We’ve entered the second installment of a three-part series examining whether belief in a good, benevolent God can be reasonably sustained in the face of the pain, suffering, and evil endured by God’s creation each day. We drew some philosophical conclusions in Part 1, but have yet to directly address the particular sufferings that we’re experiencing throughout the world right now — suffering like that of 20 million East Africans, whose food supply is currently threatened by a plague of locusts; and this, just after Kenya experienced one of its highest spikes in Coronavirus cases. It can feel like God is kicking people while they’re down.
Here in Part 2, I plan to lay out the case that, rather than God, we ourselves are to blame for the world’s evils and our own suffering. (If you doubt this, please read on and correct any of my wrong thinking in the comments.) Then in Part 3, I’ll submit to you that God — being far from the root of our troubles — is in fact our rescuer, and the only one we have from our self-induced suffering. Finally, I’ll provide evidence that God can in the short term purpose a greater good for a person as a result of their suffering, in addition to the long-term rescue he offers.
First, a brief recap: In Part 1, we used our own experiences and intellect to determine that a creator God (the first cause of this universe) is likely to exist and that it seems he created humans to have a unique intrinsic value. When that intrinsic value is violated, when a valuable person is harmed, we recognize evil. Further, the mere fact that there are events or choices that we’d universally label “truly evil” proves the existence of objective morality. (Importantly, we did not argue that a unanimous decision about each moral quandary throughout history must be reached in order to acknowledge that morality as an idea itself must have an objective quality at its core.) And objective morality requires a moral-law-giver — someone outside of time and space who can be the author of these laws we hold universally within time and space. We saw that this lawgiver must himself be perfectly good, in order to have a standard against which to compare all things, a standard by which to recognize a thing’s goodness or lack thereof.
So, evil does not disprove God. To use the existence of obvious evil or lawbreaking as proof against a lawgiver is like standing on a branch in order to cut the branch down. If this isn’t clear, go back and briefly reread the quotes and reasoning of CS Lewis, about 10 paragraphs into Part 1. Or consider the alternative; a world without God was correctly categorized by Carl Sagan in Cosmos this way: “The cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be.” Things are merely space & matter all the way down, just molecules in motion, so that something as emotionally-tied as morality has no actual foundation to speak of; we’re left with strong opinions, but mere opinions no less.
Very well, then; we have to believe in God in order to balk at the evil that exists. But this still doesn’t help us understand why he allows this evil to exist. This is the back half of the so-called problem of evil — the cognitive dissonance we have in thinking about an all-powerful, all-good God overseeing a world that suffers. Why doesn’t God stop the evil and suffering, eliminating it from our experience?
I hesitate to trivialize any of the actual recent tragedies by picking them apart. So let’s make up a new example we all know could happen today:
A black man named Sam and his wife Kate, who is white, are making a cross-country drive. They stop in a small town to get gas. Another customer at the station, named Frank, sees a black man with a white woman in his car, wrongfully assumes something nefarious is at play, and calls the police. Local policeman Officer Dale shows up; he sees Sam pointing something shaped like a gun (it’s the gas pump) at the car, and Officer Dale shoots and kills Sam. What could or should God have done to prevent this situation?
God could have stopped the bullet or caused the gun to misfire. He could have paralyzed Dale’s trigger finger. He could have done any number of things to prevent the officer from acting in free will. Or he could have interrupted Frank’s flow of consciousness so he didn’t have his racist thought, or maybe caused Frank’s 911 call to drop. A third option: He could have caused Sam and his wife to turn into another gas station in a town where mixed-race couples are not uncommon.
But would we be satisfied with one-off occurrences of God overriding a person’s free will? If he saved Sam’s life, shouldn’t God have done the same for any other major suffering in the world up to that point? Would we rather God fiddle with the mechanics of each person’s mind/body/soul so they can’t make a damaging choice? Maybe just for the worst circumstances... if we can get a handle of how to define “worst.” But how do we feel about a God who arbitrarily picks and chooses when and how often he paralyzes a person’s free will? Should God stop everyone from ever making a mistake or hurting someone else? It seems we could no longer call free will free will. If we’re never able to choose wrong, we aren’t then actually free to choose right; we just coast along, permanently in right “choice” mode. This sounds alarmingly like compliant robots, not autonomous creatures “made in the image of God” according to Genesis 1:26.
God is off the hook so far. But how do we square “natural” evil, where human free will doesn’t seem to play any role? As I laid out in Part 1,
If a huge tree branch falls, is that evil? The answer will be: it depends. If the branch falls softly on the forest floor and does no damage, we can probably agree a tree branch simply falling is not evil. But as you amplify the degrees in this thought experiment — pondering if the giant branch falls on a flower; or on a worm; or on Bambi; or on the hunter; or on your Great Aunt Mildred — we head in a direction of the branch’s fall having moral implications. The falling branch itself has no inherent evil; we simply recognize the tragedy of lost human life occurring in an otherwise-benign event.
The animal lover might cry that Bambi didn’t deserve to die; the animal’s activist might declare that the hunter certainly did. (“Karma.” 🤔) But Great Aunt Mildred? Wasn’t her worst crime sending you lame birthday presents? Why would God allow that branch to fall and kill her? He could have, for example, strengthened the branch without violating anybody’s free will.
This quandary is identical to those we face in considering Coronavirus hospitalizations and deaths, homes destroyed in the US’s Tornado Alley, seaside communities devasted by hurricanes and tsunamis, and those locusts in Africa eating up people’s food supply. They’re not the work of bad guys whose God-given free will is in play.
It is worth noting that some atrocities that appear at first blush to be natural do in fact have a human choice element. A couple examples: Coastal residents choose not to move away from the threat of hurricanes. (Besides, many of our natural disasters are thought to be an effect of climate change caused by the carbon emissions of humans.) And we now know that many of the wildfires like those actively destroying much of the western half of our nation right now are caused by arsonists; plus, this season, poor fire management policies have also been blamed.
But surely something akin to our fictional Aunt Mildred’s deadly walk through the woods was innocent, not some human-induced mistake in disguise. Plus many of the world’s impoverished citizens can’t simply up and leave their circumstances for something better. Where is God in their suffering?
The answer to this question lies at the heart of the Judeo-Christian worldview — woven into the narrative that unfolds in the Bible. If you’ll bear with me, we’ll get there and you’ll see what I mean. Sit tight.
First, let’s reestablish that God is a father, similarly though not exactly as I am or maybe you are. His children, like mine or yours, in their limited capacity cannot possibly understand why their father allows or even orchestrates some of the things that befall them. And to add to that, the gap of intellectual difference between me and my kids must pale in comparison to the chasm between God’s mind and ours. So if my kids think me a monster for holding them down while a tetanus shot is administered — something any good parent would do — for what “crimes” do you suppose God is held accountable by his children, his “offspring” who don’t have his mind, don’t know his ways, and are not his equals in intellect, stature or nature?
Let me, therefore, state a clear fact before we go any further: There is no way for the creature to know with certainty and clarity why the Creator let’s a specific evil event to occur. It is unreasonable for us to comprehend the multifaceted reasons that a universe-creating God might have had for allowing Breonna Taylor to die that night, or allowing your grandmother to have endured the holocaust, or allowing your neighbor’s cancer to come back, or… or… or…
Cases of a clear positive outcome of our suffering are either planned (surgery and recovery are painful, but the results can be fruitful) or they’re rare exceptions (an accident victim meets their future spouse while doing physical therapy). So instead of directly tackling questions to which we should expect no comprehensible answer this side of eternity, what I’m trying to help us do here is lay the groundwork needed before approaching the “Why would God allow X?” questions.
That exercise begins with us thinking critically about the whole story of the human experience. As suggested above, much can be gleaned from observing father-child relationships in this life. We can also read the history of God’s dealings with mankind in the pages of scripture and of history (I referenced God’s dealings with Egypt and Israel in Part 1). And we can consider the testimonies of people who trusted God as their heavenly father in spite of dire circumstances — examples being modern-day martyrs in countries where professing Christians are beheaded; or chaplains in South Sudan freedom-fighter squads, leaving their families for months and years at a time to spiritually feed men who are rescuing victims out of tyrannical and murderous government zones.
If we do our homework, we’ll find big clues to help us begin to grasp the measure of God’s love for his creation, and his desire for us to experience good (where “good” is by his perfect definition, which may not match what we might call good in our shortsightedness). But we’ll also see that he honors the free will he’s given mankind, in order to set us apart from the rest of his creation as unique, autonomous beings.
A good God has given us a good trait in the faculty of free will. Free will allows us to freely choose not only whether to harm or heal, but also whether to show love or show hate. As we said above, “love” by coercion is not what we define as love; it would be robotic. But if we can choose to love — to live selflessly, considering others as more important than ourselves — oh what joy it can bring to us and those on the receiving end of our love. This good trait, this gift from God, ought to shine light on his goodness.
The shadow, then, which is inevitably cast by any given human’s free choice of injustice against another human, ought to be a stain on the reputation of that human (and mankind in general), but not on God.
Justice, too, is a critical part of God’s nature and character. God bleeds justice (literally). He loves justice. He doesn’t need to add “social” to the front of it; Justice on its own will do. God will be sure that justice prevails, in the most perfect way, at just the right time.
St. Paul, who penned the majority of the New Testament, wrote: “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all people. Do not avenge yourselves, dear friends, but give place to God’s wrath, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.”
Paul would have been familiar with the words of the prophet Amos centuries preceding him: “[They] turn justice into bitterness; they throw what is fair and right to the ground. But there is one who.. can turn the darkness into morning and daylight into night. He summons the water of the seas and pours it out on the earth’s surface. The Lord is his name!” “For this reason… seek good and not evil so you can live! Then the Lord God of Heaven’s Armies just might be with you, as you claim he is. Hate what is wrong, love what is right. Promote justice at the city gate.” “…let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!”
And if we consider God the source of all good (Lewis’ “straight line”) then he feels deep sadness and offense at the commitment of injustice by a person (Lewis’ “crooked line”). In a certain way, God is the primary victim of injustice, himself being the Author of Justice and the divine lawgiver. Any wrong done against a creature also dishonors its creator too. You know the famous warrior-poet David, the all-star King of the Hebrews and hero of the Judeo-Christian faith? Well, at the height of his career as God’s appointed king, King David ordered what was essentially the death sentence of an innocent man — one of his own soldiers fighting for David’s kingdom— in order to steal the man’s attractive wife. When he was confronted by a close mentor, he went to his knees in repentance for his crime. And while the crime was obviously against this woman and her murdered husband, David apologized primarily to God in a song that became Psalm 51:
For I am aware of my rebellious acts;
I am forever conscious of my sin.
Against you — you above all — I have sinned;
I have done what is evil in your sight.
As I’ll demonstrate in our next piece, each of us has a bent towards committing injustice, which is classically called Sin. I use a capital S to differentiate between the individual “sins” or immoral choices we make, and the actual wrongness in our hearts — our crookedness, our Sin nature. While this bent was not part of the way God created us, the capacity for disobedience, rebellion and dishonor was in us when we were given free will. We freely chose (and still choose) to rebel against his divine purpose for us. When we chose rebellion, our judicial innocence was broken in an instant, and the “disease” of Sin became part of our nature — passed through our bloodlines as if genetic. This brokenness also infected nature’s nature, in that the world and her contents were no longer perfect nor in harmony with God’s perfect, original intent. This all unfolds in the first three chapters of the book of Genesis. The footnote below provides more detail if you‘re interested. 
If you find yourself doubting the story of reality as I’ve laid it out to this point, pause at this point and ask yourself why. Is it because my points have been unreasonable or foolish? If so, I genuinely welcome having my logic and arguments corrected. After all, you’d want to be sure that you yourself have well-grounded (evidence-based) reasons for holding the view that I am wrong, as opposed to emotional ones.
If your reason for dismissing the story so far is rooted in emotion, or simply a stubborn desire to stay camped out in the beliefs and worldview you’ve always held, that should make you uncomfortable. We all ought to have good reasons for believing what we do and deciding on the lens through which we choose to examine the story of reality. Sit with that discomfort a bit.
Then, in Part 3, we will determine once and for all where a good, benevolent God can possibly belong in this whole messy picture, and whether he has any good news or hope to share with us. We’ll return to the gas-station scene of our hypothetical hate crime, and we’ll consider what words we might offer Officer Dale and the others in response to the tragedy. Part 3 is already near completion, so stay tuned this week!
 Genesis, the first book of the Judeo-Christian scriptures, is where the account of “the fall of man” is laid out. God made everything perfect, including his first children — a husband and wife we all know as Adam and Eve. But part of that perfection was their free will, which gave them the ability to deny him and what he’d offered to and made for them. And that’s what they did, under the influence of the serpent — our narrative’s main antagonist, along with his lesser minions: the world and the flesh. You’ve heard of these three characters and the apple bite heard ‘round the world. But the real story includes this: First, the “forbidden fruit” is never called an apple. You gotta assume it was something way tastier, unless you’re unnaturally thrilled by apples. Second, God set them up for blissful immortal life, but he gave them a rule (“Adam and Eve, you had one job!!”) that, were they to keep it, would stop them from ruining this perfect situation. And he gave them the rule, and the forbidden object, in order to make free will an actual thing. Without the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and its tempting fruit, their free will would have just been lip service. With the tree, and the warning, it was real. And the enemy exploited it by causing our great-grandparents to doubt God. “Did God really say you can’t eat from the garden?” And they wisely answered (actually it wasn’t wise, because they shouldn’t have entered the conversation to begin with), “No, he didn’t say that. He just said we’d die from eating this tree’s fruit.” The crafty slithering enemy answered, “That’s a lie. He’s just afraid because he knows you’ll become like him if you do.” So they believed the enemy rather than their Creator — their architect, who knew how they functioned, designed them to live according to this perfect world. They broke off the relationship, not God.