Why Does God Allow Evil and Suffering in the World?/Program 7

By: Dr. Norman Geisler; ©2003
Any discussion about heaven and hell often leads to another question that needs to be answered: What happens to those who have not heard anything about God? Is it possible that they might be saved? This question is also part of the problem of evil. If something is unfair in God’s universe and God allowed it, then He wouldn’t be God. We spend the whole half-hour answering this question biblically.



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. If God exists, why does evil exist? Why do we experience so much suffering and pain? What about war and terrorism? Why does God permit all of this to happen if He’s all loving and all powerful? And part of the question that has to be answered when we’re discussing the topic of the problem of evil is hell, which we discussed last week. Is it fair? Is it right? What purpose does hell serve in God’s good universe? And that leads to another question, which is, what about the heathen who have never heard about God? If something is unfair in God’s universe and God allowed it, then He wouldn’t be God. Is it fair to send people to hell who have never heard the gospel? And this is a serious problem but it has a lot of biblical information that we need to share with the people. Let’s start off, first of all, with the question, “Are people lost who have never heard the gospel and decided for Christ?”
Geisler: The biblical answer to that is, “Yes.” Romans 1:19-20 says they are “without excuse” because they know there’s a Creator. They look at creation. Romans 2:12-15 says they have a moral law “written in their hearts.” And those who live by the law of Moses will die by it, and those who don’t have it will perish by the law written within their hearts. So, clearly the Bible says that unsaved people who’ve never heard the gospel are lost because they have general revelation, sometimes called “common grace,” and they know the light of creation and conscience.
Ankerberg: Yeah. And the question is, can they be saved by that revelation which God has given to them?
Geisler: Well, that’s a different question. They can be condemned by it, but they can’t be saved by it. For example, we can be condemned by the written law of Moses, but we can’t be saved by it. It’s like a measuring rod. You can take the measuring rod out and measure and say, “Hey, I’m short,” but eating the rod won’t make you taller. Or you can take a plumbline out and say, “Hey, the building is crooked” but you don’t tie the plumbline around the building to straighten up the building.” You can look in the mirror and say, “Hey, my face is dirty but you don’t wash your face with the mirror.” So, the law was only to condemn us, not to save us.
Ankerberg: Is it fair, then, if it can only condemn us and not save us?
Geisler: Well, it’s fair if we seek God and He gives us more light; and the Bible says He does. If you were lost in a jungle and it was pitch black, and you can slice the darkness with a knife and you saw one speck of light, what would you do? You go for it, right? And if you go for light, it gets bigger. Now, the Bible says, “men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” [John 3:19] So, if they turn their back on the little light they have and find themselves in total darkness, it’s their fault. But if they seek that light, God will give them more light; because if you go for a little light and get closer to it, it becomes a brighter light. </nowiki>
There’s a great story of Samuel Morris in the book, The March of Faith, one of the best little books I’ve ever read on this topic. He was in the middle of a jungle in Africa. His enemies had thrown him in a pit, put honey in and man-eating ants in there. He escaped and there was a light that led him out of the jungle to a missionary. He became a believer, accepted Christ, hopped on a boat, won almost everybody on the boat to the Lord. Came over and went to Taylor University years and years ago. There was a film made on his life by that same title, The March of Faith. Well, this is a triumphant story of somebody who sought the light and God provided more light.
I was in Eastern Europe behind the Iron Curtain before it fell, and there was a Russian girl there who was seeking God. She was walking down the road and a Bible, a New Testament, fell out of a building and hit her on the foot. She picked it up and read it and was saved!
I was in Tennessee here a number of years ago speaking, and a Chinese student came up to me. He was from Mainland China before the Bamboo Curtain had any crack in it at all. And I said, “Well, how did you get over here?”
He said, “Well, I was seeking God. There was no Bible in Chinese in my city. I heard there was a Bible in English in our local library. So I studied English for five years, borrowed the Bible, read it, and got saved. I applied to my government to go to seminary. They didn’t know what the word “seminary” meant and they let me come. And here I am.” So, “Seek, and ye shall find” [Matt. 7:7].
There are two verses that are really great on this: Hebrews 11:6: “He that comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him”; and Acts 10:35: “Now we know in every nation he that fears God and works righteousness is accepted with Him.”
So, sure, they’re lost by the light they have. If they seek the light they have, God will give them more light. He will send them a missionary or a Bible, send an angel to talk to them, mail them a tract, drop a Bible out a window. He’ll do anything He can.
Ankerberg: He’ll spur a Christian like Peter, the story of Cornelius and Peter. Cornelius wanted to know the truth and it took God three times to get Peter motivated to get over there.
Geisler: Exactly. But he finally got over there and Cornelius was ready and waiting and received the Holy Spirit actually.
Ankerberg: For those who don’t know who Cornelius and Peter are?
Geisler: Read Acts 10.
Ankerberg: But Cornelius was a person who was a pagan and did not know about God, but apparently wanted to know God – just like what you’re talking about. And Peter, who was the leader of the Church at that time, was sent over by God to this man. And he didn’t want to go, and had all kinds of reasons. But God convinced him that he should. And so that’s what you’re saying: God will do this in the world. God wants people to come to know Him.
Geisler: More than they want to come to know Him.
Ankerberg: Okay, but right along this line, do you remember way back when we did a program one time and Phil Donahue had just come out with a book, and he was talking about the reasons why he had left the faith. And one of the reasons had to do with original sin, and saying, “That’s not fair because Adam sinned, made a choice and we were born with a spiritual vacuum and that was passed on, therefore, if we follow that spiritual vacuum, the fact is that we’ll go to hell. How can that be fair?” You’ve got another illustration that I’d like you to share with us. It’s about people being born on a road, etc. Tell us about that.
Geisler: Let me tell you a humorous thing about Phil Donahue. The title of that book was Donahue, by Donahue. That proves depravity right there: a book by Donahue on Donahue. If he didn’t believe in original depravity he just ought to meditate on the cover!
Secondly, he has some silly things in that book and that’s one silly thing. Another silly thing was, “If God thought sex was good, then why did He bypass sex to get His own Son into this world?” Virgin birth. And C. S. Lewis answered that one in advance years ago, 40 years before Donahue. He said, “The virgin birth is no more an insult to sex than multiplying loaves is an insult to bakers.” It’s not an insult at all. So, Donahue’s arguments weren’t very profound and the answer is very simple: “Sure, we’re born depraved. We’re born with a propensity to sin and a necessity to die.” We didn’t have any choice. Adam made that choice in chapter 3 of Genesis. Romans 5:12 talks about it.
But it’s like being born on a road that’s going down and it’s going to go over the edge of a cliff. So, that’s the kind of road we’re born on. However, there are warning signs along the way. And if you crash, if you go over that hill, you go over for two reasons: 1. You were born on that hill going that direction – we’re hellbent from the time of our birth. We’re “children of wrath;” [Eph. 2:3] but 2. you failed to heed the warnings along the way. There are a lot of warnings that say, “Turn or perish. Turn around!” and we didn’t heed them. So we can’t blame God for the second one. That’s our choice. We’d never gone off the cliff unless we had chosen not to turn around.
Ankerberg: Last week you showed us that God is willing that all should come to repentance. He really wants that, but He won’t force us, alright? And you used an illustration about a farmer with a pond where he put up a sign on the tree that said, “No swimming.” Had a fence there. But three boys came, jumped over the fence, went into the pond. For the people that missed the whole thing, illustrate that God is really willing that none should perish.
Geisler: The farmer, if he was really all loving, would have tried to save all three boys, even though there is a fence and a sign saying, “Don’t swim.” If he comes upon the three boys drowning, anyone who had the right kind of love in his heart would have tried to save everybody. But according to the extreme Calvinists, God only tries to save some and only saves some. And that’s contrary to the Bible which says, “God so loved the world;” [John 3:16] “Christ died not only for our sins, but for those of the whole world.” [1 John 2:2] Ephesians, Romans, all kinds of passages in the Bible. That He tasted death for all men. [Heb. 2:9] God loves everyone, and what’s wrong with this extreme Calvinist position is that God only loves some people. He doesn’t love everybody. He’s a partially loving God.
Well, now, they answer my illustration by saying, “Well, it’s not like that at all. It was a king who had a servant and they were totally dependent on the king, and he graciously lavished on them everything they needed and they’re drowning in a pond.” They make the illustration better; they make it more reason why God in His mercy ought to reach out and save everyone. They don’t answer either the Scripture verses which clearly say – now how much more clear can you get – 2 Peter 2:1, which says, “They denied the Lord who bought them”? In other words, the people who are apostate who deny Christ, He still bought them with His blood. “He is the satisfaction for our sins and for that of the whole world.” [1 John 2:2]
There is just passage after passage, Scripture after Scripture saying God is all loving and He wants to save everyone. Even Romans 9, their famous passage, which they think proves their points says that “He endured these vessels of wrath.” [Rom. 9:22] That means He was waiting for them to repent. He’s enduring in His patience waiting for them to repent. They’re “vessels of wrath” not because He made them that, but because they did by their own choice.
Ankerberg: You say that there are two questions involved in answering the question, “What if the pagan who has never heard actually turns toward the light. He doesn’t turn away. Can he be saved if he turns toward the light?” There’s two things that need to be answered.
Geisler: Well, he can be saved if he turns toward the light if he gets the light of salvation about Christ, because you cannot be saved apart from the knowledge of Christ. Acts 4:12 says, “Neither is there salvation in any other, for there is none other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved.”
Romans 10:14 says, “How shall they call on him of whom they’ve not heard? How shall they hear without a preacher?” Unless somebody comes with the message of the Gospel, you cannot be saved. In fact, Paul said, “There is one God and one Mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus.” [1 Tim. 2:5] And Jesus said, “Unless you believe in Me, you will die in your sins. He that believes not on the Son is condemned already.” [John 8:24; 3:18] So there are numerous passages of Scriptures that say you must believe on Christ, so it is our obligation to get the message of Christ out to the entire world.
Ankerberg: Okay. We need to answer the question that many people have, “What about those who die before the age of accountability?” What is that all about for people who aren’t familiar with that language?
Geisler: Well, first of all, there is an age of accountability. If you’re not old enough to knowingly sin, you’re not old enough to savingly believe. And if you’re not old enough to knowingly sin, you’re not old enough to suffer the consequences of that. God is just. I think the age of accountability is spoken of in the Bible in several places. One in Deuteronomy, one in Isaiah 7:15 which say the same thing: “Before the child was old enough to know good from evil.” Clearly it talks about an age before people were morally aware.
The Bible also speaks of David’s baby dying, and he said, “The baby is not going to come back to me, I’m going to go be with the baby.” [2 Sam. 12] And we know David was going to Heaven – Psalm 16 talks about the resurrection and being in God’s presence.
So, there are children who died before the age of accountability. Jesus said, “Suffer little children to come unto me, for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” [Luke 18:16] God is just and Jesus said in John 9, if you didn’t have the light, you wouldn’t be guilty. But now that you have the light, you are guilty. So this is a general principle. It’s just. God’s justice, in general, all show that.
The question is, what is that age? And I think it varies somewhere between, say, four and twelve. If you have a lot of light, if you come into a Christian home, Christian context, you have a lot of light, I think it brings it on earlier. The very fact that many children make decisions for Christ when they’re four or five; most of ours did. I had a son, for example, who is in the ministry today who came to me when he was four. I was shaving, and he said, “Daddy, I want to know how to go to Heaven.” And so I sat down there on the edge of the bathtub with him and led him to Christ. And afterwards I wanted to see if he was really sincere and so I said to him, “Did you accept Jesus in your heart?” and he said, “Yes.” And I said, “Well, how do you know?” to test him. He said, “Well, I accepted Jesus in my heart and…” – if he had finished the sentence it would have been fine, “and He came in.” But he didn’t. He said, “I accepted Jesus in my heart and when I get to heaven, I’m going to give Him a great big hug and kiss.”
So, I mean, children can and do become saved. But you can’t become “saved” if you’re not “lost.” So I’d say, four years of age, and in the heathen lands where there is not much light, it might go as long as twelve. Sometime in there when you become conscious of a God [Rom. 1:19; Rom. 2:12-15], and you become conscious of the fact that you are not responding to what He wants to do in your life, you’re morally accountable.
Ankerberg: Yeah, I can remember the first time I went to Ethiopia. The missionaries took me out to a spot. They said people have never heard the gospel in this area, and I thought, “What would it be like to preach to those people?” Okay? I thought, “Is it a blank slate?” And I found out that what Romans was talking about, that from the creation they understand about the Creator and His power, okay. They were more sensitive to that I felt than I was at that point. They knew about the Creator, they just didn’t know how to come into a relationship with Him. But I was amazed how sensitive these people that had never heard – how sensitive they were to that.
Geisler: There is an African who has done a scholarly study on it. His name is Mbiti. It’s on the African tribal religions. And he has shown that in all of the preliterate – we used to call them “pagans,” now “preliterate” – in all the preliterate religions, there is a consciousness of this high God or sky God. They don’t worship him because their sins have separated them. They’re interested in getting the demons off their neck, you know. But they believe in one God; He created everything else, so they know He is there.
Ankerberg: Norman, will there be more people in Heaven or in hell? This comes up from a verse in Matthew 7 where Jesus says, “Enter by the narrow gate, for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate, and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.” [Matt. 7:13-14] A lot of people, preachers preach on this and say, “There are going to be a lot lost and few saved.” But that’s not necessarily the case, though. Why?
Geisler: Well, it might be true but you can’t prove it by that verse. In fact, I don’t know any verse by which you can prove it. B. B. Warfield, the great fundamentalist from the turn of the century, 1900, wrote an article on it titled, Are There Few That Be Saved?, and he concluded that you can’t prove from any of those verses that there are only going to be a few people saved because they’re talking about the immediate, temporal response to Jesus, not the ultimate eternal statistics of heaven and hell. So you can’t use those verses to prove it. I think you could possibly give a plausible case that more people will be saved than lost ultimately, as strange as that may seem.
Number one, by analogy. One-third of the angels fell but two-thirds didn’t. So there, all the angels had a free choice. One-third are going to be lost and two-thirds are going to be saved. Furthermore, those who died before the age of accountability are saved. They’re all covered by “Christ died for all.” They didn’t actuate their sinful status so God, in His love, saved them. Read Romans 5:18-19. So, if all the people who died before the age of accountability – and I’m told that worldwide, if the age of accountability is as high as 8, 10 or 12, as we thought in pagan lands, almost half of all the people who are ever born die before that age – so that would be half the population of the world right there. And people say, “Well, are there going to be people from all these countries in Heaven?” Yes, even if a missionary didn’t get there, there are going to be people there, maybe more than from North America.
So, you’ve got the infant mortality rate. You’ve got the percentage of angels thing. Then, you’ve got six billion people. Well, that’s almost half of all the people who ever lived. If we had a massive revival today in the world, we could sweep almost half of all the people who ever lived into the Kingdom and it’s our obligation to get out and get the gospel to all of them.
Ankerberg: This question is asked on one side by sincere believers, and on the other side by the atheistic critic, the skeptic. It goes like this: the critic would say, “You couldn’t be happy in Heaven if you knew your loved one, or anybody else, was suffering in hell.” The sincere Christian says, “How can I be happy if I’m the wife or the husband and I go to Heaven, and my mate goes to hell?” How do you answer that?
Geisler: C. S. Lewis gave a good answer to that in his book, The Problem of Pain. He has a chapter on hell. It’s probably the best single chapter written on hell, and then this whole book, The Great Divorce. He said, first of all, the presupposition of the question must be rejected. It’s “I’m more merciful than God.” It’s Bravo for me. I mean, God is infinitely merciful and I’m saying, “I’m more merciful than God. I mean, I wouldn’t have done it that way.”
Secondly, they’re failing to understand that when we get to Heaven, we’re going to look at it through the glasses of ultimate justice and it’s going to be an entirely different perspective. If I offered you, if you were poor and hungry and I offered you a meal and you refused it, would that mean that I shouldn’t eat and be happy? Just because you refused food and died of starvation doesn’t mean that I can’t enjoy a meal. And C. S. Lewis has a great line: “If that were true that people in hell could make people in Heaven unhappy, then hell could veto Heaven.” And hell can’t veto Heaven. Evil can’t veto good.
Ankerberg: I would also say, too, that would mean that while they’re living, you would be saying, “God, even though they don’t choose to love you, force them to do it just because of what I think about it.”
Geisler: Sure.
Ankerberg: And you can’t do that here, and you won’t be able to do it later.
Geisler: You can’t force the hungry to eat, either.
Ankerberg: We’ve been talking about the problem of evil. Summarize the whole case, if you will. Where did evil come from? Why does God permit it? When is He going to stop it? And what’s the purpose for this freedom that He has given us?
Geisler: There’s a good God, infinitely good, infinitely powerful, infinitely wise. Knew everything was free; didn’t have to create; didn’t create because He needed us – He didn’t need anything. He was infinitely perfect in Himself. Created us because He wanted to, wanted to share His goodness with us. Made perfect creatures called angels, some called human beings. These perfect creatures had a perfect thing called “free will.” They used that freedom to rebel against God. That’s called “evil.” They brought all of the disaster, sin, catastrophe that this world has. Didn’t catch God by surprise.
He preplanned that He would permit this evil to achieve a greater good. Sent His Son into the world to die for evil. He defeated evil officially at His first coming on the cross; He’s going to come back again and defeat it actually at His Second Coming. Our hope that that will happen is that what He predicted the first time would happen did happen, all literally true: 190 prophecies in the Old Testament were fulfilled at Christ’s first coming. That’s my guarantee or down payment that He’s going to return and finish the job, and then separate good from evil – not against our freedom but according to our freedom. Do you freely want to love God? Okay – place called Heaven. You want to do your own thing – place called hell. Separate good from evil. No more evil to bother good people; no more good to bother evil people – they can each do according to their will which is the right thing for free creatures.
Ankerberg: And Jesus Christ was sent to be the One who would pay the great price so that we’d have a chance to choose. Okay? Talk about people not bypassing what Christ has done, and the necessity, the importance, if you will, of putting their trust in Christ.
Geisler: There is only one God and there is only one Mediator between God and man [1 Tim. 2:5], because only the Person who is both God and man can reach to God because He is God, reach to man because He is man, and bring God and man together. That’s why, “There is no salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men, by which we must be saved.” [Acts 4:12] He’s the only One who could possibly save the whole world. Buddha died and he is still dead. Muhammad died and he is still dead. Confucius died and he is still dead. Jesus rose from the dead to prove He is the Son of God, and God offers Him as a free gift to anyone who will believe. It’s an offer nobody should refuse.
Ankerberg: I hope that you will invite Christ into your life, you will trust Him, you will put your faith in Him. And, Dr. Geisler, thank you for sharing all of this information concerning the problem of evil.


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