Does God have a purpose for evil and suffering?

We will be the first to admit that we don't have some kind of special insight into the mind of God and know why he allows evil and suffering. We just believe that as a holy, loving, all-powerful, all-good, all-knowing God, he does have his reasons for allowing evil--both human and natural evil--to exist in our world and inflict the suffering it does. Here are some possible purposes God may have for allowing evil and the suffering it produces. See if you identify with one of more of these.

Suffering Can Make Us Stronger

You've no doubt heard the expression, "No pain, no gain." We're not trying to trivialize the nature of pain and suffering, but there's truth in that slogan. Something about hardship, difficulty and pain can sometimes strengthen us. Suffering and setbacks can also bring us closer as families, friend and communities. Dare we say, in the wake of the earthquake in Haite and its horrible aftermath, the global community has come together in extraordianary ways to provide relief on a massive scale. There's an incredible amount of work yet to do, but there is hope that Haiti and its people will one day be stronger.

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God With Us

"Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel (which means 'God is with us')."

One of the most important--if not the most important--question anyone can ask is this: "How does God relate to the world?" If you were to ask that question yo a random group of people, say at a mall or a public gathering of some kind, you would get all kinds of answers.

Some would say that God created the world, then withdrew--and isn't all that interested in what's going on.  Others would say that God may have been powerful enough to make everything, but he certainly isn't strong enough to stop all the suffering and evil in the world. Still others would say that the question is irrelevant, because there's really no God anyway, although it's okay to believe in some sort of "cosmic power" if it helps you sleep at night.

Made for another world

If you believe in an immortal and immaterial being beyond our ability to measure, it's not such a stretch to believe there is such a thing as immortaity.  To put it another way, if you have good reasons to believe that an immortal God exists, then you also have good reasons to believe that immortality exists.

The arguments from God's existence (which we considered in our last column) are great if you already believe in God.  But what if you don't buy into Christian theism?  Or what if you just have doubts about an eternal life with God in heaven beyond this mortal life?  Is there any empirical evidence for such a belief?

In their book, Beyond Death, J.P. Moreland and Gary Habermas consider several pieces of evidence, moving from experiential to philosophical to empirical evidence.  In the category of experiential evidence for immortality, Moreland and Habermas cite documented cases of near death experiences (NDEs), such as the vivid description offered by Don Piper in his book, 90 Minutes in Heaven.  Honestly, we're not big fans of this category of evidence because it's based on the experience of the person having the NDE.

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Evidence for Immortality?

Immortality is in the news this week with the release of Dinesh D'Souza's newest book, Life After Death: The EvidenceEveryone from Rick Warren to Dallas Willard is endorsing the book, which attempts to build a case on empirical grounds for life after death.  Even the atheist Christopher Hitchens, who has debated D'Souza, calls him a "formidable opponent." 

D'Souza directs his arguments to the skeptic, who generally has trouble believing that God exists.  Discounting the existence of God pretty much gets you off the hook in terms of immortality, because if God doesn't exist, then there's no such things as life after death.

But if immortality doesn't exist, then why do we think about it so much?  Why do even the most skeptical people like to think there's a heaven, especially when someone they love bites the dust?  Christians have a fairly straightforward explanation for this preoccupation, and it's found in the book of Ecclesiastes:  "I have seen the burden God has laid on men," the writer of Ecclesiastes observes.  "He has made everything beautiful in its time.  He has also set eternity in the hearts of men" (Eccl. 3:10-11).

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Something's Missing

One the saddest verses in the Bible concerns the strongest man in the Bible:  "But he didn't realize the Lord had left him" (Judges 16:20).  In our pursuit of the abundant/full/enjoyable/overflowing life Jesus promises us (John 10:10), we often run full speed along the wrong path, choosing to rely on our own strength and abiltities--like Samson did--rather than the Lord's.

You'll remember that when Samson was captured by the Philistines, he was tied up, his eyes were gouged out, and he was put to work grinding grain.  In other words, he lost his power, he lost his vision, and life for him was a grind.  Samson's condition describes how many of us feel as rely on our own power rather than the Lord's.  We stumble around, searching for the abundant life that seems to elude us.  We have no spiritual power, we have no spiritual vision, and our life is a grind.

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The Promise and the Paradox

Many Christians see nothing wrong with being the captain of their own ship, charting a course in search of meaning and purpose. Whether it takes 40 days or 40 years, we know for certain that a life of substance exists because Jesus himself promised it to us: 

"Yes, I am the gate. Those who come in through me will be saved. They will come and go freely and will find good pastures. The thief’s purpose is to steal and kill and destroy. My purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life" (John 10:9-10, NLT).

For purposes of clarification, a "rich and satisfying life" does not imply riches (despite how proponents of the prosperity gospel might interpret this verse).  Christ did not come to earth to make us financially wealthy (sorry, Joel Osteen).  Neither did he come to make sure we were comfortable and safe.  Just ask any of the first-century Christians.  Oh, wait--you can't ask them because they're dead, having been tortured to death because of their allegiance to Christ.  They took that whole "take up your cross and follow me" directive seriously.  

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Is There Such a Thing as Immortality?

It seems like a lot of people are dying these days.  In fact, the death rate is pretty constant, about 150,000 people per day worldwide.  But it does seem like an unusual number of famous people are dying, including one whose televised memorial service attracted an audience of around a billion people.  

What do you think about when you think about the death of someone you know, whether a personal acquaintance or a public person?  Probably a variety of things.  You think about death itself, which usually brings out sorrow because the person you know or admire is no longer here.  But you also think about life and all of the good things the person did.  This is where sorrow gives way to joy.

If you're like most people, you also think about life after death, also known as immortality.  Even people with no formalized belief system have this nagging suspicion that there's something beyond this life.  Others are confident that immortality is a given.  But does anyone really know?  How can you possibly prove something that is immaterial and beyond our ability to measure?  To put it another way, is it possible to find evidence for immortality?  Actually, it is. Maybe not hard evidence, but evidence nonetheless.

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Advice for Atheists Who Want to Engage Theists

Atheists recognize that taking a strong position--absolutely, positively, there is no god--comes across as dogmatic and intolerant.  Although many atheists espouse the strong position, the leaders of the atheism movement prefer the weak definition--there is no credible evidence showing that God exists--not only  because the strong position appears intolerant, but also because "it does sound rather untenable."  They acknowledge that the most persistent objection to the strong position of atheism is that it sounds dogmatic and unscientific.  Advancing the strong position in public debate forces all atheists (both strong-position and weak-position) to prove the nonexistence of God, invoking the burden of proof. 

Atheists are quick to acknowledge that the strong position has disadvantages in public discussions at the popular level because it is easy to portray as dogmatic, unreasonable, and thus unscientific. To avoid public relations and marketing embarrassments, the atheism movement tries to show that the strong position of atheism, far from being the only form of atheism, is the rarest among atheistic positions.  Instead, they advance the weak position of atheism.  From this perspective, they shift the burden of proof to the theists.  Here is how Positive Atheism magazine describes the ideal sequence when an atheist talks to a theist about the existence of God.

  • It must be realized that we are dealing entirely with claims -- claims that various deities exist.
  • In discussing such claims, it is always the person making the claim [the theist] who is responsible for providing evidence and strong argument. 
  • The person listening to the claim [the atheist] need not make any argument at all. 
  • The listener [the atheist] does not need to disprove a claim in order to reject it. 
  • If the person making the claim [the theist] fails to make a convincing case, the listener rightly rejects the claim as falsehood (or suspends judgment, based upon the strength of the claim).   In either event, the listener ends up lacking a belief in the object of the claim.
  • It is never the negative [weak-position] atheist's responsibility to prove or disprove anything. That job belongs to the person making the claim, which is the theist.
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Does the Theist or Atheist Have the Burden of Proof?

No doubt you are already familiar with the concept of the "burden of proof."  (Unless you have already had some unfortunate personal experience with the criminal justice system, just think about the O.J. Simpson trial or any television drama involving the criminal courts.)  The "burden of proof" is on the prosecutor (the D.A.) to convince the jury that the defendant is guilty.  If the prosecutor doesn't present enough convincing evidence, then the defendant is declared "not guilty."

It is the declared intention of atheists to put the burden of proof for the existence of God on the theists.  They don't want to be put in the position of having to prove the non-existence of God.  They know it can't be done.  As was stated in Positive Atheism magazine:  "one cannot prove a negative existential claim (that is, a claim that a thing does not exist)."  For this reason, the distinction between the weak position and the strong position of atheism becomes very important.  With weak-position atheism, the burden of proof falls on the theist.  With strong-position atheism, however, it is the atheist that carries the burden of proof.  Here is how it breaks down:

  • The weak-position atheist says:  "I don't believe in God because no one has provided me with any credible evidence that God exists."  This position puts the theist on the defensive.  The theist must present evidence to persuade the weak-position atheist.  
  • The strong-position atheist says:  "Absolutely, positively, there is no god."  In response to this dogmatic position, the theistic can say:  "So prove it."  This means that the strong-position atheist must go on the defensive.
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An Atheism Primer

A recent op-ed piece by Charlotte Allen in the Los Angeles Times, "Atheists: No God, No Reason, Just Whining," prompted a flurry of reactions from the atheist community.  The most clever response came from Hermant Mehta, who basically said that atheists should be protected from outrageous claims such as those made by Allen (that atheists are basically boring).  Mehta even compared atheists to Jews, perhaps implying that such claims are tantamount to hate speech.

Exhanges like these, especially in the blogosphere, don't really serve much of a purpose, except to reinforce pre-existing stereotypes.  We need more productive conversations, such as the debate that occurred between William Lane Craig and Christopher Hitchens on the campus of Biola University.

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Christianity 101 is a collection of books and digital resources by Bruce Bickel and Stan Jantz that talk about God in a way that encourages people to grow in their faith.

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