Since Evil and
a Good God Cannot
On Monday, September 10, 2001, the top story on the
Chicago nightly news was the possibility that
Michael Jordan might make a comeback. Every
local station opened the newscast with the report
that MJ had been working out and had promised to
hold a press conference later in the week. Watching
the news, you would have thought the only issue
worth worrying about was whether Bulls fans could
handle it if MJ came back to the game wearing a
On Tuesday, September 11, 2001, no one was
thinking about basketball.
Because on Tuesday, September 11, terrorists
hijacked two airliners and crashed the planes-with
their civilian passengers-into the World
Trade Towers in New York City. Another hijacked
plane struck the Pentagon, while a fourth was prevented
from hitting its intended target and went
down outside Pittsburgh.
Thousands of Americans watched, horrified, as live TV
coverage showed people leaping out of seventieth-story windows
of the World Trade Towers to escape the searing flames
inside. One man and woman were holding hands.
At 9:50 A.M., one tower collapsed straight down and vanished
in a cloud of smoke and dust. It looked like something
out of the movie Independence Day. The second tower collapsed
forty minutes later. Dust and soot piled up in the streets
around the trade center-burying bodies of the dead and
dying. According to one Emergency Medical Service worker,
"A lot of the vehicles are running over bodies because they
are all over the place."
"Today, our nation saw evil," President George W. Bush
said in an address to the nation that terrible Tuesday night.
WHERE IS GOD?
If there is a loving God in control of the world, how do you
make sense out of the kind of evil and suffering that the world
saw on September 11, 2001? Where is God when terrorist
hijackers force their way into an airplane cockpit? Where is
God when thousands of people are killed, and their families-including
orphaned children-are left grieving?
If God is loving, all-powerful, and good, then it seems as
if evil and suffering should not exist. After all, if God is all-powerful,
then he should be able to prevent suffering. If he
chooses not to, then how can he be considered good? For many
people, that's one of the biggest objections to the Christian
faith. Doesn't the very existence of such awful suffering prove
that there is no such thing as a good, all-powerful God?
NO EASY ANSWERS
When I began my search for the answer to that question,
the terrorist attacks hadn't yet occurred. But I had seen plenty
of suffering as a journalist. What's more, my wife, Leslie, was
facing the issue personally. Her uncle had just died, and her
aunt had been diagnosed with both Alzheimer's disease and
terminal cancer. Rocked those experiences, Leslie was suspicious
of anyone who might try to give easy answers.
"If someone thinks he can wrap everything up in a neat
little package and put a fancy theological bow on it," she
warned me, "go somewhere else."
I couldn't give you those answers in a neat little package
even if I wanted to, because I don't have all the answers. I'm
not sure anyone does. But what I can do is tell you the story of
my struggle to make sense out of suffering. You can decide for
yourself whether it makes sense to you.
IS IT GOD'S FAULT?
I decided to talk to a philosopher named Peter Kreeft
about the problem of evil. I'd read some of Peter's books, and
I knew he was smart and funny-and honest. I hoped he was
also thick-skinned, because I planned to ask him some hard
questions that might sound a little offensive to someone who
believes in God.
I started at the beginning: "If there is a God, why didn't he
make a world where people didn't hurt each other?"
Peter answered, "He did." At least, he added, that's what
the Bible said things were like at the outset of human history.
(I have to say right here that I didn't always believe that the
Bible was true. If that's the case for you, read the box "Can
You Believe the Bible?")
"If God didn't create evil," I said, "then where did evil
"Once God chose to create human beings with free choice,"
Peter explained, "then it was up to them, rather than to God,
whether there was evil or not. That's what free choice means.
Built into the situation of God deciding to create human beings
is the chance of evil and the suffering that results."
"Then why didn't God create human beings who were
unable to choose to hate, or destroy, or to do all the other
things that cause pain and suffering?" I pursued. "Why didn't
he create people capable only of being kind and loving?"
"Think of it this way," Peter suggested. "If you push a button
on one of those talking Barbie dolls, and it says, `I love
you,' how meaningful is that? If `love' or `goodness' is something
programmed into you, something you have no choice
about, is it really love? Real love must involve a choice."
Thinking about my own relationships, what Peter said
"God gave people free choice because that's the only way
they could experience love, which is the greatest value in the
universe," Peter continued, "but then humans abused their
freedom of choice rejecting God and walking away from
him. And that's how human suffering came into the world."
As a philosopher, Peter had some things to say about
"moral evil" and "natural evil"-you can read about that in
the box "Droughts and Drive-s" if you're interested. But I
wanted to get back to the main issue.
"So creating people with choices, God in effect did
create evil," I persisted.
"God did not create evil and suffering," Peter said firmly.
"Now, it's true that he did create the potential for evil to enter
the world, because that was the only way to create the potential
for authentic love. But it was human beings, with our free
choice, who brought that potential into reality."
"But if God is God, couldn't he have known what would
happen?" I asked. "Couldn't he have anticipated the consequences
of giving people free choice?"
"No doubt he did," Peter agreed. "But let me ask you a
question: When you start a new relationship-whether it's a
friendship or a relationship that might possibly lead to falling
in love-can you foresee the possibility that the other person
may sometime disappoint you or hurt you or even walk away
from you completely?"
"So why do you ever make friends or start relationships?"
"I guess it's because it's worth the risk," I said slowly.
"Having good friends, and all the wonderful things about being
in love with my wife-that more than makes up for the risk of
"I think it's the same with God," Peter said. "He knew
we'd rebel against him, but he also knew many people would
choose to follow him. It must be worth it to him, because he
not only created us with free choice, but he even created the
way to bring us back to him after we rebel-through the suffering
of his Son Jesus."
WHY DOESN'T GOD WIPE OUT
Peter had given me a lot to consider about where suffering
comes from. But I wasn't about to let him-or God-off the
"Even if God didn't cause suffering in the first place," I
said, "why doesn't he put a stop to it now? If I sat and did nothing
while my child got run over a truck, I would be a bad
father. When God sits and refuses to perform miracles to
keep people safe from even worse dangers than being hit a
truck, isn't he a bad God?"
"It looks like he is," Peter agreed. "But the fact that God
deliberately allows certain things, which if we allowed them
would turn us into monsters, doesn't necessarily count
I couldn't see his reasoning. "You'll have to explain," I
"Okay," he replied. "If I said to my brother, `I could bail
you out of a problem but I won't,' I would probably be irresponsible
and perhaps wicked. But we do that with children
all the time. We don't do their homework for them. We don't
put a bubble around them and protect them from every hurt.
"I remember when one of my daughters was trying to
thread a needle in Brownies. It was very difficult for her. Every
time she tried, she hit herself in the finger and a couple of
times she bled. I was watching her but she didn't see me. My
first instinct was to go and do it for her, but I said to myself, She
can do it. After about five minutes she finally did it. I came
out of hiding and she said, `Daddy, Daddy-look what I did!'
She was so proud she had threaded the needle that she had
forgotten all about the pain.
"That time pain was a good thing for her. I was wise enough
to have foreseen it was good for her. Now, certainly God is much
wiser than I was with my daughter. So it's at least possible that
God is wise enough to foresee that we need some pain for reasons
which we may not understand but which he foresees as
being necessary to some eventual good. Therefore he's not
being evil allowing that pain to exist."
A Bear, a Hunter, and God
I could understand that if there was a God, his infinite wisdom
would be much greater than our finite knowledge. But I
needed more help in grasping how that affects suffering. When
I mentioned this to Peter, he responded with a story.
"Imagine you're walking in the woods and come across a
bear with his leg in a trap. You want to help him, but he thinks
you're out to get him, so he fights you every time you get close.
Finally, you shoot him with a tranquilizer gun. Now he really
thinks you're out to hurt him!
"Then, to get his leg out of the trap, you first have to push
it deeper into the trap to release the tension on the spring. If
the bear were still semiconscious, he would be even more convinced
you were out to hurt him. But he would be wrong! He
can see the situation only from his limited perspective, so he
wonders, Why are you making me suffer?"
Peter let the story sink in for a moment. "Now," he concluded,
"how can you be sure it's not like that with us and
God? I believe God does the same to us sometimes, and we
can't understand why he does it any more than the bear could
understand what you were doing. As the bear could have
trusted you, so we can trust God."
What if it's true that you can trust God the way that bear
could trust me? How could God be using your pain and suffering
to help you? I talked with a lot of people about their
experiences with suffering, and some of the same themes kept
coming up-themes they found echoed in what the Bible says
Ask champion athletes whether they simply floated to the
top of their sport or whether instead their training involved
teeth-gritting sacrifice and suffering. They'll tell you, "No
pain, no gain." They probably wouldn't go so far as to say the
pain was good in itself, but something good definitely resulted
Just as a grueling workout helps an athlete build stamina
and strength, difficult life experiences can shape a person's
character to make him or her a winner in some other way. The
Bible describes it like this: "We also rejoice in our sufferings,
because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance,
character; and character, hope" (Romans 5:3).
I saw a real-life example of that in a guy in his mid-twenties
named Craig. Craig really knows how to reach out to and help
hurting teenagers. He mentioned that the best preparation he
had for his work was going through his own broken engagement.
Do you think that was suffering for him? If you've ever experienced
a broken relationship, you know it was! Do you think he
"rejoiced" in it? Not at the time, I'm sure! But can you imagine
going through a breakup yourself and wanting someone to talk
to about it? Who would you rather talk to: someone who has
never felt that pain or someone who knows just what you're going
If you could ask Craig whether God can use painful experiences
to strengthen him, what do you think he would say?
(By the way, Craig just celebrated his second month of marriage
to a woman who appreciates the strength Craig developed
in that other, painful relationship.)
Some people point to pain as an experience that redirects
them. A woman I work with has a brother-in-law with Down's
syndrome. For some reason, the connections that convey the
message of pain through the nervous system don't work very
well for him. He could rest his hand on the red-hot burner of
an electric stove and not notice it until he was severely burned.
If you or I did that, the pain we feel would make us snatch our
hand back in a second. Physical pain protects you and me from
The Bible compares it to parental discipline: "Our fathers
disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God
disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness.
No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later
on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace
for those who have been trained it" (Hebrews 12:10-11).
That happened in a dramatic way in the life of a friend
named Terry. He was going down the path of drug addiction
and stealing, and it took the pain of a barroom brawl that
knocked his teeth out, being robbed while he was stoned, and
finally landing in prison to show him that crime and addiction
are a dead-end road. In prison, he has committed himself to
turning his life around.
I see it in less dramatic ways in my own life. Like the time
I joined in on some thoughtless, unkind talk behind someone's
back-and it turned out the person was right around the corner,
hearing everything I said. I don't think I'll ever forget how
miserable and embarrassed and sorry I felt-in fact, I hope I
never do forget, because it was the kind of miserable feeling
that made me realize I never wanted to do that again. The pain
of that experience showed me some corrections I needed to
make in my own behavior.
Let me emphasize, though, that the idea of God using pain
to enable us to make midcourse corrections in our lives works
better for understanding pain in my own life than for understanding
pain in someone else's. If I tell someone, "God is letting
you suffer because you've been going in the wrong
direction," that's pretty much like saying, "It's your own fault
you're suffering," When I hear people talking as if they can read
God's mind about why a person is suffering, I cringe. There may
be times when I need to call someone to that kind of accountability,
but most of the time I think people need our support.
Positive from Negative
If you've talked with Christians about the question of suffering,
you've probably heard these famous words from
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." In other words, God will take bad circumstances
and bring good out of them-if we're committed
to following him.
That has even happened with the horror of the September
11 attacks. "None of us would ever wish the evil that has been
done to our country," said President Bush, "yet we have learned
that out of evil can come great good We have seen it in the
courage of passengers who rushed terrorists to save others on
the ground. Passengers like an exceptional man named Todd
Beamer We have seen the state of our Union in the
endurance of rescuers working past exhaustion. We've seen the
unfurling of flags, the lighting of candles, the giving of blood,
the saying of prayers in English, Hebrew and Arabic Great
harm has been done to us. We have suffered great loss. And in
our grief and anger we have found our mission and our
It's hard to deny that tragedy can bring out the best in
people. But when Peter Kreeft suggested that God might allow
some horrible things because more people will be better for it
in the long run, I shook my head.
"That's still hard to accept," I told him. "It sounds like a
cop-oat to me."
"Okay, then let's put it to the test," Peter replied. "You see,
God has shown us very clearly how this can work. He has
demonstrated how the very worst thing that has ever happened
in the history of the world ended up resulting in the very best
thing that ever happened in the history of the world."