Welcome to the conclusion 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, and in Part 2 we began to directly address the particular sufferings that we’re experiencing throughout the world right now, allowing us to consider our own contributions to the world’s evils and our own suffering before we even wonder about God’s participation.
Here in Part 3, I’ll submit to you that God, rather than harming us, actually offers us a rescue — the only rescue we can hope for in this life marked with suffering. And finally, I’ll provide evidence that God has the capacity to produce good in the immediate, even in circumstances that never get better this side of eternity.
In the last installment, rather than risking an offensive exploration of any recent tragedy just to make a point or gain readership, I created a hypothetical scenario of the murder of a black man named Sam’s at the hands of a police officer, with ignorance, racism, misunderstanding, fear, and other aspects all factoring in.
If I could step into the hypothetical aftermath, I would want the chance to talk with the policeman, Officer Dale, who pulled the trigger. His act may have been a true mistake, albeit a careless one… or it may have been an act of racist aggression, as was arguably the case with the initial 911 call that brought Dale to the scene.
I would say:
“Do you recognize that a tragedy was committed today? You took the life of another human, and you did so without good reasons. Right now you’re either wrought with guilt if you see that, or else you’re taking pride in an evil act. But on some level, you must be aware of your brokenness. Every one of us is aware that there is a standard for perfection ‘out there.’ And you fall short, just like me.
“Recognizing this fact is only the beginning. Sure, seeking a solution starts with weighing today’s particular wrong choices; but the more important exercise is acknowledging a brokenness at the core of each of us. The standard of perfection we know to exist is a law — a moral law — which can only come from a completely moral, completely good, moral-law giver. And every moment of our lives not lived in perfect obedience of his laws, in humble honor and conscious gratitude of that perfect Creator (gratitude because we wouldn’t exist without him), is a moment that misses the mark. That’s why trying to be ‘good enough’ is like jumping as high as you can when the goal is to touch the moon.
“Since almost as far back as mankind goes, we were born lacking the ability to hit the target, so instead we find ourselves ignoring the target and simply exploring all the ways we can slink by to our own benefit and glory, ignorant or at the expense of others, going as far as becoming ignorant of the law giver, who is Himself the Source of all life. Even at your best, Officer Dale, if you spend a whole day helping little old ladies cross the street, you are still lightyears from perfect, and therefore you’re at odds with your Creator. Not only did he make us, but he gave us recognition in our hearts of goodness and badness in humans and their actions, by giving us a conscience we all instinctively know we’re supposed to obey. And because it’s written on your heart, I bet you already recognize it. I think you’re aware of your own disobedience, and conclusively, your inherent guilt. As a person with the capacity to recognize right and wrong, you can mentally seal your own condemnation.”
I would continue: “You are like me. We’re really good at finding fault in other people, but if we practice honest self-reflection using the same standard to which we hold others, we’ll quickly find heaps of fault in ourselves. Consider just a handful of the Ten Commandments. How many lies have you told? I’ve told countless. Stolen anything? We’ve all taken things that don’t belong to us (pirated movies, bootleg music, that pen from the office you now keep for personal use). We’ve spoken God’s name as a curse word, which the Bible calls blasphemy and takes very seriously. We look at strangers with lust, which Jesus equates with adultery in our hearts. So by our own admission, we are lying thieves, blasphemous adulterers at heart. (Jesus also equated hate with murder in the heart; so, add homicide to the rap sheet.)
“Officer Dale,” I’d conclude, “if we stood before a judge for our moral crimes, would we be innocent or guilty? It’s not a question of whether you’ve been a boy scout overall, and only an occasional criminal. You’re a cop so you know: a person with countless strikes on his record can’t avoid his sentence or erase his bad deeds simply by virtue of having also done lots of good, humane, selfless things in between the lawlessness; neither can we. Those crimes stick. And we believe that lawbreakers deserve justice for their actions. If we didn’t, George Floyd’s death would not have started a global cry for greater justice. And you, Dale, wouldn’t feel remorse for making Kate a widow by pulling the trigger on Sam.”
So, dear reader, how would you measure up against those laws? Are you like me, guilty of breaking all Ten Commandments, and then some? Do you fall short of God’s perfect requirements? In this way at least, you and I are both in the same state of affairs as Office Dale — except that he’s fictional, and we’re not. Our crimes are very real.
Even though I’ve never murdered, and I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt that you haven’t either, our standard is not “just avoid homocide.” Our standard was personified in the Son of God who walked the lawgiver’s expectations flawlessly every day of his life in spite of great temptation, maddening social traps, betrayal by his closest friends, and lethal persecution. Have you outperformed Jesus of Nazareth, who lived with an understanding that, as his brother James put it in James 2:10, “whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it”?
We’ve acknowledged that a Creator must exist in order for objective morality to exist, and we’re now seeing how consistently we’ve broken the moral code he’s embedded in our hearts (saying nothing of the specifics laid out in the Bible). We’re guilty, and there is a perfect judge.
The evil is not just outside us. It is not just perpetrated by others against us, against people we care about, or against disenfranchised groups. It is not a them (the bad guys) vs. us (the good guys) scenario. It is us — individually, each member of the human race — who are the bad guys, pitting ourselves against God, who is the only true good guy. The problem of evil is us. And if we desire to see justice prevail against lawbreakers, then remaining consistent would mean we desire that every one of our own injustices be met with the gavel too.
This is where we pick up on Great Aunt Mildred’s death by treebranch from Part 2. (Brief recap: We asked whether God is responsible for the death of a person who dies when a tree falls on her, as opposed to at the hands of another person.) First, the bad news. The good news is a’comin..
Ol’ Millie lived in a broken world. We’ve covered what that means for her personally: in her veins flows the same blood as our collective great-great-great-so-on grandparents, who were created perfect, with perfect free will, but whose perfection was destroyed when, in that free will, they chose not to honor the loving and life-giving plans and boundaries set out by their Father and lawgiver, and instead chose to be their own boundary setter. (See the footnote in Part 2 for more details on this aspect of our history.) Their entire existence became bent, which impacted their once-harmonious relationship with God and the planet to which he gave them custodianship.
The way the Bible describes the way sin impacted the earth (including trees and their branches) is as a curse. With mankind’s newfound imperfection, so also came a greater difficulty stewarding over the planet, working the ground, filling it with people to take care of plants and animals, and so on. If we, her caretakers and custodians, are broken, surely it is not a far stretch to see why Earth, her climate, the flora, the fauna, might “fall” and break with us.
Should God have stopped nature’s own rebellion, the decay of that tree and its branch, to avoid Aunt Mildred’s death? Well, if Mildred (granting all her old lady sweetness) is a lawbreaking rebel like all the rest of us, and if she has either convinced herself that the lawgiver doesn’t exist or else knowingly flaunts her dismissal of his desires day in and day out, we’ve already agreed that she deserves justice. And the gravity of rebelling against the eternal king of the universe is going to be quite weighty. St. Paul puts it simply: “The penalty of sin is death.”
“But,” he continues, (and we’re so fortunate he does)…“the gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Let’s unpack that. Because wicked human hearts are the cause of the evil we deal with in this life, you ought to now suddenly see the great explanatory power of the Christian narrative. Jesus being the gift of God is “the gospel,” a word that simply means good news. The gospel may not be as hoaky or silly as you have thought when, say, you were handed a tract by some dorky stranger.
Let’s say you had a chance before you die to stand face to face with the God you were never sure existed until now. What does it look like? Whatever feelings or visuals you might be picturing, the essential truth is that it looks like you’re standing condemned before a Holy Judge because you’re guilty of a laundry list of crimes.
But now picture that, as the judge is handing out your due sentence, a man suddenly walks into this courtroom of sorts and says that he has already paid your fine, that he can legally take your penalty upon himself and give you his freedom instead.
“But,” he says, “you have to say yes. You have to actively and consciously let me do this for you. You have to acknowledge your penalty and let me take it on.”
Would you take the pass, the gift of freedom? Or would you stubbornly say, “Nah, I’ve got this,” knowing the quantity and/or quality of the atrocities you’ve committed against a perfect and powerful God — against the judge himself — and knowing the undoubtedly grave penalty due for such acts?
What I’m describing is precisely what began at the death of Jesus of Nazareth on a Roman cross 2000 years ago. The gospel is that his death offers to pay all our fines. It sets into motion the transference of our debt of all past, present, and future wrongdoings, onto God’s perfect Son. And more good news: three days after Jesus died under the combined weight of the debt of all mankind’s collective sins and his own body hung by nailed-hands in such a way that he could not breathe for long, Jesus walked out of his tomb. After providing us a clean slate morally speaking, his resurrection offers a new life to those who accept it. Our penalty became his penalty, which meant he died the death we deserved and paid the penalty due to us; and then his perfection became our perfection, which means we get the new life only he has the authority to offer.
Can I get an Amen?
For Great Aunt Mildred, what this means is simple: If during her life she acknowledged God’s kingship and her offenses toward him, admitted to him her natural sinfulness, asked for forgiveness — for a pardon — and subsequently accepted the pardon that was offered in response by the person and work of Jesus, and then Aunt Mildred’s run-in with the tree limb, and any other travesty she endured on this earth, was merely what St. Paul described as, “momentary, light suffering.. producing an eternal weight of glory.”  This quote comes from a letter Paul wrote where he described his own sufferings. I think you’ll find they are quite formidable:
Five times I received… forty [whip] lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with a rod. Once I received a stoning. Three times I suffered shipwreck. A night and a day I spent adrift in the open sea. I have been on journeys many times, in dangers from rivers, in dangers from robbers, in dangers from my own countrymen, in dangers from [foreigners], in dangers in the city, in dangers in the wilderness, in dangers at sea, in dangers from false brothers, in hard work and toil, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, many times without food, in cold and without enough clothing… The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, who is blessed forever, knows I am not lying. In Damascus, the governor under King Aretas was guarding the city of Damascus in order to arrest me, but I was let down in a rope-basket through a window in the city wall, and escaped his hands.
Paul referred to this list as “momentary” and “light,” but only because he was comparing it to the “eternal weight of glory” that awaited him in the life to come. Paul knew he was forgiven and would therefore one day be welcomed into the perfect paradise experience that we all instinctively use as our rubric for declaring this life to be unjust, unfair, not right, and different from our hopes and expectations.
Have we strayed too far from answering the problem of evil and suffering? Not in the least. Instead, what we’ve done is set ourselves up to properly approach grappling with the problem. Until now, we’ve been seeking answers within an incorrect, limited, or all-but-absent worldview. Without a key to our map, without a proper lens for reading the story of reality, for examining and assessing the way things are in this world, we’re ill-prepared to tackle the most complex parts of the human experience.
If what I’ve written so far makes sense, then you now have a grasp of the Judeo-Christian worldview along with a sense of its internal consistency. (Whether you are convinced of its truthfulness is up to you. I’ve written elsewhere on the myriad facts that would lead a grounded person to conclude that the resurrection of Jesus is historical, not fictional, and therefore to find his words to be trustworthy.) From this vantage point, we can see that evil and suffering in this life shouldn’t surprise us. Among the crucial statements Jesus made during his earthly life were these two promises:
In the world you will have trouble; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world!
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my [teachings] on you and learn from me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my [teaching] is easy to bear, and my load is not hard to carry.
Jesus experienced suffering, evil, hardship; and of any creature to walk this planet, he was the least deserving of such things. How much more so should we expect trouble, especially given just how wrongly we each act — even the most charitable and kind among us — in our own lives? How do we expect to walk imperfectly yet have a perfect, pain-free life? The whole world around us is clearly broken and full of evil!
But “be of good cheer” because God is the author of all things, and if you read his story to the end, you find the happy ending.
But in the meantime, if God is all good, why can’t he at least allow us this side of eternity to see some of the good from some of our tragedies?
Actually, he does. Think hard enough and you’ll quickly identify some answers.
(Shoot, even the beloved Post-It Note was invented out of failure, when 3M scientist Spencer Silver tried to invent a super-bonding polymer and ended up with a weak glue that wouldn’t stay adhered to anything if gently tugged on. See? Phoenix from the ashes.)
How about this, again from the Apostle Paul in his letter to the church in Rome, where Christians were being slaughtered for their faith :
We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint.
Here is your very close-to-home illustration. Consider the enslavement of people of color that plagued the infant US in the 1700–1800s. The horrors of the trade touched virtually every soul and every industry in that time, but the two main players were the enslaved persons and their “masters.” Awful things were endured by the enslaved; unspeakable things were formed in the hearts of, then acted out by, the perpetrators. We cannot fathom what the victims experienced, but we can be educated in their stories and what’s been shared over the centuries. Equally, we cannot know the content of the heart nor the day-to-day thoughts and feelings of the perpetrators, but their actions speak for themselves; and while many claimed Christian belief, it was in stark contrast with the actual fruit of their lives.
Let us then ask ourselves two questions. First, would we have rather endured the experience of the enslaved, or the luxurious lifestyle of the owner of a plantation run by enslaved persons? Of course our broken, selfish flesh would want to avoid the pain and suffering of the enslaved, and would welcome the comforts of luxury. But considering the moral cost of such “comforts,” one ought to choose the route of suffering instead.
The second question, then, is: whose content of character would I seek: the perpetrator, or the enslaved? The lack of character for a man capable of holding another man — a kidnapped man — as property is jarring, and the antithesis of a goal. And while the enslaved, like all humans, were also capable of malice, hate, and unsurprisingly vengeful hearts, they also counted among their ranks the likes of Frederick Douglass.
Douglass was born into slavery. He was a good man from the start, but not a man who was free and good, then enslaved, then free and good again. Rather, he was brought up in the fiery tribulation of an enslaved man’s life, where he could have understandably turned out bitter and violent, having never tasted freedom or experienced that kind of soft goodness. And yet, as Douglass’ Wikipedia entry records, “After escaping from slavery in Maryland, he became a national leader of the abolitionist movement in Massachusetts and New York, becoming famous for his oratory and incisive antislavery writings. Accordingly, he was described by abolitionists in his time as a living counter-example to slaveholders’ arguments that slaves lacked the intellectual capacity to function as independent American citizens.”
More than this, Douglass, a man who, who doubt, had been under the oppression of self-proclaimed Christians, and who experienced and witnessed some of humanity’s worst cruelty, came to embrace God and the salvation offered by Jesus, even as to become a reverend of a Christian church himself. His religious convictions and worldview helped to shape and spur on some of Douglass’ best abolition work. He had been greatly wronged at the hands of other men, and yet acknowledged of himself:
I was not more than thirteen years old, when in my loneliness and destitution I longed for some one to whom I could go, as to a father and protector. The preaching of a… minister… was the means of causing me to feel that in God I had such a friend. He thought that all men, great and small, bond and free, were sinners in the sight of God: that they were by nature rebels against His government; and that they must repent of their sins, and be reconciled to God through Christ. I cannot say that I had a very distinct notion of what was required of me, but one thing I did know well: I was wretched and had no means of making myself otherwise.
Douglass did not wallow in this realization, nor use it as a reason for dismissing God as a person or idea. Rather, he recognized his own brokenness in this broken world from which the suffering he endured was birthed. And all of those things worked together toward producing in him character and hope, which are higher virtues than comfort or an easy life. In the circumstances in which people like Douglass have found themselves, when the dial was turned up all the way on the suffering, the pressure and heat of that crucible has turned oppressed men and women into godly people with incredible motivation and love.
God made mankind good, gave us parameters to live by, and the capacity to choose obedience or rebellion. Our first ancestors chose against his best for us, and now, we too break his laws on some level nearly every moment of the day. When we break the laws, we make excuses for ourselves; when others do, we cry foul. This is why we live in a fallen, broken world: because of our free will choices and those of the equally messed up people around us. But God has not abandoned us; He loves us. He redeemed us through his Son, Jesus, who stands ready to take our penalty so that the Father can forgive us, and we can have new life.
This is the hope we have until eternity. And with that hope in hand, we can persevere in this difficult world, knowing that God rewards us in the short-term with humility, character, and joy — virtues that we’d be foolish to trade for any easy path in this world — and in the long-term with paradise perfection. What an adventure we have on the road to eternity, and what a friend we have in Jesus!
Can I get that Amen now?
 From 2 Corinthian 4:8–18,
We are experiencing trouble on every side, but are not crushed; we are perplexed, but not driven to despair; we are persecuted, but not abandoned; we are knocked down, but not destroyed, always carrying around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our body. For we who are alive are constantly being handed over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our mortal body. As a result, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you. But since we have the same spirit of faith as that shown in what has been written, “I believed; therefore I spoke,” we also believe, therefore we also speak. We do so because we know that the one who raised up Jesus will also raise us up with Jesus and will bring us with you into his presence. For all these things are for your sake, so that the grace that is including more and more people may cause thanksgiving to increase to the glory of God. Therefore we do not despair, but even if our physical body is wearing away, our inner person is being renewed day by day. For our momentary, light suffering is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison because we are not looking at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen. For what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.
 From Romans 5:1–11,
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person — though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die — but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.