The question above is one of the most frequently asked questions in the world, I think. Unbelievers ask it of believers, and believers ask it of other believers and of God Himself. It is not an easy question to answer, but there are some relevant biblical passages that I think help to understand.
I am indebted to John MacArthur, John Piper, Lee Strobel and others in developing my own understanding of how to handle this question.
The tragedy and suffering to which I am referring can fall into various categories, I think. Natural disasters and acts of human depravity are the ones we most often think of, and the ones of which this question is most often asked, I think, but the same question can be asked when bad things happen to good people or when wicked people seek to prosper (when good things happen to bad people, in other words). While my answer is aimed primarily at the first two, the principles are applicable to the second two.
Acts of human depravity prompt strong emotions. The resulting emotions are so strong, in fact, that in extreme instances people can remember exact details of where they were when they first heard of the tragedy. Those who were alive during the attack on Pearl Harbor never forgot that news. I can remember my mother telling me of her recollection of getting the news that President Kennedy had been assassinated. I, like many others, remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I first learned of the events of 9/11. It is normal to try to make sense of these senseless acts of violence, and it can be difficult, at best, to try to reconcile these events with a belief that God is a loving and all-powerful God.
Before looking at Scripture in an effort to understand why such horrible acts of human depravity can occur if God is indeed a God of love, two background principles are important. First, Jesus Himself promised, in John 16:33, that we will have tribulations as long as we are on this earth. Second, in I Corinthians 13:12, Paul explains that right now, in our finite human minds, we can see only dimly–we know only in part. Like looking through a fog or gazing into a dirty mirror, we cannot get a high resolution image of why things occur. God has that perspective, and perhaps in eternity–if we still want to know–God will grant us that perspective, but we will never be able to grasp sharp, specific answers to any one natural disaster or act of depravity. As frustrating as that may be for me or for you, that’s simply “the way it is.” I do not know why God allowed Hurricane Katrina to wipe out New Orleans, or why God did not stop a young man from chaining doors shut to maximize the loss of life on the campus of Virginia Tech. Furthermore, I would approach with skepticism any person who claims to have a specific explanation for such tragedies. The reality is, we cannot fully know the mind of God in such instances.
But there is plenty that we can know, and I turn now to that.
First, God did not create evil and suffering. In Genesis 1:31 God said, after six days of creation, that the world He created was good. Accordingly, there was no evil or suffering at the end of creation; had there been, God could not have said everything was good. In I Corinthians 14:33 it says that God is not a God of confusion. Regardless of whatever else may occur in the aftermath of natural disasters or acts of mass violence, confusion always results. The panic, the screaming, the smoke and dust, the complete chaos… God does not, and cannot, author such things. I John 1:5 says that in God there is no darkness at all. Habakkuk 1:13 says that “God is of purer eyes than to approve evil or behold evil. He cannot look on wickedness.” And I John 2:16 says, “All that is in the world, all evil categorically, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, the pride of life is not of the Father.”
However, God had to give human beings a free will in order to give humans the ability to love. Love, whatever else it is or however else it may be defined, is a choice, and without the ability and freedom to make a choice, humans could not love–one another, or God; for if love is a choice, “forced” or “programmed” love is not love at all.
So how did evil enter the world? First, recall that Lucifer was cast out of heaven for wanting to be like God. Isaiah 14:12-14 describes Lucifer’s arrogance and resulting fall. Notice the repeated “I” statements in that passage. Lucifer wanted to be like God. In Luke 10:18 Jesus describes seeing Lucifer fall from heaven like lightening from the sky. Interestingly, Satan, in the guise of a serpent, then tempted Eve the same way in Genesis 3, telling her that if she ate of the fruit, she would be like God.
Sin, then, entered the world through Adam and Eve, and has been inherited by every human being thereafter. See Romans 5:12. Jeremiah 17:9 says that the human heart is desperately wicked. James 1:14 says that each person is drawn away by his own lust–meaning we each have our own unique sin nature and proclivities.
John MacArthur, in his sermon “The Origin of Evil,” says: “Listen to this, to disobey God was to initiate evil. Evil is not the presence of something, evil is the absence of righteousness. You can’t create evil because evil doesn’t exist as a created entity. It doesn’t exist as a created reality. Evil is a negative. Evil is the absence of perfection. It’s the absence of holiness. It’s the absence of goodness. It’s the absence of righteousness. Evil became a reality only when creatures chose to disobey. Evil came into existence initially then in the fall of angels and then next, in the fall of Adam and Eve.”
So, God did not create evil, but He did create the possibility for evil to exist by giving human beings a free will, the ability to choose, and make their own decisions. God could have chosen to make us robots, but He didn’t.
Second, God is omnipotent, and He could stop or prevent evil if He wanted to do so. This is perhaps the hardest part to wrap our minds around and come to grips with, because we, in our limited understanding, cannot fathom having the ability to prevent evil and not doing so. In Genesis 18:14a we see the rhetorical question, “Is anything too hard for God?” The answer, of course, is no. In Mark 10:27 we see Jesus Himself say, “All things are possible with God.” In Job, we see that God limits the power and reach of Satan (see Job 1:12 and 2:6). So no evil takes place that God does not allow to occur, and no evil takes place that God could not stop. Remember, however, that preventing or eliminating evil would necessitate the removal or, at the very least, the partial suspension of free will.
Third, though evil (including pain, suffering, tribulation, persecution, etc.) is not good, and is not from God, God can and does work through evil to accomplish His purposes. In Romans 8:28 we have the verse that is probably too cavalierly used in attempting to comfort and encourage those who are going through difficulties, but that does not change the veracity of the verse: “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (NASB, emphasis added). That little three-letter word “all” is really a huge word, because it means that there is nothing that God cannot and does not work through for the good of those who love Him. God is never surprised, and is never left thinking, “Now how am I going to make anything good out of this?” In His omniscience, He knows full well exactly what will happen and when, and how He will work through it.
In Isaiah 46:9-10 we see that God’s purposes will be accomplished–so evil cannot thwart or derail the plans of God. In Genesis 50:20 we see an excellent example. If anyone had lived a life that would prompt questioning God’s goodness and love it was Joseph. He was sold by his own brothers into slavery, then, after working his way to the top of Potiphar’s household was falsely accused of rape and imprisoned, and when he translated dreams for two of Pharaoh’s servants he asked them not to forget him, but they did, for several years. Yet, looking back on all that, Joseph was able to tell his brothers that what they had intended for evil God had used for good. In Philippians 1:12 there is a great New Testament example. Paul had suffered tremendously for the cause of Christ, from beatings to stonings to shipwrecks to imprisonment, and yet he wrote that what had happened had really served to further the gospel. We may not be able to understand why, but for whatever reason, God allows deeds that He hates, and He works through them to accomplish His purposes and to bring glory o Himself.
After all, the greatest example of evil ever perpetrated by man would be the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Jesus was perfect–He had never sinned, never done a single thing worthy of punishment, and yet He was executed on a Roman cross. God could have prevented that evil; Jesus Himself could have refused to allow Himself to be executed. Yet, through that horrible act of human depravity, God worked to accomplish His plan to pay for the sins of humanity and to make possible the forgiveness of sins and the free gift of salvation.
Fourth, it is important that we keep in mind that we can question God–so long as we remember our place, and do so with reverence and respect. Many questions are put to God in the Psalms. Job questioned God. Habakkuk questioned God, too. After asking God whether He was aware of what was going on–and receiving God’s response that He knew exactly what was going on, and was going to address it–Habakkuk was incredulous. God’s solution seemed worse than the problem! By the end of the book though (see Habakkuk 3:16) Habakkuk is well aware of His place. He remembers that God is God, and he is not.
The web site gotquestions.org says, “It is entirely different to wonder why God allowed a certain event than it is to directly question God’s goodness. Having doubts is different from questioning God’s sovereignty and attacking His character. In short, an honest question is not a sin, but a bitter, untrusting, or rebellious heart is. God is not intimidated by questions. God invites us to enjoy close fellowship with Him. When we “question God” it should be from a humble spirit and open mind. We can question God, but we should not expect an answer unless we are genuinely interested in His answer. God knows our hearts, and knows whether we are genuinely seeking Him to enlighten us. Our heart attitude is what determines whether it is right or wrong to question God.”
In other words, there is a world of difference in questioning God out of a desire to understand and questioning God as an accusation. One is a humble acknowledgement of God’s sovereignty and an expression of a desire to know what we can learn, how we can help and how we can grow. The other is based on the position that we know better than God, and is the equivalent of yelling at God, “How dare you!”
Fifth, we must remember–and be encouraged by the fact–that God will eventually conquer evil once and for all. Satan has already been defeated, but God has thus far allowed the battles to rage on even though the war has been won. But Revelation 20 makes it absolutely clear that one day that will change; God will say “enough,” and Satan will be thrown forever into the lake of fire.
Finally, we must bear in mind that our suffering in this life is temporary, and it pales in comparison to what God has in store for us as believers in eternity. See Romans 8:18 and I Corinthians 2:9.
No one wants suffering or trials or tribulations or the seeming triumph of evil in this world. And there is nothing wrong with feeling grief, sadness and even anger over man’s inhumanity to man. There is nothing wrong with humbly questioning God. But the truth is, as long as we exist on this earth there will be evil. God, for reasons only He may understand, allows it, and works through it to accomplish His purposes.
So, what’s the bottom line? Evil exists in the world because God loved us enough to allow for the potential for evil to exist. I realize that does not seem to make sense. And please note that I did not say that evil is an expression of God’s love. It absolutely is not, and God hates evil. But God’s love for humans is stronger than His hatred of evil, and therefore He created a world in which we each have the freedom to make our own decisions–even when those decisions are to commit evil.
When we are faced with evil, we must decide how we will respond. We can turn from God, or we can turn to God. But the good news is found at the end of that verse we started with; John 16:33 does promise that we will have tribulation, but Jesus then says, “But take heart; I have overcome the world.”