Why Does God Allow Evil and Suffering in the World?/Program 4

By: Dr. Norman Geisler; ©2003
In this program and in MP3EVL3 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. We have a terrific program for you today. My guest is philosopher and theologian Dr. Norman Geisler. We’re talking about, “Why does God allow suffering?” How can physical evils like tornadoes and cancer be explained? And how can it be explained by “free choice”? And Norman, I was struck this week, in the news there was a girls’ soccer team that was out playing. It was a rather clear day, and out of nowhere, lightning came out of the sky. I don’t think there were even clouds there. There were no warnings ahead of time. Boom! Lightning came and killed some of the girls. We look at events like that – and we’ve all got stories like that – but if there’s a God who is all powerful, who is in charge, who knows everything in advance, and a God who loves us, how can things like that happen? How do we fit this scenario of suffering, if you want to say almost needless suffering, suffering that is not attached to something that we did. It just comes to us, like tornadoes or hurricanes, we need to have the “big picture” and we need your help. We’re glad that you’re here. Start us off.
Geisler: Well, the big picture is that there is a good God and He made only good things. One of the good things He made was free will. Free will brought evil into the universe. Now the problem is, you can explain moral evil by free will, but how do you explain physical evil by free will? I mean, who freely caused the hurricane or the tornado? Or who freely caused the lightning to strike? How do we explain those physical evils? And the answer is, in brief, all physical evils are connected to free choice. And I can make it very simple in biblical terms: Adam sinned. That was a free choice. His sin had consequences on, not only himself, but the whole human race. So, the whole creation was put in bondage, Romans 8:20-21 says. Romans 5:12 says, “By one man sin entered the world, death by sin, death passed upon all men.” So to make it very, very simple and biblical, all the physical evil in this universe resulted either directly or indirectly from free choice, and we can see a lot of it right from Adam’s.
Ankerberg: Yeah. Now, some people would just say, “You’re just wrong. I mean, how can free choice cause hurricanes?” Alright? Let’s go through this list and let’s slow this down and see if we can come to an understanding. First of all, last week we were talking about Philip Yancey’s book and the illustration he used about lepers. Can we understand that there are some good reasons, some good purposes that God allowed pain? And we saw from that that there was. Review that for us quickly and then let’s move on.
Geisler: Well, the backdrop is this: God has to have a good purpose for everything, but we don’t have to know that good purpose for there to be one. So, even if I can’t tell you a good purpose for every physical suffering in this world, there still is one. And no one can say there can’t be one because he’d have to be omniscient in order to say that no one, even God, has a good purpose. So, let’s suppose I’m a failure in the next few minutes and that I can’t convince anyone that there are good purposes for physical evil. Does that prove God doesn’t have one? Or Geisler is dumb? See, just because I’m dumb doesn’t mean God’s dead. God can be alive and know things that I don’t know; and the Bible tells us that He does: “The secret things belong unto the Lord our God, and unto us and our children the things that are revealed.” [Deut. 29:29] But God hasn’t left us in the dark. He has given us some knowledge and we do know some good purposes for evil. We know a purpose for a pain in the chest. We know a purpose for a pain in the side. We know a purpose for a pain in our tooth, etc. We know the leprosy thing. Pain is to keep us from self destruction.
Now, to get into the particulars, how do all these connect with free choice? 1.) Some evil we bring on ourselves. You smoke too much and get cancer of lung, do you blame God? No. 2.) Some evils we bring on others. If I abuse my children, my free choice was used to bring evil on them. 3.) Some evil is brought on others indirectly, not directly. If I am lazy and I find myself in poverty, then poverty is indirectly a result of laziness.
Ankerberg: Let’s slow it down for people. I love your joke on some of the stuff that we cause directly. Okay? You have in your book that there is a man who read in his newspaper the conclusive evidence showed smoking was connected with lung cancer, and as a result, he canceled his subscription to the newspaper. What I’m saying is that, yeah, I think we need to slow this down for people, that some physical evil does come directly from our own free choices. We shouldn’t blame God for that. We can see it. If we overeat and we get fat, we can’t say, “Hey, God’s got a problem here.” Alright? We made that choice, and He allowed us to make that choice. He allows us to make other choices. And some of them do cause us health problems. If we’re “A” kind of personalities and we’re flying all over the country and we’re doing all kinds of things,… we just had a friend who died recently because of his lifestyle. But he chose that. So you can’t say, “Well, listen, God somehow caused this thing.” We bring these things on ourselves. So that’s number one. Number two is, some physical evils come to us indirectly. We don’t choose it ourselves, but yeah, we might have parents – you had a dad who was an alcoholic, right?
Geisler: Right.
Ankerberg: So, tell us a little bit about what happened to you.
Geisler: I grew up in poverty and my parents used to fight. My father would get drunk and come home drunk and the kids would be screaming and fighting. And so the consequences of his choices were found on us in terms of lack of proper food and clothes and so forth. And we do the same to other people by our decisions. Also, there are free choices that directly cause influence on others, and there are those that indirectly cause influence on others. I would daresay if you took those four – directly on myself; directly on others; indirectly on myself; and indirectly on others – you could account for maybe 90 percent of all the physical evil in the universe. So, what about the other 20 percent? Well, one…
Ankerberg: Before you go there, tell me a little bit more of what you mean. I was thinking of something like, hey, there’s a lot of people that have the freedom to drink, so they kill a lot of people who weren’t drinking just because they’re driving drunk.
Geisler: Right.
Ankerberg: Alright. That’s one of those indirect things.
Geisler: Exactly.
Ankerberg: And again, it’s not something that God did, but it’s a result of giving all of us free choice. Now we’re starting to harm each other. Give me another illustration along that line.
Geisler: Well, we can all think of illustrations along that line – somebody is aggressive in warfare, take Saddam Hussein, and so he’s killing off other people…
Ankerberg: Torturing innocent children.
Geisler: Torturing innocent children. You say, “Well, how can God allow innocent children to be tortured?” God didn’t torture them, an evil person called Saddam Hussein tortured those people. Or take the 3,000 people in the Trade Center building. They were innocent people. All they were was “there” that day, you know. But some wicked terrorists caused that. And look at the indirect effect it had on our economy and people who are out of jobs and all the other things, the mass of things, the network of things that come from just these evil actions.
Ankerberg: Some people may say, “Well, then, I don’t understand why God didn’t stop it.” Okay? Well, if God stopped that for those people, or Saddam Hussein, or the drunk from driving, it would sure cut into the rest of us in the things He would stop in our life. Okay? Talk a little bit about that.
Geisler: If there were no consequences for actions, we’d never learn from our actions. If God stopped everything before we got to consequences, you know, every time I pulled a trigger, if He turned the bullet into putty and there were no consequences for the action, then how would we learn? If you could jump off a cliff and not hit the bottom, or God could give you a soft landing, you know, there’s no consequence for your evil choice.
Ankerberg: Well, I mean, I love your illustration about parents and kids – if this actually worked there. Talk about kids throwing knives and stuff.
Geisler: Well, obviously, if you threw a knife at somebody else and it turned to putty every time and it didn’t actually hurt, how would they learn it was wrong to throw knives? Or if you did anything – a word can hurt other people. If you never felt the consequence and no one else felt the hurt of words you use, how would we learn that it was wrong to speak like that? All of life is filled with free choices that have consequences, we learn that good consequences are a result of good choices; bad consequences are a result of bad choices. It’s a moral world; we’re moral creatures. It’s a moral proving ground and God is allowing us to exercise our freedom.
Finally, your children would never grow up if you never gave them freedom. If we never allowed our kids to take the family car, they would never learn to drive. But every time we allowed them to do that, we took a risk that they could hit somebody else. I remember one time our daughter did a glancing blow off a bus, but she would never have learned her freedom if we didn’t give it to her. If we were just pulling the puppet strings, she would never grow up.
So this is a universe in which God allows us to grow up by learning right from wrong, consequences for wrong action, good consequences for good actions, and then He can achieve His higher moral good, which is to make us more like Himself. Back to the illustration of, how do you purify gold? You turn the heat on, and the dross comes to the top, and then you scrape it off and then the master can see his image in the molten gold. God is turning the heat on our lives. Imperfections are surfacing. He can scrape them away. It’s called “sanctification” in Christian terminology. And then He can see His image reflected in our life.
Ankerberg: God’s reputation is on the line here. Why did He make the world the way it is? Why does He permit evil and suffering? There’s got to be a good purpose. Christians are saying, “Yes. There is.” And we’re trying to talk about those purposes. And in talking about physical evils, we’re not talking just about things we decide to do ourselves – the moral consequences that we choose; but the fact is, we’re also talking about, “Why do things come to us?” For example, tornadoes and lightning and hurricanes and cancer – we didn’t choose those. And Norm, give us the big picture again before we go on here. What is the big picture in terms of physical suffering and evil? Why does God permit this?
Geisler: God permitted all evil to defeat all evil. He permitted all evil to bring a greater good in, and that’s the justification. Why did He permit physical evil? Because physical evil is necessary in a moral universe to produce the moral good He is trying to produce. Pain is God’s megaphone to arouse a morally deaf world. Pain keeps us from self destruction. It has to be out of our control for it to be really effective. All of these things we learn from Philip Yancey’s book, Where Is God When It Hurts? But also, there is some evil, physical evil, that cannot be accounted for by any direct or indirect act of free will; for example, a tornado or a hurricane. Those are by-products. In other words, in a good physical world you have to have air; you have to have winds, where you are going to get a tornado. Sooner or later a tornado is going to spawn. You have to have water to drink and water to swim in and water to enjoy. Well, sooner or later somebody is going to be drowned in that same water. These are by-products of a good world. God purposed the good. There is a by-product, what is called in war “collateral damage.” Well, you have collateral damage in a good universe where God has a good purpose to defeat evil, there’s going to be collateral damage in this kind of universe as well.
Ankerberg: Yeah, and that’s a hard one for us to understand. We can understand it and not understand it at the same time. It’s like parents who love their little kids, when they’re just learning to walk, will allow that child to try to get up and bang their knee and maybe worse. Why? Because if you kept them in a highchair the whole time, they would never learn to walk. So for the higher good of letting them learn to walk, you allow pain and suffering to happen. Talk about this thing of permitting and producing.
Geisler: Well, we permit evil that we can produce a greater good. I permitted evil every time I let the kids take the family car, you know[ because they could have crashed. But, I was permitting basically their free choice. I was permitting their growth; I was permitting their ability to develop as individual human beings and that’s a greater good. The collateral damage that may or may not happen is part of the risk you take with freedom, both as a parent and that God took with the universe. In God’s case, of course, He can rescue people by resurrecting them from the dead. I can’t permit my kids to do it, so I can’t watch my kid jump off a cliff, for example, but I can let them, when they’re 16, take the family car and they might get in an accident. God can allow people to jump off a cliff, because not only can He perform a miracle if He wanted to, He’s going to resurrect all of us from the dead someday. So He can permit more evil to produce more good than we can, but the rule is the same: that we may permit as much evil to happen by free choice as we can reasonably control. And so we let our little babies fall but we don’t let them take poison. God, on the other hand, can permit more because He knows more and can do more and can therefore rescue us from the ultimate fatality, which is death.
Ankerberg: Throw a little bit more light on the biblical scenario of Adam choosing. And he made, as a free creature who was made perfect, he had the option, the freedom, to choose evil; and that had consequences, both for himself and for the environment. And Genesis comments on that. As you’ve mulled that over in your head, put a couple more things to that.
Geisler: You can explain all of evil right there in Genesis 3. God said, “You are free to take of every tree in the garden.” [Gen. 2:16-17; 3:2-3] So, they were free; they made their choice. And God blamed them when they made their choice. But what happened? Sin, death, suffering, pain all entered the world then. The creation was made subject to bondage. You could explain everything in the world right there as a result of that action. And we were all in Adam. According to Romans 5:12, we were all present in Adam; we were there potentially; we were there probably legally in the sense that he was our legal representative. And as a consequence, the legal and actual result of Adam’s sin fell on the whole human race. Romans 5:12: “By one man sin entered the world; death by sin, death passed upon all men.” In Romans 8:20, “The whole creation was made subject to bondage.” So there is the whole story, because you have an evil spirit, which brings in another factor. All the rest of the evil in the universe can be accounted for by evil spirits, the devil and demons, making their free choice to inflict pain and evil and suffering on people – like Job.
Ankerberg: Yeah. Let’s finish up these and then we’ll take some of the objections that people bring up to the very things we’re talking about. Some physical suffering may be used by God as a warning about moral evils. In other words, it’s a warning itself. Give me an example.
Geisler: A warning pain is an example. Here’s a physical pain that’s warning you to avoid a greater physical pain. There might be a physical pain that’s warning you to avoid a greater moral pain where God might send some physical calamity, as He did in the Bible often, to warn people of greater judgment that’s going to come if you don’t repent.
Ankerberg: Some evil may be permitted as a condition of a greater moral perfection. We don’t like that one but it’s a real truth, a real true point.
Geisler: Tribulation works patience. There’s no way to get to the Promised Land without going through the wilderness.
Ankerberg: Yeah. You watch Monday Night Football. The athletes will tell you that, right?
Geisler: “No pain, no gain.”
Ankerberg: Yeah. Some physical evil occurs because higher forms live on lower ones. What does that mean?
Geisler: The early bird gets the worm and the early worm gets eaten.
Ankerberg: But that doesn’t seem like, in one sense it’s true; in another sense, it’s just fair. What are you actually saying is behind that?
Geisler: Well, you know, hey, even the vegetarians who want us not to eat any meat have to eat plants. Something has got to die that we can live. We live in a physical world where we have to take in energy. So, the higher forms are going to live off the lower forms. It’s for the greater good of the whole system that higher forms can live off of lower forms. So, then what we call an evil to the lower form is part of picture of a greater good.
Ankerberg: Alright. Now, what we’re talking about is, God has thought this whole thing through and for the good of freedom, has come up with a “package,” if you want, that has certain dangers with it. And let’s take some of the objections to what we just brought out and let’s answer them. Some people say, “Okay, if God is all loving and God is all powerful, alright, with some of these things that are happening, shoot! God could miraculously intervene and stop the lightning from coming out of the sky, stopping the tornado and the hurricane, stopping your kid from falling off the cliff. He could miraculously intervene.” Why doesn’t God just kind of do this on a 50/50 basis?
Geisler: Because He can’t do what’s contradictory. If He stopped the lightning, He would also be stopping the creation of nitric acid. Because as the lightning goes through the oxygen and the nitrogen, it combines into NO3 which is liquid fertilizer, and did you ever notice how your grass grows better after a thunder storm? So, there are all of these things in the balance of nature. It’s very easy for us as a finite being to criticize the plan, but my answer to the atheist is, “You try and make a better world. You design for me a world with all of its infinite intricacy that is better than this one. Design a better body than a human body where all of the things have to be taken into consideration to make it work.
Ankerberg: Yeah, I find science, which we hold in such high esteem, is based on the regularity of natural law and what they’re advocating is, “Listen, God, intervene, do miraculous acts.” You could just wipe out science at that point.
Geisler: Sure. If you, let’s say, suspended the law of gravity in order to save someone miraculously from falling off a cliff, and then everybody in the world who is drinking water, the water went up their nose and choked them all and they died of choking – you see the incredible amount of consequences that come once you start disrupting. Furthermore, if you disrupt nature regularly, then it’s no longer a miracle because what happens regularly is a natural law. You have to have a natural law as a basis for miracles. God does do miracles, but He does them only occasionally and rarely because if they were done more regularly, one, we wouldn’t learn anything from our actions because they would always be miraculously intercepted; two, it wouldn’t be a backdrop for the type of physical world in which we live, which is a necessary moral proving ground; and three, it wouldn’t be possible for the truly miraculously to happen because that has to be a rare event.
Ankerberg: Not only that, but then you’d have to have another God on top of God because God would be caught in moral dilemmas in trying to choose who gets a miracle and who doesn’t.
Geisler: Yeah.
Ankerberg: Explain that one.
Geisler: Well, it’s the same thing we’re always doing. You know, the farmers pray for rain while we’re praying for no rain for a picnic – which, God can’t do both. It’s got to either rain or not rain. So, since God can’t do what is contradictory, since it’s a moral proving ground, since a moral pain is a moral lesson to achieve His ultimate moral goal, if you consider all those factors, this is the best kind of world to produce the best world. Again, this is not the best of all possible worlds. It is the best of all possible ways to get to the best of all possible worlds.
Ankerberg: Yeah, that’s going to be our next program. People say, “I mean, surely God, with all His power, with all His smarts, could have made a better world than the one we’re living in.” But you’re saying this is the best possible way to get to that world and we’ve got to unpack all of that. But for the guy that is in physical suffering right now, or had an accident or sweating with cancer, or whatever, what word of encouragement do you have to go to God and to trust Him for the future?
Geisler: First of all, there is a God there who knows everything. He knows exactly why you’re suffering. Secondly, it’s only temporary. Thirdly, His own Son came and went through suffering that is far worse than what you’re going through for you so that you don’t have to suffer forever. That’s really good news.
Ankerberg: Could God have made a better world than the one that we’re in? We’re going to talk about that in the next program. I hope that you’ll join us.

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