Why Does God Allow Evil and Suffering in the World?/Program 5

By: Dr. Norman Geisler; ©2003
Could God have made a better world than the one we live in?



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. Our guest is Dr. Norman Geisler. You know, God’s reputation is at stake, He’s on the line with the very topic we’re talking about; and that is, if God is all good and all loving, why is there so much suffering, so much evil in this world? Why does He permit it? Why doesn’t He stop it? These are the questions that we’re asking.
And we’re going to be talking today a little bit about, “Couldn’t God have made a better world? I mean, surely, with all of His power, with all of His smarts, I mean, is this the best He could do?” And we’ve got a specific answer to that, but I want to backtrack in starting this program on why God allows so much suffering. And last week we were giving a number of reasons why God permits physical suffering that we can understand. And I’d like to add a couple to that, Norman, and that is that we said that all physical evil can be connected to free will. First of all, talk about that and then I’ll ask the question.
Geisler: Well, God created free creatures, the ability to do otherwise. We brought evil into the universe: Lucifer, Adam and all the little “Adamites” since then, and we can account for all the evil in the world by relating it directly or indirectly to free will.
Ankerberg: Yeah, and we listed a whole number of them, I think ten at that point, and I don’t want to go back on that, but I do want to add something that because of Adam’s choice and our choices after that, there have been certain things that have come because of our choices. And one of those has to do with people who say, “Why did God allow me to get this cancer? Why did God allow me to have this heart attack? Why did God allow AIDS? Why did God do this?” realizing that if God didn’t even exist, okay, some of those things would have happened. There’s a book that’s called None of These Diseases. Explain what we’re talking about here.
Geisler: Well, the doctors who wrote the book pointed out that if we had lived by the principles laid down in God’s law in the book of Leviticus, we could have avoided these diseases that we’re getting today, that we’ve actually brought them on ourselves by our lifestyle and by our moral choices.
Ankerberg: Alright. Then the second one, which is harder for people to understand is, what is the connection between Adam’s free choice and our free choice? God gave that privilege to us. It has tremendous consequences. But we said that even physical evils such as a tornado or a hurricane result out of some of those things, free choice. How does that do so? And specifically, let’s talk about when Adam made that choice, the fact is, he started to take it out on his family, the relationship. There would be arguments, there would be sins that would come in because he started to choose that over God’s way.
In terms of how he treated the environment – we know today that there are certain people that pollute our streams, our lakes, and we’re putting laws against that. There are other things that people do that affect the environment. How far can we carry that out in terms of, free choice has been the cause of some of these problems we live with?
Geisler: Most of our environmental problems are caused by our free choice. Strangely enough, poverty is largely caused by free choice. Most countries in the world produce enough food for the minimal needs of their own people. Why were people starving in Ethiopia? Not because they didn’t have enough food; they were even shipping food to England. It’s because there was a political and moral bottleneck in the country in which the food never got to the people because of the corruption of those who were leaders. We have people who have overgrazed the land and caused a famine. We’ve had the dust bowl in the United States years ago. We have many cases where abuse of the land…. In the Old Testament, you were supposed to let the land rest every seventh year, for example. If you don’t do that, the land doesn’t become productive. And God took all 70 years in the captivity because for 490 years they had been doing it, it says in 2 Chronicles, for instance. [2 Chron. 36:16-21] So you have numerous illustrations where our choices have caused poverty, have caused plagues, have caused drought, deserts, hunger in the world. So you can’t blame all this on God.
Ankerberg: Alright. Then go one step further. The fact is, these things are each pieces that help us understand why we experience some of this evil and physical suffering in our world. And God decided that the package that He would make, where we would have this freedom, these things would be part of that package. And that’s where we get into this thing: Is this the best of all possible worlds? Is this the best way to do it even if you’re God? Talk to that.
Geisler: Well, Voltaire wrote his famous satire on Leibniz’s Theodicy, “This is the best of all possible worlds,” and Candide was right: This is not the best of all possible worlds. Anyone could improve on it. One less crime today; one less murder, one less rape, one less child being abused would make it a better world. So, this is not the best of all possible worlds. But you can argue convincingly from the Bible and good reason that this is the best of all possible ways to get to the best of all possible worlds; that this is the necessary pre-condition; that “tribulation works patience,” [Rom. 5:3] for example; that allowing sin permits the possibility of forgiveness; that higher order virtues cannot be produced without lower order evils being permitted. In other words, God permitted the dentist’s chair, the pain of the dentist’s chair so He could produce in us the pleasure of having a better set of teeth.
Ankerberg: Yeah. But there are still some critics that don’t agree with you, so they’re going to try to do a better job. And they’re going to say, “Listen, you know, if I was God, I could have made a better world.” So let’s take some of the better worlds that have been suggested. One option is really a strange one: “You know, it would have been better if God hadn’t created at all.” And let’s use Judas in the illustration because sometimes they’ll use Jesus’ words in Matthew where He said, “It would have been better if Judas had not been born.” [Matt. 26:24] Now, Jesus wasn’t talking about existence at that spot. What was He talking about?
Geisler: Well, He was talking about the intensity of his sin. It was probably a hypothetical hyperbole, an exaggeration for the sake of effect. He talked about “straining at gnats and swallowing camels.” [Matt. 23:24] He used figures of speech like that. That it would be “more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah.” [Matt. 10:15] He said “Sodom and Gomorrah would have repented.” [Matt. 11:21] Not really, but to show how sinful they were. So He’s probably saying, “Look how great Judas’ sin was.”
But let’s take it literally, for example. He didn’t say, “It would have been better if he didn’t exist.” He said “it would have been better if he had not been born into this world.” He already existed in the womb – and life begins at conception. Non-existence is not better than existence. So the atheist who says, “Look, why didn’t God not create at all because no world would be better than this world” is a gigantic category mistake. A category mistake is, “How does blue taste?” Well, blue isn’t a taste, it’s a color. So you’re confusing categories. So to say a non-world would be better than a world is not even comparing apples and oranges because apples and oranges are both fruit – you can at least compare them. It’s comparing apples and non-apples. You can’t compare them.
Ankerberg: Yeah, “nothing” and “something” have nothing in common.
Geisler: That’s right. Something is not better than nothing and nothing is not better than something because something and nothing have nothing in common.
Ankerberg: Yeah, but some people would still argue and say, “But isn’t nothing better than existence with pain and suffering?” In other words, the pain and suffering is so great, they said, they’re almost like in the boat of saying, “I really wish I wouldn’t have been born.” What do you say to those folks?
Geisler: Even John Stuart Mill, the philosopher, said, “It’s better to be an unhappy human than a happy pig, because at least humans have the capacity for a higher good and higher joy.” No. That’s nonsense because it’s still saying that nothing is better than something. It’s saying no existence at all is better than an existence where you have some pain. And furthermore, it’s assuming that that’s all there is. You know, there’s more to it than that. This is just a brief moment in time and we have all eternity of pleasure ahead of us. Psalm 16:11 says, “At thy right hand are pleasures forevermore.” So when we look back on it, we’ll say this brief moment was worthwhile. Jesus said, in essence, “I never told you that it would be easy, I just told you that it would be worthwhile.”
Ankerberg: Yeah. And as we’re going through this, if there are no good reasons for accepting these other hypothetical worlds that people have concocted and so that we’re left with only this one, then we might start to understand why God gave us this one.
Geisler: Exactly.
Ankerberg: Let’s go to another one. Some people, strangely enough, have said, “It would have been better if we had a world with no free creatures” because free choice, I mean, if that’s the thing that allowed us to bring all these evils in, it would have been better to have a world with no free choice, which is a strange thing to say.
Geisler: Well, if they mean “morally better,” then obviously, they’re in a self-defeating statement because it can’t be morally better to have a non-moral world. A non-moral world isn’t moral at all. So to say that no world is better than this world is to say that no moral world is morally better than a moral world.
Ankerberg: Yeah. Take your illustration of the animals in one world that have cancer and in another world where they do not have cancer; the difference between moral and metaphysical wellbeing.
Geisler: It’s the difference between, let’s say, a human being who is a moral creature, having cancer and an animal having cancer. And it’s the difference between an animal not having cancer and an animal having cancer and not having a moral world. For example, a moral world where somebody has cancer, that event has moral significance because it’s happening to a moral being. If a non-moral being like an animal, who doesn’t have free will and moral responsibility, has cancer, it’s not a moral question, it’s a physical question. It’s not a physically perfect world. But you can’t say it’s morally imperfect just because it’s physically less than perfect.
Ankerberg: Yeah. In the one world where he doesn’t have cancer, he would be better physically, but not morally because there are no morals involved. Okay? But take this over to man. If we said, “Okay, God, make a man who’s perfect and can live a thousand years but he doesn’t have any choice.” Okay? You have a better physical world but you don’t have a better moral world. And that’s a problem because the higher good is for man to be given the choice, otherwise you’ve got a robot.
Geisler: See, this is a moral problem and so what they’re confusing is moral and physical. You can have a physically perfect world that’s morally imperfect. Or you can have a physically perfect world that’s not moral at all because there’s no moral free will and no moral choices and no moral law. And so what the problem is for a theist is to explain how this world is a morally superior world to the other worlds or how no other world could be morally superior to this, to put it better. And a non-moral world, like no world at all, or a world where there’s no free creatures, can’t be morally better than anything, because it’s not even a moral world.
Ankerberg: Let’s talk about the assertions that certain critics make, atheists would make, where they would say, “You know, because we have so much sin, this proves God doesn’t exist. If God did exist, He could have done a much better job than the world that we’re in.” And then they start to list all these possible worlds that they think would be better than the one we’re in. When you examine those, you find out, no, they wouldn’t really want to live in that world. And one of the things they suggest is, “What about a free world that would not sin?” Why is that wrong?
Geisler: Well, it’s logically possible but actually unachievable, as long as some free creature chooses to sin. For example, it’s logically possible I could be robbing a bank right now, but it’s not actually possible because I’ve chosen not to rob a bank now. So, what’s logically possible isn’t always actually possible. It’s logically possible that everyone would believe and be saved; but actually, they don’t. Some believe and some reject. If I threw three dice and I got three sixes, you would think I was lucky. If I threw it twice and got three sixes, you’d think I was very lucky. If I did it a hundred times in a row, you’d think the dice were loaded, right? But what if God created free creatures – they could all either sin or not sin, follow Him or not follow Him – and all of them followed Him. You’d say the dice were loaded. The dice aren’t loaded with freedom. You could really go either way, and the truth of the matter is, the Bible tells us that one third of the angels chose to rebel. Now, the atheist says, “Well, why didn’t He just create the two-thirds that didn’t rebel?” and the answer is, “Because one third of those would have rebelled, too, because they’re free creatures and they choose to do what they want to do.”
Ankerberg: Yeah, I mean, it keeps coming back to this word free. I’m not sure we believe that God gave us that much freedom, and if He actually did, it’s kind of scary. But He did.
Geisler: It’s very scary, and it has tremendous consequences, because free choices are choices that result in certain things. If you freely choose to jump off a cliff, there’s a consequence: you’re going to hit the bottom. It may take longer depending on how high the cliff is, but you’re going to hit the bottom. And there are certain actions, moral actions, that have moral consequences; namely, if you choose that you don’t want to obey God, if you choose that you don’t want God in your life, one day He’s going to say to you, “Okay, have it your way. You don’t want Me in your life, then have it your way.” That’s called Hell – separation from God.
Ankerberg: Yeah. Another one is even jumped on by some people who believe in God, and they say, “You know, a better world would be where all people will be saved in the end.” In other words, God will make it happen.
Geisler: Well, that would be nice, too. As Freud says in his book Future of an Illusion says, “If you want something to be true but you have no reason for believing it’s true, it is an illusion.” And I want everybody to be saved. I want it to turn out fine. I want Hitler to be in Heaven. I want Saddam Hussein, I want bin Laden to be in heaven, you know, but they probably aren’t all going to be there, because they made a moral choice and God has to respect their moral choice. God is not a tamperer with freedom. C. S. Lewis says He doesn’t interfere with our freedom. “He doesn’t work coercively, only persuasively.” So, if he only works persuasively on freedom and He urges us and He encourages us: kind of like a romance, you can only go so far; you can court but you can’t force anyone to say, “I do.” They have to freely say, “I do.” And God treats free creatures the same way.
Ankerberg: Alright, talk a little bit more about this thing of this is the best way, this world then, is the best way to the best possible world. What does that mean? Let’s talk about it.
Geisler: Well, if it’s going to be a moral world, if we’re talking about moral best, there has to be moral creatures. So, first of all, it’s best because He made free creatures. And in a moral world, you have to have free creatures. It’s best to respect somebody’s free choice, not to say, “You’re free as long as you do what I want.” You know, like my son is free to grow up and become a doctor, but if he chooses to be a plumber, then I shoot him. Well, then he wasn’t really free. So, you have to give people their freedom and respect their freedom. So it’s good to be free; it’s good to respect their free choices; but as soon as you admit those two ingredients and that God will not force freedom because forced freedom is a contradiction, then you have to have a world in which there is a possibility of a hell; a possibility some people won’t want to go God’s way, they want to go their way. They don’t want to be with Him; they want to be away from Him, to which He says, “Ephraim is joined to his idols. Leave him alone.” [Hos. 4:17]
Ankerberg: Yeah, and that brings us to the statement, I mean, it’s just saying it a different way but it’s so stark when you say it out loud: “Evil, then, has to be permitted.”
Geisler: If you’re going to produce a greater good it does, because it’s the condition for producing the greater good.
Ankerberg: Talk about this “greater good,” because that still fogs people’s minds. What is the greater good where we would have to allow evil to be permitted?
Geisler: The greatest good is God. So the greatest good for us is to become most like God. If we’re going to become most like God and have God-like characteristics, then evil is a pre-condition for achieving that, because you can’t get patience without tribulation. Tribulation works patience. [Rom. 5:3] You can’t develop character without adverse circumstances because that’s what develops the character. So God has to permit this moral training ground type of world where evil is permitted, evil consequences occur and we can learn from this and we can make our choices based on it.
Ankerberg: Alright, if we have this theodicy, this rational outline, the “reasons” for God acting the way that He is acting, okay, people need to, I think, realize that if this world is the best way to get to where God wants to get to, and it is just and it is right, and they do have freedom, they don’t want to stand before God some day and make these dumb accusations to Him: “God, you should have done it this way” and then God explains it to them and says, “If I had done that, you wouldn’t have liked that for the following reasons.” This was the best way. Talk about that, the importance of understanding that now, and then, once you do, what should you do with that in terms of your relationship with God?
Geisler: Well, first of all, it’s kind of dumb on our part to assume that God didn’t do it the right way. He’s the ultimate standard of what’s right and wrong and it’s to assume that we’re the ultimate standard of justice and God isn’t. How do we know something is unjust if we don’t know what just is? How can we say, “God is not just” when He is the ultimate standard of justice itself? So, that’s a self-defeating argument.
Secondly, who’s in the best position to know what’s the best way: he One who is omniscient and knows everything, or the one who is finite, like us, and doesn’t know everything? So, right there on the top of it, we’re on the wrong side of the argument.
If God knows everything and if God is all good, then permitting this preconditioning for the greater good is something that we can be sure He is going to accomplish. Because if He is all good, He wants to bring the greatest good; if He is all powerful, He can; if He hasn’t yet done it, hang on, it’s coming. How do I know? Because He is all good and He wants to, and He is all powerful and He can. If He hasn’t yet done it today, then wait. It’s either coming tomorrow, or the day after because you can be absolutely sure that an all powerful and all good God is going to accomplish the greatest good.
Ankerberg: Yeah. One of the things you say in your book is, “One of the purposes of God for creating this world was that God says He was willing that none should perish.” Jesus says in Matthew 23:37, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem!… How often have I longed to gather your children together,” then He says, “but you were not willing.” Now, people have a choice right now. Are they willing to repent, are they willing to accept God’s free gift of salvation? Do they really have the opportunity to do that? Talk about that.
Geisler: Yes. They do. And when they stand before God, they’re not going to be able to blame God that they’re not getting into Heaven. There’s only one person they can blame, and that is themselves. Because do you remember what the devil said in Milton’s Paradise Lost? He said, “I’d rather reign in hell than serve in heaven.” Well, God said to him, “You’ve got it, pal! You’ve got it.” And He is going to say that to every other human being. “Do you want to serve Me? Do you want to say, ‘Thy will be done’? Or do you want Me to say to you, ‘Thy will be done!’” That’s a horrendous choice. It’s a horrendous responsibility. But God gave it to every human being and every human being is going to make it and they’re going to suffer the consequences of it.
Ankerberg: Yeah. Which leads us into our program next week. Some people say, “Yeah, if I choose to go against God, there’s a hell the Bible says I’m going to. How in the world, if God is all loving, can He send people to hell?” So we’re going to devote a whole program to that problem. And I think you’ll like it. Just join us. It’s going to be very, very interesting.

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