By Jason Thompson –

Like it or not, bad things happen. Life is hard. Pain and suffering are a reality. Catastrophes take place. Hurricanes, earthquakes, and tsunamis take lives. Terrorists crash plains into buildings. Cancer kills millions. Accidents cause physical and mental anguish. Heinous crimes such as robbery, murder, rape, and abuse are impossible to avoid. For most of us, the problem of evil is much more than a theoretical dilemma, or a philosophical notion. It is a reality we experience everyday. No one is exempt.

As a youth minister, I constantly witness the reality of an evil world in the lives of young teenagers. For instance, a young man recently told me he was struggling with depression. He explained that his childhood was very difficult. It was filled with a broken home, neglect from both parents, and abuse from his mother’s boyfriends. As if these things were not enough, the church also contributed to his suffering. In a quivering voice, not able to look me in the eyes, and with tears flowing down his cheeks, he explained that a counselor at church camp sexually abused him when he was twelve years old. This young man did nothing directly to deserve these circumstances, but he has no choice but to learn to live with them.

Over and over again I am faced with these types of situations in ministry. Teenagers and adults alike want to know why God has allowed them to experience pain and suffering. One of the most common responses I hear goes something like this: if God is really in control of all things, and he is also really a good and loving God, then why does he allow evil? The underlying assumption is that an omnipotent and omni-benevolent God cannot coexist along side a world that is filled with evil. Therefore, since the reality of evil is apparent to all, the conclusion often reached is that God is either not powerful enough to stop it, or He is not loving enough to desire to stop it.

As a pastor, I have a responsibility to provide a biblical response to this kind of fallacious argumentation, but because evil is of ten felt/experienced rather than argued,1 I must also provide an applicable solution to real life situations. The purpose of this article is to articulate a biblical response to the problem of evil by providing a theological framework for understanding pain and suffering, thereby enabling the Christian to cope in the midst of an evil world.

Who Is God?

In order to arrive at a biblical view of the problem of evil, it is necessary to begin with certain non-negotiable truths concerning God. The first non-negotiable truth pertains to God s sovereignty. God’s sovereignty is an axiomatic reality of his existence. As A. W. Pink said, “To say that God is sovereign is to declare that God is God.”2 Scripture states that God is omniscient (Job 37:16; Ps 90:4; 1 Jn 3:20); He is all-wise (1 Cor. 1:18-2:5); and He is immutable (Jas. 1:17). Throughout Scripture God is described as “Head above all” (1Chron. 29:1 1; cf. Col 1:15-20), directing all things for his own purpose “according to the counsel of his will” (Eph. 1:11). From beginning to end, God is working out his redemptive program (Gen. 3:15; Rev 19-20).

For example, the Psalmist declares that God designs every day (Ps. 139:16). The Proverbs claim that the plans of man come about only by the hand of God (Pr. 16:1-4, 33; 19:21). Likewise, Daniel states that God always acts according to his will and no one can stop Him (Dan. 4:35). The same message is central in the New Testament as well. God works all things together for good for those who love him and are called to his purpose (Rom 8:28). Nothing takes God by surprise, and nothing happens that He has not decreed. Peter stated that, “Jesus was delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God.” (Acts 2:23; 4:28) Likewise, individual salvation was decreed and planned before the foundations of the world (Eph 1:4). Therefore, things do not depend on man who wills (Rom 9:16), but on God who both wills and works for His good pleasure (Phil 2:13; 2 Tim 1:8-9).

The second non-negotiable truth pertains to God’s goodness. Not only is God the omnipotent ruler over all creation, he also rules with an omni-benevolent hand (Ps 34:8; 100:5; 106:1). Throughout Scripture God is exalted as the ultimate and only source of good (Mk. 10:18; Lk. 18:19). As a result, The goodness of God means that God is the final standard of good, and that all God is and does is worthy of approval.3 Some primary ways Gods moral purity is demonstrated is by his love (Psalm 63:3; 1 John 4:8), by his mercy, grace, and patience (Ex. 34:6), by his faithfulness (Deut. 32:4), and ultimately by his holiness (Ps. 99:3,5,9; Isa. 6:3). Therefore, God cannot do anything evil or be blamed for evil in any way (Job 34:10; James 1:13-18). In fact, evil provokes God to anger (Deut. 9:18).

The Origin of Evil

Once the above truths about God are understood, it is possible to arrive at a biblical perspective of evil. First, it is important to understand the origin of evil. All evil can originally be traced back to Satan (Jn. 8:44; 1Jn 3:8). He is the one that ushered evil into the realm of humanity by questioning the authority of God (Gen. 3:1-5). It is equally import ant to understand man s role in the entrance of evil into the world. Once Eve believed the lie of the Serpent, she offered the fruit to Adam, who partook, knowing fully well that he was abandoning the authority of God’s Word for his own autonomous sovereignty (Gen. 3:6; 1Tim 2:14). As the God-appointed head, Adam’s sin had a permanent and universal impact on creation. The seed of the Serpent is at const ant war with the seed of the woman (Gen. 3:15); women experience increased pain in childbearing and have a twisted desire to usurp male authority (3:16); the ground is cursed, causing painful work for man (3:17-18); and ultimately, the final destination of man is death (3:19). From this point forward the result of sin is evident. In a real sense one could argue that everything else in Scripture after Genesis 3:1-6, with the exception of the effects of the operations of divine grace, is in one way or another an effect of the fall – that everything that has occurred and thus contributed to making human history on it s evil side what it is, is the result of the Fall.4

Now everyone is born with an inherited evil nature (Rom. 5:12). This fact does not mean that everyone carries out as much evil as possible, but that “the intention of man s heart is evil from his youth” (Gen. 8:21; cf . 1 Kings 8:46; Ps. 51:5; Rom. 3:9-23; Eph. 2:1-3). The reality of mans depravity affect s the entire creation. Thus, “Even the moon is not bright, and the stars are not pure in his eyes.” (Job 25:5) Likewise, Paul says all creation has been effected by sin and is groaning for redemption (Rom. 8:20-22). As a result, we now live in a world that is completely tainted and marred by the reality of evil, which is evident in the evil actions of men, and in the natural catastrophes of creation.

God’s Control of Evil

A second important aspect to grasp in this discussion is that all evil operates under Gods providential control. The Dictionary of Biblical Theology states that, “Rampant moral evil, which is under God’s judgment, may at times seem pervasive, but it is no threat to God’s sovereignty.”5 In a sense, evil is on a leash. As a master walks his dog by the restraint of a leash, so God allows evil by the restraint of his perfect will. Evil can only exist in so far as God permit s. The great puritan divine, William Gurnall, beautifully captures this truth in his classic work, The Christian In Complete Armour: “Satan’s power is limited, and that two ways – he cannot do what he will, and he shall not do what he can. . . .He is but a creature, and so hath the length of his tedder, to which he is staked, and cannot exceed. . . .[H]e cannot hinder those purposes and counsels of God he knows.”6

The story of Job provides an example of this point. In the first two chapters, we are allowed to listen in behind the scenes to a conversation between God and Satan.7 There are two important aspects about this dialogue that are import ant for our discussion. First, Satan, along with “the sons of God,” came to “present themselves before the Lord.” (Job 1:6; 2:1) In other words, Satan had to answer to God about his actions. Second, Satan is only allowed to do what God permits him to do. He realized God had a protective hedge around Job, and knew he could not touch him unless God allowed it (1:10-11). Notice, with every new freedom given to Satan there is always a restriction. The first time, God allowed Satan to bring evil to Job’s front porch, but restricted him from laying a finger on Job himself (1:12). The second time, Satan was given direct access to Job himself, but told to sp are his life (2:6). Thus, the freedom of Satan to do evil is always limited and controlled by God.

God’s Use of Evil

A third fundamental point concerning evil is that God uses evil to further his purposes and ultimately to accomplish his will. This point is extremely difficult to grasp because it is very hard to understand how God can use evil for good. Nevertheless, one cannot avoid this theme in Scripture. In the life of Joseph, his brothers meant evil against him when they sold him into slavery, but God ordained this event for good (Gen. 50:20). The Proverbs state that, “The Lord has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble.” (Prov. 16:4) Even the most evil act in history, the crucifixion of Christ, was according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God (Acts 2:23; 4:27-28).8 R. C. Sproul help fully describes how evil can result in good when he states that, “To say evil is good is it self evil, as Scripture so clearly declares. Evil is evil. However, to say that it is good that there is evil is simply to declare that God is good and that His providence extends to all things, including evil. God’s sovereignty stands over evil, and He is able to bring good out of evil and to use evil for His holy purposes.”9

God uses evil for various reasons. On the one hand, evil is employed as an instrument to save the lost (2 Timothy 2:8-10; 4:5-6), and to save the lost (2 Timothy 2:8-10; 4:5-6), and to 10). But, on the other hand, God uses pain and suffering in the believer s life to discipline those who go astray (1 Cor . 11:29-30; Hebrews 12:5-11), and to produce patience, perseverance, and joy in Christ alone (James 1:2-4; 1Peter 4:13). Ultimately, the chief purpose for evil is the glory of God in Christ (Jn. 9:3; Rom. 8:28; cf. Ex. 9:16; Rom. 9:17; 1 Peter 1:7).

Our Proper Response to Evil

In light of all of these truths, I hope it has become abundantly clear that, although we cannot comprehend His complex and mysterious ways, the Lord is the only source for true comfort and refuge in the midst of an evil world. In order to correctly respond to evil, we must not only be convinced that God is our help in time of trouble, we must also understand that pain and suffering are designed to cultivate a stronger desire for God. Experiences of abuse, sickness, grief, disaster, etc., lead “to many act s of faith, hope, love, self-denial, resignation, and other graces, to many heavenly breathings, pantings, and groanings, which otherwise would not be brought forth.”10 This means that it may be necessary to radically revolutionize our thoughts concerning evil. Instead of always trying to escape from the wilderness, seek to learn and grow through it; instead of focusing on evil circumstances, focus on the magnificent satisfaction of Christ in the midst of bad circumstances; instead of throwing our hands up in despair, we should bow our knees in prayer; instead of complaining with our tongue, we should praise God with our lips; instead of worrying about the outcome, we instead of worrying about the outcome, we should cast our burdens on God (Mt. 11:28-30).

King David modeled this kind of response when he was in the wilderness, fleeing for his life from his own son (Psalm 63). He did not despair; he understood that in the worst of circumstance the greatness of God is actually magnified. As a result, he praised the all-satisfying, ever-sustaining power of God (vv.1-8). What originally seemed like a tragic situation turned out in the end to produce greater delight in God. How can we respond to God in the same way? We must trust in God during the good times and during the bad times. If we don’t live everyday in dependence on God, we won’t when trials come,
either . Therefore, in the midst of pain and suffering, submit to God (James 4:7), accept his comfort (2 Cor. 1:3-7), build an eternal perspective (Col. 3:1-4), and have confidence in the Lord (Heb. 13:5-6). If we accomplish these things, then we will agree that, “Whatever valleys of darkness, grief, and sorrow we are carried through, we are to look on them as made by the mountains of brass, the immoveable divine purpose (Zech. 6:1).”11

Jason Thompson is the Associate Pastor of Ryker’s Ridge Baptist Church in Madison, IN. He is a graduate student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY.

1 John Frame, The Doctrine of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2002), 160-182
2 A.W Pink, The Sovereignty of God (Pensacola, FL: Mt. Zion Publications, 1996), 1 1.
3 W ayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 197.

4 Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 446.

5 T. Desmond Alexander, Brian S. Rosner, D.A. Carson, Graeme Goldsworthy, eds., New Dictionary of Biblical Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2001), 244.

6 Gurnall, William, The Christian in Complete Armour (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1981), 146.

7 I am aware of the debate concerning the identity of “The Satan” in verse six. I have come to the conclusion, based on the entire context of the dialogue, that “The Satan” is the same person as the Devil, or Adversary, more fully developed in later Biblical writing.

8 It is important to note that there are many more examples throughout Scripture that demonstrate the relationship between God and evil.  Because of space I will simply list a few of them here:  Ex.14:17; Deut. 2:30; 1 Sam. 2:25; 2Chron. 25:20; Ps. 105:25; Isa. 10:5-7, 15; Ezek. 32:32.

9 R.C.Sproul, The Invisible Hand, (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, DATE????), 167.

10 Thomas Boston, The Crook In the Lot, (Morgan, PA; Soli Deo Gloria, DATE????), 31.

11 Ibid., 61.

in verse six. I have come to the conclusion, based on the entire context of the dialogue, that “The Satan” is the same person as the Devil, or Adversary, more fully developed in later Biblical writing.

8 It is important to note that there are many more examples throughout Scripture that demonstrate the relationship between God and evil.  Because of space I will simply list a few of them here:  Ex.14:17; Deut. 2:30; 1 Sam. 2:25; 2Chron. 25:20; Ps. 105:25; Isa. 10:5-7, 15; Ezek. 32:32.

9 R.C.Sproul, The Invisible Hand, (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, DATE????), 167.

10 Thomas Boston, The Crook In the Lot, (Morgan, PA; Soli Deo Gloria, DATE????), 31.

11 Ibid., 61.