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Is There a Definitive Answer to the Problem of Suffering and Evil?

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This is The Question asked by doubtful Christians, sincere seekers, questioning agnostics, and combative atheists! The Answer is no. But, saying that is not the end but the beginning of a quest because if we humbly continue to seek a definitive answer it will help us better understand, appreciate, and love God with all our heart, soul, and mind.

Whenever we try to understand or explain tragic and/or evil events within the context of our faith in an all-powerful and loving God we need to remind ourselves of five guiding questions whose answers are found in biblical and irrefutable truths that instruct and correct us in our quest for a more definitive answer to The Question.

  1. Why does God allow a world of suffering and evil?
  2. Where do we get our inner sense of right and wrong?
  3. What’s wrong with our world?
  4. Who do we think we are when tempted to second-guess God?
  5. How do we not succumb to debilitating doubts and unanswerable questions?

First we face The Question: Why does God allow a world of suffering and evil? This is the Big Why that looms like Mount Everest within the world of apologetics and many a mind of both believers and non-believers.

While at a recent outdoor dinner chatting with a friend who spends much of his time in China, he told me about a successful Chinese businessman with whom he works who is somewhat interested in and open to Christianity. His wife is Buddhist and his daughter is a Christian, having come to know Christ here in LaGrange, GA while on a visit.

When I happened to mention my interest in tackling questions about our faith, he wanted to know how I would answer the “Elephant-in-the-Room Question: Why a world of suffering and evil?” which interests/intrigues his Chinese friend. It is an elephantine question that probably dwarfs all others! For me trying to answer this question is like taking a bite into an elephant.

This elephant-size question stretches back in time to the ancient Book of Job, a drama that is invaluable when it comes to our fourth guideline question. The ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus stated that if God cannot abolish suffering and evil, then He is weak. If He can but does not, then He is wicked. Believing God is both omnipotent and all-loving, why does God allow such suffering and evil?

After quoting Epicurus in addressing the toughest objections to Christianity, Lee Strobel quotes John Stott who said: “The fact of suffering undoubtedly constitutes the single greatest challenge to the Christian faith, and has been in every generation … Sensitive spirits (and I would add, ‘inquisitive minds’) ask if it can possibly be reconciled with God’s justice and love.” German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz, who straddled the 17th and 18th centuries, is known not only for his pioneering work in calculus and inventing a calculating machine, but also for coining the word “theodicy” which describes Christian efforts to answer the Big Why question.

Timothy Keller describes some of these efforts in his excellent book Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering. Theodicy tries to explain “why” God allows this pain and suffering, enumerating the benefits of “soul-making” and “freedom.” However, there are glaring limitations and weaknesses in every form of “theodicy.” Alvin Plantinga even calls them “tepid, shallow, and ultimately frivolous.” His words made me wince since I have often talked and written about how love and goodness are rooted in a necessary but ever-dangerous free choice.

Alvin Plantinga has not only made Christians feel uncomfortable about our answers to the Big Why question, but he has been a piercing thorn in the mind of philosophical atheists. His work bursts their philosophical bubble, refuting their old and now defunct argument that evil was logically incompatible with a good, great, and gracious God.  While our belief in God is not illogical, even in the face of suffering and evil, we cannot offer a simple and straightforward answer to the Big Why.

I have a close relative who persists in reminding me that she wants/needs a more satisfactory answer. She, among others, stirs me to continue the search for at least a more comprehensive if not definitive answer. Perhaps the best answer to The Question is embodied in four questions to ask questioners and ourselves.

The first of these follow-up questions arises out of this question about the Big Why: Why do we – you and I – ask why? Why are we so disturbed and troubled by suffering and evil? After all, as many say, this is just the way things are. But we are disturbed and troubled by what is as if it is not meant to be like it is. We not only sense, but somehow know, that many things are wrong, terribly wrong!

Next time: Where do we get our inner sense of right and wrong?

apologetics, debate, evil, suffering

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