Paul Derengowski, ThM
Every time something truly bad happens the question arises: “Why did God allow such a tragedy?” The question itself is a legitimate one that men and women have been raising for millennia with very few credible responses. The premise generally includes the idea that if God is so good, so powerful, and so knowledgeable, then how could he possibly allow certain evil acts to occur. In the end, many conclude that God cannot exist or that if he does exist, then he is not as good, powerful, and knowledgeable as is claimed. Otherwise the evil act would have been thwarted and we all could just go about our merry, self-centered lives without certain kinds of interruption.
Let me propose, though, that such thinking is short-sighted and that there are actually several reasons why bad things happen to apparently good or innocent people or things. That in the end there is a God who is absolutely good, omnipotent, and omniscient, whose thinking and purpose is far beyond anything we could ever imagine (Isa. 55:8-9; 1 Cor. 1:25-29), and that when all things are finally said and done, all things will have worked together for good to those who love God, to those called according to His purpose (Rom. 8:28).
Before we look at the reasons why bad things happen, it should be understood that because of the presence of evil and sin in the world, which God permitted and humans seized the opportunity to rebel, everything and everyone is tainted, regardless of the appearance of good. In fact, the Bible tells us that among the natural man, “There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God” (Rom. 3:10-11). A note that I wrote in my Bible alongside the preceding is that mankind, in his fallen condition would rather kill God, than seek him. Just look at what they did with his Son, who is God (Matt. 26:45; Jn. 1:1). It is the reason why Jesus came to redeem the lost until redemption occurs, and why “the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now” (Rom. 8:22).
Tragedy and mayhem, therefore, are a natural part of the created order and will remain a part until full redemption takes place at the coming of Jesus Christ. It is not that everyone should just passively roll over and become dispassionate when evil acts occur. Evil should be overcome with good (Rom. 12:31). It’s that when God allows evil acts to occur there are reasons, some of which are beyond our comprehension, that God may be the only one who is privy to understand. To some that explanation might seem insulting, but it must be remembered that God’s creation is about God’s glorification, not man’s, much less men of unregenerate minds who have believed the lie that they can be “like god” in their thoughts, actions, and being (Gen. 3:5).
That said, what are some of the reasons that God allows the most disgusting and evil acts to occur? How is it fathomable that God could allow two or three gunmen to walk into an elementary school and indiscriminately kill a classroom full of kindergartners, a gaggle of teachers, and one principal? How is it possible that God could receive any glory from that scenario and others like it?
1. A Sign of the Times
This is perhaps the most myopic of all the reasons why God allows evil to occur. By that it is meant that while there are certain “signs” which delineate one part of human history as opposed to another, some seem to have a penchant for being so unbalanced in their theological outlook that they see every event as some kind of omen that Jesus is going to show up in 15 minutes because of it. It is the kind of explanation for evil’s existence that other evils have sprung forth, like the creation of pseudo-Christian cults which peddle false prophecy and lead people astray. Also, such reasoning tends to contribute to the anti-intellectualism in the Church that has crippled the Christian witness in the world.
Nevertheless, the Bible does make it clear that with the approaching day of Jesus Christ’s Second Coming, the atmosphere and attitude among humans is going to be less than inviting, particularly for God’s elect. Not only will apostasy run rampant in the Church, an overall anti-Christian sentiment will permeate the minds of those opposed to God’s will and way. The Apostle Paul described the approaching “last days” as “dangerous” or “difficult,” and then catalogued just what many humans will be like as they carry out their evil acts when he wrote:
For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God; holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power; and avoid such men as these (2 Tim. 3:2-5).
That said, the “sign of the times” explanation for evil deeds, though not necessarily untrue, is probably not the best reason to give anyone when something bad happens.
2. Judgment upon a Nation
The Bible is chalked full of examples and commands of what either has happened or will happen to nations, particularly God’s people Israel, when they turn their backs upon God. In fact, the whole Old Testament is really about the ebb and flow of the Jews and their on-again off-again relationship with God as they repeatedly go through one episode after another where they obey God’s commands one moment, only to turn around and act disobediently, and then God has to redeem and restore them all over again.
Psalm 9:17 tells us that, “The wicked will be turned to hell, all nations who forget God.” Both in the Old and New Testaments God’s people are implored to remember not only God, but their plight prior to God’s intervention to redeem them. Failure to remember God naturally results in minds wandering away from God unto their own devices which naturally results in evil acts. There is nothing inherently good in any person, for all have gone astray; their actions betray them.
Therefore, when a nation begins to wander, by first forgetting God, then those things which are associated with the punishment of hell awaits. The judgment of God is designed to not only purge a nation of its evil, but to bring that nation back into a right relationship with God. For some nations and societies, though, God’s judgment caused them to cease to exist altogether. It becomes that much more important for a nation or society to deeply contemplate just what God is trying to tell them when an act of evil is allowed. Its very existence could be on the line.
3. Human Experience of Good Versus Evil
Good and evil have been known, understood, and experienced almost from the inception of human history. In fact, just after man’s fall into sin God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil,” followed by a precautionary mandate to exclude him from the Garden of Eden, “lest he stretch out his hand, and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever” (Gen. 3:22). To be locked into the fallen knowledge of what man knew to be good and evil versus what God knows about the same is something that God did not wish for his grandest creation, human beings, to experience. God, however, does allow man to experience both, at times, for reasons that are only fully known to God, in order to deepen or correct what man thinks he knows about either. Interestingly, the biblical pattern of knowing good always follows the knowledge about evil.
An example of understanding God’s goodness as it follows man’s plunge into evil is found in Judges 3:7-11. “Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and forgot the Lord their God, and served the Baals and the Asheroth.” God punished Israel by placing them in bondage for eight years. Israel cries out for mercy. God then delivers Israel. Peace is enjoyed throughout the land for an extended period of time. It is a pattern that is repeated several times until Israel is finally carried away into bondage because of its wickedness, with a vast majority dispersed, and is now awaiting God’s final restoration at the coming of the Son of Man.
The pattern of good following evil carries over into the New Testament. As mentioned above, the Apostle Paul addressed that all things, which would include acts of evil, work together for good, even though only those who are called according to God’s purpose would realize it (Rom. 8:28). Later, Paul would address a similar theme in Romans 9, where the potter (who is God) manifests his wrath toward certain vessels of dishonor for the benefit of those deemed as vessels of mercy. Sometimes God’s absolute goodness is not fully understood, much less appreciated by His own, until an unimaginable evil or dishonor are allowed to fully manifest themselves in a catastrophic tragedy. It is God’s way of saying, “You might know good and evil, but you don’t know them in full like We do. To prove it, let us permit something you’ve never seen before, just so you can experience something you never thought could happen. Then, watch Us turn that into something equally good or something you also thought was never possible.”
4. Testing Believers – Weeding Apostates
A fourth possible reason that evil occurs is to test professed believers. The test itself is not to inform God who the real believer is; rather it is to impress upon both the unbeliever and the believer who is real through a trying of his or her faith. We see references of this in both the Old and New Testaments starting with the person of Job.
If there ever was a model of the person who underwent severe persecution at the hands of evil it was Job. A man of great wealth and prosperity, Job had it all, including a large, vibrant family. Soon, however, he lost it all at the challenge of Satan. Job’s “friends” proposed several ill-conceived reasons for his suffering, along with their pious solutions, but Job knew he was innocent. Finally, the stress and strain caused Job to begin to complain. He wanted answers. He wanted to know why he was suffering. Then God intervened and put Job in his place. “Where were you and who do you think you are to be questioning Me?” is a summation of God’s interrogation of Job. Job, taken aback, responds: “I know that Thou canst do all things, and that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted…Therefore I retract, and I repent in dust and ashes.” The point is, despite the tragedy, and how much we think we demand an answer, God is bigger than all the tragedies, working his will and way from the beginning for a larger cause than any of our demands or expectations might entail. Sometimes we simply have to wait and see what God does to understand not only our impatience, but our own selfishness, as well as why God used an evil act to move us along in our understanding of his purposes.
The theme of trials and waiting is addressed in the New Testament book of James as well. He wrote, “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (1:2-4). For the true believers, trials and tests of their faith produces endurance for the long-haul of life. As someone once put it, life is a marathon, not a sprint. Those trials help the believer to mature or grow-up, as much as it hurts in the interim and we just don’t understand why. They are the growing pains that some face more than others, nevertheless are promised to all those who try and live a godly life (2 Tim. 3:12). Conversely, those who lack the wisdom to endure the hardships are guaranteed the necessary wisdom to endure—all one has to do is ask (James 1:5).
Of course, the flip side of enduring and maturing faith is apostate faith, which is really a faith in self, not God. It sees the trials, temptations, and persecutions as pointless and things that no Christian should have to bear. Though the apostate’s “faith” may endure for a while, ultimately it fails. Instead of asking and thanking God for the trials of life, or considering it all joy to bear them, bitterness and blame rise to the surface, and an accusatory tone begins to ring forth. “How could God do this to me?” “I followed that Christian stuff for 35 years and then when (name the tragedy) occurred, it just was so unfair. I couldn’t handle it anymore.” “I was a pastor for 30 years and now I’m an atheist because I couldn’t defend a ‘god’ who allowed so much suffering in the world.” These, and others, are only some of the responses to evil that apostates make after failing the test; the kinds of responses which God hears to expose those who are not his own, which ultimately are weeded out from his elect.
5. Demonstrate God’s Absolute Sovereignty
So many times it is heard when tragedy occurs or an act of evil is played out that “God is in control.” It is more or less of a meaningless expression, because most people who utter it, including many professed Christians, really do not believe such a thing. All one has to do is ask them about the free will of man to know that they really do not believe that God is in control of anything, much less the tragedy they just commented about.
But, for those who do believe that God is in control, all acts of evil demonstrate his sovereignty. There is not one act, in other words, that God has not permitted. This does not make God culpable for evil and sin, but that he allows it, as mentioned above, for a bigger purpose, culminating in his own glory. “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more,” wrote the Apostle Paul (Rom. 5:20). Such would not be possible if God was not infinitely greater in his grace, purpose, and power than evil.
In fact, if God was not greater than evil, or evil was even on a par with God, then an eternal, dualistic struggle would ensue, with nothing but temporal victories and defeats for both good and evil forever and ever and ever. It is what the ancient Gnostics believed, as well as many modern-day cults, like Mormonism. God would no longer be God, nor could anything he said be trusted if such was the case. There would be no hope for any creature because Jesus’ sacrificial death to overcome the penalty of sin and the effects of evil would be rendered null and void. Jesus would have died in vain.
But it is because God is in control, absolutely, that evil is permitted to occur in certain degrees, to the glory of God, that there is purpose behind the acts. Of course, evil can be almost as mysterious as godliness, meaning that to the fallen human mind certain events and actions that are deemed evil may seem gratuitous. How is it possible that any good can come from the abortion of a child or the abuse of grandparent? It seems beyond explanation or comprehension, but it certainly is not beyond God. Again, “God causes all things to work together for the good to those who love” him, “to those who are called according to his purpose.”
Of course, there will be the naysayers who will shout from the rooftops that such a view of evil is insane; it’s unreasonable or inhuman to believe that God would allow a child to die in such a heinous way. Such persons fail to see the big picture, though. Their world is this one, where they have laid up their treasures, and they refuse to see where God has not only the right, but the power, to transform an act of evil into something infinitely good. They want a god who they can manipulate; something that makes finite sense to them because they are in control, or at least they think they are. They don’t want the God of the Bible who says, “Thus saith the Lord,” and it happens. They want to be equal to or above God, as they manifest the lie told to Eve by the serpent in the Garden of Eden all over again.
Nevertheless, the number one reason why God allows bad things to happen is because, in the current climate of fallen creation, it is for his overall good and glory. Amid all the lying, cheating, killing, and conniving, God is slowly (at least as men count slowness), but surely, moving it all toward a climactic head whereby every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. Sin and evil will be punished, no doubt, but ultimately all of the heartache, the depression, and the subjugation of souls will be turned into hearts of joy, elation, and liberty, to the glory of God. It is why John would write that one day God “will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there shall no longer be any death; there shall be no longer any mourning or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4). It is the big picture that all need to be reminded of when evil rears its ugly head.
Bad or evil things happen all the time. In fact, just prior to God’s first worldwide judgment, of mankind it was written, “Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5). Despite God creating humans in an initial state of goodness, the deep-seated effects that sin had upon man when they fell was so devastating that it consumed him inside out. All he could do was contemplate something devious. Nothing has changed to this day.
Some acts are more sinister and devious than others, but they are evil nonetheless. There are reasons, though, why evil is allowed, some of which have been discussed above. They are a sign of the times. Evil is used as a judgment upon the nations, with one prospect of redemption to those which repent. It is God’s desire to show men, particularly believers, just what good and evil are on a deeper level. Evil is used to test believers and weed out apostates. Finally, evil demonstrates God’s absolute sovereignty.
Some will not believe them, and that’s their prerogative. They are true, regardless. The key to trying to understand evil is to also try to view it from God’s revealed perspective. It is a subject that God addresses hundreds of times throughout his book, the Bible. Failure to do so is to prop up man and his vain, evil reasoning to explain his actions, and that has always resulted in futility and more evil. Conversely, success in understanding evil from God’s perspective may not necessarily alleviate the shock and heartache when it becomes personal, but will provide hope, that despite the temporary success of evil, God’s goodness will rule the day in the end.