By Brian Lowther
Ralph Winter once said, “There are very many people, even Bible-believing Christians not just non-Christians, who are profoundly puzzled, perplexed, and certainly confused by the extensive presence of outrageous evil in the created world of an all-powerful, benevolent God.” In other words, if God is all-powerful and all loving, then why is there so much evil, disease, and suffering in the world?
In this three-part blog post, I will explore three Biblical views addressing this question. Where I list scripture references, I won’t venture an interpretation. I’ll simply list the passages that at a surface level, seem to support the view I’m exploring.
View #1 - People suffer because they deserve it.
This conviction turns up every time a natural disaster strikes. For example:
- The 2011 earthquake and tsunami that killed thousands of Japanese citizens was viewed by some as divine retribution.
- Some blamed Haiti’s 2009 earthquake on the Haitians' "pact to the devil."
- Some explained Hurricane Katrina as a direct result of New Orleans’ embracing gay pride events.
- Some blamed the September 11 tragedy on liberal civil liberties groups, feminists, pagans, homosexuals, and abortion rights supporters.
This understanding is taken from the Old Testament, where you can read of countless examples of God punishing the disobedient, such as:
- When God ordered the Israelites to slaughter countless men, women and children in the conquest of Canaan. (Deuteronomy 20:16-17)
- When God killed every firstborn child in Egypt because Pharaoh was stubborn. (Exodus 12:29) Ironically the Bible tells us it was God who hardened Pharaoh’s heart towards God's people. 
- When God ordered King Saul to butcher thousands of children and babies in the genocide of the Amalakites. (1 Samuel 15:1-35)
- When God ordered the Israelites (through Moses) to capture 32,000 young girls of the Midianite tribe “for yourselves” after killing their families. (Numbers 31:7-18)
- When God drowned every man, woman, child, and animal on the face of the earth during the flood of Noah, with the exception of eight in Noah’s family and the animals on the ark. (Genesis 7:17-24)
One could point out that in the passages above, the wickedness of the people more than justified God’s judgment. In many of these situations, the Bible makes it clear that human violence and evil had grown to be so pervasive that it touched everything and everyone that existed at the time. The Canaanites, for example, were apparently an incredibly sinful people who practiced extreme cruelty, incest, bestiality, cultic prostitution, and child sacrifice.  If such acts were perpetrated today and broadcast on the news, there would be a universal outcry for retribution.
One could also point out that, in many of these Biblical contexts, God’s judgment is preceded by warning and/or a long period of time to repent. For example, during the construction of the ark—which took as long as one hundred years—Noah is described as a “preacher of righteousness” (2 Peter 2:5) to the people around him. This means the people had perhaps one hundred years to listen to the message of Noah and to repent of the wickedness that was bringing the floodwaters upon them.
Lastly, many who contend that people suffer because they deserve it, assert that God is required to judge people for sin, simply because he is just. He has to threaten to punish sin and then follow through with those threats or the world would become overrun with crime and evil.
This understanding of suffering seems to fit with our innate sense of justice, e.g., all parents instinctively seem to know that bad behavior cannot go unpunished.
But, should we take this view to be the universal explanation for all evil and suffering? If so, some troubling questions arise.
- First is the age-old question, why do the wicked often prosper and the righteous suffer? It seems so arbitrary.
- Second is the question of unwarranted suffering, such as the suffering and death of newborn babies. In other words, why is it that sometimes the punishment doesn’t fit the crime?
- Third is the question of animal suffering. Wild animals surely can’t learn from their suffering, or be improved by it.
- Next would be the question of understanding our own personal tragedies. For example, are we to interpret a terminal cancer diagnosis or a child kidnapping as God’s judgment? Isn’t this one of the main things the book of Job refutes?
- The last question is similar to the first, in terms of the arbitrary nature of suffering. Oftentimes our suffering happens when we least expect it. Many of us know a devout friend or relative who spent their life serving God, only to be knocked down by some ghastly disease. In these cases there is rarely a direct reason from God explaining the “punishment.” This situation is similar to a parent saying to a child, “I’m going to spank you, sometimes when you’re doing right, and I won't generally tell you why.”
Interestingly, Jesus addresses this general idea in Luke 13:1-5 where he responds to two catastrophes: Pilates’ slaughtering of some Galileans and the fall of the tower of Siloam that killed eighteen people. About both events Jesus asks his audience, “Do you think these people were more guilty than anyone else?”
If the explanation that people suffer because they deserve it was the only Biblical answer to the problem of evil, I think we would all be forever “profoundly puzzled, perplexed, and confused.” Thankfully, there are at least two other predominant answers in scripture. Tomorrow I’ll explore the second view.
 Though, we are also told Pharaoh hardened his own heart many times.
Brian Lowther is the director of the Roberta Winter Institute.