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Where Is God When Evil Happens?

The horrific event in Las Vegas has left us stunned. It should. Whether or not we come from a perspective of faith, where we acknowledge that evil and suffering happen in a fallen world, the stark expression of that reality should shake us to our core. Even if we are numbed by their occurrences, we need to come to some kind of understanding, if for no other purpose than to deal with the confusion and resentment such acts of evil inevitably produce.

Not long after another mass shooting occurred, I was on an airplane sitting next to a young woman. We had just exchanged answers to the “What do you do for a living?” question. “I’m a medical technician,” she said. I told her was involved in Christian publishing. Without hesitation and with no emotion, she replied, “I used to be a Christian.” “

What happened?” I asked. “What happened that caused you to leave your Christian faith?” She answered with just one word: “Orlando.” I played the odds and eliminated Disney World as the cause of her journey from belief to unbelief. Pressing for clarity, I asked, “Why Orlando?”

“It was the shooting in the night club in Orlando that left 100 people dead or injured,” she replied. “I used to believe in God, that he was good and powerful. But Orlando changed things for me. I decided right then that I couldn’t believe in a God that would allow that to happen.”

The girl on the plane probably didn’t know that her statement about a “good and powerful” God allowing evil to happen—especially when it happens to “innocent” people, such as those in the Orlando nightclub, or those attending the outdoor concert in Las Vegas—goes to the heart of the very question that has troubled both brilliant philosophers and also ordinary people like you and me for as long as humans have been on this earth: How can a good and powerful God allow suffering and evil?

If the girl on the plane is any kind of example for us, we have to deal with the power this question has to undermine or even shatter belief in God. From my experience, it isn’t so much that the fact that evil exists that troubles people most. It’s that God doesn’t seem all that interested in doing something about it.

This common conclusion is what Tim Keller calls the “visceral” response to the problem of evil. Even if we believe in our heads that it’s possible for a good and powerful God to exists in a world filled with evil and suffering, we struggle in our hearts to accept the reality of his goodness and sovereignty when terrible things happen, especially when they happen to us.

You would think we are the first ones to find the topic of God and evil distressing. In fact, people have been frustrated about this very thing for quite a long time. See if you can’t identify with this plea

How long, LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds.

These words could have been written this week in a blog post. Or in a letter written from Europe during World War II. Or by a soldier in the Civil War. All would have provided an appropriate setting. But this passage wasn’t written by a soldier or a civilian. It was written 2600 years ago by one of God’s prophets, Habakkuk, in the Old Testament book that bears his name.

The occasion of Habakkuk’s book was the period of time between the fall of Nineveh in 612 B.C. and the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. at the hands of the Babylonians. God sent Habakkuk to the people of Judah, who were enjoying prosperity in a nation filled with violence and wickedness. They were ignoring God even though their nation had been founded on God’s law.

At the beginning of his short book, Habakkuk asks God the “why” question about evil in a way that echoes our own concerns:

  • How long must I call for help?
  • Why do you make me look at injustice?
  • Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?

Because he is a prophet of God, Habakkuk gets to hear from God directly. In fact, his book is a dialogue between the prophet and God. Thankfully for us, Habakkuk writes down what God says so we can also hear the words of God. Here’s how Wilson Benton explains God’s response:

God says, “Habakkuk, you want to know how I, as a holy God, can use evil to accomplish good…. You don’t know what I’m doing, but Habakkuk, you can believe that I know what I’m doing. Even though you don’t understand how good can come of this, you can believe that I understand how I am using all of this for your good.”

Like all of us, Habakkuk wanted answers. He wanted to know why God was allowing evil. He wanted to understand everything. As God answered him, the prophet realized that God’s purposes far outweighed his ability to understand. Using evil to accomplish good? How can that be?

In his answer to Habakkuk’s questions, God responded with words that are the bedrock of the good news story of God: “The righteous shall live by his faith” (Habakkuk 2:4, ESV). Habakkuk didn’t know how God was going to save his people and make things right, but God didn’t need his understanding. God needed his trust.

The very fact that the girl on the plane is deeply troubled about suffering and evil doesn’t detract from God. To the contrary, it points to a God who has created a moral sense or right and wrong in all humanity. “The problem of senseless suffering does not go away if you abandon belief in God,” writes Keller. “If there is no God, why have a sense of outrage and horror when unjust suffering occurs to any group of people?”

If we are outraged and horrified by suffering and evil, we can only imagine how God feels. In fact, we don’t have to imagine. We can know. Christianity is not silent about the reality and nature of evil because God has spoken about it. When God told Habakkuk, “The righteous shall live by his faith,” it wasn’t a nice platitude. It was a statement of intent made by a God who would soon be sending his Son to earth for one purpose and one purpose only—to suffer and die so that we could live.

“The evil in human hearts nailed Christ to that cross,” write McDowell and Morrow in their book, Is God Just a Human Invention? “But God took our evil and redeemed it for good, the salvation of all who would trust him.”

So you see, not only does God care about evil and our suffering, but he has done something about it. He hasn’t stayed on the sidelines, but has personally entered into our broken world. Of all the belief systems, only Christianity tells the story of a God “who has wounds.” We may wonder where God is when a great evil occurs somewhere in the world. We may question his goodness when a loved one is wracked with cancer or we are going through a painful time in our life. Yes, God does care, and he demonstrated just how much when he sent Jesus to die for us—not just because there’s evil in the world, but because there’s evil in us (Romans 5:8).

In the meantime, as we await the time when God will put the world to rights (to use N.T. Wright’s phrase), we are afflicted with evil and the suffering it produces, not always understanding, but always trusting that God is somehow using horrific events that he didn’t cause to bring about good that we cannot yet see.

Excerpts from Answering the Toughest Questions About Suffering and Evil by Bruce Bickel and Stan Jantz (Bethany House Publishers) 

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Stan's entire life has been wrapped in content: selling, writing and publishing books and resources that help ordinary people capture a glimpse of extraordinary things.