Why Does God Allow Evil and Suffering in the World?/Program 8

By: Dr. Norman Geisler; ©2003
A summary of the case, that all evil is connected to free choice.



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. If God exists, why is there evil in the world? For those of us who deeply believe in God, we also believe evil is very real, but God didn’t make it. So, how did evil originate, if God created everything and everything He created was perfect and good?
Geisler: That’s a good question. If God created everything and evil is something, it would look like God created evil. So we’re in a painful dilemma. If we deny the first premise–that God created everything, then we’re not really Christians, we’re dualists that believe good and evil are eternal or something. If we deny the second premise, it would look like we’re pantheists–that we don’t believe that evil is real. So, the dilemma is real for a Christian. If God created everything and evil is something, then God created evil. But the Bible says God cannot even look on evil (Habakkuk 1:13), He is so pure. “Holy, holy, holy,” the angel sings. So what do we do?
Ankerberg: All right. Well, that is the question. How do you handle it?
Geisler: Well, St. Augustine struggled with this way back in the 400’s. He was a part of a Manachean cult where they believed that evil and good were both eternal. And he struggled with it until he came to the conclusion that evil is a privation, it’s a lack in something. Evil doesn’t exist in itself. It’s like a parasite–it exists in something else. For example, evil is like rust to a car. You have to have iron to have rust. So you have to have something good for evil to exist in it. It’s like a wound in an arm. You can’t have a wound unless you have an arm or a leg or something to have a wound in. Evil is like rot to a tree. You have to have a tree before it can have rot in it.
So, evil doesn’t exist in itself. It only exists in something else. So the answer is, God created everything and everything He created was good. And so God created every good thing, but evil came and corrupted those good things. He didn’t create the corruption. He created the uncorrupted thing that the corruption later came to.
Ankerberg: Yeah. Let’s slow that down for people because let’s say that in one sense we’re saying that evil is real, but it’s not a thing. So that’s hard for them to get a handle on. And let’s slow that down. The fact is, when God made a perfect man, okay, He also gave him choice. And this is where the possibility comes in for evil taking place. Take it from there.
Geisler: Yeah. I think the first thing we need to say, John, is that a privation is the lack in something. It’s an absence of something that ought to be there. It’s not “nothing”–it’s real. For example, it’s real to be blind, but blindness is a privation of sight. It’s a lack of sight. It’s real to be maimed. Tie your arm behind your back and walk around for a day and you’ll say, “That’s a real handicap.” Or close your eyes and walk around for a day and you’ll say blindness is real. So, evil is real, but it’s a real lack in something that ought to be there.
Then the question is, “Well, how did that lack get there?” And that answer is, I think, free choice. God made us free creatures. Freedom makes evil possible. God made us perfectly good. He made us with the capacity to choose. We are the ones who brought evil in.
Ankerberg: So, Christians admit that evil is real. It’s a “lack” or privation in the good things that God has created. That is, evil is a lack or privation of something that should be there. For example, both a blind man and a rock can’t see, but it’s an evil thing for the man, not for the rock. Why? Because God intended and created the man to see; He didn’t create rocks with sight. Blindness is a true lack and an evil for the man because he is missing something which should be there. God didn’t give sight to rocks, so their not having it is not an evil. But then, how does free choice–something good that God gave to man–how does this good thing result in evil? Dr. Geisler explains:
Ankerberg: “God is absolutely perfect.” We all agree about that. “God cannot create anything imperfect.” We all agree with that one. “And a perfect creature,” he said, “cannot do evil.” We don’t agree with that and you’ve got to tell us why in a moment. “And therefore evil,” he said, “cannot arise in such a world. But evil did arise.” I mean, look around. It’s here. Okay? Evil did arise in the world, hence, either a.) God is not absolutely perfect; or b.) God did not create a perfect creature. Okay? And those are false because, premise c.) a perfect creature cannot do evil, that’s not right. Why?
Geisler: It’s not right because one of the perfections that God gave His creatures was free choice. Free choice is good. I’ve never seen anyone marching against freedom, you know, carrying a sign saying, “Down with freedom. Back to bondage. I want to do everything my mother ever told me.” Nobody ever marches against freedom. In fact, if you did march against freedom, you would be marching for it because you would be using your freedom to march against freedom. So, even an act against freedom is an act of freedom. So you can’t deny that freedom is good. Even the people who say, “I don’t think it’s good to be free,” ask them, “Do you think it was good that you could say that?” They believe it’s good to be free. So, free is a good, but freedom makes evil possible. A perfect being who has a perfect thing called free will can bring evil into the universe. And in fact, did. His name was Lucifer and the next one was named Adam.
Ankerberg: All right, there’s a couple of questions right there. But let’s start with the statement you made in your book: “God made evil possible via free will,” which is good. Okay? “But free creatures made evil actual.” All right? The question is, if a free creature is perfect, okay? What’s even motivating him to choose evil because there’s nothing in him to start with that is evil because he was made perfect?
Geisler: That’s a good question. It’s like asking who made God. No one made God. He was always there. What caused Lucifer to sin? No one caused him to sin. He was the cause of it. So you can’t ask, “What’s the cause of God?” since He’s the first cause; and you can’t ask, “What caused Lucifer to sin?” Because he was the first cause. So it’s what we call a category mistake. It’s like asking, “Where was the man when he jumped off the bridge?” You say, “He was in the air.” No. That was after he jumped. You say, “He was on the bridge.” No, that was before he jumped. Where was he when he jumped off the bridge? See, it’s a category mistake because jumping is a process. You see, you can’t ask a pinpoint location of a process activity, and you can’t ask, “Who made the one who made it?” because the one who made it is the one who caused it, and Lucifer caused the first sin; Adam caused the first sin among human beings, and so their free will was the first cause of sin, and there is no cause of the first cause.
Ankerberg: Yeah. I think that the hairy aspect of this, the important aspect, if I could put it that way, is that freedom all of a sudden comes with a ton of responsibility. Because what we’re saying is that God gave us freedom, which is a good thing. But boy, I’ll tell you, if you misuse that freedom–which we have done–the consequences are off the charts. Talk about some of the consequences that came, and maybe run through the choices. In other words, in Adam, the first man–how did this free creature who was perfect,… You know, Augustine had a kind of neat way of talking about it. Run through that for the people. Keep it slow so we can understand here.
Geisler: Well, basically, they had two choices: they could either go their way or God’s way. God freely created them and He gave them freedom. Now, if they really have freedom, they can love Him or hate Him. They can worship Him or blaspheme Him. So, what was the first sin? The first sin was the choice to choose the lesser good of my will over the greater good of God’s will. So, it wasn’t a choice of evil. It was an evil choice. There was no evil to choose because there was God and all His perfect creatures. There was no evil in the environment. There was no evil around them. There was no evil within them. So what their choice was, was the choice to go their way rather than God’s way, to will the lesser good of the creature over the greater good of the Creator. That’s how evil entered the world: when a good creature, using a good thing called free will, willed a lesser good over the greater good. It’s called pride.
Ankerberg: I’ve met many people, maybe you have too, who have seen great evil in their lives. As a result of seeing that evil, they have concluded that God doesn’t exist. But that’s not true. Evil does not prove God doesn’t exist. Why? There are several reasons, and Dr. Geisler and I talk about these reasons next. Listen:
Geisler: Well, first of all, I think the thing to point out in this whole issue, John, is that the problem of evil boomerangs for the unbeliever. It boomerangs because they like to say there’s evil, therefore there can’t be a God. Just the opposite is true. If there’s evil, there must be a God because you can’t know something is wrong unless you know what’s right. You can’t know something is injust unless you know what just is. And you can’t certainly know that something is ultimately injust unless there’s an ultimate standard of justice, that God is the ultimate standard of justice. So you have to posit God to attack God, arguing in a circle.
Ankerberg: Yeah. Define the God that we’re talking about, that we’re defending.
Geisler: We’re talking about a God who is all powerful; who is all good; who is free; who is all knowing. That’s called a theistic God, the God of the Bible. That kind of God is not only a problem in the face of evil, but it turns out, He’s the only solution to the problem of evil.
Ankerberg: Why is He the solution and also the guarantee that evil is going to be taken care of?
Geisler: Because if He is not all powerful, you can’t be sure that He’ll overpower it. If He’s not all good, you can’t be sure that He has the desire to do it. And if He doesn’t know the end from the beginning, then you’re dealing with somebody who is fumbling along in history and doesn’t know how it’s going to come out.
Ankerberg: When you listen to someone talk about pain and suffering, you want to hear from someone who has actually experienced evil and suffering and gotten through it. Dr. Geisler tragically lost his daughter just a short time before we taped this interview, and in light of that, I asked him what he had discovered about God’s promises and the very things we are sharing with you. Listen:
Ankerberg: And people that are listening right now, they probably want to ask you and say, “When you went through that and you went back on the very things that you’re explaining to us, did it work for you? Does it still make sense? Was it helpful for you? Is this something that really is what people need to latch onto?”
Geisler: I remember that very well, John. I remember saying to Rabbi Kushner, “I empathize with you. I sympathize with you. But you know, your God is not the kind of God that can give you any ultimate comfort in this because you are not even sure you’ll see your son again because you didn’t even believe that he would live on after death for sure.” And I said, “Your God is not all powerful and He can’t bring good out of evil. So the kind of God you need is the kind of God who is in the Bible, who is all powerful and all good and all knowing and can do something for your situation.” Never knowing, at the time, that I would go through things that probably are as equally difficult or worse than Rabbi Kushner did. Since that time, in 18 months we lost a father, a mother, a sister, a brother-in-law, and our two closest friends. And I had been a pastor for years and I had comforted people in their sorrow and in their suffering, but I wasn’t ready for the biggest evil that ever hit me–when our daughter died a tragic death just two years ago. And it’s just something, John, that you have to experience to understand. It’s like a hundred-foot tall tidal wave coming at you and you know you can’t swim. And I had to cast myself on the grace of God and trust that what I believed was really true. “My grace is sufficient for you,” the Apostle Paul said in 2 Corinthians 12. And I would wake up at night singing songs on the attributes of God–“God is light; God is good; God is eternal; God is gracious. It is well with my soul. Peace like a river”–all these great hymns of the faith that talk about the attributes of God–were the only comfort I had, because everything human had evaporated. The best things around me–father, mother, brother, sisters and now, daughter, that tragedy was so great in our lives that we tested the grace of God. We tested the character of God. And we found Him to be faithful, absolutely unimaginably faithful to us. And the grace of God brought us through that difficult circumstance, only because I knew that God was all loving and He had a good purpose for it. He was all powerful and He was going to bring something greater out of it. And I was going to see my mother, my father, my sister, brother, daughter again someday in Heaven because He could resurrect the dead and is going to resurrect them. And that was the strength that kept us going and we made it through that very difficult circumstance.
Ankerberg: Most people can understand how evil originated as a result of God giving man the good thing of free choice. Adam and Eve took that good thing and freely chose to rebel against God. As a result, evil came into existence. But how can free choice also be the cause of physical evils, such as tornadoes, lightning, hurricanes, and cancer? We didn’t choose to have any of these affect us. Listen:
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.” 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 8:20ff: “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: One of the big questions that people have regarding the problem of evil is this: “If God is God, He can do anything He wants to do. So, why wouldn’t He stop some of the great evils of our day from happening? The Bible says He will someday, but right now He has a good reason for permitting evil to occur. What are those reasons? Listen:
Ankerberg: All right. 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, all right, with some of these things that are happening, shoot! God could miraculously intervene and stop the lightning from coming out of the sky, stop the tornado and the hurricane, stop 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 and lightning 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 come up, 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: People say, “Could God, 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.

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