The origin of death and suffering is vitally important in defending Christianity, and many people use the present suffering and death as an excuse not to believe. So it is vital to have an answer―such a justification of God’s goodness in the face of evil is known as a theodicy.2
The big picture is that Adam’s sin is the reason for all the death in the world. A consistent biblical answer points out that death is an intruder, so it is not part of God’s original creation, but is ultimately due to man’s sin.
However, according to theology that accommodates long ages, death has always been with us, and theistic evolution even says that God used this ‘last enemy’ as His means of producing His “very good” creation!
Over a decade ago, evil terrorists struck the Twin towers (11 September 2001), murdering 3,000 people. This morally evil deed led many to question why a loving God would allow such evil acts. As a result, we produced the earlier version of this booklet, now available online at creation.com/death. And of course, this wasn’t even close to the worst mass murder by evil men or regimes. The evolution-based Nazi regime3 wiped out 6 million Jews and many others (see also Appendix).
Yet in recent years there has been much suffering caused by ‘natural’ evils, i.e. not caused by humans. E.g. a 7 magnitude earthquake devastated Haiti on 12 January 2010, killing at least 220,000. A year later, on 11 March 2011, Japan suffered the magnitude 9 Tōhoku earthquake, which is actually a thousand times stronger,4 followed by a tsunami. An even more devastating tsunami followed a 9.3-magnitude earthquake west of Indonesia on 26 December 2004, and killed over 230,000 people in 14 countries.5
Even these tragedies pale somewhat compared to some other natural evils. For example, in a few years of the mid-14th century, the Black Death (bubonic plague) painfully wiped out an estimated 75–200 million people in Europe, or 45% to 50% of the population. In quite recent times, the devastating First World War, with 9 million killed, was followed by the even more devastating Spanish Flu epidemic. This killed at least 50 million, or about 3% of the world’s population, many of them young healthy adults.6
Another type of natural evil is physical disability or handicap. We can think of Helen Keller, who lost the senses of both hearing and sight when she was a baby, and Joni Eareckson-Tada who was paralyzed from the neck down when she was a teenager.
In addition to the headline events, each of us suffers pain at one time or another—illness, headaches, accidents, and eventually, death. It’s not surprising, when the burdens become too great, that people cry out to God in anguish, “Why don’t you do anything? Don’t you care?”
As the shock of each traumatic event subsides, people begin asking why such things occur. Reading about past wars or visiting memorials like the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., inevitably raises the same question, “How can there be a loving God controlling the universe in the light of such death and suffering?”
The pervasiveness of suffering is possibly the most effective tool that atheists use to attack the Bible’s picture of a ‘loving God’. Atheists make what appears to be a reasonable complaint: “If God is loving and all-powerful, then why doesn’t He use His power to stop the evil, suffering, pain, and death?”
Sadly, most people—even Christians—have no ready answer to the question of death and suffering in the world. Believing that the world is millions or billions of years old, they have a difficult time explaining the purpose behind the apparent cruelty that they see.
Charles Darwin (1809–1882) rejected Christianity after the death of his daughter. “Annie’s cruel death destroyed Charles’s tatters of beliefs in a moral, just universe. Later he would say that this period chimed the final death-knell for his Christianity,” says a recent biography of Charles Darwin. “… Charles now took his stand as an unbeliever.”7
Darwin is only one of thousands of famous people who have struggled with this issue, trying to reconcile belief in God with the death and suffering he observed all around, which he believed had gone on for millions of years. When Charles Darwin wrote his landmark book On the Origin of Species, he was in essence writing a history of suffering and death. In the conclusion of the chapter entitled On The Imperfections Of The Geological Record, Darwin said the modern world had arisen “from the war of nature, from famine and death.”8 Based on his evolutionary perspective, Darwin considered death to be a permanent part of the world.9
Darwin himself said in his autobiography:
Charles Templeton (1915–2001), a famous evangelist rejected Christianity, in part because of the suffering he saw. He published Farewell to God in 1996,11,12 describing his slide into unbelief and his rejection of Christianity. Once listed among those “best used of God” by the National Association of Evangelicals,13 Templeton listed several “reasons for rejecting the Christian faith.” For instance:
Templeton, like Charles Darwin, had a big problem understanding how to reconcile an earth full of death, disease, and suffering with the loving God of the Bible. Templeton stated:
Templeton then concludes: “How could a loving and omnipotent God create such horrors as we have been contemplating?”17
Templeton is not the first person to talk like this. When told that there is a God of love who made the world, embittered people often reply: “I don’t see any God of love. All I see are children suffering and dying. I see people killing and stealing. Disease and death are everywhere. Nature is ‘red in tooth and claw.’ It’s a horrible world. I don’t see your God of love. If your God does exist, He must be a sadistic ogre.”
Below, we see how Templeton’s questions can be answered by a proper understanding of biblical history.
Actually, although most atheists prefer the emotion-tugging tragic examples, the case is even stronger. ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’, T.H. Huxley, had it partly right, “If our hearing were sufficiently acute to catch every note of pain, we would be deafened by one continuous scream.”19
Consider a funeral of someone who lived a rich, happy, and long life, making productive contributions to his family and society, and dying peacefully in his sleep. The bereaved might console themselves with, “He had a good innings, and it was time to go”, or words to that effect.
But why is it time to go? Why should his good life and his contributions need to end? If there was a chance for a healthy physical immortality, then would he not take this chance, and wouldn’t his friends and family want him to?
And if we demand that God prevents all deaths of, say, children, then why draw the line there? Why at five years old rather than 21, or 75?
Consider also, all the deaths from those man-made atrocities and natural disasters were really hastening something inevitable. These tragedies were really just a drop in the bucket compared to the billions of people who have died. And all the seven billion people on earth today will die one day, barring a miracle. Here again, should we demand that God prevents only hasty death, but not ‘ordinary’ death?
Before we proceed to an answer, it’s often useful to ask a questioner to justify the validity of his question under his own belief system. For an atheist to complain that the Christian God is ‘evil’, he must provide a standard of good and evil by which to judge Him. But if we are simply evolved pond scum, as a consistent atheist must believe, where can we find an objective standard of right and wrong? Dawkins said, “The universe we observe has … no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. … DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music [emphasis added].”20
Our ideas of right and wrong, under this system, are merely artefacts of some chemical processes that occur in the brain, which happened to confer survival advantage on our alleged ape-like ancestors. But the motions in Hitler’s brain obeyed the same chemical laws as those in Mother Teresa’s, so on what grounds are the latter’s actions ‘better’ than the former’s? Also, why should the terrorist attack slaying thousands of people in New York be more terrible than a frog killing thousands of flies?
But a Christian believes there is an objective standard of morality that transcends individual humans, because it was given by an objective and transcendent moral Lawgiver who is our Creator. An atheist’s argument against God because of objective evil inadvertently concedes the very point he is trying to argue against!
Note that our argument is not that atheists cannot live ‘good’ lives, but that there is no objective basis for their goodness if we are just rearranged pond scum. Evolutionist Jaron Lanier showed the problem, saying, “There’s a large group of people who simply are uncomfortable with accepting evolution because it leads to what they perceive as a moral vacuum, in which their best impulses have no basis in nature.”
In reply, Dawkins affirmed, “‘All I can say is, That’s just tough. We have to face up to the truth.” So here we have a leading atheist admitting that evolution provides no basis for morality. Instead, some of his fellow atheists have needed to borrow from Christian concepts.
For example, British politician Roy Hattersley (1932– ) is an atheist, but an expert and admirer of the Salvation Army.21 He admits:
His fellow British politician Matthew Parris (1949– ) even wrote an article for The Times, entitled:
Thus as shown, atheists can’t attack the goodness of God from their own premises, because under their own system, there is no meaning to the term ‘good’. Rather, they need to hijack the term from a judeo-Christian morality. And this morality stems from God’s own perfectly good nature, which in His love produces good commandments given for our good.25
The usual attempt at a logical argument fails. It goes back to the pagan Greek philosopher Epicurus (341–270 BC), who was cited by the early Christian apologist Lactantius (AD 240–320)26 then used by the Scottish ‘Enlightenment’ skeptic David Hume (1711–1776). In schematic form, the argument could be written thus:
The first premise describes the Judeo-Christian God as revealed in the Bible. Premises 2–4 are plausibly held to be what the Judeo-Christian God would do with such attributes.
The first two are held to be the Judeo-Christian premises, while #5 is indisputable (although only truly justifiable under a Judeo-Christian world view). So antitheists draw the conclusion that God cannot have the attributes that the Bible reveals about Him (#6), and conclude that such a God doesn’t exist (#7).
Some theistic philosophers try to retreat on #1, by denying that God is all powerful, such as ‘open theism’ and ‘process theology’. But this is not the true God of the Bible.
However, Christian philosophers have long argued that Premise 4 should be extended to:
4′. If God is morally perfect, then He has the desire to eliminate all evil—unless He has a good reason for allowing it.
Then there is no incompatibility with #5. Since no antitheist can show that there is no possible good reason for allowing evil, since that would be a universal negative, the argument collapses as logical disproof of theism. This was expressed in a wonderful book Dr A.E. Wilder-Smith (1915–1995): “This is how God triumphs over evil—not by ‘stopping’ it, but by using it to His greater glory.”27 Later, we see some biblical reasons why God is permitting suffering.
Indeed, Lactantius used much the same argument against Epicurus himself. Before that, we will argue that one good reason for God’s allowing evil in the world today is a just judgment resulting from the man’s sin (see Death and suffering is the penalty for sin).
Apologists have also long pointed out that the argument doesn’t work for another reason. The existence of evil now would be incompatible with #4 only if it read:
4″. If God is morally perfect, then He has the desire to eliminate all evil immediately.
But is this really so? As will be shown (and was well explained by Daniel Defoe), for God to get rid of evil immediately, He would need to destroy all of us!
With this understanding, we can correct #5 to:
5′. Evil exists for now but will one day be destroyed (as the Bible says); or God has not got rid of evil—yet!
1, 4/4′ and 5′ are certainly compatible.
This is enough to show that atheists lack a logical case against God. But it is still important to go further and explain where evil came from, why He allowed it, and what He is doing about it—and has already done about it.
As said in the introduction, this is a key argument for atheism. Before proceeding with the answer, here is yet another statement of the problem, by a professor of philosophy and religion, in a letter to CMI:
But as I pointed out in my reply, which I will explain in the next section of this booklet:
That’s why this article unashamedly invokes biblical principles to defend the God of the Bible.
God originally created a perfect world, described by God as “very good” (Genesis 1:31). So when God created moral beings, there was no actual evil. In fact, evil is not a ‘thing’ in itself, even though it is real. Rather, evil is the privation of some good that something ought to have, as Augustine pointed out. Considering a moral evil like murder, this is a removal of a ‘good’ human life. Adultery is a privation of a good marriage. Good is fundamental and can exist in itself; evil cannot exist in itself. Evil is always a parasite on good.
The same applies to physical evils. For example, a wound cannot exist without a body, and the very idea of a wound presupposes the concept of a healthy body. Blindness in a human is a physical evil, because humans are supposed to see (but oysters are not, so blindness is not an evil for oysters). Also, evil actions are done to achieve things like wealth, power and sexual gratification, which the evildoer finds ‘good’ (meaning ‘pleasing’). Evil things are not done as ends in themselves, but good things are. Now, since evil is not a thing, God did not create evil.30
This lack of evil extended to the animal kingdom. In particular, people and animals originally ate plants, not other animals (Genesis 1:29–30). There was no violence or painful suffering in this “very good” world. There is a biblical illustration in Isaiah 11:6–9 and 65:25 which are pictures of a future with allusions to the Edenic paradise God originally created.31,32 These are famous passages about a lion and calf, wolf and lamb, and a vegetarian lion and a non-harmful viper. Significantly, both passages close with indications that this reflects a more ideal world and the current world does not: “They shall not hurt or destroy …” “They shall do no evil or harm …”. These indicate that hurting, harming and destroying animal life would not have been part of a “very good” creation.
But God created both Adam and Eve, as well as the angels, with the power of contrary choice. This means that they had the power to make a choice contrary to their own nature. Even God does not have this power, for He cannot sin and go against His perfectly holy nature (Habakkuk 1:13, 1 John 1:5).
The power of contrary choice was a good, with no actual evil, but it meant that there was the possibility of evil. But, evidently, God saw that a greater good would come from it, for example, that the result would be creatures who genuinely love God freely. Actually, real love must be free—if I programmed my computer to flash ‘I love you’ on the screen, it would hardly be genuine love.
But Adam’s misuse of this good (Genesis 3)—not the good thing itself—resulted in actual evil befalling him and the rest of the material creation, over which he had dominion (Genesis 1:28).
A very short time after Creation Week,33 Eve was deceived by the Serpent’s temptation, and in turn gave the forbidden fruit to Adam, who was not deceived, but still ate (1 Timothy 2:13–14).
As a result of his sin, Adam and his descendants acquired a sin nature (Romans 5:12 ff.), and lost the power of contrary choice. But in this case, it now meant that they could no longer go against their sin nature (Psalm 51:5, Jeremiah 17:9, Romans 7:15–25). So people today don’t get their sin natures by sinning; they sin because of their sin nature.
The potentiality of evil, but not the actuality, is also illustrated by the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In the original creation, God knew evil in the same way as an oncologist knows about cancer—not by personal experience but by knowledge about it (in God’s case, by foreknowledge). But after Adam and Eve sinned, they knew evil in the same way as a cancer sufferer knows cancer—by sad personal experience.34
In the Eternal State (see God has prepared an eternal home), redeemed humanity, having been purified by Christ, will no longer even have the potential for sin. So in this sense, the Eternal State, with the new creation of the new heavens and new earth, will be even better than Eden.
In summary, following Augustine:
Sometimes Christian apologists invoke something similar, the well-known ‘free will defense’ to the problem of evil. But the biblical account is more nuanced—any ‘freedom’ applied only to Adam and Eve; their sin lost the true freedom they were created with. Their descendants are now in bondage to sin. Only redeemed humans in the eternal state will have true freedom from this bondage.
But indeed, humans have a voluntary will, and very many evils can be caused by this, including the 9–11 terrorist attack. For God to intervene against this type of evil, he would need to remove this volition. But then, how much volition should He remove, and would an atheist really be happy with this solution? If God stops evil murderers, should He also stop evil thoughts, which Jesus said were behind evil deeds (Matthew 15:19). But then, if this were acceptable, then should God give all atheists a splitting headache when they think a militantly atheistic thought? They would probably protest mightily!
It’s interesting to see the insights of Daniel Defoe (c. 1660–1731) in his classic Robinson Crusoe (1719). The title character was marooned on a desert island for 28 years, and rescued and befriended a native he named “Friday”, and taught him Christianity. Crusoe taught about the devil, his origin, rebellion against God, and his terrible enmity against man. This dialogue ensued:
Crusoe eventually responded:
Now the philosophy professor mentioned above argued, “The ‘free will defense’ is fine in the face of moral evil, but is irrelevant with regard to natural evils.” He is mainly right about that—free will of moral agents doesn’t explain the ‘dog-eat-dog’ world that bothered Darwin, Templeton and Dawkins. So for the right answer, we need biblical history: what happened after Adam’s sin.
God created Adam, and gave him only one command, and warned him that he would die if he disobeyed (Genesis 2:17). Thus when Adam sinned, God had to judge sin with death, to keep His word (Genesis 3:19). This is the first indication that death is an intruder into the world, not the way God originally made it. The New Testament calls death “the last enemy” (1 Corinthians 15:26) and “the wages of sin” (Romans 6:23). Thus the Bible is consistent throughout in linking death to sin.
Indeed, God apparently directly caused the first death in the world—an animal was slain to make clothing for Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:21). As a result of God’s judgment on the world, God has given us a taste of life without Him—a world that is running down—a world full of death and suffering.
Now the Bible tells us that Adam was the head of the human race, representing each one of us, who are his descendants. Paul says in Romans 5:12–19 that we sin “in Adam”, after the likeness of Adam. In other words, we are born with the same problem Adam acquired after his Fall—we are “by nature children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3). When Adam rebelled against God, all human beings, represented by Adam, effectively said that they wanted life without God.
Now since God is the author of life, death is the natural penalty of choosing life without God, the giver of life. Also, because the Lord is holy and just, there had to be a penalty for rebellion.
The Bible makes it clear that death is the penalty for our sin, not just the sin of Adam. If you accept the Bible’s account of history, then our sins—not just the sins of ‘the other guy’—are responsible for all the death and suffering in the world! In other words, it is really our fault that the world is the way it is. No one is really ‘innocent’ in the sense of ‘sinless’.
Furthermore, Genesis 1:26–28 says that mankind was given dominion over the whole creation. So when he sinned, the whole creation under him was cursed as well. So the Fall was cosmic in scope, affecting the entire creation.35,36 As Romans 8:22 says, “the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs”—because God Himself subjected the creation to futility (v. 20).37
This also explains why the living world is at war.
God has removed some of His sustaining power—temporarily. At the same time that God judged sin with death, He withdrew some of His sustaining power. Everything is running down because of sin. God has given us a taste of life without Him—a world full of violence, death, suffering, and disease. If God withdrew all of His sustaining power, the creation would cease to exist. Colossians 1:16–17 tells us that all things are held together, right now, by the power of the Creator, the Lord Jesus Christ (cf. Hebrews 1:3). However, in one sense He is not holding it together perfectly, as He is deliberately letting things fall apart to give us a taste of what life is like without God. In other words, God is allowing us to experience what we wanted—life without God (cf. Romans 1:18–32).
In the Old Testament, we get a glimpse of what the world is like when God upholds things one hundred percent. In Deuteronomy 29:5 and Nehemiah 9:21, we are told that the Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years, and yet their clothes didn’t wear out, their shoes didn’t wear out, and their feet didn’t swell. Obviously God miraculously upheld their clothing, shoes, and feet so that they would not wear out or fall apart as the rest of the creation is doing. One can only imagine what the world would be like if God upheld every detail of it like this.
The book of Daniel, chapter 3, gives us another glimpse, when we read about Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego walking into an intensely blazing furnace—yet coming out without even the smell of smoke on their clothes. When the Lord Jesus Christ, the Creator of the universe (John 1:3, Colossians 1:15 ff.), upheld their bodies and clothing in the midst of fire (v. 25), nothing could be hurt or destroyed.
These examples help us understand a little of what it would be like if God upheld every aspect of the creation—nothing would fall apart.
At the present time, we are living in a universe where things are decaying. Around us we see death, suffering, and disease—all as a result of God’s judgment against sin and His withdrawal of some of His sustaining power to give us what we asked for—a taste of life without God.
The Western culture is very individualist in thinking, but the Bible was more collective, as are most cultures even today.38 This explains the frequent corporate punishment in the Bible. But Adam also had dominion over the rest of creation, so when he sinned, the whole creation under him was cursed as well, in line with the principle of corporate punishment.39
Note, if corporate punishment is ‘unjust’, whatever that might mean in a godless framework, then so is corporate redemption (see Is God doing anything about death and suffering). Yet the Bible teaches this concept: believers in Christ are saved because our sins were corporately imputed (credited) to His account (Isaiah 53:6) when He was on the cross. And His perfect righteousness was imputed to believers in Him (2 Corinthians 5:21).
Using this framework, the well known Christian apologist Norman Geisler (1932– ) provided the only correct response to Templeton’s complaint about ‘natural evil’, including “nature red in tooth and claw”:
A very good summary. (Space doesn’t permit explanations of how vegetarian animals became carnivorous and how good germs became bad, but the books in Ref. 43 provide evidence for several possibilities). But this has implications about world history that Geisler overlooks, as will be seen.
Geisler is also well known as a believer in billions of years. Yet he fails to realize that his answer will only work within a biblical (“young-earth”) framework.
The billions of years he proposes are not derived from the Bible, but were argued from the supposed length of time to form the rock layers. Now his science is grossly flawed, but this is outside the scope of this book, and has been refuted elsewhere.44 But the main problem the billions of years pose for Geisler’s explanation is that these supposedly old rock layers contain fossils. And fossils are the remains of dead things! Yet this billions-of-years dogma puts most of this death before Adam’s sin, undermining the consistent biblical sin-death causality.
Even leaving aside the problems of animal death before sin, it’s hard to deny that the Bible teaches that human death began with Adam’s sin. Consider:
These passages teach that human death came through the disobedience of “the first man, Adam”. Furthermore, they connect this death with the obedience and resurrection of Jesus, “the second man” and “the last Adam”.45,46
Yet the dating methods that Geisler accepts place human fossils before Adam. For example, the ostensibly reliable Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS) 14C method ‘dates’ Aborigines in Australia to 41,000 BP (before present).47 Less reliable thermoluminescence methods date the Aborigines to about 60,000 years BP.48 Geisler would not deny the humanity of the Aborigines, unlike many evolutionists of Darwin’s day.49 Geisler would acknowledge that the Bible teaches that all humans come from Adam, but there is no way to stretch Adam’s creation this far back, given the constraints of the biblical chronologies.50,51
An even bigger problem comes from the recent redating of two partial skulls of Homo sapiens that were unearthed in 1967 near the Omo River in southwestern Ethiopia. Radiometric dating (which Geisler tacitly supports) has now placed them at 195,000 years ago.52
Wikimedia commons/Frank Vincentz (GFDL)
Dating methods that old-earth compromisers accept place human death before Adam’s Fall.
So undoubtedly modern humans are dated—by methods that Geisler tacitly upholds—to be far older than any possible biblical date for Adam. Even worse, there are many proven victims of human cannibalism in the fossil record,53 again way before any possible date for Adam.
Thus human fossils alone, ‘dated’ by methods that allegedly also prove the earth is billions of years old, are not compatible with the biblical picture. Geisler’s answer above to Templeton was very good, but totally incompatible with his acceptance of billions of years. Long-age apologists usually don’t realize this incompatibility, including John Lennox54 and William Lane Craig.55 We hope the human fossils alone will open their eyes to the fallacy of long-age ‘dating’ and to the unshakeable truth of the biblical timescale.
Geisler was right to point out that animal carnivory and suffering also began after the Fall of Adam. But the same problem for human death is magnified for animal death. For example, the fossil record includes a turkey-sized Compsognathus found with a lizard in its belly;56 a famous fossil of Velociraptor locked in mortal combat with a Protoceratops, and a T. rex coprolite (fossil dung) found with a “high proportion (30–50%) of bone fragments”.57 We also find tumours in the fossil record.58
No, the only way Geisler’s (correct) argument works is to accept the biblical history, where the earth is only about 6,000 years old. This history also has a coherent explanation for placing fossils after Adam’s sin. That is, most animal fossils were formed by the global Flood of Noah’s day (Genesis 6–9), while human fossils were mostly post-Babel (Genesis 11).59
In contrast to the view that death and suffering have continued for millions of years, this biblical view of history has a wonderful implication for the future. The world will one day be restored (Acts 3:21) to a state in which, once again, there will be no violence and death. Dr Randy Alcorn, author of If God Is Good: Faith in the Midst of Suffering and Evil, points out:
And that’s yet another problem with billions of years: if this past were true, with all the death and suffering it entails, there is a problem with all these “re–” words. That is, “restoration” to what? Billions of years of more death, suffering and disease?61,62
No! Clearly, this future state reflects the paradise that was once lost, not some imaginary land that never existed.
The Bible teaches that suffering is part of the ‘big picture’ involving sin, but individual cases of suffering are not always correlated with particular sins of individuals, in several areas:
A man named Job, who was the most righteous man on Earth at his time, suffered intensely—losing all his children, servants, and possessions in a single day. Then he was struck by a painful illness. Some of this was due to evil acts by men, and others due to ‘natural evils’. The Lord never told Job the specific reasons for his suffering, but He lets every reader of the book of Job witness some extraordinary ‘behind-the-scenes’ events in Heaven, which Job never saw. The Lord had reasons for allowing Job’s suffering, but He never told Job these reasons, and He demanded that Job not question the decisions of his Maker.
When Jesus and His disciples passed by a blind man, His disciples asked Him whether the man’s blindness from birth was due to his own sin or the sin of his parents. Jesus explained that neither was the case. The man was born blind so that God could demonstrate His power (when Jesus healed him, John 9:1–7).
Also, even if a person is not healed, it doesn’t necessarily mean that he is committing any particular grievous sin or ‘lacking faith’. Paul testified that he prayed three times for God to take some sort of physical disability from him. Yet God replied, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Many Christians with disability have testified how God can heal the hurt and anguish, and help them live through it. And they demonstrate God’s power, not in physical healing, but in their witness to God’s gracious empowering.
One of my friends has been deaf and blind from before she can remember. She ‘talks’ by typing on her keyboard and by sign language. ‘Listens’ for her means reading on her Braille keyboard what someone’s typing, or if a person is skilled in sign language or there is an interpreter, she will place her hand gently over one of the signer’s hands and ‘read’ the movements (although American Sign Language uses both hands, she somehow manages to decode by reading only one hand).
She has told me with indignation of total strangers placing their hands on her head in an attempt to ‘heal’ her. Yet she is sure that it was not a lack of faith on her part that she still can’t see or hear. Instead, she thinks that God is instead using her to teach others about disabilities; she has travelled to a number of different countries to do this.
Indeed, although God certainly can heal organic physical disabilities, in the modern western world, He often chooses not to. A church elder from my teenage years, who was crippled from polio, said that God’s action these days is often to remove the emotional pain from the disabilities.
As an example, the blind gospel singer Ginny Owens says that one of her biggest problems as a child was loneliness, because she couldn’t see, and just because she was noticeably different. One profile reports:
Jesus discussed why eighteen Jews died tragically when the tower of Siloam collapsed. This is directly applicable to modern atrocities, such as the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in the United States on September 11, 2001. Luke 13:4 records His words: “Those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were sinners above all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no!” Suffering in our lives is not always related to our personal sin.
Note, however, that Jesus went on to say that, “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” No one is innocent, in the sense of sinless.64 All of us are sinners and therefore condemned to die and deserving of death. Thousands of people died in the World Trade Center catastrophe, and millions died in the Holocaust. But hundreds of millions of people who saw and heard about this event will also die one day—in fact, thousands of them are dying every day—because all humans have been given the death penalty because of sin.
The Bible is never embarrassed to talk about the question of suffering. God’s past judgments have included almost every type of suffering imaginable, and He repeatedly asserts His absolute power and authority over men’s lives. Yet in one of Christ’s most memorable teachings (Luke 16:19–31), the Son of God gives the key to understanding the apparent injustices of this world: the account about the rich man and Lazarus.
A wicked rich man lived in splendour, while a faithful beggar named Lazarus sat at the rich man’s gate, covered with sores and eating table scraps. But the story does not end here. There is an eternal world to come, where God will make all things right. The hope of a resurrection is the key to understanding our suffering.65
The atheistic philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872–1970) once challenged:
A minister who actually had experience with dying children (unlike Russell who never got his own hands dirty with such practical things) challenged Russell to explain what he could offer such a child. An atheist could only say, sorry chap, you’ve had your chips, and that’s the end of everything for you. But the Christian has hope that this life is not the end.
The famous literature scholar and apologist C.S. Lewis (1898–1963),67 himself no stranger to suffering,68 wrote a book The Problem of Pain (1940). He argued that people have lost the sense of the seriousness of sin, and God can use suffering as a reminder of this horror. That is, our world is not good; rather, we live in a world cursed as a judgment on sin:
Indeed, people might remember how many people were seen in Church for the first time in years after the Twin Towers terrorist attacks.
Paul’s ‘résumé of suffering’ included torture, beatings, imprisonment, stoning, shipwreck, robbery, infirmities, exhaustion, hunger, thirst, cold and finally execution. His letters show that Christ’s Resurrection was the key to his making sense of his suffering. Without the Resurrection, “then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain, … [and] we are of all men most miserable” (1 Corinthians 15:14, 19).
Paul’s letters are filled with practical reasons for the suffering of God’s children, even when they have done nothing wrong. But we can boil them down into five points:
That is, it makes us mature in the image of Christ. Job himself declared, “When he has tried me, I shall come forth as gold” (Job 23:10). God even used suffering in the life of the Son of Man, to bring Him to full maturity as a man—“though he were a Son, yet he learned obedience by the things which he suffered; and being made perfect, he became the author of eternal salvation” (Hebrews 5:8–9).
After all, Christ was a “man of sorrows”, who bore the sorrows and the suffering of the world with Him on the Cross. When we suffer, we better understand the surpassing glory of the suffering Saviour, and the wonders of what He did for us. Paul gladly suffered the loss of all things “that I might know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death” (Philippians 3:10).
The Bible declares that Christ’s own suffering enabled Him to succour others (Hebrews 2:18). Likewise, as we receive comfort from “the God of all comfort”, we are able to comfort others also (2 Corinthians 1:3–4).
In a beautiful passage on his troubles and persecutions, the Apostle Paul ends with an affirmation that he does not faint because “our light affliction, which is but for a moment, works for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory” (2 Corinthians 4:17). Suffering is the door through which we enter future glories that we, as yet, know nothing about.
This statement may, at first glance, seem strange. But since the eternal Son of God took upon Him all the sufferings of all mankind—past and future—then it appears that our sufferings somehow complete the sufferings He suffered (see Colossians 1:24). God sends us suffering to add to the glory of what His Son suffered. Even though it’s hard to understand such a concept, at least it is clear that God has many marvellous reasons for sufferings that we do not yet fully understand!
People who accuse God of sitting back and doing nothing are missing a vital truth. In reality, God has already done everything you would want a loving God to do—and infinitely more!
Adam’s sin left mankind in a terrible predicament. Even though our bodies die, we are made in the image of God, and thus we have a non-material part that survives physical death (Matthew 10:28, Philippians 1:21–23, Revelation 6:9–11). Our conscious being is going to live forever. Unless God intervened, Adam’s sin meant that we would spend an eternity of suffering and separation from Him.
The only way for us to restore our life with God is if we are able to come to Him with the penalty paid for our sin. Leviticus 17:11 helps us to understand how this can be done. It says, “The life of the flesh is in the blood.” Blood represents life. The New Testament explains that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness [of sins]” (Hebrews 9:22). God makes it clear that, because we are creatures of flesh and blood, the only way to pay the penalty for our sin is if blood is shed to take away our sin. But if death and suffering were natural, and occurring for millions of years before Adam, then why should blood-shedding have this sin-removing property?
In the Garden of Eden, God killed an animal and clothed Adam and Eve as a picture of a covering for our sin. A blood sacrifice was needed because of our sin. The Israelites sacrificed animals over and over again; however, because Adam’s blood does not flow in animals, animal blood, though it could temporarily cover our sin, could never take it away. The Hebrew word translated “atonement” is kaphar, which means ‘cover’.
The solution was God’s plan to send His Son, the Second Person of the triune Godhead, the Lord Jesus Christ, to become a man—a perfect man—to be a sacrifice for sin.69 In the person of Jesus Christ, our Creator God stepped into history (John 1:1–14) to become a physical descendant of Adam, called “the last Adam” (1 Corinthians 15:45), born of a woman (Galatians 4:4) who was a virgin (Isaiah 7:14, Matthew 1:23, Luke 1:34). Because the Holy Spirit overshadowed His mother (Luke 1:35), He was a perfect man, one without sin, despite having been tempted in every way that we are (Hebrews 4:15), who thus could shed His blood on a cross for our sin.
Because mankind’s first representative head—Adam—was responsible for bringing sin and death into the world, the human race can now have a new representative—the “last Adam”—who paid the penalty for sin. No sinner could pay for the sins of others (Hebrews 7:27), but this last Adam—Jesus Christ—was a perfect man. God in human flesh was able to bear the sins and sorrows of the world; a perfect sacrifice of infinite value.
After Christ’s suffering and death, He rose from the dead, showing he had ultimate power—power over death. He can now give eternal life to anyone who receives it by faith (John 1:12, Ephesians 2:8–9). The Bible teaches us that those who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and believe that God has raised Him from the dead, and receive Him as Lord and Saviour, will spend eternity with God (1 Cor. 15:1–4).
Christ’s suffering and death mean that God Himself can personally empathize with our suffering, because He has experienced it. His followers have a High Priest—Jesus—who can be “touched with the feeling of our infirmities. … Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:15–16).
People who complain about the suffering on this Earth need to understand God’s perspective of time. God dwells in eternity, and He is lovingly preparing His people to spend an eternity with Him. As the Apostle Paul said, “I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18). The book of Hebrews says that Jesus Himself, “for the glory that was set before him, endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2).
The present suffering is so insignificant, in view of eternity, that it can’t even be compared to the glory to come.
Those who put their trust in Christ as Saviour have a wonderful hope—they can spend eternity with the Lord in a place where there will be no more death. “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away” (Revelation 21:4). Also, in this eternal state, there will once again be a tree of life, as in Eden, and no more curse (Revelation 22:2–3).
Indeed, death is really the path that opens the way to this wonderful place, called Heaven. If we lived forever, we would never have an opportunity to shed this sinful body. But God wants us to have a new body, and He wants us to dwell with Him forever. In fact, the Bible states that “precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints” (Psalm 116:15). Death is “precious” because sinners who have trusted Christ will enter immediately into the presence of their Creator (Philippians 1:21–23), in a place where righteousness dwells.
The Bible warns that those who reject Christ will taste a “second death”—eternal separation from God (Revelation 21:8).
Most of us have heard about Hell, a place of fire and torment, and eternal shame. None other than Jesus Christ warned of this place more than He spoke of Heaven. He also made it clear that the torment of the wicked was as eternal (Greek aionios) as the life of the blessed (Matthew 25:46). God does not delight in the death of the wicked. “Say unto them, ‘As I live’, said the Lord God, ‘I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live: turn, turn from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?’” (Ezekiel 33:11). God takes no pleasure in the afflictions and calamities of people. He is a loving, merciful God—it is our fault that man is in the current state of suffering and death.
This is only right: for those who cling to their sins, God will grant them their wish, and separate them from Himself, the source of goodness, for eternity. There will be only two types of people: those who say to God ‘Thy will be done’ who will be happy in the new heavens and earth for eternity; and those to whom God says: ‘thy will be done’, who will be separated from goodness for all eternity.
Another reason for Hell is that God is perfectly just, meaning that He will always act justly according to the moral / legal principles that He instituted. So He must punish violations of His law. Since our shortcomings offend His perfect, infinite holiness, the punishment must also be infinite. Because we are finite, it follows that the punishment must be of infinite duration (Matthew 25:46). The only way out is for a perfect divine and human substitute to take our place—see Good News!.
As we face horrible suffering, such as the tragedy at the World Trade Center or the Holocaust, let it remind us that the ultimate cause of such calamity is our sin—our rebellion against God. Our loving God, despite our sinfulness, wants us to spend eternity with Him. Christians need to stretch forth a loving, comforting arm to those who are in need of comfort and strength during times of suffering. They can find strength in the arms of a loving Creator who hates Death—the enemy that will one day be thrown into the Lake of Fire (Revelation 20:14).
Actually, the Bible doesn’t say explicitly. All we really have to go on is “Shall not the God of all the earth do right” (Genesis 18:25). Some think that they go automatically to heaven, which would be what I would like to believe, and this would comfort parents who have lost young children or miscarried, and those with mentally handicapped children. However, this actually leads to a serious problem: moral hazard.
Economists use the term ‘moral hazard’ when a particular policy provides an incentive for wrong or counter-productive behaviour.70 The moral hazard in this view is that it would be better for the babies in an eternal sense to be aborted and be guaranteed heaven than to be allowed to live, with a good chance to be damned eternally. After all, Paul said, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18).
This would lead to the perverse position that the greatest soul-winner in history would not be the Apostle Paul, Wesley and Whitfield, or Billy Graham, but the abortion industry Planned Parenthood. And the greatest individual soul-winner would be Planned Parenthood’s founder, the racist Darwinian eugenicist Margaret Sanger (1879–1966).71
This doesn’t mean that those who die in childhood automatically go to Hell either—indeed, such a view would contradict Scripture. For example, after God punished David’s adultery with Bathsheba by causing their infant son to die, David says, “I will go to him” (2 Sam 12:23). This seems to indicate that this infant would be in Heaven, where David would go. And while the Bible doesn’t teach an ‘age of accountability’, there are biblical indications that the rules are different for children. For example, Isaiah 7:16 says, “before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right.” Paul tells us that the thoughts and reasoning of children and adults are different (1 Corinthians 13:11). So since the Bible doesn’t say one way or the other, we are obliged simply to obey God, thus refrain from murdering children, and to trust His judgment.72
Another moral hazard can arise concerning this question as well. That is, some argue that people will be damned only if they reject Christ after hearing the Gospel. But the moral hazard here is: we should thus never preach the Gospel or send missionaries, because then we are giving people the chance to reject the Gospel. In reality:
We have two options: separate from our sins by trusting in Christ, and dwell with God forever; or cling to our sins, in which case God will grant our wish and separate us from Himself for eternity. This is why Jesus on the Day of Judgment says to evildoers, “Depart from me …” (Matthew 7:23, Luke 13:27).
When we understand the origin of death and the Gospel of Jesus Christ as proclaimed in the Bible, then we can understand why this world is the way it is and how there can be a loving God in the midst of tragedy, violence, suffering, and death. Which view of death do you accept? Is it one that makes God an ogre responsible for millions of years of death, disease, and suffering? Or is it one that places the blame on our sin, and pictures our Creator God as a loving, merciful Saviour who wept over the city of Jerusalem, who wept at the tomb of His friend Lazarus, and who weeps for all of us?
Another common argument concerns the atrocities committed in Christ’s name, and hypocrites in the Church.
It’s vital to note that atrocities in the name of Christ are inconsistent with real Christianity, which is revealed in the Bible. But we showed above, atheism provides the basis for no coherent ethical theory. Thus atrocities in the name of atheism are not inconsistent with it. And the corrective for faulty application of Christianity is not atheism but correct (biblical) application of Christianity.73
Furthermore, atrocities committed in Christ’s name pale in comparison to the record-breaking tens of millions killed by atheistic regimes just last century. This was thoroughly documented by Rudolph Rummel (b. 1932), Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Hawaii, who coined the term democide for murder by government:74 77 million in Communist China, 62 million in the Soviet Gulag State, 21 million non-battle killings by the Nazis, 2 million murdered in the Khmer Rouge killing fields. This is many times more deaths than all ‘religious’ wars put together in all centuries of human history.
A few more cases follow:
Between 1,500 and 4,000 people were executed for heresy over its 350-year span. Thus its rate of carrying out the death penalty was lower than the state of Texas today, and Stalin killed that many before breakfast. Furthermore, Inquisition trials were often fairer and more lenient than their secular counterparts—indeed, some criminals uttered heresies precisely so they would be transferred to the Inquisition courts from the civil courts.75
They killed fewer than 25 people, and were stopped when Christians protested at the travesty of justice in the unfair trials.76
While many people attack Christianity for the Crusades, an increasing number of historians regard them as a belated response to centuries of Islamic aggression.77
The Muslims quickly conquered the Iberian Peninsula well before the Crusades. They probably would have almost certainly conquered Europe if the Frankish king Charles Martel’s infantry had not defeated the Muslim cavalry at the Battle of Tours/Poitiers in a brilliant defensive strategy.
Also, just think about the historic centres of Christianity such as Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria and the rest of North Africa—they are now Muslim lands, converted at the point of the sword. And after the crusades, the Muslim Turks conquered the ancient land of Asia Minor, the birthplace of the Apostle Paul, the site of many of his missionary journeys and home of the Seven Churches of the book of Revelation. Furthermore, when they conquered Constantinople (now Istanbul) in 1453, they turned Hagia Sophia (‘Holy Wisdom’), the world’s biggest church of its day and centre of Eastern Orthodoxy, into a mosque.
In this, they were following the example of Muhammad himself. Evangelist Lowell Lundstrom observes, “During Muhammad’s ten years in Medina, he planned 65 military campaigns and raids, and he personally led 27 of them.”78 In Sura 66:9, the Koran affirms, “O Prophet! Strive against the disbelievers and the hypocrites and be stern with them. Hell will be their home, a hapless journey’s end.” Historian Sir Steven Runciman notes, “Unlike Christianity, which preached a peace that it never achieved, Islam unashamedly came with the sword.”79So while atrocities committed in the name of Christ, such as during the Crusades, were inconsistent with the teachings of Christ, the atrocities committed by Muslims are consistent with Muhammad’s teachings and example.80
Jesus reserved some of his strongest criticism for the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. But he in no way condemned the righteousness that they stood for in public. Matthew 23:1–3 records:
Thus the charge of hypocrisy was not an attack on the morality they preached but on their failure to live up to it. He actually told his followers to be even more righteous than them (Matthew 5:20).
We are so upset by hypocrisy precisely because we recognize that something intrinsically good has been debased and let down by a failure to meet the standard proclaimed. Hence the saying, “Hypocrisy is the compliment vice pays to virtue.”
The atheist criticism amounts to preferring that we both say and do the wrong thing rather than say the right thing and do the wrong thing.81
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Had Adam kept the (divine) commandment, he never would have died, for death came into the world through sin. … In the state of innocence it would have been most joyous and pleasant (for man) to be translated into the spiritual (eternal) life.In this fallen world, “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 15:50), but Jesus said, “For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (Luke 24:39). Note the important difference. At the resurrection, believers will have “spiritual bodies” (1 Corinthians 15:44), which does not mean composed of spirit but controlled by the Spirit, cf. 1 Corinthians 3:1. Isaiah 45:7 is mistranslated by the KJV. You really should check other translations at least, if not the original languages. In context, the Hebrew rā’ (רע) is here not the opposite of good/righteous but of peace or wellbeing, hence the ESV’s “I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity.” About evil as a privation, there is an analogy from solid state physics that could illustrate the concept further. There is a phenomenon called ‘hole conduction’, where a vacancy or ‘hole’ is filled by an electron, leaving a vacancy in turn where the electron was, which is in turn filled by still another electron. So the hole travels throughout the solid for all practical purposes like a positive charge carrier, but ultimately it has no reality and it’s the electrons that are moving.
For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.But they were clearly relying on their own good works for salvation. What they never did was plead what Christ had done for them. As the famous English Baptist commentator John Gill (1697–1771) said about the Matthew passage:
It may be observed that these men lay the whole stress of their salvation upon what they have done in Christ’s name; and not on Christ himself, in whom there is salvation, and in no other; they say not a syllable of what Christ has done and suffered, but only of what they have done. Indeed, the things they instance are the greatest done among men; the gifts they had were the most excellent, excepting the grace of God; the works they did were of an extraordinary nature; thence it follows that there can be no salvation, nor is it to be expect from men’s works.