Sin and Suffering, the Problem of Evil
ANSWER: It is the most difficult question for Christianity to answer.
There are two kinds of evil: [a] abstract evil – spiritual evil of of sins such as pride and hatred, evil that we actively commit, and [b] tangible evil – physical evil of pain and suffering, evil that we passively suffer.
abstract evil (sin) brought tangible evil (suffering), the former is the
greater evil. Sin was originated from the Fall of the devil, followed by the Fall of man in
It is important that all Christians understand the problem of evil because:
 Apologetics: Christianity can provide satisfactory answers to all questions of life, except one, the problem of evil. This is exactly why atheists try to use this problem to argue against the existence of God. Therefore, Christians must understand the problem and can then respond to questions from non-believers.
 Evangelism: Evil is universal. Everyone wonders why bad things happen to good people. Sometimes, it becomes the main obstacle for people to accept the gospel. Christians need to know how to help non-believers overcome this obstacle.
 Counselling: Evil is intensely practical. Everyone experiences various kinds of pain and suffering, including physical pain like sickness and injuries, emotional (psychological) pain like fear and anxiety, spiritual pain like doubt and despair. Many feel helpless and angry about the existence of abstract evil in the world, like cruelty, jealousy. Out of despair, a suffering person may turn to blame God. Christians need to know how to answer the questions about evil in order to help those who suffer.
ANSWER: It is used to prove that there is no omnipotent loving God.
 Main Argument: The Bible teaches that God is perfectly loving (Ps 145:9,13; Jn 3:16) and is all powerful (Gen 35:11; Job 11:7; Rev 1:8). But the existence of both an omnipotent loving God and evil appears contradictory. The argument:
· If there is a perfectly loving God, He would want to eliminate evil.
· If there is an all powerful God, He has the power to eliminate evil completely.
· But evil exists in the world today, so there are apparently only 3 possibilities: [a] God is not perfectly loving, or [b] God is not all powerful, or [c] there is no God.
 3 types of attacks on God:
· [a] God is not perfectly loving. (Sadism)
o Argument: God is EITHER sadistic, acting as the supreme enemy of man [in Albert Camus (1947): The plague] OR does not care about the problems and tragedies of man [in Thomas Carlyle (1834): Sartor Resartus].
· [b] God is not all powerful. (Finitism)
o Argument: God’s power is finite and limited, and He has insufficient power to defeat evil [in Harold Kushner (1981): When bad things happen to good people]. Or perhaps, God did not foresee evil when He created the world.
· [c] There is no God. (Atheism)
o Argument: An all-powerful God could destroy evil, and would not allow innocent suffering. An all-loving God would destroy evil, and prevent innocent suffering. But evil is not destroyed, and there are innocent suffering in the world. Hence, there is not an all-powerful, all-loving God.
ANSWER: No, evil is not created because it is not a concrete thing.
Evil is a condition but not a positive reality. It lacks any substance, thus it does not require the causal activity of God.
· Evil is not a thing or a substance that needs creation. Augustine describes it as a privation of goodness.
· “Privation” means a lack of something or an absence of something that should be there. For example, sickness can be considered a privation or lack of good health. Blindness is a lack of sight. Another good example is a hole in a piece of wood. It is a quality but not a thing.
Evil is not created by God but is permitted by God.
ANSWER: Evil comes out of human free choice; free choice is a precondition for love.
Theodicy is the rational defence of the justice of God in view of the presence of evil. Since God is all knowing (Isa 46:10), He knew evil will exist even before He created the world.
There are 3 main arguments in theodicy:
 Evil is the product of human free choice. (Augustine)
· God gave the world the power of free choice. But with that freedom comes the capability of choosing wrongly and actualizing (causing the existence of) evil. Man used this freedom to sin so that evil came into the world.
· A perfectly loving God created the world because of love. God does not need love, but if He is love, it is understandable that He would want to love and to be loved. He would give love by sharing His glory and goodness, and receive love by being worshipped by His creation.
· Why didn’t God create a world that has no free choice? He could not. Otherwise, human beings will become robots. There is and can be no love without freedom. No one can be coerced into loving another. Love includes the provision of a choice. Either love exists freely or it does not exist at all. True freedom includes the possibility of choosing wrongly.
· Evil is the corruption that arises when created man turns away from the infinite good of the Creator to the lesser good of the creatures, that is, the creature considers its own finite good more important than the good offered by the Creator. Pride is the beginning of all sin, the ultimate source of privation.
· God would desire to destroy evil and He has the power to do so. But it would be impossible to destroy or annihilate evil without also doing away with the moral universe and free choice.
 Temporary evil is permitted for the goal of eternal good. (Aquinas)
· Greatest way theodicy of Aquinas: temporary evil for eternal good. God permits evil because this evil world is the best possible way to the best possible world. God deliberately permits evil to exist in this world in order to produce the best end result.
· Evil is temporary; both sin and suffering will eventually be eradicated. Innocent suffering that has not apparent justification in the present may still be ultimately justified. Even God Himself suffered for the ultimate good.
· Augustine says: “God can bring good even out of evil.” (Isa 55:9)
 Evil is the precondition for greater good.
· The existence of good depends on the existence of evil. For example, a healthy body requires often painful exercise. Patience cannot be produced without tribulation, nor mercy without tragedy. Courage is possible only where fear is a reality. (Jas 1:2-3)
· Analogy in aesthetics: Contrasts heighten beauty, for example, dissonant chords in a musical work make subsequent harmonious chords sound sweeter. We would not have noticed the goodness of God without the contrast of evil. For example, the concepts of great and small are relative. If there is no small thing, then all large things will not be regarded as large.
· However, this should only be used as a supplementary reason because of circular reasoning. Just like Hegel’s thesis and antithesis, where will it end?
o first-order good (1) of pleasure and happiness
o first-order evil (1x) of pain and disease
o second-order good (2) of benevolence and sympathy
o second-order evil (2x) of malevolence and cruelty
o third-order good (3) of human freedom.
ANSWER: No, otherwise there will be not be a moral world.
A moral world is one that distinguishes right from wrong. Without free choice to commit wrong, there is no moral world. The word “moral” relates to the exercise of self will.
In creation, God had 4 alternatives:
· (1) God could have chosen not to create any world at all. [No World]
· (2) God could have chosen to make a world without free creatures in it. [Amoral World]
· (3) God could have brought about a world where creatures were free but would never sin. [Morally Innocent World]
· (4) God could have created a world where men are free and can sin. [Morally Fallen World]
God did not choose alternative (1) because as a God of love, He created the world to share His love.
God did not choose alternatives (2) and (3) because:
· An amoral world (alternative 2) includes no free choice and no free choice means no love.
· A morally innocent world (alternative 3) includes a free choice but the creatures are not allowed to choose evil. It is coercive love but love must be persuasive, not coercive. Forced love is not really love.
· Freedom is an absolute essential to a truly moral universe. Love cannot be programmed. Love is personal and subjective. No amount of impersonal and objective programming can produce a true loving response.
God chose alternative (4), a morally fallen world because:
· It is a greater good to at least have the opportunity to achieve the highest virtues and pleasures even though those virtues are not always attained by everyone. (“maximum possible opportunities for ultimate satisfaction”)
· This world is the one where the greatest number of persons are given the maximal eternal joy and where the freedom of all creatures is respected.
ANSWER: Man is the cause of most sufferings.
 Most sufferings are caused by man:
· [a] directly from our own free choices, e.g. abuse of one’s body such as smoking
· [b] indirectly from the exercise of our freedom, e.g. poverty from laziness
· [c] directly from the free choices of others, e.g. child abuse
· [d] indirectly from the free choices of others., e.g. improper prenatal care
· [e] a necessary by-product of other good activities, e.g. accident in physical exercise, flood caused by rain
 Some sufferings are caused by evil spirits:
· [f] malevolence done by evil spirits, e.g. Job’s sufferings, possession by evil spirits (Mt 17:14-15,18)
 Some sufferings are brought by God for beneficial purposes:
· [g] God-given warnings of greater physical evils, e.g. toothaches, chest pains
· [h] God’s warning about moral evils; alerting men to danger, thereby promoting the avoidance of moral evil (such as the catastrophes in OT Prophets)
 Some are natural disasters (floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, plagues):
· [i] natural occurrences after the original perfect world order was destroyed and the environment was corrupted as a result of sin; may not be initiated by God
ANSWER: The world will then be without order.
God does not miraculously intervene and prevent all physical evil from occurring because:
 Continual divine interference would disrupt the regularity of natural law and make orderly life impossible.
 The necessary divine intervention may be so frequent that there is no more human freedom and responsibility.
 In a world of constant divine intervention of evil actions, all moral learning would cease. The development of various virtues through real life experience will not be possible.
 On the other hand, God is intercepting some evils by placing good influences in the world (such as the Holy Spirit, the Bible, Christians, and the moral law). Occasionally, God will directly intervene through miracles when necessary.
ANSWER: No one is innocent; also, sufferings are caused by man, and God does not intervene every time.
 No one is completely innocent.
· The description of “innocent people” is only relative, not absolute.
· We commit numerous explicit sins but also unnoticed sins. Some common unnoticed sins include self-centredness, I-need-it-right-now mentality, using evil means to achieve selfish ends, giving excuses for wrong deeds, neglecting rightful duties.
· We may have a feeling of unfairness when experiencing sufferings. Yet we also need to remember that we have hurt others many times in the past, sometimes unconsciously or unintentionally.
 Some apparent innocent suffering may have a cause, for example, children may suffer because of the sins of the parents (Ex 20:5; 34:7; Nu 14:18; Dt 5:9), such as infants with AIDS, or handicapped newborns because of the mother’s addiction to tobacco, alcohol, or drugs.
 Yet, we have to admit that some innocent suffering has no apparent justification and that we do not have a satisfactory answer. Although we cannot answer satisfactorily at the present, yet there still may ultimately be a justification in the future. (Job 42:3)
ANSWER: Sufferings can have positive effects.
God as a loving, caring, and omnipotent Father will never want or allow His children to suffer for no reasons. Yet, just like a father, He sometimes permits his children to suffer (Ac 14:22) because of many benefits.
 Suffering is an avoidable part of life.
· [a] Suffering is a natural consequence of being human. Christians, like other people, live in the same world and experience similar sufferings.
· [b] Suffering is also a natural consequence of being a Christian (1Pe 2:21). Christians may be persecuted because of their faith (Mt 5:11-12). It is described as a baptism of fire, resulted from the conflict of values between believers and non-believers (Lk 3:16; 2Ti 3:12).
 Suffering can have positive effects for the Christian who suffers. It has educational value for spiritual and psychological growth. It is a refining process for deeper faith (1Pe 1:6-7), like gold refined by fire (Rev 3:18).
· [a] Training (rebuke) and purification: (Heb 12:5-6,11; Rev 3:19)
o Force us to leave sin, repent and be holy
o Shock us out of potentially disastrous thinking
o Prove that God still loves
· [b] Humility and reliance:
o Keep us from pride; keep us humble (2Co 12:10); keep us in touch with the facts of human frailty; keep us out of illusory contentment
o Force us to break down self-reliance and rely on God
o Force us to obey and receive subsequent blessings (Rom 8:17)
· [c] Strength and steadfastness:
o Strengthen character (higher tolerance)
o Produce steadfastness and patience (Jas 1:3-4)
o Remind us of Christ’s suffering for us
· [d] Compassion and empathy:
o Help one to learn compassion and sympathy for suffering people
· [e] Hope:
o Cause us to look beyond this brief life; remind us that the world is not our permanent home and we should not love the world (Heb 11:13-16; 13:14)
o Help us to reconsider the true meaning and value of life, the changeability of the world and the non-changeability of God
 Suffering may be beneficial for others.
· [a] Evangelism:
o Suffering leads to conversion; persecution leads to evangelization. For example, martyrs in early church demonstrated their courage in facing death for their faith attracted many non-believers to seek the gospel. That is why the blood of martyrs has been described as the seeds of the gospel.
o [Related to this issue but not about Christian suffering: A non-believing person is forced by suffering (such as terminal illness) to think about meaning of life and may subsequently come to Christ. Some people describe cancer as a Christianizing disease because it provides ample time for the patient to reflect on the meaning of life while waiting for death, at least the threat of death.]
· [b] Witness:
o Our courage in encountering suffering with peace can demonstrate our faith to non-believers and attract them to the gospel. It can also encourage other Christians.
· [c] Ability to help:
o One’s suffering will enable one to later comfort others who have similar sufferings (2Co 1:3-5). Those who suffer are more willing to listen to someone who suffered the same fate in the past.
· [d] Fellowship:
o The fellowship will be stronger after passing through the same suffering together.
 Sufferings sometimes give God the opportunity to demonstrate His power (Jn 9:1-3; 11:4).
However, we should not simply emphasize the benefits of suffering and conclude that all suffering is good. Suffering can also break the spirit, destroy the character, and sap the energy for spiritual growth.
ANSWER: It could be, or it could turn into one.
 Three sources of temptation (see temptation of Jesus in Mt 4:1-10):
· Satan the tempter (through subconscious suggestions, 1Th 3:5)
· ourselves (from our own desires, Jas 1:14; 1Ti 6:9)
· the world (explicit suggestions from our surroundings, 1Jn 2:15-16)
 God is never the source of temptation (Jas 1:13). He will only permit those temptations that we can bear and He promised to provide a way out (1Co 10:13).
 Sometimes, the suffering is originally neither a temptation nor a test but suffering can turn into a stumbling block to our spiritual journey (for example, blaming God) and in effect becomes a temptation. That is why Christians need to be cautious when suffering comes.
ANSWER: Do not blame man but rely on God.
 General attitude:
· Avoid the suffering that can be avoided rightly.
· Remedy the suffering that can be remedied rightly.
· Accept and make use of the suffering that, without doing evil, can neither be avoided nor remedied.
 Passive actions:
· Must avoid improper reaction: blame men (or self), blame God, feel helpless
· Stop wrong attitudes, such as attitude of “hang on to” something (either something lost or something wished for)
· Dispel feeling of unfairness; forgive those who hurt us
· Clear up own sins (if these are the probable cause of suffering)
 Active actions:
· Remember how Christ also suffered (Isa 53:4-5; Heb 2:18; 1Pe 2:21)
o Hymn: “Are you lonely? Really lonely? Jesus was more lonely still.”
· Think of suffering as following Christ’s suffering (Mt 16:24; Php 3:10, bearing “our” cross)
· Find values in suffering and be joyful (Php 4:4; Rom 12:12)
 Rely on God:
· Remember that God’s love is always with us in sufferings, even though consolation may not be apparent (Ro 8:38-39; Mt 5:4)
· Hold onto God’s promise: He is our refuge (Ps 46:1), our strength (Ps 28:7), our shepherd (Ps 23:1; Isa 40:11)
· Be assured that God’s grace is sufficient (2Co 12:9) and all things work together for the good (Ro 8:28)
· Abandon self (self-denial, Gal 2:19-20) to the will of God (letting-go, not hanging-on, Job 1:21)
· Think about the glorious future that God prepared for us (2Co 4:16-5:3; Ro 8:18; Rev 21:4).
o Teresa of Avila says: “The most miserable earthly life, seen from the perspective of heaven, looks like one night in an inconvenient hotel.”
o A hymn says: “God hath not promised skies always blue,/ Flower-strewn pathways all our lives through;/ God hath not promised sun without rain,/ Joy without sorrow, peace without pain./ But God hath promised strength for the day,/ Rest for the labour, light for the way;/ Grace for the trials, help from above,/ Unfailing kindness, undying love.”
ANSWER: Share the suffering and suggest reliance on God.
All these suggestions depend on individual situations. Ask for God’s guidance and use your wisdom to select the appropriate actions.
 Be available: visit the suffering person, only if it is agreeable as some suffering persons prefer not to see visitors. If so, do not insist.
 Share the suffering: remain with the person and stay quiet. In most cases, no words are needed. (Job 2:12-13)
 Be sensitive: do not ask questions, definitely no questions about the causes and details of suffering. If the person shares about the suffering, listen patiently and attentively but do not ask questions. (Job 16:1-4)
 Offer support: where appropriate, offer verbal support (encouragement: you are in our prayers, suffering will eventually end) and offer practical help (share the required work such as chores and transportation).
 Read the Bible: when appropriate, ask for permission to read the Bible together (see supplementary Bible verses below).
 Offer to pray together: ask God for strength (to overcome the suffering) and for deliverance.
The problem of evil is the most difficult question for Christianity to answer. Every Christian should study and understand it.
To deal with this problem, God gives Christians the assured hope (based on God’s promise in the Bible) that God will destroy and annihilate evil in the future. More than just hope in the future, God gives Christians the strength and power in the present life to overcome all the negative feelings linked with sufferings.
There are excellent logical responses to various questions surrounding this problem (Q.3 to 9). However, all good logical, apologetical, theological, or Biblical explanations are useless when facing the reality of pain and suffering. When one is in the midst of suffering, none of the rational answers make sense. So rational explanations should be understood before sufferings come.
When someone is in sufferings, Christians should give direct support in person (Q.12) and moral support through reliance on God (no.5 in Q.11).
We have to admit that one or two questions (innocent suffering, Christian suffering) may have no fully satisfactory answers.
· We have to trust God’s heart. Remember how God has loved us and blessed us in the past, so be assured that God will surely lead us pass the present difficulty. (2Co 1:10)
· We will understand the real reason behind all our sufferings when we see God. (1Co 13:12)
· It is certain that all God’s actions are just and that all questions will be satisfactorily answered in the end even if we cannot imagine so right now.
Main Reference for apologetical discussions: Norman L. Geisler (1978): The roots of evil.
Are you lonely? (Hymns of Life no.338, Anonymous Author)
1. Are you lonely? Really lonely? Jesus was more lonely still,
Came as man to earth from heaven, Bore disgrace and treatment ill.
He was lonely in the city, More alone on Calv’ry’s hill.
Not one soul with Him to suffer, O what grief His heart did fill.
2. Are you weary? Really weary? Jesus was more worn than you.
As He bore the cross to Calv’ry, Cruel torture He endured.
Weary, sleepless in the garden, Bending ‘neath sin’s crushing load,
As He kneeled and prayed in anguish, Sweat did fall like drops of blood.
3. Are you needy? Really needy? Jesus poorer was than you.
Nests for birds and holes for foxes, Only He ran to and fro.
Place to place He walked a lifetime, Preaching truth to heedless men;
As a babe born in a stable, Buried in a stranger’s tomb.
4. Are you burdened? Really burdened? Jesus’ load was greater yet.
He can carry all our sorrows, Comfort us when griefs beset.
He Himself bore heavy burdens, Wore a thorn crown, suffered pain.
On the cross He hanged in anguish, Died that we might heaven gain.
Sonnet: Death, Be Not Proud!
DEATH, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so:
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death; nor yet canst thou kill me.
From Rest and Sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure, then from thee much more must flow;
And soonest our best men with thee do go—
Rest of their bones and souls’ delivery!
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well,
And better than thy stroke. Why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And Death shall be no more: Death, thou shalt die!
John Donne (1572-1631)