Why Does God Allow Evil and Suffering in the World?/Program 6

By: Dr. Norman Geisler; ©2003
How can a loving God send people to hell? Can it be reasonably argued that there is a place for hell in God’s good universe? Why is it right and just that there be such a place and that some people are sent there?



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. Why is all this pain and suffering in God’s good universe? What’s going on? And when will it end, and will it ever end? The question we want to look at today in connection with that topic is, if God is all loving, do you think that He could send people to a place called hell? What is the purpose for the existence of hell in God’s good universe? And my guest who is going to be answering these questions biblically and philosophically is Dr. Norman Geisler. He is a philosopher; he is a theologian and he is president of Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina. And Norman, I’m glad that you’re here. What is the reason, what’s the purpose for the existence of hell?
Geisler: Well, same purpose of a jail. You have to punish people who do evil, and sin against the Eternal One deserves eternal punishment. A capital crime deserves capital punishment, and an eternal crime, an eternal one against the Eternal Being, God, deserves eternal punishment. So, it’s a matter of God’s justice.
Second, it’s a matter of God’s love. You can’t force love down people’s throats. You can’t force anybody to love you. You can woo them, you can persuade them, you can do everything in your power, except tamper with their free choice because they’re free beings. So, there is a hell because God is just and He must punish sin, and there’s a hell because He is loving and He can’t force anyone into Heaven.
And thirdly, there is a hell because if He allowed people to go to Heaven whose hearts had not been changed, who didn’t want to be there, it would be worse than hell. For example, you’ve all had unsaved friends that can’t stand an hour in church. How would you like to go to church forever? You know? You can’t stand praising God. How would you like to be in the room forever with the person that you hate the most, that you didn’t want to spend any time with when you were here? C. S. Lewis dramatizes this in his book, The Great Divorce. So there are three reasons right there why there has to be a hell.
Ankerberg: Yeah. I think we have to zero in on that. There are people that don’t want to be in hell, but they will choose to be there. Now, explain that.
Geisler: Well, it’s the difference between “will” and “want.” The addict, the drug addict wills to take the drug. He doesn’t want to be hooked. The alcoholic wills to take the alcohol. He doesn’t want the hangover. The person who “wills” to commit suicide doesn’t want to hit the rocks at the bottom.
Ankerberg: Talk about that time when you were on the radio, and you were talking about how our society has gotten rid of God and talking about the hopelessness, and a lady jumped off the tower.
Geisler: Yeah, that was scary. I was in Birmingham, Alabama. I was at a TV program there and we had just finished our program and we were talking about all these issues. And somebody rushed in and said this lady, whom we had seen previously walking down the road had climbed up the tower and jumped off. I was the first one to her body. I wanted to see if she was alive and share the Gospel with her. And her body was still warm but she was there at the bottom of the tower. That’s a one-way decision. It’s an important decision, where there is one way and you can’t reverse it.
Ankerberg: People don’t “want” the consequences, but when they jump off, they will it.
Geisler: They willed it. And everyone in life wills either heaven or hell, because if you will to do His will, you just willed Heaven, and you’ll get the consequence. If you will to do your will, you just willed hell, and you’ll get the consequences.
Ankerberg: Of all people, Jean Paul Sartre, and Nietzsche agree with you.
Geisler: Yes, it’s ironic that in the twentieth century particularly, the two great atheists – Nietzsche at the beginning who died in 1900 really, and Sartre, who was writing strong during the war in the 1940s – both of these atheists had a better insight into hell than most Christians. I mean, to say nothing of unbelievers who talk about “hell is a torture chamber.” The word torture is never used in the Bible. “Torment,” yes. But torment is self-inflicted. Torment is like when you make a dumb decision and you say, “Geisler, you idiot!” you know? And maybe kick a tree or something. Torment is self-inflicted. Torture is inflicted from without. The people in hell, their greatest affliction is from within. They made the choice and they know it, and they’re living with their choice.
And here’s what Nietzsche said: “I would rather will nothingness than not to will at all.” Kind of like the Myth of Sisyphus where you roll a rock up the hill, it rolls down; you roll it up the hill to roll down forever. He said, “I’d rather do that. Roll a rock up the hill and let it come down, and do that on and on forever” – he called it “willing the eternal recurrence of the same state of affairs” – “than not to will at all.”
Ankerberg: Yeah. He’s calling the shots.
Geisler: Yeah. In other words, “I want to be in charge. I want to be sovereign.”
Ankerberg: What about Sartre?
Geisler: He wrote a book called No Exit, a play. Three people in hell. Right in the middle of the play, the door of hell opens (this is an atheist talking about hell) and everyone is allowed to leave. Now, the common conception is that everybody took off, you know? Everybody stays. As an atheist, everybody stays in hell, door wide open. Theme: they’re condemned to their own freedom. They’re there because of their choice and they don’t want to leave. The door of hell is locked on the inside, not the outside. God didn’t cram people in, lock the door, they’re screaming and kicking, wanting to get out, and He’s saying, “Burn, baby, burn.” That’s not the biblical picture. The biblical picture is He doesn’t want anybody there. He’s doing everything He can for no one to go there, but they freely choose to go there. And if they wanted to, they could have chosen otherwise, but the door is locked on the inside – they don’t want to. And it’s sealed forever.
Ankerberg:Yeah, this free choice thing that we’ve been talking about in every program is so important. Let’s make a biblical statement and show how important this is in relationship to hell. God says in Scripture, pointblank, He wants, He is willing, that all people should repent, none should perish. [2 Pet. 3:9] So, God wants everybody to go to Heaven, but He won’t force everybody to go there.
Geisler: Second Peter 3:9. He has given them free minds.
Ankerberg: Right.
Geisler: Exactly. And the word “repent” is used, which means “change their mind.” They would not change their mind.
Ankerberg: Now, you make a statement in a book, “It’s not that there is a hell that makes it an evil in the universe; it’s that there are more people in hell than there should be there.” What does that mean?
Geisler: It means that it would be an evil if there were more people in hell than necessary. And how do we know how many are necessary? It’s necessary that everyone who does not freely will not to be there and freely wills to be there – it’s necessary that every one of them be in hell.
Ankerberg: Alright. Will God save people at any cost?
Geisler: Absolutely not. He won’t save people at the cost of taking their God-like nature, which is called “the image of God.” He won’t save people at the cost of their freedom which He gave to them. He doesn’t renege. He’s not a divine reneger. God is someone who gives someone freedom and then He allows them to live with the consequences of their freedom.
Ankerberg: Go the opposite way. There’s a book from two pastors that said just the opposite: “God must or will save everyone. He won’t send anybody to hell.” You’ve got “universalism.” What’s wrong with that?
Geisler: That’s a God who really isn’t loving. He doesn’t respect people’s decisions. He’s like the parent who, the child grows up and chooses what they want to do, and the parent disowns them. That’s not a loving parent. A loving parent will finally accept what the child freely chooses to do.
Ankerberg: It’s also not a biblical view. Why?
Geisler: It’s not a biblical view because the Bible says God – as Jesus said in Matthew 23:37, “I would have gathered you together as a mother hen gathers her chicks, but you were not willing.”
Ankerberg: Also, it says Satan has not chosen to go to heaven.
Geisler: Satan is going to hell; his fallen angels (Matt. 25:41) are going to hell; Judas is going to hell. He is called “the son of perdition.” The beast and the false prophet are there still after a thousand years in torment, in conscious punishment, and “everyone whose name is not written in the book of life.”
Ankerberg: You have a tremendous illustration in your lectures that shows God loves everyone and He wants them to be saved but He won’t force them. It’s the farmer who put a fence around a pond. Please tell us that story.
Geisler: Well, you had a pond and the neighborhood kids wanted to swim there. And he didn’t want them to drown so he put a fence around and put a sign up, “Danger. Don’t swim.” He came by one day and the three neighborhood kids were in the pond and they were all drowning. One of the reasons he had the sign up. Now, if this farmer in the illustration is God and they are human beings and we’re trying to illustrate whether God loves everyone or whether everyone is going to be in Heaven, we can see two extremes here.
Number one, we can see the extreme of extreme Calvinism which says: Well, the farmer looked at the three people drowning and he says, “You all deserve to drown because you disobeyed the sign and you’re suffering the consequences of your own free decision.” The farmer folds up his arms and lets them all drown. Now, according to extreme Calvinists, God could have done that with the human race. But the farmer says, “Hey, you in the blue trunks,” and throws him a rope and rescues him and watching the other two perish. That’s exactly, according to the extreme Calvinists, what God did. He only loves “some.” It’s called Limited Atonement. And He only tries to save some and the rest He allows to go to hell.
Now, what we say the biblical position is, “God so loved the world” [John 3:16]; “Christ is the propitiation for our sins, not ours only but the whole world.” [1 John 2:2] So, the farmer comes by. He sees the boys. He says, “Look, you disobeyed the sign and you deserve to perish, but I love all of you and I want to try to rescue all of you.” And he throws a rope to every one of them, and one accepts it and the others say, “No, thank you. We’ll do it ourselves.” And they try and swim and they drown. God tried to save everyone. Now, that’s an all-loving God, and I commend to you that that’s the God of the Bible, who loves everyone, tries to save everyone. Everyone won’t accept it. Some want to do it themselves and drown. But He tries to save everyone, but some perish because of their own stubborn rebellion.
Ankerberg: And eternity, Heaven and Hell, are just making permanent the decisions that we make here. Talk about that.
Geisler: “Whatever you bind on earth is going to be bound in Heaven” [Matt. 16:19], and so the decisions we make here are going to be more permanent there. You can see why. If you’re here and you’ve got light and light bothers you, as it does evil people, then if you take the light away, you’re going to have even less propensity to turn to God.
So, if hell is the place where God withdraws His persuasive influence, the Hound of Heaven stops barking, as it were. You know, He pursues them to a certain point and He says, just as anyone must do in a romance – if you pursue somebody and say, “I love you. I love you. I love you,” and they finally say, “Look, knock it off. I don’t want to get married.” Then if you really respect them, you’re going to knock it off. You’re not going to be obnoxious and force yourself on them.” God does the same thing. And the “knocking it off” part is, He says to them, “Have it your way. You’ve got it.” That’s called “hell.”
Ankerberg: Another question that comes up, Dr. Geisler, is that if we get a parking ticket, we don’t expect the electric chair. But for the sins we do here in a 70 to 80-year period of time, God says it’s eternal hell. Some people say, “Man, that’s a serious case of overkill, isn’t it?” Why such a serious penalty? And how can that be just and fair?
Geisler: Well, first of all, temporal sins deserve temporal punishment. A sin against the Eternal One, deserves eternal punishment. It’s not just a temporal sin, it’s a sin against the Eternal God who is holy, who is impeccable. Five years from now, He can’t change and not be holy, so He’s going to be just as much against sin five, ten years, or a hundred thousand years from now and for all eternity. So, if someone is in rebellion against God, they’re in a rebellion against the Eternal God and they’re going to have to suffer eternal consequences for that.
Ankerberg: You had an interesting survey of statistics that were just taken about what people in America think about hell. Tell us about that.
Geisler: Yeah, I just saw that last year. Seventy percent of the people believe in hell, which I thought was very interesting. I thought, Wow! This is pretty high. Only two percent believed they were going there. Now, that tells you something about depravity right there.
Ankerberg: Alright, talk about this thing then of sin, they must think everybody else is doing the sin that God’s going to really put the hammer down, but they don’t think they’ve done it. What is sin and why is it so serious? And why does it bring an eternal punishment?
Geisler: Well, what’s so serious about it is the very fact that only two percent of the people think they’re going there. It shows how self-deceived we are by sin. It shows how sinful we are, that we think we’re that good. Well, good people go to hell. Repentant sinners go to Heaven. So, they are on the wrong side of the issue. It’s serious because God is unconditionally, unchangeably holy. It says in the Bible that “God cannot lie” [Heb. 6:18]; “the God who cannot lie” [Titus 1:2]. He’s so holy [Hab. 1:13] He can’t look approvingly on sin. The angels say, “Holy, holy, holy” in His presence [Isa. 6:3; Rev. 4:8]. We’re forgetting that we’re dealing with a holy, eternal, spotless, sinless God. Now, He can’t let one sin go by, can’t blink His eye. If He blinked His eye on one, He wouldn’t be perfectly sinless. If He let somebody into Heaven that didn’t fit and was sinful and wasn’t covered with the blood of Christ, He’d be unjust to do it. He can only do what justice and His mercy demands. Justice demands hell for those who don’t repent; mercy offers Heaven for those that do repent.
Ankerberg: Let’s talk about this thing of, “I feel okay. When I get there, I’m going to talk to God.” Okay? I remember the first time that I read the book of Leviticus straight through, I thought there’s no way that I could ever be friends with that God, because everything He said it seemed like I had broken that – and the penalty was death! Okay? And then you come over to Hebrews and you read how God had provided the righteousness that we don’t have that we need to stand in front of His utter holiness. It’s not a righteousness we have. It’s the righteousness that Christ provided for us, okay? That’s the furthest thing from people’s mind, is that God is that holy, that scary, and this idea we’re going to talk to Him and He’ll understand is really messed up. Do you have any other way of illustrating that?
Geisler: Well, God’s not a “chum.” He’s not somebody you just chitchat with. You know, the people in the Bible when they met Him, they fell on their knees, fell on their face, and said, “Woe am I. I’m a sinful man.” So we’ve got to get an idea of what God is and how holy He is.
Also, we have to get an idea of what penalty He paid and provided a free gift of salvation for us. That holy God paid His own penalty. He sent His own Son to die for our sins to pay the penalty so that He could satisfy His justice and release His mercy. He had to satisfy His justice because He has to justly punish everyone. Jesus, the Just for the unjust, suffered for our sins, the Bible says in 1 Peter 3:18; 1 Peter 2:24. And the best paragraph in the Bible, I think, the most important one: Romans 3:21 and following says that God might be just and justifier of the unjust. Now, how does He do that? By the Just One suffering for the unjust – that’s us – He paid the penalty for us and God can offer to all of us a free gift of salvation. All you have to do is take it and admit that you didn’t deserve it; you couldn’t earn it. “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us” [Titus 3:5], and Romans 6:23 says, “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life.” It’s a free gift. All you have to do is reach out and take it by faith.
Ankerberg: If mass murderers occasionally get a parole here, okay, how come hell is not appealable? Is God less forgiving than we are?
Geisler: There is a place that’s appealable and there is a place that’s parole-able and there is a place where reformation goes on. It’s called “life.” And once you blow it, it’s called “eternity.” “It is appointed unto man once to die and after this, the judgment.” [Heb. 9:27] Yes, God does believe in reformation and you have a whole life to reform. Everybody gets a lifetime – some shorter, some longer – and if they don’t reform in that lifetime, “whatever you bind on earth is bound in heaven.” [Matt. 16:19]
Ankerberg: I was asked to speak at an Evangelical conference and present a paper on hell. I presented the paper, and there were scholars that were walking out. And I thought, you know, “What’s going on here?” They didn’t believe in everlasting punishing, okay? They believed in annihilation. Philosophically and biblically, that’s wrong. Why is it philosophically wrong for God, at the end of a person’s life, just to say to them, “Listen, you sinned, I’m going to get rid of you! I’m going to annihilate you forever!”
Geisler: Because God is attacking Himself. We are made in His image and likeness, [Gen. 1:26] and God would be attacking His own image. He would, in essence, be saying, “I don’t like Myself.” If He created us in His image and His likeness and gave us freedom, He’s going to respect the image He gave us; He’s going to respect the freedom He gave us.
I also wrote a paper for a Christian journal on hell once, and they got all negative articles back. And I said to the editor, “Well, why didn’t you publish some of the good letters?”
He said, “There weren’t any.”
And I said, “Well, come to think of it, if I got a chance to vote, I’d vote against hell, too.” But we don’t get a chance to vote. And the reason we don’t get a chance to vote is because we can’t decide what’s right or wrong. There’s got to be an ultimate standard, and if we don’t match it, we’ve got to pay the penalty.
Ankerberg: Is there anything philosophically or morally wrong with the fact that God would allow such a horrendous, important decision to be left to man, namely, that he would make an eternal decision about where he wants to be?
Geisler: Well, there’s nothing morally wrong about it. There is something horrendous about it; there is something stupendous about it, and momentous about it, but there is nothing evil about it, of course. Moral creatures have to make moral choices. Creatures who have a lifetime have to make a lifetime choice, and creatures who are suited for eternity, who have an immortal soul, are going to have to make an eternal decision.
Ankerberg: Is it possible that if a guy was in hell and he changed his mind that God would say, “Okay, you’re out of there!”
Geisler: It’s not possible, because if you don’t change your mind when you have light and salt and the Holy Spirit persuading and working on you here, how much less when you don’t have all those influences there? No one who gets to hell is going to change their mind. We have a picture of it in Luke 16 in the Bible. The rich man is in hell, and notice, he never said, “I don’t deserve to be here. Get me out of this place.” He admitted that he was deserving of it and he was getting the punishment. What he was concerned about is that other people who still had a chance wouldn’t go there. So he wanted them to go and talk to his brothers so that they didn’t make the choice. So, if the people in hell could preach a sermon today, it wouldn’t be: “Get me out of this place! I don’t deserve to be here.” It would be, “Don’t come to this place! I do deserve to be here and you’ve got a chance not to be here.”
Ankerberg: Yeah. Jean Paul Sartre and Nietzsche both agree with Jesus on that point: you choose and you don’t want anybody forcing you to make your mind up in a different way. You want to live with that choice, you’re going to be able to do what God says. But wrap this thing up. What does it tell us about God, and what should a person do who’s listening right now who says, “I don’t want to go to hell. I do want to choose for God. What do I have to do?”
Geisler: It tells us God is holy and will not tolerate sin forever. Period. It tells us God is loving and doesn’t want anyone to suffer the consequences for it. He sent His own Son to die for our sins. And it tells us that salvation is a free gift; you can’t earn it because there’s nothing you can do to merit it. You merit hell. But if you will reach out by faith and say, “Yes. I’m a sinner. Thank you, God, for sending your Son to die for me. And I receive Jesus Christ as the payment of my sin,” you can avoid hell.
Ankerberg: That brings us to the next question in the problem of evil. Okay, that’s fine and dandy for the guys that have the message and have heard, but what about the people that have never heard? How can God be fair, just and loving if people are going to go to hell that have never heard about Christ? And we’re going to talk about that in our next program. I hope you’ll join us.

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