By Brian Lowther
I think there are three types of people in the world.
- People who believe (or will believe) in God despite all the suffering in the world.
- People who don’t (or won’t) believe in God because of all the suffering in the world.
- People who believe (or will believe) in God, are confused by all the suffering in the world, but have faith that scripture and the revelation of the Holy Spirit will provide better explanations.
Below I'll illustrate these three types of people with a few personal stories. The first is about my wife and her family.
It was a cold, rainy night in Pasadena. The date was February 23, 2000. My wife and I were newly engaged. Her father, Chuck was a humble, God-fearing man who worked for Caltrans (California Department of Transportation). During the rainy season, his job was to clear away snow, ice and debris from a twenty-two mile stretch of road in the San Gabriel Mountains. He would drive a snowplow up and down the foggy, winding mountain road from 7:00pm to 7:00am.
At 4:00am Chuck radioed his supervisor to say that he was starting up the mountain one final time before coming in. This would have brought him back to the dispatch yard at approximately 6:30am.
6:30am came and went with no sign of Chuck. 7:00am came and went with no sign of Chuck.
Chuck wasn’t the type to miss a deadline.
So his supervisor, Bill got into his vehicle and drove up the mountain.
He drove all the way to the top without any sign of Chuck. He turned around and about halfway down he noticed some orange streaks on an asphalt berm on the edge of the road. He parked, approached the berm and looked over the edge into the canyon. Three-hundred feet below was a sight that made his heart drop: Chuck’s vehicle. He quickly put his gear on and rappelled down the mountainside.
Once he landed on the canyon floor he approached Chuck’s vehicle, dreading what he might find. He peered into the driver’s side window and saw Chuck’s body slumped to the side. Two hours elapsed before the rescue crew reached Chuck’s vehicle and pulled his body from the wreckage.
Chuck was forty-five years old. He left behind a wife and three daughters. Some estimated that over a thousand people attended his memorial service, a surprise, as Chuck wasn’t well known by any means.
It was the most profound and sad moment of my entire life. It was an instant that changed everything from that point forward.
Observing my wife and her family come to grips with this tragedy was heartbreaking but also deeply inspiring. Never once did I see them raise their fist to the sky and ask, “Why God? Why?” In fact, it appeared to me that their faith grew stronger. I remember my wife finding solace in Proverbs 3:5-6, “Trust in the LORD with all your heart; and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will direct your paths.”
Despite the tremendous suffering they were experiencing, my wife and her family never stopped believing that God was good, and powerful and in complete control. It was easy to admire them.
I’ll illustrate people who fall into category number two with a story about my brother. My brother is a great guy, real funny, kind, works hard, hates traffic. We sit together in church every other Sunday. That’s my brother today. Ten years ago he was quite a different guy. At the time, his best friend worked for the telephone company. One day, while up on a telephone pole, something happened to his safety harness and he fell forty feet (12 m) and slammed into the pavement below. He didn’t die, but he broke his back and was paralyzed from the waist down.
Shortly after the accident I found myself in a theological discussion with my brother on the deck outside of his apartment. Out of the clear blue he said to me, “This is why I can’t believe in God. Because he allows this kind of stuff to happen.”
Now, I had been following Jesus for seven or eight years by this time. I had heard at least a thousand sermons. I had read plenty of Christian books. I was a newly minted staff member at the U.S. Center for World Mission, devoting my life to the spread of the gospel, and I didn’t really know what to say to him.
Well, I take that back. I knew what to say to him. Every believer knows what to say. “God has a plan. He works everything together for good. He has a reason that he let your best friend fall off the telephone pole. His ways are mysterious, etc. etc.”
But knowing my brother as I did, and knowing the depths of his skepticism, I knew this answer would sound trite or absurd or just plain meaningless to him.
In my brother’s mind I’m certain he was thinking, “If God is who Christians say he is, then he could have prevented this accident. But he didn’t prevent it. So, either he is not powerful enough to prevent tragic accidents like this, or he didn’t want to. Which makes him unworthy of my allegiance.”
This is the classic problem of evil as I understand it: If God is all-powerful and all-good, why is there so much suffering and evil in the world?
Granted this accident could be explained away by mechanical malfunction or human error. But the point is, God could have prevented this accident, but he didn’t, and that caused my brother—and everyone like him—to doubt.
My brother was grappling with the goodness and power of God in the face of suffering and evil. Despite being a mature believer at the time, I didn’t have a good answer for him.
Lucky for me, I was on staff at the U.S. Center for World Mission and therefore had direct access to Dr. Ralph D. Winter. It just so happened that Winter was also very seriously grappling with the problem of evil. But he was coming at it from the direction of disease, as he had just lost his first wife of fifty years to terminal cancer, and if that wasn’t enough, was now dying of the very same disease.
Winter often cited a story from Philip Yancey’s book, Where is God When it Hurts? to illustrate the kind of advice fellow believers were offering him about his predicament. The story tells of five visitors to the hospital bed of a newly married woman named Claudia who is dying of Hodgkin’s disease.
The first tells her, “Surely something in your life must displease God … these things don’t just happen. God uses circumstances to warn us and to punish us. What is He telling you?”
The second is overly cheerful and simply pastes get-well cards all over her window.
The third explains that Claudia would be healed, if she simply believed enough.
The fourth urges her to see herself as an important example of joy in spite of pain and death.
The fifth, her pastor, insists that we do not know all of God’s purposes but that we need to say, ‘Thank you God for this disease.’ The challenge is to believe without knowing all the answers.
What struck Winter was that in all of these cases there is the assumption that God is the source of the disease. His question was, “Where is Satan in that picture?”
This insight immediately refocused my conversation with my brother. What if all of the tragic and painful things that happen are in some way, shape or form because of a malicious, invisible opponent to God and his good purposes?
Not that Satan is directly responsible for every harm. As in most cases, you wouldn't have to look very far to see where human error or human sin caused a particular tragedy. But certainly Satan celebrates harm and works to worsen it, while God seeks to rectify it.
Of course, I had to be delicate with the matter. If I took it too far my brother might accuse me of seeing “a demon behind every bush,” or assigning too much power to Satan. But at least it would reframe the discussion and allow him to take God’s goodness seriously again.
I had to be delicate with the matter. If I took it too far my brother might accuse me of seeing “a demon behind every bush,” or assigning too much power to Satan. But at least it would reframe the discussion and allow him to take God’s goodness seriously again.
But another problem occurred to me. If I gave him this explanation, he’d immediately ask, “Then why did God create Satan?”
So I asked Winter, “What do you say when people ask you, ‘Why did God create Satan?’”
He replied, “Why did God create you?”
I looked at him blankly.
He continued, “To do evil?”
“No,” I replied.
“Can you do evil?” he asked.
“God didn’t create Satan to do evil either.”
There was the key! Winter provided a very eloquent way to get the discussion headed in the right direction. I couldn’t wait to continue the discussion with my brother.
Thus, I put Winter in the third category. He wasn’t fully satisfied with the standard answers to the problem of evil, but had a hunch that if he studied the Bible hard enough, and listened to the spirit of God closely enough, he might land on a more plausible explanation.