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The Problem of... Evil and Suffering

Read this message transcript from the "The Problem of..." message series

Brian Cropp: So, two weeks from today is Easter, and imagine if you will, we're already at Easter. You have spent a full day here at Hope Church. Your belly is full of breakfast. The kids are diving into the eggs that they've picked up at the Easter egg hunt. You have spent an hour in here worshiping and celebrating our Risen Lord, and now you're at lunch. You're at some family member's house, some friend's house, and it's not unreasonable to imagine that while you're there some discussion about church, or, Jesus or Easter, the resurrection or something like that’s going to come up. And, let's just pretend that you, in your ignorance, say something that you honestly believe. Why would you say that? You say something you actually believe, and then Uncle Lenny comes back at you with something that you don't have a good solid answer for. Lenny's not dumb.

He's sounds like he's done a lot of research. He's got a well-founded comment. You just believe this thing, and you don't know what to say to Uncle Lenny, and now you find yourself in doubt. “I don't know that I can believe the same way that I believe. I don't know how to counteract Lenny's comment. I don't know.” I have doubt, and doubt by itself is not bad so long as it's driving you towards getting answers to the questions that you have. Where doubt has problems is when we sit around with these unasked and unanswered questions, and we don't know. I just don't know that I can engage with the Bible or Christianity the same way I used to. I don't know that I can put the whole weight of my life on God anymore. Ugh. That's why we're doing this series; so that you have an understanding of some of these significant problems that all of us deal with at one time or another, and you have a way to find sane, logical, reasonable answers to some of these really weighty questions.

Not just so that you can counteract Uncle Lenny's argument over Easter lunch, but so that you can know that your faith can have a rock solid foundation in the God of the Bible. Because all of the problems that we have been looking at in this series, they're real questions. They are significant questions, and the Bible has some very solid, very logical, very reasonable evidence and answers for these questions. So, we've been looking at these really weighty questions. My name is Brian Cropp. I'm one of the associate pastors here. There's a listening guide in your program that we'll get to in a little bit if you want to follow along this morning. If you look at the top of your listening guide, it's possibly the most attractive title for any Sunday you could ever hope to come to church.

We're going to look at evil and suffering. This is the mother of all of the other problem questions that we've been looking at over the last several weeks,  because this problem hits us right in the middle of our experience. This problem has been around so long, they have a name for it. Take this to work with you tomorrow. It's theodicy—not the story written by Homer. It's theodicy, and it's the question of why would a good God, how could a good God allow evil and suffering into this world? It hits us right in the middle of our experience. You know, you have a family member who gets seriously sick and they die; a marriage blows up; somebody ends up trapped by some addiction, and these questions start coming up. Well, why? How could this possibly happen? If God is good and God is loving and God is merciful, why is this awful thing happening?

Why would he allow that to happen to me? It's a very real question, and so to be fair to this question, I want to deal both with the intellectual puzzle and pretzel that is this question, but also deal with the emotional side because it gets very personal very quickly. There is ... There was…he's dead now. There was a Scottish philosopher back in the days of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. He wasn't a Christian. His name was David Hume, and he posed this theodicy question in a rather eloquent way, probably because he's Scottish, and he said this, "Is God willing to prevent evil but not able? Then he is impotent." He doesn't have all the power. He's kind of like you and me—can't just will things into happening. He sees bad things happening, and he's as bummed about it as we are. He's impotent. I wouldn't want to trust in that kind of God who's just like me.” Is he able but not willing? Then he's malevolent.” He's a bad guy. He enjoys watching us writhe around in pain.

“Is he both able and willing? Why then is there evil?” David Hume has a very attractive assumption, and it's attractive to us because we want it to be that way, that a good God and evil cannot exist in the same space. And, so we ended up asking this question—how could a good God allow evil? Or, actually the real question we're asking is how could a good God allow evil to happen to me? And, I think that often we find that it's our personal pain that drives and motivates our private convictions. We've had some experience that we didn't like, and it puts our faith into question and into doubt. Well, like I said, I want to deal with all the intellectual questions first, so that when we get to the emotional issues, things don't fall off the rails really quickly. I want to make sure we're working with the same definitions on things. Before we get into looking at evil and suffering per se, I want to take a step back and deal with this concept of good.

When we are encountering evil and when we face suffering, we're often judging this experience that we're having against a standard, and that standard is what we would call good. What's going on is not good, right? There's a couple of angles that we can look at this concept of good. One is something that is complete or whole. The Bible uses this angle of good when God is creating everything back in Genesis. Genesis 1:4, "And, God saw that the light was good." It's doing its job. It's living up to its design. It's good. You would say the exact same thing about that meal that Grandma makes. Right? It's good. It's doing its job. It makes the mouth happy, right? It's good. There's another angle at which we can look at the concept of good, and that is something that's beneficial.

The Bible uses this in Romans 8:28 when it says, "And we know that for those who love God, all things work together for good." It's beneficial, and often when we're experiencing evil or we're going through a tough time of suffering, then it's usually this angle that we're looking at. Whatever is happening is I don't see that it's beneficial to me. But, let me back up one more step from just the concept of good, and where do we get the concept of good from? Now, all of you are smart people. We're sitting in church. The answer is God, right? Okay, but remember in math class when the teacher would say, "That's great, Johnny. You wrote down the answer, now show me your work." Ahhh. The right answer is God, but let's show the work. How did we get to where we know that God is the answer for "Where did we get this concept of good from?"

You're watching television on a nature show, and you're watching a scene from the African Savannah. And a lion is tracking a gazelle and he runs it down and he attacks the Gazelle, and now the lion is having lunch. You and I would look at that and say, "Well, that's good for the lion. It's evil for the gazelle," but we also know that animals don't really have a concept of evil and good. They just sort of have "is," so in their world, the lion is having lunch, and the Gazelle knows now it is lunch, but there's not a concept of good and evil. But, God created the lion. He created the gazelle. He created you and me. There's something different because we're able to put those labels on what's going on there. The Bible shows us what that special difference is, that little ingredient that's different about us than the lion and the gazelle.

That's in Genesis 1:27. It says, "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God, he created him. Male and female, he created him." We are created in God's image. You, me… whether you're walking with God today, or far from him, you're made in God's image. Now, I don't know what that means. I know some of what it means. I obviously know what it doesn't mean, and it doesn't mean this—that each one of us is carrying around some little splinter or spark or germ of God's essence way down deep inside us, and maybe if God is happy, it'll bloom and grow, and we'll have light come out of our hair. I'm not sure what that little germ of God might do. We don't have that. That's not what it means. It'd be more like I look a little bit like my dad, a little bit like my mom, a little bit like their parents, but I am not them.

I'm me. I'm a separate entity from my parents and my grandparents. In a similar way, we bear the image of God, but we are not God; and God is not in us in a material way. God's a separate and distinct entity from us, but yet there's characteristics or there's some imprint. It's a little bit of a mystery, but there is some imprint of God's image still on us. Even though we are broken sinful people, that didn't erase all of this image of God; and there are moments in our lives when we run up against circumstances or situations that don't line up. We don't know why they don't quite compute for us, but we know something's off, and we don't know why. And, often I think it's that we're running up against this image of God and who He is. So, just a case in point—death.

For some of you, just hearing the word death makes you terribly uncomfortable, and I understand that. Every time someone dies, it's a shock. Yet all of us will die; all of us, at some point, unless Jesus comes back, we're all going to die. But, it's a shock every time. It should be the most normal, expected thing to happen, and it's a shock. My Dad died when I was 18 years old. He woke up in the morning; he had breakfast. He goes to work. By 10:00 in the morning, he's gone. It's a shock. My wife, one of her grandmothers had Alzheimer's, and at a point her body had shut down. Her body wasn't allowing food or drink to go into her body, so they had her on hospice, and it was a week or so that we're just watching her wither away.

We know she's going to die, and yet the phone call that says she's dead ... There's still a little bit of a shock to that. There's some relief in that, because she's not suffering anymore, but we're shocked she's actually gone. And, I think partly we're running up against this imprint of who God originally designed us to be…that we weren't supposed to die. It wasn't supposed to be like this. We weren't supposed to get sick. We were supposed to live forever, eternally in communion with God. This isn't supposed to be like this, and yet we experience evil, and we experience suffering, we experience hard times, and because of our sinful nature, we have a distorted filter for the experiences that we're having. And we have a tendency to put blame in the wrong direction, instead of saying, "You know, God's really merciful because we're so broken and sinful, it's a mercy that we get to experience anything good at all."

Yet, because we know, somewhere where we can't quite put our fingers on it, we know we're supposed to be good, that the world is supposed to be good, that everything is supposed to just be filled with good all the time. We then say, "It's God's fault. He's in control. He’s sovereign over everything. He should be able to fix it." And, then we ask this question. “How can evil and suffering happen if God is supposed to be good?” You know, Jesus also ran into this very issue. There was a friend of his named Lazarus who died. He was dead four days. Jesus is coming to the funeral. Everyone is sad that Lazarus is dead. Now, we're going to run into the best ... If you've never memorized a verse of Scripture, and you've wanted to put your toe in that water, this is a great verse to start with. In 10 seconds, Jesus knows what he's going to do. He's going to say, "Lazarus, come forth."

Lazarus is going to come out of the grave wrapped in grave clothes. He's going to be breathing air. Blood's going to be flowing through his veins. It's going to be a party, miracle of miracles. Lazarus is alive. In 10 seconds, that's what Jesus is going to do. And, yet we come to the shortest verse in the whole Bible, John 11:35. Two words. You can memorize it. “Jesus wept.”

Why? Why did he? Why? In 10 seconds, it's going to be a party. Why is he not going, "He he he, Wait ‘til they see what I'm going ..." No, he cries. I think it's because He knows it's not supposed to be like this. My friends aren't supposed to die. This is not how my Father had originally designed things to go. It's broken, and so he cries over this thing. And, so every cough, every flat tire, every divorce, every business failure, we're running into this. It's not supposed to be like this. Here's an interesting thought to chew on. Of all of the people who have ever lived on this earth, there are only three people who understand the brokenness that we're actually experiencing, and that would be Adam, Eve, and Jesus. They all experienced how things were actually created. Adam and Eve could walk around Fort Worth today and go, "Yeah, we did this." And, they wouldn't have the words to express what they're seeing.

They wouldn't have to know how broken and twisted it is. They just know what perfection looked like, and this isn't it, but this is all we've ever known. We just have a bad frame of reference. It's us who say God is to blame, when probably it's more accurate to say somewhere sin is to blame. We're to blame. Other, sinful people are to blame. The biblical writers dealt with this question all the way through both testaments. The Bible is full of these same kind of questions that you and I asked. This is a very old question. I'll just go through a smattering of verses. There are so many more. Psalm 63:1 says, "Oh God, you are my God. Earnestly I seek you. My soul thirsts for you. My flesh feigns for you as any dry and weary land where there is no water.”  Habakkuk 1:2, "Oh Lord, how long shall I cry for help and you will not hear? Or, cry to you violence, and you will not save?"

Or, Revelations 6:9 and 10, "When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the alter the souls of those who've been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had born. They cried out with a loud voice, ‘Oh, sovereign Lord, holy and true. How long before you judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?’" The entire book of Job deals with this question. The good news is, the Bible and Christianity, we deal with this question. Unlike any other thought system or worldview or religion, we dive headfirst into the mess of the theodicy question. Every worldview, every thought system, if you want to be taken seriously, you're going to have to deal with this question because it's right in our face, all the time. We deal with the tension of… we know how life is supposed to be, and yet we encounter problems from time to time. I want to run through just some of the more prevalent worldview thinking systems, and how sometimes we run up against similar thoughts and how they fall apart compared to "I know somewhere deep down, that's not right."

That doesn't logically flow, or that just doesn't match how I know deep down how life is supposed to go. Buddhism is very prevalent in Asia. There's sort of a sanitized westernized version of it that you and I run into it from time to time. They would say that all of our experience from birth to death is an illusion. It's just an illusion, and you need to emotionally detach yourself from what you're experiencing…sort of a mind over matter philosophy. Parts of that, I really like. I would really enjoy the thought of—I'm in a car wreck; my leg is broken but it's not really broken. My car isn't really ... I'm not really here. I'm not having this experience ... Sort of a Calgon, take me away kind of moment. I like that, but it doesn't really work because I still got to go to the hospital, even though that doesn't exist.

Where it even more logically falls apart is when not only do I have to detach myself emotionally from what I'm experiencing, I have to detach from the suffering of my kids, or the suffering of my wife, the suffering of my friends and my loved ones. Deep down we know that's not how it should be. There should be compassion, and we should care for those that we love. To take this even farther down the road, we would have to detach ourselves from all the good stuff. The love I have for my kids, the love I have for my wife, the love I have for other people, I would have to detach myself from that too, and then I'm just numb and cold, and we know that's not how it's supposed to be, either. Islam would say that God is unknowable and that we are supposed to submit to whatever he wants.

So, if we do enough holy things enough times then maybe he won't smite us with suffering anymore. He won't hit us anymore. Or, he won't hit us as often. And, maybe if I can earn extra credit and I can get into his inner kindness and goodness, maybe he won't hit me. But, if he likes you more than he likes me, then I don't know, and maybe he changed his mind between Tuesday and Wednesday. And what used to work doesn't work anymore and ugh. It starts sounding a whole lot like an abusive marriage. I don't think any of us would sit there and go, "You should stay in that relationship.” If they're crazy and you don't know how to predict them, and you have to become less of you in order to be in their favor, that's a bad relationship. That doesn't sync up with how we know life should be at all.

Hinduism has this concept of Karma, that what goes around comes around and that everything good or bad you're experiencing is deserved from other actions you've done earlier in your life or in past lives. So, there may be that thing you're experiencing and you are wondering, "Why is this happening to me right now? I can't think of anything I've done to deserve the suffering I'm experiencing." Maybe it happened in 1120 way back there in the mid ... Maybe that's what it's being paid off for. And, you've got to pay it off. To be right with the universe, all of your impurities have to be burned off at some level. So, if you don't burn it off in this life, you're just kicking the can down into the next life, and you got to burn it off there. So, for me to reach out to you in compassion and try to help you through the suffering and pain you're going through, that's actually doing you a disservice according to this worldview.

And, if you are trying to solve your problems, that's doing a disservice to you. You've got to pay it off. That's why in a lot of the Hindu cultures, there's as much poverty as there is because to bring them out of poverty would be mean. That doesn't serve them. Whatever caused that, they're going to have to pay it off at some point. No, that doesn't line up. Again, we should have compassion and care for other people. They shouldn't be living in squalor. That doesn't work. Naturalism would say that everything that you see is all that there is. There is no spiritual realm. This philosophy was made popular in the theory of evolution where you know, it's a survival of the fittest, might makes right. We're back to the lion and gazelle. Our over-evolved minds have developed these concepts of caring, compassion and evil, and good.

They don't really exist. It really is just survival of the fittest, might makes right. If we take that all the way down the road, then con artists and dictators and warlords should be praised. They should be the highest honored people in the world because they're winners. No, that that doesn't line up with how we know life’s supposed to go either. This one falls apart, too. A new age philosophy, which is sort of a junk drawer of philosophy, it would say that your words and your thoughts have these magical powers where if you say something or don't say something, or think something, or don't think something, that it will have an effect on reality. So, if you are concerned that you might have cancer, you don't say the “C word” because you don't want to wake up the universe that maybe now I'll get it even though I didn't have it. I don't know.

Or, if I will say things into the universe, good things are going to come my way. The Bible would teach that your words and your thoughts do have power, but they're not magical. If they were, all of our lives would be very different than they are. We would just say things, and really amazing things would just have to happen. The universe would have to bend to our wishes, and it doesn't work that way. This kind of thinking creeps into Christianity from time to time. When we say things like, "Well, the suffering you're experiencing, if you would just believe more… if you would have more faith… if you would… I don't know, have a three hour quiet time, maybe God would go, “You know what? I see the effort there. I'm going to remove your suffering from you.”  No. The Bible does not teach that ever.

I have a sister-in-law who has a degenerative hearing disorder, and she's not as close to God as she should be because she's gone to a variety of churches where she lives, and that's what they've told her. You would not have your hearing problem anymore if you just had more faith. So, what does she do? She either doesn't have enough faith and she doesn't know how to get more faith, or God's just mean. It doesn't work. That doesn't line up with what the Bible says about who God is or how we know God is supposed to be. So, Christianity is the only worldview, it's the only thought system, that owns evil and suffering. It acknowledges that it really is there. Sometimes, it happens to us unfairly. Jesus adds into this whole equation something that no other worldview has, and that is that the God that we worshiped stepped down and became a person.

You know, Jesus comes down to Earth, out of heaven as a baby at Christmas, and he grows up. He experiences puberty, which is its own kind of evil and suffering, right? And, he walks around Israel telling people about how to walk in God's ways, and for that his family mocks him; the powerful folks, they mock him. They plot against him, get him arrested over false charges, beaten within an inch of his life; and he is crucified, and he dies. All of that is suffering, and it's evil and it's unfair. Our God walked through very similar circumstances to us where we experience things unfairly. He experienced it at a level that we, thank God, never will as he's bearing all of our rebellion and sin on his shoulders. And, he is separated from the Father there on the cross. It's excruciating. We don't have to go through that, but He, our God, walked through this world of evil and suffering right alongside us, and He cares for us. And He knows, and He has compassion in the midst of that.

Just as a side note, another wrinkle on why the God that we worship here at Hope Church, the God of the Bible, deserves all of our attention and worship and devotion is because, where just like David Hume can't imagine evil and good existing in the same space, we can't imagine that good could come out of evil. Yet, God does it all the time. He's able to take something rotten in our lives and pull something good out of it. Jesus offers us redemption for our suffering and for our pain, and this is how this works. God wants a very real relationship with you. It'd be very easy for us to say, "You know, why doesn't God just remove our ability to choose and just force us to do what makes him happy? That would make our lives good and his life good."

That's a real good question. Why did he put that tree in the garden and give Adam and Eve a choice? He could also just wipe us all out and start over. That's another option. But, the Bible says that God wants a real relationship with you and with me, and to do that for any relationship that you have there's a very important ingredient that has to be there. Otherwise, it's not a relationship, and that ingredient is freedom. You have to be able to choose to be a part of that relationship or not a part of that relationship. That's why the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is sitting in the middle of the Garden of Eden. God said, "I want to have relationship with you guys, but for that to be true, there needs to be a real choice with real consequences." And, Adam and Eve chose to opt out.

Whenever we have sin, we have chosen to opt out. Whether you're a Christian or not a Christian, when you choose to sin, you're choosing to opt out of the relationship with God, and you want something else. This is how the Bible paints that picture very frankly in Romans 3. It says, "All have turned aside. Together, they have become worthless. No one does good, not even one." Now, Jesus, unlike any other worldview, Jesus provides a way to opt back in. It's the only one that allows us to have a way back to a good, a right relationship with the God who created us. Because of Jesus, we can oppose those thoughts and thought systems that we run into that says that everything is an illusion. And we can say, "No, evil and suffering, it's a real thing. We actually experience it." Through Jesus, we can oppose the thought of, "Well, if we just do more good stuff, if we just try harder and say, ‘You know, sometimes it does happen unfairly and unjustly.’" Through Jesus we can oppose the thought that everything we're experiencing is meaningless. It doesn't matter.

We can just kind of gut through it with hopelessness and say, “No, there really can be meaning and purpose even in the midst of the suffering and evil that we face.” Now, we don't like all of that answer. We would like just to remove the fact that we have pain at all, but we step in and say, "It really is a thing that happens, and Jesus can provide meaning for that." There's a very strange verse in the book of Romans. We already looked at it earlier. You can go to a Christian bookstore in town, any of them. You'll find a wall hanging with this verse on it. There'll be a mug, a shirt, very flowy handwriting. It sounds so nice, and it is, but there's a little wrinkle behind it that I don't always know what to do with. It says, "And, we know that for those who love God, all things work together for good for those who are called according to His purpose'"

Really? All things? All things work together for good? That means the pleasant things and the evil things. Somehow God is able to work them together for ... and, it means for His good, for your good, for everybody around you. He is able to somehow work all that together for good. Now, the Bible does not say that God needs evil in order to showcase who He is to us, nor does it say that He enjoys it when we suffer, but He is able to pull good out of it. At the end of the book of Job, Job doesn't have any answers for why he went through the suffering that he went through. You might die today and not know why you are experiencing some of the tragedies that you have, or are experiencing in your life. But, you can look through them and see some of the good that God is bringing out in those difficult circumstances.

So, think about the worst experience you've ever had, the hardest time you've ever walked through, and think about how did my empathy grow? When other folks have experienced something similar, I have empathy for them. Or, how is my integrity strengthened? Or, maybe how is my courage grown or my compassion or any number of these very valiant concepts that we have? And we would hold all those things up high and say those things are really right and good, and it shows us a character of who God is and who we can be in Him that we would never experience had we not gone through those hard, hard times because we wouldn't need them. You don't need to be courageous if everything's fine. You don't need to have patience if no one's annoying. You don't need those things. But yet through those, God gets to show us other angles of His character and this imprint that God has put on us—things that he wants out of us in the midst of these hard things.

He does bring good and He does bring meaning, and we do get to see Him walk with us through these hard times. Our suffering never leaves us spiritually neutral. It is either going to move us towards God, or it's going to move us away from God. And, the question this morning is how has your difficulty moved you? If it's moved you away from God, I understand, but what's your alternative? Imagine that it's not actually happening or just kind of gut it through, or move closer to God? My experience has been both before I was a pastor and since I've been a pastor and experienced hard things as I walk closer to God—not so that he won't hit me anymore, but so that I can understand what I'm going through and have help and compassion—because He has walked down similar roads as me, and He understands the pain and the turmoil I'm in.

How if I walk closer with Him, do I start to see the good things that He's wanting to grow in me, or see in the lives of other people? …Because the God who walked in suffering longs to embrace you this morning. I want to bring the band out. We've been singing a song together. We're going to sing it again this morning. It's called, Oh, Come to the Altar, and in Old Testament worship, the altar was a place that the worshiper would bring their sacrifice. Often it was an animal. Sometimes it was some grain, but it was something of value to them, and they would bring it. And they would set it on the altar, and the fire would burn it up. It would be gone to the worshiper, but it would have been used for God's purposes.

So, this morning as we sing this song, Oh, Come to the Altar, I don't know what you have to bring to God, but it's something you've been holding onto, and maybe you just need to set it on there and let Him work good out of that. It may be a rotten circumstance, and you need to trust God with it and see what good thing He might bring out of that. Maybe it is a series of doubts and questions that you have, and you need to set those on there, start getting those questions answered, start dealing with those things, and see what God brings out of that. Maybe what you need to set on the altar is you. It's your whole life. You need to start as a follower of Jesus Christ and say, "I don't know, but maybe if I trust you with everything I have, I don't know what good you could bring out of my life. I'm going try that."

Maybe it's some misconceptions you have about Christianity or Christians. Maybe it's some bitterness or resentment that you have. Maybe it's some evil happened to you way back in the past, and you have allowed that to label you, and that's now who you are; and it's not. It's just this thing, this evil thing that happened to you back in the day. You need to take that and put that on the altar and burn that up and let God bring good out of that evil, rotten circumstance that happened in your life. I don't know what that is for you, but as we sing this song, sing along if you want to, just meditate on the words if you want to, but bring it to the altar this morning. Let's sing.