Why Bad Things Happen In God’s World

by Rick Shrader

September 11 will long be the signal date for remembering that tragedy can happen, even in America—one nation under God.  The following has been my response, which I shared with my own church the Sunday before 9-11.  I find the Christian’s response to the presence of evil a mirror response to the question of atheism:  “If God exists, why does He allow bad things to happen to innocent people?”

Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote that the atheist “does not want to believe in his mind what something within him keeps asserting.”1 Therefore the atheist continually either looks for logical arguments against God, or dismisses the whole thought, as Isaac Isimov once admitted, “Emotionally, I am an atheist, I don’t have the evidence to prove that God doesn’t exist, but I so strongly suspect he doesn’t that I don’t want to waste my time.”2

The perplexing dilemma for those who see evil as inconsistent with the idea of a good God, generally think in the following way.

If God exists, He would do good.

Bad things happen in this world.

Therefore, God doesn’t exist or is not good.

In his landmark book, The Problem Of Pain, C.S. Lewis recalls his own struggle when he was an atheist:  “If God were good, He would wish to make His creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty, He would be able to do what He wished.  But the creatures are not happy.  Therefore God lacks either goodness, or power, or both.”3 In other writings Lewis (agreeing with Lloyd-Jones) would say that the danger of such a hollow belief was always evident: “A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading.  There are traps everywhere—‘Bibles laid open, millions of surprises,’ as Herbert says, ‘fine nets and stratagems.’  God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous.”4

In my own state of Colorado, we have heard it said, “I don’t see how God could allow such a thing as Columbine.”  For the last year we have heard the same searching question regarding the tragic loss of innocent lives during 9-11.  But can we honestly think that our dilemma would be clearer if God did not exist?  Do we really think the world would be a better place?  The Psalmist insists that only a fool would say so (Psalm 14:1, 53:1).  Unbelieving people have not replaced God with a more satisfying alternative nor a more moral control.  To believe that there is no Ultimate Moral Being against which we measure right and wrong, usually brings people to moral degradation and despair.  Malcolm Muggeridge said, “If God is dead, somebody is going to have to take his place.  It will be megalomania or erotomania, the drive for power or the drive for pleasure, Hitler or Hugh Heffner.”5

Christianity offers the way out of such a dilemma.  God is indeed in control and there is a reason for all things that happen.  Such confidence in God has always been a guiding light for Christian individuals, families, churches and nations.  This positive response can be set forth as follows.

Evil does indeed exist

We have no argument here with the atheist or the moralist.  Solomon plainly exclaims, The eyes of the LORD are in every place, beholding the evil and the good (Prov 15:3).  There are natural evils in the world such as earthquakes, floods, droughts and things that take people’s lives  [I ought to note that Christianity knows that the earth itself is not evil and that these things, being themselves consequences of an Adamic fall, are the absence of good].  There are also moral evils such as murder, hatred, stealing and things that proceed from the fallen nature of mankind.

The atheist is forced to define evil in terms of Relativism.  To him, evil or wrong exist only because people decide to call such things evil or wrong.  If society decides that killing is wrong, it is wrong for that society.  Still today, some will not admit that 9-11 was morally wrong, PERIOD.  To them a thing is only morally wrong if our culture says it is.  Francis Schaeffer wrote, “The problem of our generation is a feeling of cosmic alienation, including the area of morals.  Man has a feeling of moral motions, yet in the universe as it is, it is completely out of line with what is there.”6

To the believer however, all things are measured against a universal Moral Law.  Adam first violated that law, and his descendents still do to this day.  We also know the whole earth has been affected by those wrong decisions.  To think that evil does not exist is like hitting one’s head against a wall—if feels so good when you quit!

If evil exists, then good must also exist

Paul’s argument is, When the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves (Rom 2:14).  As soon as we say that 9-11 is bad, we have compared it to something that is good.  Again, C.S. Lewis writes, “The moment you say that one set of moral ideas can be better than another, you are, in fact, measuring them both by a standard, saying that one of them conforms to that standard more nearly than the other.  But the standard that measures two things is something different from either.  You are, in fact, comparing them both with some Real Morality.”7

At this point atheists have tried to deny God exists by denying that there is such a “Good.”  Nietzsche wrote, “Once the sin against God was the greatest sin; but God died, and these sinners died with him.  To sin against the earth is now the most dreadful thing, and to esteem the entrails of the unknowable higher than the meaning of the earth.”8 But, as Geisler has written, “Hegel wrote that God is dead and Nietzsche took it seriously.”9 And so did Hitler, and every other mass murderer who, for at least a brief moment, believed that what he was doing is actually a service to the world.

Good is not incompatible with evil

How else could Job say, Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil? (Job 2:10).  This is where the real disagreement with the atheist or agnostic lies.  The thought that Columbine or 9-11 or the Holocaust could happen on “God’s watch” seems so inconsistent with God’s nature that it drives some people to despair or even unbelief.  Francis Schaeffer has shown how this happened with famous atheists:  Charles Baudelaire said, “If there is a God, he is the Devil.”10 And Albert Camus said, “If there is a God, we cannot fight social evil, for He made it.”11 But to think like that is to make certain assumptions about God that are not so.

The first is to assume that God can do anything!  That is, that God acts without limitations for purposes of this world.  When God made a time-and-space world, He set Himself to certain boundaries.  There are physical limitations.  God does not make a square peg fit a round hole, nor make a valley without two mountains.  [Christians know that at certain times God can intervene, and we call those miracles.  But, by definition, they are intrusions from outside this world.  That is why we do not call all wonderful things within time and space “miracles.”  If everything were a miracle, nothing would be a miracle]  There are also moral limitations.  God cannot lie or bare false witness against Himself.  God also cannot make a free moral creature and then not allow him to choose the evil.

The second assumption is that God always acts immediately when the evil occurs.  He does not and this is not inconsistent with all we know about God’s nature.  God knew that the bad choice would have to be made (by Adam first of all) in order for free creatures to also make the right choice.  This is why we have time and space.  God is longsuffering so that we have time to repent (2 Peter 3:9).

Every parent deals this way with his child.  When a child misbehaves badly at a friend’s house, he may wait until he gets home to mete out the punishment.  If the misbehavior is small, he may correct it immediately.  Sometimes he lets the natural consequences happen, as when the host corrects the child.  In such cases, the child gets the punishment from the host, and also from the parent when he gets home. God does the same thing.  The sinner suffers the natural consequences of a sinful world now, and also later, where he suffers eternally for his sin.  Maybe the older disciplinarians understood this more than we, when kids got spanked at school and at home.

Good is greater than evil

When Abraham discoursed with God over the destruction of Sodom, for his nephew Lot’s sake, he finally rested on the thought: Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right? (Gen 18:25).  He knew that God existed and therefore that God (being the ultimate Good) would ultimately win out over evil.

The war between good and evil is not a civil war between equals, it is a revolutionary war between One who has the right to rule and a usurper.  We do not live in a dualistic world of positive—negative, yin—yang, eternal evil—eternal good.  We live in a good world that has been spoiled by the entrance of sin and that God will eventually gain back.  He will eternally punish the usurpers, reward the faithful, and return His creation to its original purpose.

God is what we call a “necessary” Being.  He is not contingent on anything but Himself.  All else is contingent on Him.  Aquinas said, “Therefore, we cannot but admit the existence of some being having of itself its own necessity, and not receiving it from another, but rather causing in others their necessity.  This all men speak of as God.”12

It would be practically impossible to talk at all if we could not compare good and evil, right and wrong.  Our minds are made to think in terms of non-contradiction, seeking the good above the evil.

God is Good

Jesus reminded His hearers that There is none good but one, that is, God (Matt 19:17).  Francis Schaeffer, during the unsettled atheism of the ‘60s, wrote, “It is not that this is the best answer to existence; it is the only answer.  That is why we may hold our Christianity with intellectual integrity.  The only answer for what exists is that He, the infinite-personal God, really is there.”13

If evil exists in this world, then good must also exist so that we may call evil bad.  Since that is so, good is the better thing and evil is the bad thing.  And if there is any good at all in the universe, it is given by God who is the Ultimate Standard for all good and evil.

And So . . . .

In order for God to have a heaven populated by free-will beings, it was necessary to have this world first and to let us make our choice.  Having fallen into sin, our only choice now can be imputed righteousness through Jesus Christ.  If we choose Him, we will still endure the “light affliction” of this life, but live forever in heaven, not in hell.  I choose to think that God is working all these things together for good for those who believe.

Truth forever on the scaffold,

Wrong forever on the throne;

Yet that scaffold sways the future,

And behind the dim unknown,

Standeth God within the shadows,

Keeping watch above His own.14

1. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, quoted in a biography by Tony Sargent, The Sacred Anointing (Wheaton:  Crossway Books, 1994) 136.
2. Quoted by Henry and John Morris, The Modern Creation Trilogy.  A CD book from Institute for Creation Research, El Cajon, CA.
3. C.S. Lewis, The Problem Of Pain (New York: Macmillan, 1962) 26.
4. C.S. Lewis, Surprised By Joy (New York:  HBJ, 1988) 191.
5. Quoted by Ravi Zacharias, A Shattered Visage (Brentwood, TN: Wogemuth & Hyatt, 1990) 25.
6. Francis Schaeffer, He Is There And He Is Not Silent (Wheaton:  Tyndale, 1972) 23.
7. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York:  Macmillan, 1960) 25.
8. Nietzsche, Friedrich.  Thus Spoke Zarathustra (New York: Penguin Books, 1978) 13.
9. Norman Geisler, Philosophy of Religion, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1974) 52.
10. Francis Schaeffer,  27.
11. Ibid, 28.
12. Aquinas, Summa Theologica Q3, Art 3 (Chicago:  U. of Chicago, 1952) 13.
13. Francis Schaeffer, 15.
14.  James Russell Lowell, in The Present Crisis, written during the Civil War.