving Father and He will give us space; He will give us the freedom to make our own choices.
Jesus said in Matthew 23:37: “How oft I would have gathered you together as a mother hen gathers her chicks, but you were not willing.” He didn’t force them. 2 Peter 3:9: “God is long-suffering, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repent” – change their mind.
So God gives us the freedom, it’s a radical freedom and He allows us to make a choice to thumb our nose at Him forever, and He just says, “Thy will be done.”
Ankerberg: Yeah. I think people have to understand what you’re saying and it’s so true, and it blows my mind that God brought us into existence, gave us absolute freedom to choose whether we’re going to accept Him or reject Him; and He is going to live with our decision. He is not going to force us, even though He could. That’s how free we are and that’s how important it is that we understand this information.
Ankerberg: How can physical evils like earthquakes, tornadoes and cancer be explained in God’s good world? And that brings us to the purpose. Let’s talk about the purpose for these things. Talk to us.
Geisler: Well, the problem is, if God is all good, He has to have a good purpose for everything. But reality shows us that there are some things for which there is no good purpose. There’s no good purpose for throwing babies in the air and catching them on bayonets, as The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky’s novel, shows. There’s no good purpose for innocent people being killed or suffering. And we can all think of illustrations where there was just no good purpose for it.
Well, now, if there is no good purpose for any one thing in the universe, then God can’t be all good because, see, if He is an all-good God, then He has a good purpose for all. But if there’s something for which there is no good purpose, then He can’t be an all-good God. So, that’s the painful dilemma.
Ankerberg: And I mean, we’re talking just one.
Geisler: One thing.
Ankerberg: So, anybody that’s listening, if you’ve got one gripe at God, you’re saying this should not have happened.
Geisler: That’s it.
Ankerberg: We’re talking your tune right now, so what’s the…
Geisler: Well, it’s a powerful argument. Dr. Mavrodes, who has a Ph.D. in philosophy, taught at the University of Michigan, wrote a book years ago, Belief in God. He is a brilliant philosopher and teaches at one of the top secular schools in the country and made this simple distinction. He said there’s a big difference between saying “I do not know the purpose for this event” and “There is no purpose.” As a matter of fact, there are a lot of things that I don’t know the purpose for and I can’t explain them. I can’t explain why your loved one died. I can’t explain why you lost your job, why your daughter died. I can’t explain all those things. But I know there is an explanation, and here’s why: because I know there is an all-good God who is all knowing.
Now, if He is all knowing, He knows everything. If He’s all good, He has a good purpose for everything. So, even if I don’t know it, I know God knows it. And I also know there are good reasons for me not knowing it. Deuteronomy 29:29 says, “The secret things belongeth to the Lord our God, but to us and to our children the things that are revealed.” Romans 11:33: “His ways are unsearchable and his judgments past finding out.” “Trust in the Lord with all your heart; lean not to your own understanding” (Prov. 3:5).
So, we know that we don’t know the good purpose for everything, but we know the One who does know the good purpose for everything. And what the atheist would have to show to make his argument stick is, there is no good purpose for some events and no one knows any good purpose. Well, he’d have to be omniscient. He’d have to be God to know that. He would have to know everything to know that there’s no one in the universe who knows a good purpose for this suffering. And even though I don’t see it, sometimes, given enough time – even in this lifetime – I figured out, “Oh, that’s why my loved one died: so and so came to the Lord. That changed somebody else’s life.” And I can look back and see, even in my lifetime, many things I couldn’t explain at the time. Later I saw, “Yes, God did have a good purpose” and in fact, we know some of those good purposes.
Ankerberg: The critics will come back on you and say, “That might be true philosophically, but we’ve got two things going on. We’ve got moral evil – which we could say comes from our free choice, but, hey, we’ve also got physical evil that I didn’t choose.” And they put it in a syllogism this way: “Moral evil can be explained by free will.” I’ll grant you that one. “But physical evil does not result from free will.” We’re talking about earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, meteors, floods, genetic deformity, cancer. I didn’t choose that one. “Hence, physical evils cannot be explained by free choice,” that is, no one chooses to have these things. So, where and why do these things come to us?
Geisler: That’s a good question and it’s a good topic for a whole program. Maybe we could do a whole program on it. Let me give you just a little short answer for it. We do see that there’s a good purpose for many evils in our life, and we do see that they’re all connected with free will. For example, if I freely abuse my body, say, for example, smoke myself to cancer of the lungs and die of cancer of the lungs, whose fault is it? That was a free choice; I brought a physical evil on myself. If I use my freedom and become a drunk and abuse my children, my free choice was a cause of the evil that is happening on somebody else. So then a lot of the evil in the universe can be explained by free choices that bring evil directly on ourselves and directly on someone else.
Ankerberg: Alright, I think you’ve got a whole list of ten things that we need to go through and we haven’t got time in this program, but let’s start off with something that we can understand that starts to chip away at this problem. Philip Yancey in his book, Where Is God When It Hurts, has some great stuff that we can understand. Take us through that in terms of leprosy, pain, suffering. Why does God allow us to have pain? We can understand this action.
Geisler: It’s a great story, and it illustrates C. S. Lewis’ line that we need to get before us from his book, The Problem of Pain, which is an excellent book for people. “God whispers to us in our pleasure, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts to us in our pain. Pain is God’s megaphone to arouse a morally deaf world.”
Now, put images on that. You’re lying on the beach, the breeze is blowing through the palms and you’re saying, or God is whispering, “I’m good.” Or, you’re speeding down a highway. You see a red flashing light in the mirror and you feel a little kick in your gut, and it’s a policeman. That’s conscience. That’s God speaking a little louder. You’re lying in a hospital bed, your leg is up in the air, there are bandages around you – you look like a mummy – and you’re just racked with pain. God is shouting to you, you see.
This is the image behind it. So, what Philip Yancey said – and it was based on the work of the famous leprosy doctor, Dr. Paul Brandt, who discovered that leprosy does not destroy people’s fingers and toes when we see all these gross pictures. Leprosy destroys their ability to sense pain, and they destroy their fingers. You can be standing like this, you know, and your finger in a fire burning off and you don’t even know it because you can’t feel it. Or you can take a hammer and bash off your thumb and not feel it.
So, the first lesson to learn about suffering is that pain is God’s way to keep us from self destruction. And that’s a moral lesson – that you can explain most of the pain in the world by God’s megaphone to keep us from self destruction.
Let me give you a good pain. You’ve got a deep pain in your chest? Good pain – you better go and see if you might be having a heart attack. You get one in your lower right side? Good pain – you might need an appendectomy. Toothache? Good pain. So, pain is God’s way to keep us from destroying ourselves.
Ankerberg: Also, in Philip Yancey’s book he talked about how the lepers circumvented the warning system. They devised a warning system to keep them from burning their hands off or knocking their fingers off. Tell them what they did and what the lepers did.
Geisler: Yeah. It was like a little bleeper and every time they got near a fire the bleeper would go on. They discovered it didn’t work because you need more than a bleeper. It’s like, you don’t wear seatbelts just because there’s a bleeper on the dashboard. If you didn’t put the seatbelt on and you got a shock, that would make you put the seatbelt on, right? So, they found out that the bleeper system didn’t work.
Second lesson. Not only does pain keep us from self destruction, but it has to be strong enough to work. Has to be strong enough to work. It has to be a shock, not just a little bleeper. So, then they hooked up a shock system on the lepers. If they got near a fire, they got a shock. Didn’t work twice. Worked only the first time and then they were smart enough to say, “Hey, I’m going to turn this thing off next time I get near the fire because I don’t want to get shocked!”
Final lesson: Pain keeps us from self destruction; has to be strong enough to work; and third, it has to be out of our control. If we all controlled the rheostat of pain, we’d turn it all the way down every time. Even Rabbi Kushner’s book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, said, “I would never have chosen to go through this suffering with my son [And I can surely say that about my daughter], but I’m a better man for having done so.” And we all are.
Ankerberg: We’re just starting on, “Why does God permit physical suffering?” And it’s a very important topic and it’s something you’re going to want to hear. We’re going to pick it up next week so I hope you’ll join us

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