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Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?


The Question


Due to recent events like the tsunamis that hit Asia and the insane murdering of approximately 3,000 individuals that were in the World Trade Center towers in New York City on September 11, 2001, many Christians and non-believers around the world are asking the age-old question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”  To put it another way, “How can a good and all-powerful God allow evil in the world?”


The Denial


Some deny the reality of evil in the world.  Some mental health professionals (psychologists and psychiatrists) hold that evil is an outdated and misguided concept.  They believe people are basically good, or at worst, neutral; therefore, evil behavior is the result of physiological or environmental factors — crimes are not committed by evil people; they are committed by mentally sick ones — the root of violence and crime is pathological, not moral.


Some forms of Eastern religion consider evil to be an illusion.  Hindus believe that once a person achieves the right state of mystical consciousness, evil is absent.  Mind science groups such as Christian Science, Religious Science and the New Age spirituality embrace a similar view.  Hindu thinking has influenced all three of these Western trends to the end that the principal problem of humans is ignorance or lack of enlightenment, not sin or moral evil.


The Reality


The premise of the existence of evil, both moral and natural, is taken for granted by most intelligent and reasonable individuals who are cognizant of their social surroundings and world affairs.  Innocent children fall prey to pedophiles, to murders, to slave-traders, to torturers, and to psychopaths every day of the week in every corner of the globe.  Snipers lie in wait for innocent travelers.  Insane dictators through programs of genocide fill mass graves in various countries outside the United States of America.  Rapes, robberies, thefts and many other inhuman and vicious acts lay waste the innocent in innumerable locations many thousands of times in every twenty-four hour period of time.


Although natural disasters (so called “Acts of God”) have always been man’s lot, they have appeared to be on the increase in the past century and definitely seem to be increasing in both number and intensity in this present one.  Volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tsunamis, avalanches, lightning strikes, hurricanes, tornadoes, pestilence, disease, shark and animal attacks and other uncontrollable events and conditions of every ilk plague mankind everywhere.  So many that are affected are innocent men, women, and children; individuals who by all appearances and records do not deserve such devastation and grief that comes by, from, and with these catastrophic calamities.


But no matter how any individual or group chooses to deny the existence of evil, their views of human nature simply do not comport with most people’s experiences in the world.  Evil and suffering are stark realities of life.  One cannot ignore the harsh realities of evil and suffering in the twentieth century — the totalitarian regimes of Adolf Hitler (Nazi death camps), Josef Stalin (Soviet gulags), and Mao Tse-tung (Chinese revolution).  Millions of innocent Jewish men, women, and children were systematically exterminated at the hand of Hitler, and even more human beings, many more were slaughtered at the hands of Stalin and Chairman Mao during World War II.  The wars of the twentieth century make the view that evil is an illusion impossible to take seriously.  In fact, dismissing evil as an illusion is itself a serious departure from reality.


The Philosophical Conflict


Eighteenth-century Scottish skeptic David Hume introduced what he thought was an illogical and inconsistent triad of thought, which represents the dilemma that many honest Christians and non-believers have faced throughout history and even more today.  He advanced that the Christian (Bible) doctrines of the omnibenevolence (perfectly good) and omnipotency (totally powerful) God coupled with the reality of evil resulted in an alleged logical incompatibility.  How could evil exist in the world when God has both the desire and the power to eliminate it?


This alleged inconsistent triad makes any one of the following conclusions appear to be rational:


  1. God is willing to eliminate evil but not able; therefore, God is impotent or lacking in power.


  1. God is able to eliminate evil but not willing to do so; therefore, God is malevolent or lacking in goodness.


  1. An all-good and all-powerful God must not exist.


This leads skeptics and atheists to argue that since the attributes of omnibenevolence and omnipotency and the concept of evil are logically incompatible, and since all three must be affirmed in order to accept the Christian God; then the Christian concept of God is logically incoherent and must be untrue.  This “apparent” problem of “assumed” inconsistency has been a powerful weapon in the atheistic arsenal against Christian theism throughout history.


The Nature of God


Although man, with his finite mind, cannot fully comprehend the nature (character) of God; he can through Holy Writ know some of His attributes.


Though wholly inadequate, mans conception of God is measured by those characteristics that he attributes to God.  The Bible presents a revelation that, though limited by the restrictions that language must ever impose, is of a Person, and this revelation attributes to Him those exalted qualities that are His.  These qualities thus attributed are properly styled attributes.  To declare His Person and the sum-total of His attributes, would constitute a final definition of God that man might never hope to form . . . .


It is true, as previously observed, that God, of necessity, is disclosed — even in the Bible — in the expressions that belong to human life and experience.  He is presented in anthropomorphic [ascribing human form or attributes to a being not human] and anthropopathic [ascribing human emotions to a being not human] terms.  As is to be anticipated, when the finite mind enters upon the contemplation of the infinite, the knowledge gained is, at best, but partial . . . . [1]


With this understanding, the following attributes (and there are more) apply to God, i.e., He is:


  • Self-sufficient (Self-existing)
  • Eternal
  • Immutable (unchanging)
  • Omnipresent (present everywhere)
  • Omniscient (all-knowing)
  • Omnipotent (all-powerful)*
  • Holy (Righteous)
  • Loving
  • Just
  • Gracious
  • Personable
  • Good
  • Truthful
  • Sovereign


Omnipotence, in a biblical context, does not mean that God can do anythingHe cannot sin or be the originator of it He cannot perform the absurd.  Rather, omnipotence means God can do all things consistent with His rational and moral nature.


The Beginning of Moral Evil


  • Satan and the Origination of Evil


God, who is totally holy and good, is not the originator of sin; although, His permissive will allowed it through one of His creatures — Lucifer, son of the morning, who in eternity past was a creature (angel — a cherub) of magnificent glory; but who chose through his God-given free agency to exalt himself in personal pride to be equal with His Creator (Isaiah 14:12-14; Ezekiel 28:2, 17; 1 Timothy 3:6). 


By his act of pride, Satan became the embodiment of untruth (John 8:44) and the root cause of all subsequent sin in time and space.  Satan not only influenced other angels to reject the sovereignty and plan of God, but he also influenced mankind to do the same.


  • The Fall of Humankind


Whereas man was originally created as an eternal physical and metaphysical being for a personal relationship with God and a revealed purpose relative to earth (Genesis 1:26, 28); at Satan’s prompting, he forfeited his original state by exercising His God-given free-agency to disobey (sin against) God in the Garden of Eden. 


This action introduced death (separation from God and His original plan) into the universe, which affected (1) man’s relationship with God, (2) man’s relationship with earth, (3) man’s relationship with the animal kingdom, and (4) man’s relationship with himself and other human beings. 


No longer could man enjoy a personal relationship with his Creator.  No longer could he co-exist in tranquility with animals.  No longer did the earth cater harmoniously to mankind.  No longer could there be peace with humanity, within or without.  All had changed due to man’s prerogative and action of sin.


Kenneth Richard Samples in his book, Without a Doubt, Baker Books Publication, 2004, states it this way:


Scripture is clear that the choices of Gods creatures have resulted in evil.  The misuse of freedom on the part of those whom God created yielded two distinct rebellions.  First, the angel named Lucifer, though possessing a high position in the order of Gods angelic creatures (Ezekiel 28:12-10), in an attempt to usurp Gods authority led a revolt in the angelic ranks (Isaiah. 14:12-20).  Lucifer, now known as Satan or the devil (along with his rebel cohorts, demons), directly opposes the moral goodness of God.  He is an agent of evil.  The Bible mentions in numerous places Satans diabolical influence on the world of humankind (John 12:31; 2 Corinthians 4:4; Ephesians. 2:2; 1 John 5:19).


But how could a finite being who was made good and who lacked any external evil to influence him possibly choose evil?  Augustine again provided a provocative explanation.  He proposed that Lucifers sin was actually one of idolatry.  Lucifer didnt directly choose evil.  Rather he chose a good thing — himself — but subsequently exalted himself above (substituted himself for) the ultimate good, which is God.  Lucifer was overcome with pride, the first expression of sin (1 Timothy 3:6).


A similar rebellion took place among human beings (Genesis 3).  Adam and Eve, the first humans, misused their freedom to rebel against Gods sovereign authority.  Tempted by Satan, they chose to exalt their own choice above Gods command.  Their disobedience resulted in immediate alienation from God — manifest in spiritual and (later) physical death.  Yet because Adam represented all humanity before God, the sinful actions and state of the first humans have passed to all subsequent human beings (original sin, Romans 5:12-21).  Consequently, all people are pervasively sinful and capable of evil (Psalm. 51:5; 58:3; Jeremiah 17:9; Matthew 15:19). 


It can reasonably be argued that most evil and suffering tearing at the world stems directly from the will of the creature.  This truth explains much about evil.


The Beginning of Natural Evil (Natural Disasters)


The fall of humankind not only affected man, but it affected both the earth and the animal kingdom.  The earth no longer was a tranquil and friendly environment; it was no longer controlled by the direct and protective hand of God, but was now subject to various self-sustaining laws of nature that could be harmful to man.  Likewise, the animal kingdom no longer radiated God’s love and care for man; on the contrary, now animals feared and could be destructive to man.


After the introduction of sin in the Garden of Eden, man was not only subject to the evil acts of man (theft, murder, rape, torture, deception, persecution, harassment, etc.); but he now faced various disasters both from nature (volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tsunamis, avalanches, lightning strikes, hurricanes, tornadoes, pestilence, disease, etc.) and the animal kingdom (animal and sea creature attacks, locust swarms, deadly bites and stings, etc.).  These, along with the injurious emanations of moral evil, were and are the consequences of the fall of humankind — all brought on by man’s exercise of free-agency, and all his (not God’s) fault.


The Universality of Evil’s Consequences


Jesus Christ (God in the flesh) declared that God “makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45).  The results of both good and bad, both moral and natural, affect all humans everywhere.  There are no exceptions.  Once man chose to usurp God’s authority over and purpose for him; God set in motion universal, self-perpetuating, and self-sustaining laws, of both a moral and a physical nature, that as a whole He will not violate until they have run their course — not until his ultimate cosmic plan for humankind is achieved.


The laws of physics (matter, energy, motion, and force) such as gravity, electromagnetic energy, evaporation, quantum mechanics, thermodynamics, and a legion of others apply to all humans no matter their purity or lack of it.  The moral laws of truth, faithfulness, fairness, and others also apply to all humans no matter their station in life.  No one is excluded.


Criminal acts, animal attacks, horrendous diseases, and natural disasters, such as listed above; befall both good people and bad people, both men and women, both adults and children, both believers and unbelievers, and both the guilty and the innocent.  Such consequences are the laws of the universe set in motion by God, but they are the “fault” of man’s disobedience.  Therefore, it is fallacious for finite man to blame infinite God for either the good or the bad that transpires in life, no matter how “innocent” the recipients appear to be.


Even though man will normally experience life at the mercy of Gods universal laws and as a result of his own choices during life; the Bible clearly teaches that God may superimpose supernatural acts upon him depending on the circumstances, which can have varying results.


The Plausible Reason


So if God did not set man upon earth to be a target of evil, the question still remains as to why He permits it.  He surely can totally eliminate all evil by a simple spoken word.  But to do so would nullify the “free agency”— the ability to choose — of man.  And to do away with man’s free agency would in essence do away with man as made in the “image” of God.  Man would no longer be self-conscious (aware of one’s own existence, sensations, thoughts, surroundings, etc.).  He would no longer be cognizant of even God.  He in fact would be reduced to an existence of robotics.  This then would eradicate God’s ability to have a genuine and personal relationship and fellowship with His creature — the primary purpose for God’s creation.


This being the case, and because man chose to go “his own way,” God must allow man’s path to run its course in order to be true to His nature (character).  Yet, God has intervened in order to restore man to a position of personal relationship and fellowship with Him.


The Eternal Cure


God is both holy and just and therefore cannot excuse sin, but rather must execute His wrath against it.  He certainly could have taken this action against all mankind, but this too would have invalidated His primary purpose for His creation — to have a personal relationship and fellowship with man.  And since God’s nature is also one of mercy, grace, and love; He made it possible for both sin to be punished and for man to have another chance to make a proper choice.


God sent Jesus Christ — His one and only Son — who, in fact, was and is God in the flesh to earth to ultimately make the penalty-payment for the sins of humankind and thereby make it possible for man to be saved from a sinful fate.  Jesus was born of a virgin, and He lived a perfect life under the Law of God, thereby demonstrating that He was a suitable (perfect and innocent) sacrifice for the payment of man’s sins.  Upon being delivered up upon the cross of Calvary, Jesus Christ was made sin for all humankind (2 Corinthians 5:21) and upon the cross paid in full the penalty-price (spiritual death) required of the Father for that sin (Matthew 27:46; John 19:30).  Christ’s payment for sin propitiated (totally satisfied) God’s holy and just nature.  He then, under His own power, physically died and was buried.  But on the third day He, under His own power, rose from the grave; thereby validating His claim to deity and the truth of the gospel message.


The gospel message to all humankind is this.  If any person who accepts the fact of his true condition — that he is a sinner and without hope (Romans 3:23; 6:23) — and then by faith (places full and genuine confidence/trust) in Christ alone, instead of anything or anyone else for his personal and eternal salvation, will be given the grace-gift of eternal life.  This turning to Christ in faith from any other confidence is “biblical repentance.”  One only needs to believe (accept by faith) Jesus was indeed God in the flesh and that He alone could make the penalty-payment for sin.  Then by placing one’s genuine confidence/trust (a faith decision of the will) in Christ alone for personal eternal salvation, one is instantly saved.  Salvation in this context means full justification and forgiveness from all sin and its penalty in the sight of God.  It means the person is eternally and permanently indwelt by and sealed with the Holy Spirit of God — the believer’s guarantee that he will live in the presence of God forever.


The Purposes of Evil and Suffering


Even though the vast majority of evil and the suffering of those who are considered “innocent” appears senseless to both Christian and unbeliever alike and even though the finite mind cannot understand many of the horrible events that continually take place; the Christian may be assured that God has permitted, or in some cases produced them, for specific reasons known only to Him.


The Bible does allow some insight into God’s reasons for such actions.  Kenneth Richard Samples in his book, Without a Doubt, has this to say regarding the matter:


While Christians should be cautious about claiming to identify Gods purposes behind specific incidents of injustice and suffering, the Bible does reveal some insight to how God uses evil and suffering for good.


1.      God may use evil and suffering to get an unbelievers attention and ultimately draw that person to Himself (Zechariah 13:7-9; Luke 13:1-5; John 9).


Christian apologist Walter R. Martin used to say that some people will not look up until they are flat on their back.  Evil and suffering can shock people out of their lives of diversion and indifference to spiritual things.  And, sometimes out of their false sense of control.  In this way problems may be used by Gods grace to bring a person to faith.  As C.S. Lewis so eloquently put it: God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”


2.      God may use evil and suffering to build the moral and spiritual character of His people or to express fatherly discipline (Romans. 5:3; Hebrews 10:36; 12:4-11).


Courage is forged only through facing ones fears.  Steel must be refined by fire.  For faith to grow, it often has to be tested by trial.  God expresses more concern for His childrens character than their comfort.  Therefore God uses evil and suffering to facilitate the believers moral and spiritual maturity.  The apostle Paul, who endured much evil and suffering, explains the causal relationship between suffering and character.  But we also rejoice in our suffering, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope (Romans 5:3).


A loving earthly father disciplines his children.  Though unpleasant at the time, discipline is crucial to a childs growth as a responsible person.  God similarly allows evil and suffering to bring about discipline in the life of His children.  As the writer of Hebrews declares: Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons (Hebrews 12:7).  The assuring guarantee for the Christian, however, is that God does not allow evil and suffering to come into a believers life without producing a greater good for that person.  The apostle Paul sets forth that divine promise in Romans 8:28:


And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose.


However, facing evil and suffering is never easy, even if a person knows that God is ultimately in control. . . .


Three critical comforts can help Christians when confronted with evil and suffering. 


First, believers can know they never suffer alone.  God is acquainted with suffering for God has suffered in Christ.  Jesus came into the world as a man, suffering with human beings and for them.  God Himself entered into the painful, ugly mix of evil.  Of all the worlds religions, only Christianity reveals the God who suffers with humanity and for humanity!  His suffering in earthly life and relationships — and on the cross — can transform His peoples experience of suffering.


Even now Jesus serves as the great High Priest interceding for believers during their trials and difficulties.  Jesus is not aloof or indifferent to human anguish, for He suffered as a real man.  The author of Hebrews describes Christs role as a sympathetic High Priest:


Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess.  For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are — yet was without sin.  Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Hebrews 4:14-16)


Second, God calls all His children to live a life of faith (confidence and trust) in the goodness and sovereignty of God despite the presence of evil and suffering.  Scripture points to the powerful examples of Abraham, Moses, Job, and Paul.  In the words of a familiar song, believers dont know what the future holds, but they know who holds the future.  Faith is trusting in the character of God when circumstances are painful and confusing.  Christians can trust God in the midst of suffering because they are aware of His character and His promises.  The apostle Paul assures the Church through asking and answering a probing question:


Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?  Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? . . . No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.” (Romans 8:35, 37)


Third, evil and suffering go beyond a logical or philosophical problem.  They are deeply personal and human problems.  When people face suffering they need comfort and reassurance.  Christians can confront evil and suffering in a powerfully practical way by comforting those afflicted by evil and by easing the suffering of people around them.


The historic Christian answer to the problem of evil and suffering is found in the example, as well as the identity of Jesus Christ.  God came in the flesh to heal His childrens suffering, to comfort as well as to teach, and ultimately to destroy the power of evil.  The suffering of God in Christ is the solution to the problem of evil for human beings.


The Conclusion


The events considered to be evil, both moral and natural, which occur during life to those who are considered “good,” are the fault and consequences of man’s initial disobedience to God.  These events are part of the “natural order,” of both moral and physical laws, that is permitted by God to run its course until His cosmic plan is complete. These events fall upon both the guilty and the innocent alike; no one is excepted or excused.  These “evil” occurrences and the resulting suffering they cause are allowed by an infinitely wise, just, and loving God; because they serve a greater purpose for human beings and the universe, and ultimately will lead to the greater glory of God Himself. 


God of course can and does impose divine interference in this “natural order,” depending on the circumstances, which divine impositions are usually viewed by man as “miracles.”  Although the initial plan of God included His protective and caring hand over man in all activities; it was thwarted by man’s disobedience and thereby the subsequent “natural order” resumed, which cannot be changed by God without the eradication of His initial purpose for the creation of man — a genuine and personal relationship and fellowship between the Creator and His creatures and the establishment of man having dominion over the earth in accordance with the rule of God (Genesis 1:26, 28).


[1] Systematic Theology, Vol. 1, Lewis Sperry Chafer, Kregel Publications, 1993